Going Home To Newtown One Year Later
An entire community is currently trying to balance its private grief with being a public spectacle. Visiting my hometown of Newtown, Conn., for the first time in years, how do I hear their stories without being part of the problem?
On Thursday night, Nov. 21, 2013, I pick up my friend Tom at his house on Main Street in Newtown, Conn. It's my second night back in town, and my first visit back since my parents moved out three years ago after living here for 15 years. Things have happened since.
We're going to My Place Pizza, a restaurant where we both worked during high school and college. I started there at 14 because I decided I wanted to have more to my name than the 10 bucks I earned mowing my family's lawn each week. Plus, it was a half-mile from my house, so I could walk. I started as a busboy, and by 16, I was put on staff as a "pizza man." From that point on, until I was 22 and making less frequent trips back home, I spent up to 50 hours a week in the My Place kitchen making pizza.
After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the owners of My Place were interviewed by Mother Jones. They spoke glowingly about Nancy Lanza, who was killed by her son Adam in her home at 36 Yogananda St. before he drove to the school and killed 26 others. My Place was Nancy's regular bar, and according to its owners, the Tambascios, everybody really liked her.
Tom and I don't talk about Nancy Lanza while we're there; it's a great place to go if you don't want to discuss what happened. Instead of "We Love SHES" and "12/14 Never Forget" stickers on the walls, there are photos of the Red Sox and Patriots. Yet one Sandy Hook Elementary School parent scheduled to meet with me during the three days I'm in Newtown asks that we not go to My Place. He doesn't go there anymore.
The message to the media and out-of-town public from Newtown leading up to the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting is more gentle than just "leave us alone." The request for privacy is better parsed as: Come and visit Newtown. See how we're doing. Have a pizza and a beer. Then please leave us alone on Dec. 14, 2013.
My Place is a microcosm for what the community has faced for nearly a year, but particularly this week: public, inextricably linked to the events of Dec. 14, 2012, with media wondering which barstool Nancy Lanza occupied. And at the same time, private, perfect for Newtowners to relax and get away from the visual reminders around town of what happened.
I am also a microcosm of this conflict: I can remember when this bar was half the size with a quarter of the stools. Yet I wouldn't be here right now if not for what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December.
The solution to this messy situation feels simple and direct. Just follow the town's thoughtful instructions: Come before the anniversary, then get out of town before Dec. 14. And as I leave town on Friday, Nov. 23, still three full weeks before the anniversary, my determination is that Newtown wants you to talk about Newtown this week, but it's going to dictate the terms.
People I talk to in Newtown will not use Adam Lanza's name (they refer to him mostly as "the shooter"), but they don't have a problem referring to the day as "12/14."
I start my conversation with Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra in her office in the town municipal building by telling her that I've grown increasingly comfortable referring to the day as "12/14." Prior to my trip this week, I'd never referred to the Sandy Hook shooting just by the date, but found that people in town I talked to seemed to do this quite naturally.
"I'm not comfortable with that," Llodra says. "I certainly fell into that habit, like everyone else did. Frankly, it transcends a date. What we're fearful of as a community is that every 12/14 is going to be the date that defines this horrible thing." She asks me if I can remember the date of Columbine or Blacksburg. I cannot.
Pat Llodra's job as first selectman, the top member of the town's governing body made up of residents and known as the Board of Selectman, essentially makes her mayor of Newtown. However, in the last year, the job of de facto town spokeswoman has been folded into that title as well. Her blog posts more often show up in Associated Press stories than not these days.
In a post on Nov. 1, Llodra officially announced the demolition of Sandy Hook Elementary School, but also addressed the yearlong media coverage of the town: "[The] persistent coverage is having a deleterious effect on our mental health and poses impediments in our journey of recovery. For me, the balance tips in favor of the people of Newtown."
Having forceful views on how media is not helping the healing process ("a deleterious effect"), though, does not stop Llodra from talking about the school's demolition — her most daunting political task since the tragic events last December. Within days after the shooting, she was forced to confront the fact that Newtown still needed a Sandy Hook school. She knew that it was inconceivable to send the students back in the state that the building was in. Thus began the process of meeting with a team of 28 elected officials and forming a task force of architects and engineers to figure out what they were going to do.
Ultimately, the group seriously considered 10 different locations before deciding that based on space and other logistics (things like traffic, water, and sewer access) the plot of land until recently occupied by Sandy Hook was the only viable option.
Llodra herself interviewed every contractor that bid to demolish and pulverize Sandy Hook Elementary School. And then she insisted the company that won the bid to rebuild the school that will open in spring 2016 make every employee on-site sign nondisclosure agreements.
"I wanted everything crushed and reused on-site if possible. Materials that can't be reused brought to a hazmat plant in Ohio to be destroyed. All the iron brought to [a] smelting plant too," said Llodra, who became a construction industry expert seemingly overnight. "And I told them I don't want any workers walking off the job with a brick in their pocket."
Her willingness to tell her story shows the key component of her strategy to balance the public and private: Set the narrative. On Monday, Dec. 9, Llodra led a panel of town officials in a press conference that we don't often see towns hold one year after a tragic event. She opened the discussion addressing the media: "I'm hoping that when you leave here today you will have what you need to satisfy your producers."
After reiterating the town's position that there will be no official vigils or memorials held in town on the anniversary, Llodra appealed to media's sensibility that the passage of a year's time does not necessarily mean healing is complete.
"I don't think we've come through it. We're still in the midst of this journey," she said Monday. "The journey through grief is as unique as one's fingerprints."
Following the press conference, major news networks CNN, NBC, CBS, and ABC announced they would not send satellite trucks to Newtown on the anniversary — alleviating some of the anxiety of a press swarm, but not necessarily diminishing another chief concern of Llodra's: her town emptying out on Saturday, Dec. 14.
"One of the reasons I begged the media to stay away is it's driving people out of town," Llodra told me in her office the day we sat down together. "The very time that the people in town need to be visible and rally around each other, to support each other. To go shopping in Sandy Hook Center. Go to the Big Y or Caraluzzi's [supermarkets], people are leaving. How sad is that? We're the type of town that wants to put our arms around people."
"How many times was Dylan shot?"
"Why was he shot?"
"How come Dylan didn't run out of the room?"
These are some of the questions that Nicole Hockley's 9-year-old son Jake asks about his brother Dylan, who was killed on Dec. 14, 2012. Jake, who was in his third-grade classroom at Sandy Hook School that day, started to recount what happened there the weekend immediately following the shooting, Hockley says. Then he didn't talk about it for a while. Then he started to ask that all the pictures of Dylan be taken down in the house.
The Hockleys' story has been told a few times in the last year. Nicole and Ian Hockley, her husband of 20 years, went public very early on, a mere few weeks after the tragedy, telling CNN that they were not leaving Newtown, despite the fact that the family moved in less than two years earlier and that the killer lived just a few blocks from where they were renting a house.
The Hockleys bought a new house in a new neighborhood in Sandy Hook. And their address remains unlisted. Jake remained at Sandy Hook School last year when the school relocated temporarily to the then-vacant Chalk Hill School in nearby Monroe, Conn.
Then this year, one day before school was scheduled to start, the Hockleys decided to pull Jake out and put him in a different school. "It was very hard to go back there and pick Jake up from school and see so many familiar kids, see Dylan's classmates who survived; that was too hard for me," Nicole says. "[Jake] is a crazy bright kid. He's doing OK. But he still has a lot of questions."
These days, Nicole spends her days and nights devoted to Sandy Hook Promise, a group established by victims' parents and other town activists to raise awareness and hopefully make sure something positive comes out of last year's tragedy. Their office is located on the second floor of a quaint office and shop village just off Main Street that wasn't here before my family moved. The whole office is comprised of a medium-size room with a couple small offices, a few long tables with computers, a conference table in the back, and one conference room where Nicole and I chat.
"This is seven days a week for me. Last night I didn't leave until 10:30," Nicole says. "If I'm home and Jake's busy or asleep, I'm working. This isn't just a job, this is my life, to try to do something to make this not just a senseless tragedy."
Sandy Hook Promise has put Nicole front and center in the public debate over gun control. She was in the Rose Garden, standing next to Vice President Biden and flanking President Obama as he gave a very, very angry address the day the bill for expanded background checks on gun purchases failed in the U.S. Senate. ("He was pissed," she says. "You should have seen him behind closed doors.")
After his speech, Obama turned and gave a visibly emotionally distraught Nicole a big hug. It was a moment that took the heavy political air out of Obama's disappointment directed at Congress, and made him seem like a dad who wanted something done that day to protect his own kids.
Nicole's role as an advocate for change following the Sandy Hook tragedy has brought her from Newtown to multiple meetings with the president in Washington, D.C., to campaign stops in Maine and New Hampshire with Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly's group Americans for Responsible Solutions. Sandy Hook Promise recently launched a campaign along with celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon and the cast of Modern Family called Parent Together aimed at getting groups of parents to work together to create the best positive situations for all the kids in their communities. The failing to pass national gun reform legislation has also taught Hockley about the lengths that she and others will have to go to make something happen.
Nicole Hockley is a prime example of how those directly affected by what happened at Sandy Hook balance the public and private aspects that come with being affected by tragedy. And on Dec. 14, unlike Llodra, she's choosing to spend some time away from Newtown with her family. Her son Jake will not be in school during the days leading up to the anniversary. Like Llodra, however, her desire for privacy does not stop her from telling her story. It does not make her denounce the undeniable fact that she became a public figure on Dec. 14, 2012.
A week before the shooting, hospital chaplain Khaliah Abdul-Karim finished a master disaster chaplaincy training program with DART (Disaster Assistance Relief Training). She was in her home in Hamden, Conn., about a 30-minute drive from Newtown, watching the tragedy unfold on the news. After the third child was reported shot, she got a call asking if she was prepared to be deployed. Her bag was already packed.
At 3 the next morning, she headed for Newtown. An hour later, less than 24 hours after the shooting, Abdul-Karim was at the Sandy Hook firehouse.
"It was all people in suits moving about, wounded, heartbroken, not necessarily knowing what to do," Abdul-Karim said. "I found a state trooper and said we have to go to the families."
The state police officer had a sheet of paper with the victims' names and addresses on it, and Abdul-Karim, a doctor, and the officer set out for the houses. They arrived at the first family's house at 7 a.m.
"The first family: Noah's, Nicki Pozner. Just pain." Abdul-Karim said. "The next: Ben Wheeler's. More pain." The team was cold calling, just knocking on the door and offering care. And every family let them in. There was no resistance. They were needing an outlet at that point." Abdul-Karim connected with five families that first day; she would stay with them all week through the funerals.
She had the background to gain that fragile trust during this initial stage of grief. After graduating from Yale University, Abdul-Karim practiced law at a lucrative corporate law firm in Florida. Then, 10 years ago, her only son Stephen was killed in car accident at 24 years old.
Abdul-Karim questioned why her devotion had been rewarded with such tragedy. After six months of anger, she decided to do something to transfer her grief. Abdul-Karim ran multiple political campaigns for candidates in Florida, before joining the Obama '08 team for the president's first campaign in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. During those years, she also fought successfully to have a police cruiser stationed on the stretch of road where her son lost his life. Then after Obama won, she had nothing to do.
It was a retreat into the Redwood Hills in California where she found her next task in her own journey to get over her own son's death. "I thought, Am I to experience pain so great so that I can help another person experience pain so great? Is that my calling? I think it is." Abdul-Karim became a chaplain at Hartford Hospital shortly thereafter.
The day of Noah Pozner's funeral, his mother Veronique wanted Abdul-Karim to go into the funeral home first. Veronique told the chaplain she did not want to see her son disfigured. Abdul-Karim went into the mortuary and saw Noah Pozner lying on the table in the funeral home, totally covered from the base of his nose down. He still had beautiful eyelashes. "I told [Veronique] he looked like he was sleeping. He was beautiful," Abdul-Karim said. "I told her she could go see him." The "mother's cry" shook the whole mortuary, she said, as Veronique Pozner walked in.
For seven days, Abdul-Karim went to the families of the five victims she connected with the first day after the massacre. Then after that seventh day, she had to get out. "It was after Jesse's funeral," she said.
Jesse Lewis had wanted to grow up and be a soldier. On the day of the shooting, he yelled "run" and led a group of his classmates away from the classroom as Adam Lanza came in and started shooting. Six of Jesse's classmates got out, but he did not.
"A woman approached me at the funeral with a picture of a little girl," Abdul-Karim said. "She said it was her daughter, and she was here to pay her respects to Jesse; because of him, she had survived."
"After that, I had to come out for self-care," Abdul-Karim said. "I left Connecticut altogether. The container was full. I had no more room to take in more pain."
There are so many others, compelled to turn their private pain into public service.
Newtown High School senior Sarah Clements, whose mother Abbie works as a teacher at Sandy Hook, talks about being locked down at school for over three hours before reuniting with her mom behind the Subway in Sandy Hook Center.
Sandy Hook School parent and volunteer firefighter Pete Barresi talks about being unable to stand at the firehouse that day while he waited for his first-grade son to be evacuated from the school. Barresi traveled with three friends from Newtown to Moore, Okla., after a tornado devastated the Oklahoma town, delivering 30,000 pounds of supplies and gifts.
Kaitlin Roig-Debellis, a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook, took a one-year leave of absence from Sandy Hook school to develop her nonprofit Classes4Classes.org, which focuses on getting classrooms of students to create acts of kindness for other kids. She was honored this year by L'Oréal as a "Woman of Worth" and by Glamour as a 2013 "Woman of the Year" finalist.
Karim-Abdul and Clements are members of the Newtown Action Alliance, an activist group created in the wake of Sandy Hook, and have traveled from Connecticut to Washington, D.C., every three months since the shooting to lobby for gun violence prevention, telling their stories to legislators on Capitol Hill.
After three days back as part-outsider, part-visitor, it occurs to me that very few people I met talked solely about the healing. They talked about what happened to them, how they confronted it personally, and how they were making it part of their life. This makes me realize that Newtown's shared story is not told best by talking about healing, but by talking about the town's ability to balance the reality of what happened to them.
Newtown is not looking for us to look away. They're asking us not to stare at the wound.