The 27th Victim: Nancy Lanza Is Subject Of 'Frontline' Documentary

Feb 15, 2013
Originally published on February 15, 2013 8:13 pm

The lives of the 26 people murdered by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December were eulogized and celebrated after the tragedy. But many discussions about Lanza's first victim, his mother, Nancy, were marked by both sympathy and suspicion, particularly as the news emerged that she had taken her son to shooting ranges.

An upcoming PBS Frontline documentary seeks a more nuanced view of Nancy Lanza, and by extension, her son Adam. The documentary, Raising Adam Lanza, provides details about Nancy Lanza and her son, the young man who has often been described as smart, aloof, and painfully awkward. (Frontline has posted its video preview here.)

"He was resistant to any type of touching. He had been diagnosed very early with something called Sensory Integration Disorder," The Hartford Courant's Alaine Griffin tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer in a Morning Edition interview. "And what that essentially did is... he wasn't able to guide touch and smell and sight. He wasn't able to, sort of, process things to do with his senses. And we learn that Nancy was very sad at the fact that he couldn't love her back."

Griffin and other reporters from The Courant collaborated with Frontline on the documentary. The newspaper will offer its own feature coverage, as well.

"Through the reporting we did," Griffin says, "we definitely learned more about Nancy and the efforts she went through to give Adam as normal a life as possible as he went from boy to man."

Two months after the shooting, Griffin says, the question of whether Nancy Lanza should be seen as a victim as blameless as any other remains complicated.

"I think the viewers of the Frontline documentary and the readers of The Courant story are going to have to sort of make that judgment on their own," she says.

Raising Adam Lanza will air on Frontline Tuesday, part of a week of PBS programming about the Newtown tragedy.

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Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last December. That's the figure often repeated at memorial services and in the press. But there was another person killed by Lanza that morning - his mother, Nancy. Who was Nancy Lanza, and what was her relationship with her troubled son? That's the question editors and reporters from the Hartford Courant and PBS' "Frontline" have tried to answer in a documentary that airs next Tuesday, called "Raising Adam Lanza."

Alaine Griffin is a reporter from the Courant. She joins us from Hartford. Good morning.

ALAINE GRIFFIN: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: This documentary poses another dramatic question - sort of near the beginning - about Adam Lanza's mother, Nancy. She was the first person he murdered on that terrible day, which ended at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And the question is, was Nancy Lanza a victim, or was she to blame? Do you feel that you answered that question? What is the answer to that question?

GRIFFIN: Honestly, I'm not sure we answered that. I know that through the reporting we did, we definitely learned more about Nancy and the efforts she went through, to give Adam as normal a life as possible as he went from boy to man. I think the viewers of the "Frontline" documentary, and the readers of the Courant's story, are going to have to sort of make that judgment on their own.

WERTHEIMER: You were also able to knock down some of the more outrageous stories that we heard early on, about her.

GRIFFIN: Yeah, there was this image of Nancy as this paranoid, doomsday prepper who was stockpiling food and guns in preparation for an economic collapse. And what we learned, as far as the guns went, it was her hobby. She liked to shoot. She was raised on a farm in New Hampshire. She had been shooting at a young age. She had animals on her farm. A friend of hers told us that she used to actually butcher the animals, and take part in many of the farm activities. So her use of guns goes back to when she was a farm girl, back in New Hampshire. And she extended it to her life in Connecticut, where she did like to shoot at ranges.

And we also learned more about her as a mother. And by all accounts - from people we've spoken with as well as some family members who spoke with us - she was a devoted mother who - she did quite a bit for her children, and wanted to make sure that they were always doing the right things at the right time. One could argue that maybe she was a bit misguided and didn't make all the right decisions, as all parents face. However, from the reporting we did, she was certainly an advocate for her children.

WERTHEIMER: Now, one of the more candid interviews you did was with Richard Novia, who brought Adam Lanza into the computer club at Newtown High School. He talked about Nancy Lanza taking her boys, Ryan and Adam, to a shooting range. Here's a portion of that interview.


JOSH KOVNER: And you believe shooting with Ryan and Adam was a mistake?

RICHARD NOVIA: Yes. I think it was a mistake on her part, and it cost her her life. And that's the sad thing. It cost her her life, that mistake.

GRIFFIN: That was my colleague Josh Kovner, interviewing Richard Novia. He was a - former tech club adviser at Newtown High School. That is a common refrain we've heard from people that we've interviewed - is that they believe that exposing Adam to those guns was a mistake. People believe that as much as Nancy did for Adam, perhaps the guns and the violent video games were things that she should not have exposed him to.

WERTHEIMER: My sense of watching the documentary is that there were a lot of frustrating experiences here; things you heard about but could not nail down, obstacles - family members who did not want to talk for the camera. Do you think, in the end, that you know why this happened, or do you think that it may not be possible to know?

GRIFFIN: Well, we're still months away from a comprehensive police report, so we're hoping that that can answer a few more questions. And we definitely are going to continue our look into this. But you know, I can tell you, the only two people in that home were - for a large amount of time - were Nancy and Adam. And they're both not here, so perhaps maybe we may never know all the details as to what led to this horrific tragedy.

WERTHEIMER: Alaine Griffin works for the Hartford Courant. The documentary in which she appears is called "Raising Adam Lanza." It will be on PBS "Frontline" next Tuesday evening. Thank you very much for talking to us.

GRIFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.