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Explaining the Unexplainable: 'Frontline: Raising Adam Lanza'

Even sober, non-sensational reports like Raising Adam Lanza must contend with limits.

Frontline: Raising Adam Lanza

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Alaine Griffin, Josh Kovner, Marvin LaFontaine, Richard Novia, John Berquist
Network: PBS
Air date: 2013-02-19

"She was a decisive woman. She chose, we think, not to be involved in the groups in Newtown of parents of autistic and Asperger's kids." Reporter Josh Kovner sits in his editor's office at the Hartford Courant as he speaks, engaged in a conversation about Nancy Lanza. She was the mother of Adam Lanza and also, as you're reminded in Frontline: Raising Adam Lanza, his 27th victim.

The Frontline episode follows Kovner and Alaine Griffin as they research Nancy Lanza, trying to sort out her decisions and desires, her resolve to raise her son despite his social difficulties. Noting that amid the overwhelming grief and many efforts to memorialize the dead children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary, the show notes that Adam ended both his and his mother's life on 14 December 2012. Kovner and Griffin's "marching orders," you hear, are to investigate Nancy and Adam's "relationship and what it took to bring this kid along and, to some degree, what happened." What's revealed in the show, however, is less "what happened" -- to any degree -- than how such an investigation is mounted, frustrated, and, in the end, left open to speculation. It also raises key questions as to what purpose such speculation might serve.

The investigation begins with a somber first scene, as members of the Hartford Courant staff gather in the newsroom under the light of a TV report on the massacre. A church bell tolls on the background soundtrack, as Griffin and Kovner note the difficulty of the assignment, because "Adam left very little behind." Still, they hope to come "closer to explaining the unexplainable." It's a phrase that speaks to the utter impossibility of their task -- you will never know what happened in the Lanzas' home that morning, or why it happened -- and also the impetus behind it, a longing to know, name, and perhaps especially, to differentiate: Nancy Lanza is not you.

None of this is explicit in Raising Adam Lanza, even as the title assumes an unspoken pronoun who is not you. Rather, the program, part of PBS' After Newtown initiative, pursues a seeming story, guided by Griffin and Kovner's readins of Nancy's emails and interviews with the few people who agree to be interviewed. These include Nancy's "dear friend," Marvin LaFontaine, who kept in touch with her since their friendship when she and her family lived in New Hampshire. The reporters note that Marvin and Nancy's sons Including Adam's older brother Ryan) were in Scouts together, and the show offers a brief clip of a home movie in which Nancy and her policeman brother "set up a demonstration for the Scouts." That this bit of footage shows nothing except the adults speaking near a car in a driveway and a couple of seconds of four-and-a-half-year-old Adam, described in Frontline's narration as "walking toward the camera."

Marvin's revelation in the interview that Nancy was distrustful of the Scout counselors' "intentions" (she worried that "they didn’t' understand the situation enough") leads to other bits of memory and guesses about what Nancy might have been thinking at various points in time. Apparently she suffered from an illness about which she was vague in her emails to Marvin (the reporters are "unable to confirm" rumors that it was multiple sclerosis), even as she was dealing with Adam's diagnoses (first, a sensory integration disorder and then Asperger's syndrome) and her marriage to Peter Lanza ending after they moved to Newtown in 1998. Shifting their focus to Newtown, Griffin and Kovner speak with a woman whose child was in Adam's class at Sandy Hook Elementary, a technology club advisor who knew Adam at Sandy Hook High School, and a friend who met regularly with Nancy and others at a local restaurant called My Place.

These interviews repeat information concerning Adam's fear of crowds in school hallways, his fondness for playing World of Warcraft, his target shooting with his mother and Ryan. "Guns were nothing new for Nancy," Frontline observes. Marvin says he has "35 acres" and rifles too. Such possession is not unusual in New Hampshire, the story seems to go and then, stop. No one has an idea about Nancy's thinking about guns, whether she was an "enthusiast," per the usual term of art, or whether she had other reasons for keeping them, a sense of needing to protect her home, her child or herself.

The reporters press the Newtown restaurant friend, John Berquist, as to whether he ever got the feeling that caring for Adam was "time consuming or emotion consuming" for Nancy or whether she "was in denial or fully embraced that diagnosis?" The questions are impossible to answer, except with general impressions. "I can't remember Nancy ever having a rough day and just unloading on me," John says. You might, as the reporters do here, listen carefully to his memory, perhaps parse it for meaning or possible significance. But you can't know what it means or whether it's significant: he may or may not remember a day, he may or may not have interpreted her behavior in a helpful way, he may or may not be able to interpret an affect that may or may not have been truthful or dissembling or self-deceiving.

Again and again, the show falls into this sort of quandary. While Nancy's efforts to find a suitable educational environment for Adam are documented, in his enrollments and withdrawals. Adults who observed him describe his "isolation," but even as they do say they spent some time with Nancy, they have little to add to the story about her. The reporters hear several times that Nancy had located a college for Adam, but it's unclear where that was: "Did she actually find something rock solid?" they ask one interviewee who prefers not to be seen on camera. No one knows. They say that a contractor working on the Newtown house tells them Nancy was talking about moving but, the reporters acknowledge, "The question is, was he driving it or was she driving it?" No one knows.

That such questions remain unanswered is not the fault of the reporters. But their project, as documented here, cannot find answers. It can only posit tentative answers -- or more accurately, reveal the lack of answers -- and in doing so, it asks another question, as to how such guesses function in a broader narrative, about causes and culture, about guns, mental illness, divorce or about Asperger's (as has been repeated many times, there is no correlation between Asperger's and violence).

As much as the report or viewers might seek an explanation of "the unexplainable," there is none. That doesn’t mean that questions shouldn’t be asked and answers essayed. It does mean that even sober, non-sensational projects like Raising Adam Lanza must contend with limits. In turn, the show indicates how limits shape the broader narrative -- no matter how much proponents of any cause pretend otherwise.


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