|Posted on January 10, 2013 at 9:45 PM|
“Don’t Touch Me!” – watchword of the killer of Newtown, Conn.
by Gilbert Creutzberg
In the days following the Newtown, Conn. killings, a picture has begun to emerge of a very sick young man. Bit by bit, new information is pasting together a scenario of alienation and repressed anger. A barber notes extreme lack of eye contact and a relationship of a controlling mother who answers every question for her son. A friend of the family tells of a teenager without friends who spends hours playing video games depicting violence. His peers describe him as intelligent, but socially awkward. His mother takes him to the rifle range and keeps a collection of high-powered arms in the house.
The son’s anger culminates when he learns of his mother’s plan to have him hospitalized in a mental ward.
Prior to the massacre, Adam Lanza has a conversation with his mother. He tells her that he wants to join the Marine Corps. His mother tells him that he is not suitable for the Marines, because he doesn’t want to be touched. She realizes that soldiers in the Marines establish bonds through wrestling, sports, horseplay, and hugging, all of which are necessary to form comradery and teamwork. As far back as Homer’s Iliad, it was recognized that heroism sprouts from willingness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s friends. Nancy Lanza was not alone in noticing her son’s unwillingness to be touched, and other people have confirmed it.
Why, then, was Adam afraid of being touched?
In the sixties, a revolution took place against the formality of a society that had wasted its resources, including human lives, on two worlds wars. It was the time of the Beatles and slogans like “Make love, not war.” It was a period in which the Human Potential Movement, sometimes also called “The Encounter Movement,” starting in Esalen, California, spread throughout the world. One of the most important features that was rediscovered was the importance of human touch.
It was in the late sixties that I got to know Alec Rubin, one of the original founders of the movement. He became my guru and group therapist. Few people have had a greater influence on my life. Touch formed an important part of group therapy.
Touch is different in different cultures. People from Northern Europe touch less than those of Southern Europe. Even the distance between customers and sales clerks is closer in warmer lands. One study showed a difference of two touches per hour between
persons living in the United States of Americans against 180 touches per hour between inhabitants of Puerto Rico. The philosophy of the sixties soon included touch as a quintessential part of treatment and healing. Hugging became standard fare in substance abuse residential facilities and spread to group therapy of all types.
In 1971, a book with the title “Please Touch,” by Jane Howard, became a must-reading for what was then called “the flower children,” and not long afterwards, in 1976, a museum in Philadelphia was founded under the same name.
In the past fifteen years, research of touch has produced more than one hundred studies, many of which by the Touch Research Institute. Michael Meany, endocrinologist, showed in a study with rats in 2000 that health and survival rate are related to touch.
Looking at the animal world, we see that every domestic dog and cat likes to be patted.
We observe that all primates engage in extensive touching, around 15% of their waking hours. But even insects like bees and ants use touch for communication, sending messages with olfactory glands. Touch may well be one of the most important tools in the process of survival.
Then, how is it possible that there are human beings who don’t want to be touched? “Haphephobia,” a fear of being touched, is relatively rare. Undoubtedly, it would be exceedingly difficult to set up everything needed for a valid research study. At this time one can only explore the psychodynamics based on inferences..
Nancy Lanza may to some have been the average, nice, friendly mother of a somewhat strange boy, but to others she seemed “domineering,” “controlling,” and “highstrung.” Even if we have to assume that Adam already at an early age showed symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, and even if we have to take into account that there might have been some sort of organic dysfunction when he warned his playmates at a baseball game that he was insensitive to touch and would not feel anything if he should fall, there still remain questions about his upbringing in the crucial years of early childhood. One can see how Nancy, preoccupied as she was with guns, would not have tolerated any intrusion by her son into her role as the owner and master of her million-dollar home. She might have fondled him one minute, only to punish him physically the next. The way the barber observed it, she was in total control. Adam could never trust her and by the time he was five, he might already have developed a fear of being touched, not knowing whether she would stroke him or spank him. Inwardly, he developed a raging anger against his mother and, at the same time, a jealousy against the children with whom she worked as a volunteer and to whom she gave all the love that her own , son never received from her.
Other theories may explain Adam’s haphephobia. For instance, stress factors during the mother’s pregnancy or her son’s early childhood years may have contributed to his fear of being touched.
Strange as it may seem, touch is an area that has not been studied a great deal. The text books from a previous generation did not mention the subject, maybe in fear of being labeled unscientific. Recent studies by Dacher Keltner at the University of California at Berkeley showed that touch is fundamental to human communication, bonding and health. (Dacher Keltner, “Hands on Research – The Science of Touch,” 2010.)
Though we will never know for a fact, we can postulate that if Adam had not suffered touch deprivation in his early childhood, he might not have developed into a mass murderer. He might have exhibited some form of autism or some other defect of the nervous system, but the children of Newtown, Conn. might still be alive.
“Touching,” said Michelangelo, “is to give life.”