Newtown, An American Tragedy

By Matthew Lysia

Simon and Schuster

264 pages, $25.99

By Lee Coppola


It’s painful to read this book.

It’s painful to read what bright-eyed 6-and-7-year-olds were doing on the last morning of their lives.

It’s painful to learn about the frustration and agony of a mother trying to protect and, at the same time, heal her son from his obsession for isolation.

It’s painful to read about how that son methodically gunned down innocent children and their teachers as they excitedly prepared for Christmas, then killed himself.

But, still, it’s necessary, if only to reflect on the pain such tragedy inflicts on a nation’s psyche; if only to look inside the soul of a troubled life so that troubled others might be helped; if only to see the parental angst of a mother who thought target shooting and an appreciation for guns was the path to bond with her son and wipe away the darkness that enveloped him.

It didn’t, of course, and Adam Lanza killed her, too, as she slept on that fateful December Friday morning.

Lysiak, a reporter for the New York Post, spent two weeks in Newtown covering the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, then left his newspaper to research and write “Newtown."

His work, drawn from countless interviews, official documents and on-the-scene reporting, provides heart-wrenching details of the slaughter that took place inside the school, the lives lost and the lives spared.

Meet Jessica Reko, 6, who took horse-riding lessons, watched horse-related movies and read books about horses. What she wanted for Christmas was a pair of cowgirl boots. Her wish was to come true, but she never got to wear the boots.

Meet Victoria Soto, the beloved first-grade teacher who sometimes chewed gum in class and lined her desk with her pupils’ drawings. She borrowed tissue paper from her mother Thursday evening to line the Gingerbread houses that were to be made in school the next day. She promised to replace the paper when she and her mother went shopping on Saturday, a day that never came for her.

Meet school secretary Barbara Halstead and school nurse Betty Cox, who, afraid to venture from safety, stayed hidden under desks for two hours after the shooting stopped. “Close your eyes,” a policeman told them as he escorted them out past the bloodshed.

Newtown relates the grief that engulfed the community and the nation, and focuses somberly on the funerals that drew the nation’s eyes and visits from government officials, including President Obama. It also takes to task the broadcast and social media, especially CNN, for continually reporting misinformation hours after the massacre ended.

Meet Ryan Lanza, identified on national television as the shooter as he sat in his office in Manhattan. As police stormed into his company’s offices looking for him, he was furiously reaching out to social media sites: “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME” None of the media sites believed him, and kept reporting he was the shooter.

“Newtown” doesn’t answer why Ryan’s brother chose on Dec. 14, 2012, to kill his mother, 20 schoolchildren and six adults entrusted with their education. It does provide glimpses into the traits that might have provoked him.

His fascination with mass killers, for instance. He researched all of them on the Internet and paid particular attention to Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Brevik, whose killing spree included eight by bombs and 69 mostly young campers in a methodical shooting spree. “You are normally required to plan absolutely everything alone,” Brevik wrote, “fight alone and you are likely to die alone.”

Lanza’s addiction to violent video games, which he played endlessly in his room darkened by garbage bags hung to cover the windows. His fondness for weaponry, highlighted by the guns, ammunition and knives found in his house.

Lysiak ends Newtown with an exploration of what ifs:

Lanza had not been bullied in school; the favorite teacher dedicated to helping him had not left the school; neighbors had paid more attention to what was going on behind the closed Lanza doors; high-powered weapons and violent video games were not easily available inside the house; his mother had not chosen guns as her way of bonding.

Writes Lysiak:

“In a planet that is inhabited by seven billion people, no matter how society or culture evolves, a small percentage of those people will always make decisions to commit senseless and seemingly random, unspeakably horrific acts.”

Adds former FBI criminal profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole:

“We have to keep looking for answers. We can’t stop believing that we have the power to stop it from happening again. We may never get one final answer, but we have to keep trying.”

Lee Coppola is a former print and television journalist and is the retired dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli School of Journalism.