Sunday’s Washington Post carried the kind of story that can leave you limp for days. Rare anymore is the narrative that has such a visceral effect, but Eli Saslow’s piece about Jackie and Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel died in the Newtown shootings, is the kind you wake up thinking about, and cannot shake. “Into the Lonely Quiet” (online headlined “After Newtown…”) picks up with the Bardens’ struggle to resume life, and to honor their child’s death by working to change gun laws. Saslow gives us about 6,300 words on the subject, telling the story via carefully chosen scenes and a tight narrative arc: a morning with Daniel’s surviving siblings; an unexpectedly terrible outing; a fruitless lobbying trip to meet with uninterested lawmakers; a neighbor’s haunting revelation. The story’s technical merits become obvious to anyone who reads it, but something deeper is also at work here, involving emotional intelligence and authorial restraint.
First, story craft:
The details and imagery are specific and devastating: Daniel’s freckled arms; the four gummy vitamins at the bottom of each after-school smoothie; his “books and toy trains in their familiar piles, gathering dust;” Jackie’s desperate texts (“DO YOU HAVE HIM YET?”) on the morning of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary; the Connecticut state trooper who sat next to Mark and wept. Saslow triggers our senses with, “… some days Mark believed he could still smell him here, just in from playing outside, all grassy and muddy,” and echoes a basement-related detail from the opening, via a photo of Daniel with his “arms wrapped around Ninja Cat, the stuffed animal that had traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearse and underground.”
The voice is quiet, respectful. Like any life-and-death story, this one might have gone turgid, and quicksanded itself. Saslow’s stories never do. He writes with a controlled mastery of details that, in this case, surely undid him as a writer — and as a young father — in the week that he spent with the Bardens. Those details both drove the story and held it together, like stitches turned with a steady hand.
The structure is compact, and suffused (intentional or not) with symbolism. Saslow starts us off in narrative action: Mark Barden descends to the basement (hell; death), to choose a photo for a Mother’s Day card that he and Jackie hope will help change gun laws:
Mark turned on his computer and began looking for the right picture. “Something lighthearted,” he said. “Something sweet.” He had been sitting in the same chair Dec. 14, when he received an automated call about a Code Red Alert, and much of the basement had been preserved in that moment. Nobody had touched the foosball table, because Daniel had been the last to play. His books and toy trains sat in their familiar piles, gathering dust. The basement had always been Daniel’s space, and some days Mark believed he could still smell him here, just in from playing outside, all grassy and muddy.
Saslow does two important things in that well-chosen lead scene. One, he introduces us vividly to the missing character: Through the photos Mark considers (birthday candles; Halloween) we meet sweet, lively, red-headed Daniel. Second, he lays out the story’s transcendent quality: how the Bardens’ story represents the perniciousness of guns in America. “The specific-as-universal quality reminds me, in a way, of what Primo Levi wrote about Anne Frank,” Harper’s contributor Matthew Power said Sunday afternoon as some of us chatted about Saslow’s story on Facebook. “‘One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.’” Power said, “I honestly can’t think of a piece — not even some of the best reporting done after 9/11 — that deals with grief in such an intimate and empathetic way. It brings something of unmeasurable horror down to an absolutely human scale.”
This, in fact, is one of Saslow’s gifts. A reporter on David Finkel’s narrative reporting team at the Post, he humanizes big issues by embedding himself in characters’ lives, which allows him opportunity to observe the kinds of details that make for deeply personal, and moving, stories. Once he has those details, he uses them without melodrama, leaving clear George Orwell’s proverbial windowpane.We talked to Saslow last November, for instance, about his piece on a swimming pool salesman whose struggles represented the ailing economy (the story went on to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature writing), and again in late April, about the reporting and writing behind his ESPN The Magazine piece on Rumeal Robinson, a former University of Michigan basketball star serving time for conning his own mother out of her house. Saslow’s known consideration for structure shows up in the tenor of his sectional cliffhangers, which give his narratives forward momentum. At the end of “Into the Lonely Quiet” Section 1, for instance, when Jackie asks Mark if their lobbying efforts will make a difference, Mark says, “I don’t know.” We can only wonder they will succeed or fail, and to what degree.
From there, Saslow zooms us out to the larger issues of politics. Then we’re back to the active narrative: the morning of the photo hunt. One by one, the Bardens’ surviving children come downstairs and leave for school, and then Jackie and Mark decide to treat themselves to breakfast “someplace new.” They drive nine miles outside of town, where they think they can’t possibly run into anyone they know, only to suffer the unexpected. In the next section, we’re in Delaware with the Bardens, watching them try to change laws:
They were led to seats in the House chamber, where a junior lawmaker recited the Pledge of Allegiance…
Daniel Barden, Seven. Dylan Hockley. Six. Ana Marquez-Greene. Six. Six. Six. Six. Seven. Six. How long could one minute last? Mark looked at the lawmakers and tried to pick out the three who already had refused to meet with the Newtown parents. Could he barge into their offices? Wait at their cars? Jackie counted the seconds in her head — “breathe, breathe,” she told herself — believing she was holding it together until a lawmaker handed her a box of tissues. Hockley saw the tissues and thought about how she rarely cried anymore except for alone at night, unconscious in her sleep, awakening to a damp pillow. Marquez-Greene listened to the names and pictured her daughter dressed for school that last day: pudgy cheeks, curly hair and a T-shirt decorated with a sequined purple peace sign — a peace Marquez-Greene was still promising to deliver to her daughter every night when she prayed to her memory and whispered, “Love wins.”
The final section returns us to the Barden home, and to a painful moment with a neighbor — one that in any other context might feel voyeuristic but in this case sets up the story’s kicker. (No spoilers; go read it.) For a particularly deft move, look how Saslow handles the entire narrative of what happened at Sandy Hook — he does it within one paragraph of that final section, all within the Bardens’ narrative point of view:
… but now his mind was back inside the school that morning, where it sometimes went. Jackie’s imagination walked Daniel to the door of his classroom and no farther. She wanted to protect herself from the details, so she had left the box containing Daniel’s clothes from that day untouched and unlooked at in the attic, where state troopers had deposited it a few weeks after his death. Mark, however, felt compelled to know. For seven years, two months and 17 days, he had known every detail of Daniel’s life — the teeth that were just beginning to come in, the way his hands moved as they played “Jingle Bells” that morning on the piano — so it seemed necessary that he should also know every detail of its end. He had asked law enforcement officers to give him a tour of the school, which was still an active crime scene, and he had gone there one Friday morning while Jackie stayed home. The officers had walked him through the attack, all four minutes and 154 rounds, and because of that Mark could precisely picture the shooter, with his Bushmaster rifle, his earplugs and his olive green vest, firing six holes into the glass front door. He could hear the shouting over the intercom in the main office, where the principal had been shot, and he could hear the shooter’s footsteps on the linoleum hallway as he walked by one first-grade classroom and into the next, Daniel’s. He could see the substitute teacher scrambling to move the children into the corner, where there was a small bathroom. He could see all 15 of them huddled in there, squeezed together, and somewhere in that pile he could see Daniel.
Now for the emotional aspect — not the reader’s, the author’s. At the heart of the story is humility. The writer does not presume to overpower his material, or at any phase claim the stage. The delivery is poetic and moving without feeling manipulative or sentimental. Whatever anxieties Saslow may experience as a writer, he manages to shield his stories from them. However pressured he may feel to publicly gather the rose stems that inevitably fall at his feet, he resists. His work always feels like it’s about the work, nothing more. He forges a relationship between reader and story, not reader and writer. He is building an impressive body of work with calm, fluid authenticity. “Into the Lonely Quiet” may be his best yet.
We e-chatted with Saslow this morning:
Storyboard: This story had a visceral effect on me as a reader. I couldn’t sleep, after reading it. It sort of followed me around for the entire first day. I attribute its impact to, above all, the depth of detail you used to establish intimacy. How did reporting and writing affect you?
Saslow: The story has followed me around, too, and I have a feeling I will be thinking about the Bardens for a while. I spent about a month working on it – two trips to Newtown, and then a week or more of writing. For most of that time the story occupied a good bit of my mind. I couldn’t shake it. Both the reporting and the writing had hard moments when I felt emotionally drained, but even writing that, to you, now feels lousy, because of course anything I experienced was fractional and irrelevant compared to the emotional toll I was writing about. And now the story ends and I get to move onto the next one, and the Bardens stay in place, dealing with this.
Detail of course is a hallmark and requirement of narrative. What did you do with this story — in the reporting or the writing — that departed from your usual methods?
I did most of the same things I always try to do. I went to Newtown without too many expectations, and I stuck around for long enough that I was able to watch what their normal days are like. If they went to Costco, I went with them. If they were sitting in the house, I sat with them. If they went for ice cream, I ordered chocolate. Not many of those moments are in the story, but sometimes I find that you have to be there for everything in order to fade into the scene for the right things. Then, when I came back with my notes, it was a matter of trying to pick the right details – and the right level of detail – to make the story work without the details feeling gratuitous or overwhelming.
How did you choose the Bardens and go about asking them to let you in?
After we decided to do a story about a Newtown family now, I spent a day watching videos of all of them giving interviews on TV over these last months. That helped lead me to a few families I felt drawn to, and the Bardens were one of those. I called and explained what I wanted to do. I told them I wanted to be there for a lot of things and a lot of time and that I wanted to do justice to what they were experiencing day to day. I told them I wanted to go to Delaware when they went, and I wanted to be in on all the meetings. And they thought about all of that, and we talked a few more times, and they decided to do it. After that, we rarely talked about process. They were open and honest, and, given the circumstances, easy to spend time with. So were their children, James and Natalie.
You spent a week with them — how so? Did you stay with them, as some journalists have done? Did you spend all day with them?
No, it wouldn’t ever feel appropriate to me to stay with someone I was writing about. But I did spend all day with them, always. I traveled with them on the train to Delaware and I got a hotel room in the same hotel. Sometimes, when we were at their home and I sensed they needed a break, I would go into the room in their house where they stored all the mail they have received since the shooting, and I would go through some of that and soak it in.
I see a lot of humility in your work. It’s rare. Your work always seems to be about the work itself. I admire that. Not sure what the question is here, except how it’s possible in such a graspy look-at-me age.
I think in most stories, and especially in this story, the most important thing to me is for people to leave a story remembering the story, and not the writing, or me.
How did the Bardens react to the story?
They felt like it was right. That mattered a lot to me.