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By On March 19th, 2014

Killer Empathy

Crying Eye

After reading Andrew Solomon’s recent piece in the New Yorker, “The Reckoning,” detailing his interview with Peter Lanza, I sat and reflected on empathy.  I will come back to Solomon’s moving interview with Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza who killed his mother, 6 adults, 20 children and himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Recently, I read James Fallon’s book, “The Psychopath Inside,” and being an emotionally empathetic sort myself, I felt many times during the course of the book as if I were reading about an alien race.  Fallon, a neuroscientist, chronicles what it was like to find out that his own brain scan showed psychopathy suggesting that he is a psychopath.  In the book, he lays out an excellent description of two very different kinds of empathy, cognitive empathy and emotional empathy.  Fallon himself possesses cognitive empathy, in that he understands how, for example, standing someone up will probably hurt their feelings.  He understands emotions on an intellectual level and is skilled at interpreting nonverbal cues of others.  Fallon admits to struggling with emotional empathy.  In the example of ignoring plans with someone and standing them up, he understands they may be upset, but he doesn’t actually care.

Solomon’s article details Adam Lanza’s numerous encounters with mental health professionals as well as his diagnosis of Autism.  To the interviewer’s credit, he makes it clear that Autism was not the cause of the actions carried out by Adam.  People with Autism often have difficulty with cognitive empathy, and, while they may have trouble reading nonverbal cues or understanding abstract concepts, they are not prone to carelessly hurting others.  Solomon points out that a “subgroup of people with neither kind of empathy appears to be small, but such people may act out their malice in ways that feel both guileless and brutal.”

I think it’s impossible to get our heads or hearts around a tragedy like Sandy Hook.  Placing blame might help to compartmentalize the intolerable sadness of it, and to differentiate ourselves, as in “my child would never do something so terrifyingly horrific.”  We empathize with and are loyal to particular victims in tragedies of this nature.  Solomon mentions this in writing that the number of victims of Sandy Hook varies, from 26, to 27, to 28 depending on whether or not you include Adam Lanza or his mother to the victims who died at the elementary school.  Once Lanza’s mother became the target of blame for what happened, the number that is popularly accepted is 26.  “The Reckoning” was a well chosen title for an article that explores not only the process of judgment for the father of a killer, but also an opportunity to assess ourselves.

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