The boys in the basement

Adam Lanza. (AP -- Western Connecticut State University)

Adam Lanza. (AP — Western Connecticut State University)

There is an understandable tendency to view murderers, and psychopaths in general, as coming from broken homes or dysfunctional and underprivileged families. Nature and nurture combine to create killers, but in so far as the “nurture” or environmental side of the equation goes, the assumption is that these individuals entered adult society as damaged goods. They were victims of bullying at home or at school, products of a childhood marked by abuse.

The opposite may be just as true. The murderer next door could have been spoiled his entire life, or “enabled” in the language of codependency. I recently reviewed Girl in the Cellar by Allan Hall and Michael Leidig, a quickie true crime book about the Natascha Kampusch story. Kampusch was the Austrian girl who was kidnapped and kept locked in a basement for eight years by Wolfgang Priklopil. This is what I had to say:

Academia may not have a record of a criminal with Priklopil’s profile (as the authors here assert), but we know him well. He was a spoiled only son who couldn’t wait for his father to die so that he could inherit all his money, and his wife in the bargain. Upon that blessed day Mommy duly proceeded to dote on her adult baby and new life partner, cooking his meals, doing his laundry, cleaning his house. “Wolfgang is my everything,” is something she apparently “always said.” Naturally enough, Wolfi grew up thinking that all girls were sluts. His own choice of a helpmeet would be cut from more traditional cloth. In his own words: “I want a partner who will underestand when I want to be alone, who can cook well, is happy to be only a housewife, who looks good but does not consider looks important. I want a woman who will simply support me in everything I do.” Natascha could never measure up. Though she had cleaning duties, after every visit by Mrs. Priklopil she was released from her dungeon to find the house “spotless.” When Priklopil let Natascha wash his car (he was lazy as well as a miser) she decided it was time to run away. Abandoned, and realizing that even after eight years of captivity he hadn’t managed to train Natascha to the level of submission freely volunteered by his mom (who was old now, and depreciating as an asset), Wolfi decided to sulk away from life and throw himself in front of a train. Goodbye, cruel world! And good riddance to another psychopathic man baby, the boomer bane of the bourgeoisie.

The girl in the cellar is the revenge of the boy in the basement, made possible in Priklopil’s case by family money and his mother’s enabling. It was a subject I returned to when I wrote a brief comment on Newtown: An American Tragedy by Matthew Lysiak:

Heaven knows the subtitle is perhaps the most overused in the entire history of publishing, but the heartbreaking mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary were tragic indeed. It was an event so extreme it even seemed for a moment as if it might effect some change in America’s gun laws. That didn’t happen, and blame was instead spread around, a lot of it attaching to Nancy Lanza. And I think she’s what makes the story one of continued relevance and public fascination. Was she culpable in some way, or just another victim? I tilt toward the former position, seeing a classic case of codependency that resulted in a criminal act of enablement. The warning signals were there, and if someone like Nancy Lanza didn’t have the resources to cope with the situation then nobody has. I don’t know who else can throw on the brakes.

Yesterday my hunch received some support from the official state report on the Sandy Hook killings. Parents and educators were criticized for “accommodating – and not confronting” Adam Lanza’s manifest difficulties. I’ll quote here from the AP story filed by Pat Eaton-Robb and Michael Melia:

In exploring what could have been done differently, the new report honed in on his mother, Nancy Lanza, who backed her son’s resistance to medication and from the 10th grade on kept him at home, where he was surrounded by an arsenal of firearms and spent long hours playing violent video games.

“Mrs. Lanza’s approach to try and help him was to actually shelter him and protect him and pull him further away from the world, and that in turn turned out to be a very tragic mistake,” said Julian Ford, one of the report’s authors, at a news conference.

“Records indicate that the school system cared about AL’s [Adam Lanza’s] success but also unwittingly enabled Mrs. Lanza’s preference to accommodate and appease AL through the educational plan’s lack of attention to social-emotional support, failure to provide related services, and agreement to AL’s plan of independent study and early graduation at age 17,” wrote the report’s authors.

The report also provocatively asks whether a family that was not white or as affluent as the Lanzas would have been given the same leeway to manage treatment for their troubled child.

“Is the community more reluctant to intervene and more likely to provide deference to the parental judgment and decision-making of white, affluent parents than those caregivers who are poor or minority?” the report said.

Appeasement. Enablement. Accommodation. No doubt Adam Lanza was a sick person, but he was also that same familiar type I mentioned when discussing Priklopil: the spoiled man baby, withdrawn from the world and being cared for by his mother (Lanza was twenty years old when he snapped, not a child). As the report indicates, his becoming a monster wasn’t the result of abuse or deprivation. The aggravating circumstance was special privilege.

The boys in the basement are everywhere. Rip the roofs off of any suburban development and you’ll find them down there, running from the light. A couple of months ago an old woman on my street was found murdered. It was a big news story given the low crime rate in the area. Later the same day the woman’s adult son was picked up as a person of probable interest. He had been living at home with his mother and was said to have been suffering from mental illness. Nothing further has been reported.

This form of codependency is a widespread phenomenon now, and has various causes. Some of it is due to economic distress, the “lost generation” of un- and underemployed young people who can’t afford to live on their own. Some of it is the result of mental illness, though here there is a lot of wiggle room for excuse-making by maternal enablers. There are at least four basement boys that I know of living within a few minutes walk of my house, only one of whom is actually ill. The rest are perfectly healthy and financially well off. But they are angry.

To be sure, there are many individuals with mental disorders who find it next to impossible to function in the real world. But the majority of basement boys are simply antisocial jerks who don’t like other people. There’s a difference.

In any event, none of them should be living at home. They are not getting better. Fueled by a mother’s “unconditional love” (which is to say, a love that extends even to accommodating an evil that poses a clear and present threat to the enabler’s personal safety), their rage knows no bounds.

Know the signs and keep your distance.

Update, October 8 2015:

My notes on the Umpqua Community College shooting are a follow up to this.

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