In Leslie Jamison’s essay “The Empathy Exams,” the title piece in her upcoming book, she writes, “Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.” What the Sandy Hook shooting — or any of the 44 school shootings that have occurred since December 2012 — has taught us is that tragedy can, over time, feel unfathomable while also curdling into feeling absolutely commonplace. The rash of school shootings that have become not even front-page news in America have made us tired and frustrated. It leaves us looking for something like empathy, since it’s easy to feel just horror and sadness, looking for the balm of quick answers and a “bad guy” caught and put in jail.
Thank goodness for a writer like Andrew Solomon. We are very lucky to be living in a time when the superlative Solomon is writing and thinking. His 2012 masterpiece Far From the Tree is the ultimate reference on parents and children, and how the former shape the latter. Because Peter Lanza, the father of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, read this work, he was willing to be interviewed for this week’s must-read New Yorker piece, “The Reckoning.”
By letting us listen to Peter Lanza, by letting us know about the Lanza family, Solomon helps the reader access empathy: how Adam was a difficult child, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, how Peter and Nancy’s divorce changed the family dynamics, how Nancy moved heaven and earth to try to reach her son and was, still, branded an “accomplice” and not even considered a victim of the shootings — more like an asterisk in her passing.
According to The New Yorker‘s “Out Loud” podcast, Lanza was struck by Solomon’s writing about the Klebolds (the parents of Columbine shooter Dylan) in Far From the Tree. “They were essentially decent people who had a horrific experience and are not to blame for their son’s transgressions,” Solomon said. Perhaps Solomon’s mission, of a sort, is humanizing parents. Whether it’s this week’s article, or the ten years of reporting in Far From the Tree, the reader learns about the many different facets of parenthood, how it is a job that brings out the complex humanity in all of us, and how the community can come to a fuller understanding of parents.
Solomon makes this generosity look easy, and by talking to Lanza, he brings some light and empathy to a difficult topic, about which we are still reckoning with the reverberations and aftermath.