With Mass Murderers, a Different Profile

When faced with a crime as chilling as the Newtown school massacre and a perpetrator as inscrutable as Adam Lanza, perhaps we have a need to explain the violence in a rational way, to blame a set of circumstances we can label, understand, and then attempt to control.

The task becomes harder still when we discover that much of what we initially heard about the massacre (for example: that Lanza’s mother worked at the school, that he had been buzzed in, and -- for the first few hours after the murders -- his identity) was incorrect. Even now, truth and fiction can be difficult to sort out.

One thing of which we can be reasonably certain: Adam Lanza’s parents were divorced in 2009, when he was 17. And so, as part of the ongoing effort to comprehend this crime and to prevent others like it, some have speculated that Lanza’s parents’ divorce and his father’s absence from the home could have been a contributing factor in the son’s turn towards violence.

In an article appearing in Public Discourse, Russell Nieli writes:

In a saner age, when people understood the palpable harms of “broken homes” and “fatherless boys” … the “family structure issue” would have guided reflection on the Lanza killings. But now, since any such discussion of divorce’s harms, especially the harm of not having a father present in the home, would step on too many toes, we focus instead on the safer territory of gun control and our mental health system.

Nieli’s not the only one speculating. Amy Alkon wonders too, saying: “Where was dad?” is “the question not being asked.”

We don’t know how long ago Adam Lanza’s parents separated; there have been a wide range of years reported. We don’t know how often the father saw the son after that, or what the quality of their relationship was before the separation, and when (or if) they subsequently became estranged. (Reports such as this one have not been verified by police.)

Nieli complains that, regarding Lanza, “any discussion of divorce’s harm would step on too many toes.” But the topic certainly hasn’t been avoided when studying general criminality. Googling “father absence and criminal behavior” calls up a host of articles and data tending to support the premise that lack of a father predisposes young people, particularly boys, to a wide variety of difficulties. Research such as this 2004 study concludes that “adolescents in father-absent households … faced elevated incarceration risks.” Still, this tells us little about the role of father absence in the very small but very disturbing subset of criminals known as mass murderers.

We can take a look at the cases for which we do have some information. Here’s a list that Mother Jones has compiled of 62 mass murderer shooters, the total in the U.S. during the thirty years between 1982 and 2012. (“Mass murder” is defined as an incident in which at least four people were killed).

For a small number of these killers there is a lack of information about their parents. But the vast majority appear to have been raised in intact, two-parent homes. That’s a surprise, since a third of the children in America now live in biological father-absent homes, and even back in 1960 about 11% of children lacked a father in the home.