Newtown isn’t the book the tragedy deserves

A superficial book recounting the school shooting was pegged to its one-year anniversary

It’s not surprising or controversial when large events come with product tie-ins—commemorative Olympics swag and the like. But attempting to commercialize a national tragedy is crass; I thought this when hawkers surrounded Ground Zero post-September 11, peddling Twin Towers sculptures and t-shirts. And I think it now, at the one-year anniversary of the school-shooting massacre in Newtown, CT.

Apparently, Gallery Books disagrees, because the Simon & Schuster subsidiary released Newtown: An American Tragedy on December 10, four days before the anniversary proper. The book, written by New York Daily News reporter Matthew Lysiak, is a superficial and heavy-handed account of the shooting, which left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School. (Disclosure: One of the adults killed was the stepdaughter of a dear friend.)

Given how quickly the book reached publication, it’s unsurprising that it lacks thoughtful analysis; there hasn’t been time for Newtown residents to process what happened that day, much less for an out-of-town journalist probing them for information to do so. And the town is still in the midst of major coverage fatigue. This all means that, rather than add something to the conversations Newtown has spurred—about gun control, mental illness, trauma—Lysiak simply rehashes the tragedy in hardcover, with a focus on the biography of shooter Adam Lanza that reads as an attempt to humanize him rather than to understand more about the second-deadliest school shooting in US history.

After opening the work describing the final mornings of some of the victims, Newtown quickly shifts to the shooter, recounting how autism and a sensory processing disorder made him an awkward loner throughout his boyhood who struggled to fit in and that, as he aged, he found solace in guns and violent video games. This information—reported elsewhere throughout the past year—doesn’t lead to any conclusion about why he murdered 26 innocents and his mother (and indeed, the recently released Sandy Hook report is careful to state that evidence in the case does not add up to a motive). But then Lysiak, who has a self-described addiction to the intellectual stimulation of parachuting into far-flung shootings, is not in the business of analysis, but of he-said, she-said reporting.

Though he didn’t do analytical work in the book, Lysiak clearly wore down his shoe leather, speaking to everyone from the shooter’s barber to his high-school mentor. But because Lysiak presents this information as though each chapter is a distinct print newspaper story—repeating details; introducing, yet again, sources we’ve met multiple times; eschewing a critical eye in favor of (poorly written) descriptions—Newtown reads as a repetitive attempt to forge empathy for a killer. Here is the opening of a chapter on the online identity the shooter created for message boards and gaming:

[He] began frequenting Internet chat rooms that focused on violent video games, weapons, and, most disturbing of all, mass killers. Alone and in the darkness, with the illuminated screen his only light, Adam had found a level of comfort in his world of computers and video games that he could rarely attain in the outside world.

Less than 20 pages later, describing the mom’s futile efforts to make a haven:

The basement, which Nancy had remodeled into a game room for Adam, now looked more like a military compound. Nearly every inch of the Sheetrock walls were covered with posters of weaponry and old tanks from World War II.

Then later, describing what police entering the Lanza house encountered:

As they entered the basement, they saw military posters lining the walls and video games stacked neatly in rows not far from a large television screen. The windows had been darkened with shades to prevent sunlight from coming through.

From a chapter on mental illness and violence:

By the time Adam was nineteen, he had withdrawn almost completely and become a virtual shut-in, spending hours playing the first-person shooter game Call of Duty.

And on and on. In the midst of this finite factbase, Lysiak quotes academics and activists who think the shooter’s actions could be traced to unchecked mental illness, or to psychopathy, or to plain old evil. But he transcribes their words like the newspaperman that he is, with equal weight given to all voices. This attempt to posit motives sans analysis fills about eight chapters of a 20-chapter, 254-page book without adding substance to any conversation. Meanwhile, the most words about the victims come in the chapter Lysiak spends briefly recapping all 26 funerals.

They deserve better. If December 14 makes readers feel a need to spend money, better to donate to causes the families are championing then pad an interloper’s pockets.

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: ,