Our Annotation Tuesday! series takes readers line by line through a notable piece of writing — with the author. Occasionally, we bring in a guest annotator. Elon Green, of The Awl and Longform.org, most recently looked at Leslie Jamison’s “Fog Count,” a reported essay from The Oxford American. And today we have Andy Kroll, a staff writer for Mother Jones magazine, on “…Into the Lonely Quiet,” by Eli Saslow of the Washington Post. Kroll’s observations and questions are in blue, Saslow’s responses in red. Here’s Kroll:
When I first read Eli Saslow’s story about the Barden family of Newtown, Conn., I couldn’t finish it. Saslow’s words kept melting into a teary, streaky blur on my laptop screen. I can’t remember sobbing as much as I did reading about young Daniel Barden, who was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, or the efforts of his parents, Mark and Jackie, to fill the “lonely quiet” after their son’s death. Saslow, who was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing, walks us through his account of a grieving family struggling to carry on.
First, a few questions:
Saslow: I went to Newtown in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, which I do sometimes for my job at the Post. I went there to write quick, daily narratives, and I wrote three of them. It was incredibly sad to be there, and it was also a media mob. The place was chaos, and the families were understandably shocked and protected and not very accessible. There was always a sense that you were not getting to the heart of the story. I came home from that trip knowing that, at some point, it might be important to go back.
The idea for the timing came from my editor, David Finkel, who thought the moment to go would be in the weeks after the gun control legislation failed in D.C. And he was right: That was the perfect time. The horribleness of the tragedy was still very present, but also enough time had passed that you could begin to see it fading in these small and brutal ways.
From conception to publication, how much time did you spend on this story?
I think it was about five weeks. I made two reporting trips, back-to-back weeks, and I split them by coming home over the weekend. Then I started structuring and writing the next week, and that process probably lasted a little more than a week or so. Then Finkel and I edited it and got it ready for the paper.
What has the reaction been like? What did the Bardens think?
People seem to have read it and been moved by it, which is gratifying. The Bardens thought it was on point, and they were grateful for that, although I think it was also hard for them to read.
What, if anything, did you learn while reporting and writing this piece?
I learned a lot, I hope. But sometimes for me it is hard to tell exactly what I learned until much later. This story is probably still too fresh for me to answer this question well. Hopefully, a few years from now, I will have gotten better and will be able to go back and read this story and pick out the things that I learned from it, and the ways it helped me improve. At least, I hope that’s what happens. I really dread the day when I pick up an old story of mine, read it, and just think: Damn. That was good. I think when that happens, I will take it as a sign that I’ve kind of stagnated.
The structure of this piece is particularly interesting. The “straight narrative” is the morning of the photo hunt, then the morning of the horrible diner incident (or was that the same morning?); then Delaware; then a third (?) morning, the one with the neighbor. You intercut those scenes with background/exposition and, toward the end, the brief narrative of the shooting itself. How did the structure come to you?
I had a sense for the structure of the story pretty quickly this time. For a while I didn’t know how the story would begin, but I always knew the trip to Delaware would probably be two scenes, and that they would occur in the middle of the story. I didn’t want that trip to be more than about 1/3 of the piece, because I didn’t want it to seem like a story of their trip. I guess I wanted the trip to inform the other stuff. The ending made sense to me because that morning with the neighbor was devastating, and it seemed like the narrative of the shooting should happen in the last scene. I always spend a good, full day on structuring a story before I start to write, and sometimes more. I might not make a super-detailed outline, but I always know what scenes I want to include, and where they will go. And I definitely always want to know where a story is going to end before I start writing. For me, if I don’t know the end that I’m writing to, I get lost in the middle, and the writing is less purposeful. I think you want to know your end and you want to write to it.
“After Newtown shooting, mourning parents enter into the lonely quiet”
By Eli Saslow
June 8, 2013
In NEWTOWN, Conn. — They had promised to try everything, so Mark Barden went down into the basement to begin another project in memory of Daniel. You begin in the middle of the action, as in the best short stories—how did you decide that this moment was your opening? I didn’t decide until probably a day or two before I started writing. But this was a place that made sense to begin, because it had action, like you said, and because I knew the photos could introduce a basic timeline of Daniel’s life. Plus, the biggest thing was that I wanted to introduce the juxtaposition of the personal grief and the public gun control campaign very quickly, and the Mother’s Day card did that for me. The families of Sandy Hook Elementary were collaborating on a Mother’s Day card, which would be produced by a marketing firm Great detail, and a recurring theme in the piece. The consultants and P.R. firms tapping into the Bardens’ grief to appeal to politicians or the public. and mailed to hundreds of politicians across the country. “A difference-maker,” the organizers had called it. Maybe if Mark could find the most arresting photo of his 7-year-old son, people would be compelled to act.
It hardly mattered that what Mark and his wife, Jackie, really wanted was to ignore Mother’s Day altogether, to stay in their pajamas with their two surviving children, turn off their phones and reward themselves for making it through another day with a glass of Irish whiskey neat. Again, power in the small details. I imagine you filled notepads upon notepads with details like these. What it’s like, knowing you have to get the telling detail — knowing that the telling detail is what makes a story rise or fall — but balancing that with great tact and care given this Bardens’ fragility? I am always trying to find the right balance with details. The key to good narratives is not only reporting for details but choosing the right details to include. I think you can overwhelm a story with details when they seem just for show, so in this story I was always trying to make sure each detail was included for a purpose. Here, Irish whiskey neat – something they never drank before but were now ordering by the case – said a lot about their days.
“Our purpose now is to force people to remember,” Mark said, so down he went into his office to sift through 1,700 photos of the family they had been.
The Bardens had already tried to change America’s gun laws by studying the Second Amendment and meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. They had spoken at tea party rallies, posed for People magazine and grieved on TV with Katie Couric. They had taken advice from a public relations firm, learning to say “magazine limits” and not “magazine bans,” to say “gun responsibility” and never “gun control.” How did you pick the Bardens to focus on? What was the process like gaining entry into their lives? When I decided to do a story about a Newtown family, I spent a few days watching videos of all of them doing TV interviews in the months after the shooting. There was a great one with about 10 parents on 60 Minutes. I paid attention to the ones that interested me. I knew I wanted a family that had been doing a lot of this lobbying, so that limited it to five or six families. Some of those weren’t right for various reasons (just moved to Newtown, no other kids, etc.), and for me there was something about the Bardens. I contacted a few of the families, including them. I explained what I wanted to do. I think it is always best to be pretty upfront about what you are asking for – the amount of time you want to be with them, the kind of story you are hoping to do, etc. They took a little while to think about it. They asked me to send them some other stories I had written. They talked with a PR person who had been advising the families, and then the PR person talked to me. Probably about a week after I called, they said they were up for it, and I flew to Newtown a few days later. Then, in terms of gaining access into their lives, it was mostly a matter of sticking around. I spent probably 12 or 14 hours with them each day when I was there. I sat next to them on the train to Delaware. I went to eat with them. I was there when they woke up in the morning. I stayed at a hotel nearby but spent almost all of my time at their house. Sometimes I was asking questions, but much of the time I was just there, trying my best to fade into their days. When none of that worked, they had walked the halls of Congress with a bag of 200 glossy pictures and beseeched lawmakers to look at their son: his auburn hair curling at the ears, his front teeth sacrificed to a soccer collision, his arms wrapped around Ninja Cat, the stuffed animal that had traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearse and underground.
Almost six months now, and so little had gotten through. So maybe a Mother’s Day card. Maybe that. Tell us about timing. Did you ever think it was too soon to be injecting yourself into the Bardens’ lives? Is there ever a right time for a story about loss and grief after tragedy? Sometimes I worried it was too soon. It is hard to be around people who are grieving. I was nervous when I first got to their house. But they made it clear that they wanted this story done, and they wanted it done right. It wasn’t too soon for them. Sometimes, to give them space during the day, I would go into a room in their house where they put all the mailings that had come for Daniel – kind of this mausoleum they couldn’t bear to go into. Being in that room was helpful for me, because I wanted to look through that stuff, which was fine with them. Those moments also gave them little breaks during the day, which I think can be helpful.
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. Now we’re with Mark in the basement. What was the reporting process like for this story? I’m not sure this will answer this question, but the reporting process for stories like this involves gathering everything you can, every scene and moment, and knowing that you will only use a fraction of it. You have to be there for all of the mundane moments to get to the best ones. Sometimes, in feedback for this story, people have said: You were really lucky to be there when he went through photos in the basement. Or, How incredible that you were with them in the diner when that other mother and her son came in. And, yes, some of that is true. Those were important moments, and there was some luck in being with them for that. But the other truth is that I was also there for a dozen other meals that aren’t in the story, and I saw Mark looking through photos of Daniel several times. So I guess the reporting process was just putting in time and being there. I don’t think there is a shortcut for that.
Now it was Daniel’s face staring back at him on the computer screen, alit in an orange glow as he blew out seven candles on a birthday cake in September.
“Oh God. His last birthday,” Mark said, rubbing his forehead, scanning to the next photo, knowing the chronology that came next.
Daniel dressed as an elf for Halloween. Daniel grinning after his hair was cut short on Dec. 4. Daniel in a video taken a week before his death, wearing reindeer horns and carrying cookies to the neighbor’s house. The repetition gives the feeling, on the page, of physically flipping through family photos. Really well done. Thanks so much. I’m glad it had that affect. “Bye, Dad,” he was saying.
Next came a photo Mark had taken early that last morning. He and Daniel had been lying on the couch, half asleep, after the rest of the family had left for school. Daniel had noticed how the sunrise and the Christmas lights were reflecting on the window, like a red-and-orange kaleidoscope. “Wow,” he had said. Mark had grabbed his camera and taken a picture of the window, and now he was searching that picture for a trace of Daniel’s reflection in the glass, zooming in, running his fingers against the screen. This is where I began to lose it when I first read your story. How did you get the Bardens comfortable? Is there a particular strategy for this? Mark seems so vulnerable touching the computer screen, and perhaps a more self-conscious person might not do this with a reporter around. But the Bardens did. I think most of getting people comfortable is just being there, with them, until they know you and feel at ease around you. I also think, in this story, it was a little bit different because their grief was so powerful and overwhelming that they never had the luxury of trying to hide pieces of it from me; their grief and their yearning for Daniel was way more important than my impressions of them, so they were never very guarded in front of me. But I think making people comfortable is a skill that most reporters have, and maybe the most important one. It is big things and small things, like, for me, always turning my cell phone off when I am reporting so that I make sure the people I am writing about have my undivided attention. They deserve that, and I don’t want any temptation to be distracted.
“He has to be in here,” Mark said. Maybe he had taken another. He flipped to the next picture, but it was from four days later, of a police car parked in front of their house.
It sometimes felt to Mark in these moments like his grief was still deepening, like the worst was yet to come. After the gunfire, the funerals, the NRA protests and the congressional debates, they were finally coming into the lonely quiet. The lonely quiet: Did you begin with this theme in mind? If not, when did you settle on it? I sort of did begin with this in mind – just the idea that all of the noise was over, and all of the big policy debate in Washington, and these families were returning to something even more unbearable, the emptiness of that. I’m not sure I ever thought of it as lonely quiet, but that was the idea the story was always circling around. They were coming to the truth of what Newtown would become. Would it be the transformative moment in American gun policy that, in those first days, so many had promised? Or another Columbine, Virginia Tech, Gabby Giffords, Aurora — one more proper noun added to an ever-growing list? The FBI had closed its temporary Newtown office. Politicians in Washington were moving on to other issues. Scariest of all to Mark, he was starting to forget little things, too, losing pieces of Daniel to the recesses of his mind, so he had started a journal to log memories before they disappeared.
“I’m always one minute farther away from my life with Daniel,” he had written one day. “The gulf keeps getting bigger.” Mark let you read his journal? Did you ask to read it, or did he offer? I asked him. He said he was keeping one, and, on my second trip to Newtown – when they felt pretty comfortable with me – I asked him if I could see it. Certainly no pressure. I just explained that, in writing about how this was for him, his words and thoughts would always be better and more accurate than mine. I was a little nervous to ask, but I think he was glad that I did. He thought that was a good idea.
He returned upstairs with four photos and brought them to Jackie in the living room. “For the Mother’s Day card,” he said. She looked at one that showed Daniel at 4, his freckled arms wrapped around her neck and his face buried into hers. She gasped. She touched her neck. “It physically hurts,” she said, reaching for Mark. “Stomach, arms, legs, chest.”
She had developed a habit in the last months of what her counselor called “defensive delusions,” when she would imagine for a few hours that Daniel was away at a friend’s house. Pretending helped her summon the energy to return a few e-mails or cook dinner, but the easiness of the mental game was starting to scare her. “Is it normal?” Jackie had asked the counselor at their last appointment. “Is this something other people do?”
“There is no normal,” the counselor had said. “There are only hard days to get through.” Did you go to counseling with Jackie? Or did she repeat this to you? I didn’t go to counseling with them. She repeated this a few times. Then, before the story ran, I double checked it with her and did a little reading about defensive delusions.
So now, on this hard day, Jackie stared at the photo and considered whether to release another intimate moment to the world.
“Will it make a difference?” she asked Mark.
“I don’t know,” he said.
There were 26 of them in all — 26 victims, which meant 26 families left adrift, grasping for a way to continue on. Some found it in church, returning to the pews every Wednesday and Sunday with a Sandy Hook Bible group, lighting 26 candles each time they went. Others found it in the spiritual medium that contacted victims’ families on Facebook, offering to facilitate a private seance and “connect them with the other side.” Strange. How did you hear about this? I saw the message that came to Mark and Jackie on Jackie’s Facebook page. She showed it to me. The medium had contacted all of the families, including theirs, and the Bardens knew some families who had gotten some comfort from it. But it felt like junk science to them. Some started nonprofit foundations in their child’s name or escaped back into jobs in Manhattan or ordered wine by the case or planted 26 trees or considered moving out of state or installed blackout curtains for privacy. One mother took a job sorting corporate donations to the Newtown community fund, organizing 26,000 bottles of “Sandy Hook Green” nail polish and 2,600 wool blankets, because the magnitude of the donations helped reaffirm the magnitude of her loss.
What the Bardens chose to believe in during those first days was cause and effect, order and logic. America’s mental health system was broken, but they could fix it. Gun culture was extreme, but they could moderate it. This was the way they made sense of the world, which was why, less than a week after Daniel’s death, Mark and Jackie met with a start-up advocacy organization called Sandy Hook Promise and offered to help. Is this part of what drew you to the Bardens? Their belief in order and logic, their belief that things were broken but they could fix it? Yes, absolutely. The fact that they began the political part of this with that belief created more contrast and tension with the mess of Delaware and so many things.
They had never owned or fired a gun, so they took trips with Sandy Hook Promise and the parents of four other victims to California and New York, where they learned about the National Rifle Association and technological advances in gun safety. The governor of Connecticut sent them drafts of new legislation. Vice President Biden briefed them on congressional voting procedures. Four times this year, Mark and Jackie traveled to Washington with their photographs of Daniel and met with two dozen senators to discuss a bill requiring universal background checks on gun purchases. When the measure came up for a vote in April, all four of the Bardens watched from the gallery: the father, a professional jazz guitarist who rarely had the desire to play anymore; the wife, an elementary school reading teacher who couldn’t imagine stepping back into a classroom; the eldest son, 13, fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube to quiet his anxiety; the daughter, 11, suddenly afraid of big cities, and loud noises, and darkness, and strangers. How did you handle the one-on-one time with Daniel’s siblings? I can’t imagine the delicacy of talking to young kids at a time like this—without overstepping any privacy bounds, what were the challenges and how did you handle them? The kids were both surprisingly comfortable with me – or maybe, surprisingly comfortable with themselves, and with talking to adults – so this was easier than I expected. I would usually be there when they had breakfast at the kitchen table. James liked to play with his Rubik’s Cube, so we would talk about that stuff, and he would show me how to solve them. He played soccer sometimes in the yard, and I would go out there with him. I would hang out with Natalie when she practices the violin and listen to her. Mark and Jackie made sure they always felt comfortable, but they wanted to be a part of the story, too. Mostly, I let them guide the conversations. I didn’t ask them too many questions about Daniel. But they like to talk about him, so sometimes they did.
When the Senate vote failed, Mark was asked to introduce President Obama for a speech in the Rose Garden. “Let’s go rip some bark off it,” Obama told him. And yes, Mark was angry, too — angry enough that his hands balled into fists and trembled at the podium — but mostly he was unmoored. God, I remember watching this press conference. The volume was turned down, but I could see the fury in Mark’s eyes, in those balled fists. “So what does all of this add up to now?” he had asked a White House employee later that day, when the speeches ended.
Because if it amounted to nothing at all, what was the logic, the order, the meaning of their broken lives?
What was the meaning of the anger he felt lately while shopping at Costco, hoping one of the strangers in the aisles might be a gun nut who would recognize and approach him, so he had an excuse to shout back?
What was the meaning of the endless tributes? A song performed in concert for Daniel because he liked music. A 5K race for Daniel because he liked to run. A mud festival for Daniel because he liked mud. A Play Day for Daniel because he liked to play. “For Daniel…for Daniel…for Daniel…” There’s that repetition again. There’s real power there. Then there were the boxes of mementos that filled a room in their house, gifts created and mailed by strangers: magnets bearing Daniel’s picture, paintings of him, wood carvings, wind chimes, T-shirts, pins and blankets stitched with a 10-foot image of his face. “To Our Angel,” the packages read — or to “Dan,” “Danny” or, weirdest of all, “Daniel Barden,” so formal and unfamiliar, like the etching on a headstone. I thought a lot about this line—”like the etching on a headstone.” At first, it felt heavy-handed, the image of a headstone in a story about grief and death. But the more I read it, the more I came around to it. Can you talk about the striking the right tone for a piece like this? For the most part, I think the right tone for a piece like this is very subtle, so you’re right that the headstone part kind of runs counter to that. I described it that way because that is the way Mark described it to me, so it stuck with me that way, and it also felt accurate because mostly I was trying to convey how this mail felt to them, and here Mark had given me the words to do it. But usually I think a subtle touch is usually best in stories where the raw material already has so much emotional power.
And what was the meaning of their new nighttime routine? All four of them crammed into one room in a five-bedroom house, three on a queen bed and one on the futon so they could will one another through the night, Jackie up every few hours, Mark closing his eyes and thinking about Daniel, always hoping he might come to him in a dream, even though he never did.
And then it was morning.
Down the stairs into the kitchen came the son, James, carrying his backpack and soccer cleats, ready for the 6:20 bus to junior high. What time did you get to the Bardens’ house each morning when you were in Newtown? When did you head back to the hotel? I would usually get to their house at about 6, because that was when James came downstairs for breakfast, and I wanted to be there for the full day. I would leave when they all went to bed, in that one room. Each night I would go back to the hotel (maybe 10 or so) and I would try to type up all of my notes from the day. That is the worst part of reporting trips for me, because you are exhausted and you want to go to bed. But, for me, it is important to take my notes from the notebooks to the computer that same day, even at the cost of sleep, because that’s when the notes are fresh in my head, and going through the notes immediately helps me remember more. Also, before I go to bed, I make some notes to myself about the things I am still curious about or still need, and I start the next day with some of those ideas in mind. “How are you today?” Jackie asked him, as she did every morning. “Pretty good,” he said, which was mostly true. He was starring on a competitive soccer team, working as a referee, playing bass in the school orchestra. “Can you believe these Barden kids?” one of Biden’s aides had said a few months earlier, after spending a morning with James. So polite. So resilient. But sometimes Jackie watched him from the window while he played soccer alone in the yard, where he had always played with Daniel. She thought he looked lost. “Want to talk about it with someone?” she had asked him. “I guess,” he had said, so now he was seeing a counselor who let him lie down in her office and work his Rubik’s Cube.
Next down the stairs came the daughter, Natalie, Newtown’s fifth-grade student of the month — a pianist and a violin player, a master of grade school hand-clapping games, a performer in the school musical. “Natalie is a social and academic marvel in my class,” one teacher had written in Natalie’s spring evaluation, Great use of documents in reporting. A report card helping us get to know Natalie. Thanks for this. Documents are always so much better than quotes, I think, because there is no evidence of the reporter in them. A quote about Natalie from the teacher to me would have immediately reminded readers of my presence in the story, but a quote off her report card leaves me totally out of it, and doesn’t take you out of the narrative. not knowing that just getting her to class each morning had become a battle, because her newfound fear made her reluctant to leave home.
“I’m sick,” she said now, rubbing her eyes. “I don’t think I should go to school.”
“Probably just allergies,” Mark said. “You’ll be fine.”
“I should stay home,” she said.
“How many times do we have to have this conversation?” Jackie said.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Please stop it,” Jackie said.
“You’re so lucky,” Natalie said.
“You get to stay home.”
“Do you even know what you’re saying?” Jackie said, her voice louder now. “You think I’m home because I want to be? You think I wouldn’t rather be going on with my life, going to work? Lucky? I’m not even having this conversation.”
Jackie started to cry, and then Natalie started to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Oh sweet pea,” Mark said, wrapping her into a hug, tearing up now, too. All three of them sat down for breakfast and then walked together to the bus stop. “Love you,” Natalie told them, settling in a window seat next to a friend, beginning a clapping game against the window. The bus rolled up the hill, and Mark and Jackie walked back to the house. Just them now. Nobody left to come downstairs. They sat in the living room sipping coffee in silence. You’re in the room for this, right? What’s your secret for blending in so well? You really are a fly on the wall here. Yes, I am in the room. I wish there was some kind of secret. Sometimes being in the room is awkward and hard and weird, but I guess the main secret is that you’ve been in the room with them so much that your presence is no longer an interruption. I look down a lot, or look at my notebook. I sit in a place where I am not really part of the scene but able to soak it in and watch it. I talk with them and ask questions when that is their expectation, but I also try to let the moments of silence stand.
It had always seemed to them that this was the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, in the perfect town. They had often wondered: How did they get so lucky that life delivered them here? Mark had given up a touring career in Nashville, and Jackie had decided she could drive 45 minutes each way to her teaching job in Pawling, N.Y. They had borrowed money from both sides of the family and bought an unpretentious country house on a dead-end road, with an acre of wooded land where the kids could play freeze tag and leave out leftover food for hungry raccoons. These are such vivid, acute details—the freeze tag; the hungry raccoons. How did you get them? These were the stories they liked to tell, and the details here are what makes their story feel intimate and real. It could have just been a country house with wooded land; but what makes it theirs, to them, is the freeze tag and the raccoons, which they still feed. Those were details that stuck with me and felt right to include. The right detail can be the thing that sticks in a reader’s mind, and, for me, a good clue as to those details is to pay attention to the details that stick in my mind while I’m reporting.
But lately everything about the house reminded them of Daniel, comfort and affliction all at once. Up there, on the ceiling, was the sticky toy he had bought in a vending machine and accidentally thrown too high. In the kitchen was the blender Mark had used to make him a smoothie each afternoon, always with four gummy vitamins at the bottom of the glass, always, in Daniel’s words, “the best one yet!” Not just a smoothie, not just a smoothie with vitamins in it. A smoothie “always with four gummy vitamins at the bottom of the glass.” I’m continually amazed by the level of detail in this story. Out front was the dead-end road where he had waited for the school bus in a sprinter’s crouch each morning, so he could run alongside it for a block before climbing on board. Out back was the wooden play structure where he had knocked his head and bled for the first time, which sometimes made Mark and Jackie wonder about the last time. Had it been quick? Had he been scared? Had anybody held him? Oh my. You have a child of your own, a daughter. How did being a parent influence your work on this story? That’s a good question. I’m sure it influenced how I felt about being there, but I’m not sure if it influenced the story at all. Maybe, being a parent, I kind of approximate the idea of their loss a little bit more, but I’m not even sure about that. What they have gone through is still unimaginable to me, and I think anyone can guess at it as well as I can, parent or not. Sometimes I would get emotional there, just overwhelmed by the thing, and I would step into another room for a few minutes. I didn’t want my own emotions to impact them in any way, or to interfere with what was happening there. Plus, some of the weird part of all this for them is that the entire country has sort of brought their own emotions to this. I wanted to be empathetic and of course I felt crushed by their loss, but I also wanted to get beyond the pattern of the angels and the moments of silence and the tributes. It also really helped that I broke the reporting into two trips, so that when I was emotionally exhausted I had a little bit of a break. And then, in the middle of writing the story, I took a break for three days to go be in my little brother’s wedding, which was such a great pocket of joy in the middle of writing. I think both of those things helped, if only because they reinforced in my mind one more time what it must be like to be the Bardens, who were dealing with this loss on a level beyond my imagination, and who never got a break from it, ever.
“Let’s get out of here,” Mark said. “Let’s go get breakfast.”
“Someplace new,” Jackie agreed.
They drove nine miles outside of town to a small diner that a friend had once recommended. They had never been before. There were no memories here. A waitress led them to a booth by the window and handed over menus. “Perfect,” Mark said. The coffee tasted good. The restaurant was empty. They were the first customers of the day. The campy decor reminded Mark of a place he had liked in Nashville. “Pretty fun vibe,” he said. “I’m thinking about treating myself to the eggs Benedict,” Jackie said. “Yum,” Mark said.
Now another car pulled into the restaurant lot, carrying the second customers of the day, and out of all the people in central Connecticut, and all of the possible places and times for them to eat, these were two whom the Bardens recognized: a mother and her young son, who had been Daniel’s classmate in kindergarten.
“Do you remember the Bardens?” the mother asked her son, bringing him over to their booth. Not to get too nerdy here, but as this scene plays out—and what a scene it is—are you jotting notes as it happens? Recreating it in your notepad afterward? Not nerdy at all. Yes, I’m jotting notes down as it happens; my notebook is always in front of me, so they had gotten used to that. But during this breakfast in particular, there were a few moments when I put my pen down and then excused myself later to jot things down in the restroom or later in the car. In a few moments, I knew that taking out my pen would change things – even if only a little bit – at the table, and I didn’t want to do that. So I hung on to a few thoughts and wrote them in my notebook a few minutes later. So I guess a combo of recreating in my notebook in the moments afterward and writing down key things live, in the moment.
“Hi!” the boy said, sitting down at the table next to them.
“Let’s let them enjoy their breakfast,” the mother told her son, sensing the awkwardness of the moment, pointing him to another table in the corner of the restaurant. She turned back to the Bardens: “I’m sorry. He’s excited. It’s his birthday.”
“Oh wow,” Jackie said.
“So nice,” Mark said.
“Seven,” the mother said, following her son to the other table.
“Should we leave?” Jackie said, whispering to Mark, once the mother was out of earshot. “Would it be easier?”
“It might be,” Mark said.
But instead they sat at the table and watched as the waiter brought the boy a gigantic waffle covered in powdered sugar, berries and whipped cream. They watched as the waiter stuck a candle into the center of that waffle, and as the mother sang “Happy Birthday” and took a picture with her phone. They watched as the boy swept his fingers through the whipped cream, smearing it across his mouth and face while his mother laughed. “You’re so silly,” she said.
This boy, who had ended up in the other first-grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary.
This boy, who had hidden in the other bathroom. I’m a big fan of these single-sentence paragraphs, but they’ve almost become a cliché, the go-to Esquire-style one-liner. At the sentence level, how do you decide to use something like this? How much revising and fine-tuning do you do on a piece like this? There was some revising in this piece, for sure. I have a great editor, and he cares about every word all the way through, which is a huge gift. Luckily on this story, the structure and most of the piece was in good shape before we started talking about it, but we still spent plenty of time debating details and sentences and ironing out a few very key aspects of the story. As for this sentence, I wrote it this way originally and it stayed. I don’t do too many one-sentence graphs, but this sentence kind of seemed to demand it. I wanted the sentence to be a little bit subtle itself – not going into too much detail but just hinting at that horrible scene in the school, by mentioning the other bathroom. But it always felt to me like these sentences, This boy and This boy, should come in short succession and be stand along graphs.
“Oh God,” Jackie said, shoulders trembling, questions and doubts tumbling out as she tried to catch her breath. “Why did we wait to enroll him in school?” she said. “He could have started a year earlier. He could have been in second grade. He was old enough.”
“We were thinking about what was best for him,” Mark said, knowing the cycle that was starting, the blame, the need for absolution. “We wanted him to be one of the oldest.”
“So he would be a leader and not a follower,” Jackie said, nodding.
“So he would be confident,” Mark said.
They sat at the booth and thought about Daniel at 16. The coffee had gone cold. The eggs sat on their plates. The boy and his mother stood up to leave, walking past their table. “We had to eat in a hurry today,” the mother said. She explained that her son’s name and birth date were going to be read over the loudspeaker during the morning announcements at school, and he wanted to be there in time to hear it. Wow. You can’t make this up. Moments like these you can’t feel more for the Bardens.
“Take care,” the mother told them.
“Bye!” the boy said, and Mark and Jackie watched as he ran to the parking lot. Another nerdy question: What’s your typical day like out on the road, reporting? You fill notepads all day long. Do you then read through the day’s notes back at the hotel at night? Leave your notepads untouched until you get back to D.C.? Esquire‘s Chris Jones said he wrote whole scenes back at his hotel when he was reporting his story of the Zanesville, Ohio, animal escape. Do you write on the road? I don’t write on the road – at least, I don’t write anything on the road that would be recognizable in the final version of the story. But I always do type out those notebooks. On a good trip, I might fill two or three notebooks, and maybe I will end up typing seven or eight or 10,000 words of notes on my computer. Then, when I am done reporting, I print those notes out and go through them again and begin to structure.
A few days later, Mark and Jackie decided to go to Delaware. “Who even cares about Delaware?” Natalie had asked as they began to pack, and so they had explained to their daughter what political advisers had explained to them: that momentum for gun laws had stalled in Washington, and that the best remaining chance was to build momentum state by state, one incremental law at a time.
In Delaware that meant House Bill 58, championed by Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, who had called it “a historic and sweeping measure.” But when Mark began researching the bill on his computer in the days before the trip, what he mostly noticed was the addendum of exceptions. The bill proposed to make it illegal to possess high-capacity magazines of 10 bullets or more in the country’s second-smallest state — unless you only possessed those magazines at your house, which was okay; or on private property, which was also okay; or at a shooting range, which was fine; or if you were carrying a high-capacity magazine separately from a firearm, which would still be permitted; or if you were law enforcement or retired law enforcement or active military or a licensed firearms dealer, in which cases you were exempt. I love the way you’ve built this sentence, especially these clauses: “which was okay…which was also okay…which was fine…which would still be permitted…in which cases you were exempt.” I could see an editor condensing this sentence by cutting those clauses. Do you ever have to fight for stylistic choices like this? The Post is pretty great in that I don’t have to fight too much for stuff like this. But one thing that Finkel and I did talk about in this paragraph is that it needed to feel like the smallness of this bill wasn’t coming from my impressions, but from Mark and Jackie’s impressions, otherwise it would seem like I was editorializing. That is why the quote from Mark at the end of this graph, the traffic ticket line, felt crucial, because it was him who was seeing these exemptions and feeling the smallness of it, and that mattered much more than my impressions of the bill. First-time violators would face a misdemeanor charge and a $75 fine. “Like a traffic ticket,” Mark told Jackie.
The NRA had dispatched two lobbyists to the state Capitol in opposition of the bill. Markell did not want to schedule a vote until he knew he had the 21 votes necessary to pass it, and he was still three or four short.
“Your heartfelt, personal stories might still help us make history,” one of the governor’s aides had written in an e-mail invitation to Sandy Hook families.
At the moment, it was the only history there was to make, and the best invitation they had, so Mark and Jackie traveled with a group that included a public relations specialist, the director of Sandy Hook Promise and the parents of two other victims: Nicole Hockley, mother of Dylan; and Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of Ana. Did you spend much time with Nicole Hockley or Nelba Marquez-Greene? Or any of the other Sandy Hook parents? I did spend quite a bit of time with Nelba and Nicole, because they were on this trip with us. I took a train down with all of them, and rode in cars with all of them, and had dinners with them, and went to the governor’s house for dinner with them one night. The benefit of going first to Newtown and then traveling to DE with the Bardens is that I already knew them well, and I kind of faded into their circle. Instead of being another media member covering their trip to Delaware, I was kind of embedded in their group: at their hotel, in their meetings, in their conference room after the meetings when they talked about how things had gone. That was crucial for the piece. I liked Nelba and Nicole a lot. I talked to them a good bit, but they also always knew I was writing mostly about the Bardens. They took a car to a train to another car to a hotel located alongside a commercial highway on the outskirts of Dover. “What brings you to Delaware?” asked a cheery 18-year-old at the front desk, and for a few seconds the parents stared back at him in awkward silence. “Life, I guess,” Mark said, finally. “Bad luck,” Hockley said, with a slight smile. “Is this personal travel or business?” the hotel employee said, looking at his computer. “Both. It is personal business travel,” Mark said, and the parents laughed.
They went to the Capitol the next morning for a meeting with the governor’s staff to discuss their trip. “Basically, we want to make sure to maximize this visit,” the lieutenant governor told them, explaining that there would be a news conference, a lunch with lawmakers and dinner at the governor’s residence. One of the governor’s aides handed out headshots of all 41 state lawmakers, divided into who was a soft no or a soft yes. The parents’ mission, he explained, was to walk the halls of the Capitol and give their children’s photos to anyone who would take them. A survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting already had come to Delaware to lobby. Gabby Giffords’s husband already had come. “We think you all are the extra difference,” the aide said.
He said a last-minute opportunity had arisen for the parents to be recognized during a moment of silence on the House floor. Were they interested?
“We don’t love those,” Hockley said. “It is a little like being the exhibit in a museum.”
“I understand,” the staffer said. “We just want every one of these lawmakers to see you. We want them to feel your loss and understand what’s at stake.”
“Will they read off the victims’ names?” Mark asked, dreading that.
“And the ages?” he asked, dreading that, too.
Mark looked across the table at Hockley. She grimaced and shrugged. He looked over at Jackie. She nodded.
“Okay then,” Mark said. It astounds me, in reading this piece, how often the Bardens and other families put themselves out there even when they dread it. When they go against their gut. There’s heroism in what they do.
They were led to seats in the House chamber, where a junior lawmaker recited the Pledge of Allegiance. “Today we have some special guests,” she said, and 41 lawmakers turned to look. “Will our guests please stand?” she said, and the parents stood. “Please come up here,” she said, and they did that, too. The room went quiet as she began reading the names.
Daniel Barden. Seven. Dylan Hockley. Six. Ana Marquez-Greene. Six. Six. Six. Six. Seven. Six. You mention Daniel and Dylan and Ana here, then a few of the ages, but not all of them. Why’d you decide to do it this way? It was really just a rhythm choice. I wanted to mention Daniel, Dylan and Ana, because those were the children whose parents were there. But sitting in that room, the ages seem to go on forever, and it just hit me that doing three ages wasn’t enough. But doing 20-plus ages seemed like too much, so this felt like a good way to convey the endlessness and the misery of that moment without doing a graph that seemed too weird. 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.” Incredible stuff. Did this came up in interviews with the Nicole and Ana? Also: Did you ever hear what the other Sandy Hook families thought about you focusing on the Bardens? Yes, those details came up in my conversations with them, but other parts came up through other reporting. For example, I learned the outfit that Ana had worn on her last day of school by looking at a post Nelba had made on her Facebook page. The other parents seemed glad I was focusing on the Bardens. On the road, Mark was something like an ambassador for them, whether introducing Obama or taking the lead in meetings. He was also sort of the jokester on the gun control trips – always eating off the other parents’ plates, singing, making little jokes. I think the other parents kind of saw the Bardens as central to their orbit.
The gavel banged. The moment of silence ended. The parents sat back in their chairs.
“Next is a motion to recognize National Nurses Week,” the House speaker said. “All in favor?”
“A motion to recognize women’s clubs for the important role they play.”
“A motion to honor a champion among us, one of our own, the winner of the state peach pie eating contest . . .”
“A motion to recognize another special guest, here on her vacation, the mother of one of our lawmakers . . .”
“Let’s go,” Mark said, standing up in the middle of the session, motioning for the other parents to follow. They walked upstairs into a private conference room. “This gets more surreal every day,” Hockley said. “Crazy,” Mark said. How was it, they wondered, that government could roll through its inconsequential daily agenda but then stall for months on an issue like gun control? They had seen polls that showed 80 percent of Delaware residents favored a ban on high-capacity magazines. Ninety percent of Americans wanted universal background checks. But in the months since the shooting in Newtown, only a handful of states with already-stringent gun laws had managed to pass stricter laws. Most states had done nothing, and the U.S. Senate had postponed another vote.
“Some of those lawmakers in there didn’t want to look at us,” Mark said.
“Just squirming,” Hockley said.
“It’s exhausting,” Jackie said, rubbing her eyes.
They drove back to the hotel, where the same teenage employee was waiting for them at the front desk. “How’d it go today?” he asked. He explained that some of the hotel staff had been watching the local TV news, and they had learned the exact nature of this group’s personal business. One of the employees, a bartender in the restaurant, had stayed up all night creating a tribute. She had scoured the Internet for pictures of Dylan Hockley and Daniel Barden and placed a rushed order for customized frames. “Please follow me to the bar,” the front desk employee said now. The parents walked with him into a corner of the restaurant that was dark except for the glow of 26 candles, which had been placed on a table next to framed photos of their children. “Our Angel Dylan,” one frame read. “Our Angel Daniel,” read the other. The table was secluded behind velvet rope, and the bartender came over with a bottle of whiskey. The tension between the Sandy Hook families and the rest of the public gets me every time. These families don’t want the attention, and they reluctantly tell their stories hoping it will make a difference. Then there are the people who send them stitched pillows, and set up tributes, and serve them free whiskey. That tension lingers with me every time I read this piece.
“Please sit,” the bartender said, and the only thing the parents could think to do was to thank her, fill their glasses and drink fast before going upstairs to bed.
They were tired. They missed the kids. They were ready to go home. But there was still more to do. Before the parents left Delaware, they had a news conference with the governor.
They met with him privately first in a hallway at the Capitol. “Thank you for being here,” he said. The parents handed him pictures of their children, and he studied each one for a long minute, repeating their names out loud. “Dylan.” “Ana.” “Daniel.” He touched the pictures to his chest and nodded at the parents. “Look, the courage that you have shown to be here today . . . well, what can I even say?” he told them.
The parents followed him into his office, which two assistants had staged for the news conference. “It’s a casual and not a heavy,” The juxtaposition of this quote—”a casual and not a heavy”—with the utter grief of the families is striking. Is that why you chose to include it? Yes. That’s why I chose to include it. Just the language of PR used to convey the grief like that, “a casual and not a heavy,” really stuck with me. The fact that these parents have to prepare for heavies and casuals just seems to say a lot about what the shooting has become, and the tactics they are told to employ, and the toll that takes on them. one of the press assistants had told the parents, explaining how they would sit with the governor and answer questions while the media taped B-roll. The governor sat at the head of the coffee table. Jackie and Mark held hands on a couch under a chandelier. Hockley and Marquez-Greene sat across from them. Fifteen cameras and 12 reporters crowded into the room. “A good turnout for a small market,” the governor’s press secretary said, motioning for another staffer to close the door.
“Okay. We’re on,” the press secretary said, nodding to the governor.
He looked up at the row of cameras. He held up the victims’ pictures. He repeated their names. He touched the photos to his chest. “Look, the courage that you have shown to be here today . . . well, what can I say?” he told the parents again. Amazing. The same line he said in private. We don’t get your thoughts on this in the story, but I’m curious to know what you thought. I didn’t want my thoughts to come off in the story, although I guess by writing the scene this way, and seeing him say the same quote both times, I hope it comes off the way I intended. But anyway, my thoughts: I think the governor was playing his role, and I don’t think he was being malicious, but I think his role and everybody’s role in this is sometimes grating and painful for the parents. They have a role. Everybody has a role. The governor was playing his, which meant bringing the families to DE to help him with gun control and then offering his sympathies to the family in private and then doing it again in public.
Jackie sat on the couch while the governor kept talking and thought about the first time her family had discussed guns, two days after Daniel’s death. Here we get access to Jackie’s thoughts. Did this come up in after-the-fact interviews? Did you ask specifically what she was thinking, sitting there on the couch? Yes, I asked them about what they were thinking about on the couch. I had heard about Natalie suggesting this earlier, and Jackie mentioned after the press conference that she had been thinking about it. Again, the juxtaposition seemed really telling: Natalie had this simple idea about how it should go, and in fact the way it was going was that they were in Delaware, at another press conference, where not much was getting done. Natalie had suggested something that Mark and Jackie thought was simple and beautiful: Why not collect all the guns and bury them at the bottom of the ocean, where they would rot and decay? They had encouraged her to write a letter to the president about her idea, which she had done: “My name is Natalie Barden and I wanted to tell the president that only police officers and the military should get guns,” she had written.
But the past five months had taught Mark and Jackie that simplicity and innocence didn’t work in politics. Neither did rage or brokenness. Their grief was only effective if it was resolute, polite, purposeful and factual. The uncertain path between a raw, four-minute massacre and U.S. policy was a months-long grind that consisted of marketing campaigns, fundraisers and public relations consultants. In the parents’ briefing book for the Delaware trip, a press aide had provided a list of possible talking points, the same suggestions parents had been given in Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
“We are not anti-gun. We are not for gun control. We are for gun responsibility and for gun safety laws,” one suggestion read.
“I am here today to honor my child’s memory,” read another.
“The Sandy Hook shooter used 30-round magazines. He fired 154 bullets in four minutes, murdering 20 children and six adults,” read one more.
Now, at this latest news conference, the governor finished his introduction and a reporter raised his hand to ask a question. “This one is for the parents,” he said. “How would a high-capacity ban prevent something like the carnage at Sandy Hook?”
Carnage? Mark squeezed Jackie’s hand. She stared down at the floor. He looked up at the cameras.
“The bills on the table here make good, common sense,” he said.
“This is not about banning or confiscation,” Hockley said.
“We are here to honor our children,” Marquez-Greene said.
“Our shooter used high-capacity magazines to fire 154 bullets,” Hockley said.
“Please know, this is not about gun control but gun responsibility,” Mark said, as the governor nodded in affirmation. This whole section, the Delaware trip, left me feeling queasy. The talking points, the press conference (“a good turnout for a small market”), the roll call—it all feels so exploitative. Their grief is sanitized, repackaged for public consumption. That said, I admire that you never nod one way or the other in this piece; the writing speaks for itself. Is it hard to get out of the way of the story like you have here? Thanks. Maybe sometimes it is hard to get out of the way of a story, but it is also kind of my default writing style. I would rather disappear from my stories by making the right choices, letting readers reach their own conclusion by the things that they see instead of the things I’m telling them. For me, that makes the conclusions all that much more powerful. Or at least I hope. Better for you to read a scene and feel queasy than for you to read a section of my writing and feel convinced, if that makes sense.
“So polished,” the press secretary told Mark afterward, squeezing his shoulder, and it was true. He never lost his temper. He always made eye contact. He spoke in anecdotes that were moving and hopeful.
But sometimes the story Mark really wanted to share was the unpolished one <me too!>, the one that never seemed right for a news conference, or a vigil, or a meet and greet, or the Oval Office, or a TV interview, or a moment of silence, or a Mother’s Day card. Sometimes what he really wanted to tell them was what it was like in his house on another unbearable morning, like the one a few days earlier.
All of them awake again in the same room.
James to the bus.
Natalie to the bus.
And then it was upon them, the worst hour of the day, from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., when Daniel had been alone with them in the house waiting for his bus. They had tried many ways of passing that hour: out to breakfast, back in bed, walking or hiring a trainer to meet them at the gym. A few times they had decided to wait for Daniel’s bus themselves, standing at the end of the driveway and climbing the four steps to hug Mr. Wheeler, the longtime bus driver who had loved Daniel and delivered a eulogy about how the boy raced his school bus, running sideways and backward in the grass, tripping and tumbling with his green backpack. Did you witness them waiting for the bus, hugging Mr. Wheeler? Or was that recreation? How much recreation did you have to do for this story? I didn’t have to do too much recreating in this story. A little bit, here and there, but not a lot. I was with them when they went to see Mr. Wheeler. Actually, I was probably with them when the bus came on three or four days, and on one of those days they went on and hugged him. The mornings with them were the most difficult time – before the day had any momentum, and while they waited for that last bus to come and go.
On this particular morning, the Bardens saw their next-door neighbor on the sidewalk at 7:30 and invited her in for coffee. She was a mother of three, including a second-grade girl who had been one of Daniel’s best friends. Before his death, the neighbor had come for coffee often, but lately the Bardens found it easier to see her less.
“Come visit,” Mark said.
“Are you sure?” the neighbor asked.
“It will be good,” Jackie said. “We’ve been trying to talk more about Daniel.”
So the neighbor came inside, poured coffee and started to tell stories they all knew. About how her daughter and Daniel had shared so many secrets, games they played for hours in the driveway and refused to tell anyone else about. About how Daniel had excused himself from a pizza party at her house five nights before his death, because the adults were watching “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” in the living room, and Daniel, an old soul and a rule follower, had said: “This language probably isn’t appropriate for me.” We hear Daniel’s voice only a few times in the piece, but each time we do it’s just right. How did you decide when to use direct dialogue of his? I always knew that I didn’t want this to be a story about Daniel; of course, he was central to the story, but it is more about Jackie and Mark – more about the now – than about their son. But I also wanted to make sure to include enough about to Daniel to make him feel real, and to make their loss feel intimate. So that meant picking a few right moments and details that captured him. I thought this anecdote was one of them, and it worked well because it occurred naturally in the narrative, with the neighbor bringing it up that morning.
Then she started telling another story, one the Bardens had never heard before, one about that day. The neighbor said her second-grade daughter had lost her glasses while scrambling to hide in her classroom during the chaos of the shooting. The girl had clung to her teacher’s leg on the way out of the school, unable to see anything, and she had still been clinging to that leg when her mother found her alive at the firehouse an hour later. She had brought her daughter home and, later that night, tried to tell her about Daniel. But her daughter had screamed not to say his name, that his name was now one of their secrets. She had sat by the window in her room and looked across the woods to Daniel’s room, as she always did, and she had sobbed because she couldn’t see it without her glasses.
“Oh God,” Jackie said. “It’s too much. Please stop.”
“It’s okay,” Mark said, 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. And now, in the final section of the piece, we get to the actual massacre itself. Explain about how this paragraph came together. Why recreate the massacre through Mark’s own recreation of it? In your drafts of the story, did you always have it this way? I did always have it this way, and I guess it always felt right to me here. I didn’t want this scene to come earlier, because really once you take the reader there, there aren’t too many places left to go. And doing this recreating through Mark and his own visions of it to me seemed more powerful than recreating it any other way, because it keeps the focus on the story on the Bardens and the power of this for them. Also, I thought the way that Mark and Jackie responded so differently – Jackie wanting to protect herself; Mark wanting to know everything – was really interesting. There is a great Michael Paterniti story about a plane crash, where a husband and wife have the same dynamic. I read that again while writing this, and it helped.
Mark could see himself that morning, too, rushing out of the house at 10, knowing only that shots had been fired at Sandy Hook and parents would be reunited with their children at the firehouse. Jackie had started driving from Pawling, calling and texting him again and again. “Do you have him?” “DO YOU HAVE HIM YET?” Gutting. When did this come up in the reporting process? Did you ask the Bardens to walk you through that awful day, or did it come up in other conversations? At some point I asked them to walk me through it, but the truth is that that day occurred for them constantly, and pieces of it kept coming up. That was better for me, because each time they brought up that day I learned a new part of it. I didn’t learn about the text messages and the voicemails until near the end of my reporting. The fact that one of them was all CAPS really added to the urgency and made it tangible, so I wanted to use that. A priest had announced that the principal had been killed, and Mark had wondered: “How will we explain this to Daniel?” Then the same priest had said 20 children were also dead, and there was shrieking and vomiting in the firehouse, and Mark had imagined Daniel running alone in the woods behind the school. He was fast. He had escaped.
Then the governor was in front of them, and he was saying, “No more survivors,” and a state trooper was driving Mark and Jackie home. Mark was sitting in the passenger seat, dazed and quiet and looking over at the state trooper, who had begun to weep.
“No,” Mark said. “You had to get your daughter home.”
“Oh dear God,” the neighbor said.
“I feel sick,” Jackie said, standing up and then sitting back down.
The neighbor looked at the clock and saw it was almost 8:30, time to walk her daughter to the bus. “I have to go,” she said, hugging the Bardens, leaving them at the kitchen table. Jackie poured more coffee. Mark checked his phone messages. Jackie walked outside to get the mail and brought it into the living room. Mark opened a package from Minnesota that contained a Sherpa blanket and a note that read: “We will never forget.” Soon after this was published, you told Nieman Storyboard: “The story has followed me around, too, and I have a feeling I will be thinking about the Bardens for a while.” Can you say a bit more about the story affected you personally? It was a more emotional process probably than other stories I’ve done, because the topic was so loaded, mostly, and because I cared a lot about getting it right. The Bardens were brave to let me in at such a vulnerable time – an embarrassing time, really, in terms of the roadshow that gun legislation had become – and they were also open and honest in their grief. I wanted to do justice to them by getting the story right. I don’t want to make it sound like the story was all weight and responsibility, because I loved doing this piece. It felt important to me. It was well read. I felt good about how it came out. For all of those reasons, I am proud of it. But also, while I was doing the story, it was inescapable and it shook me up (which I feel guilty even saying, because it is a luxury to enter a small part of that grief and then leave it, since the Bardens can’t do that). But in many ways I was ready to go back to writing about food stamps, which is the other thing I’ve been doing lately for the paper – back to uplifting stuff!
The school bus came. The school bus went.
“What do you want to do?” Mark asked, and in that moment, the answer to both of them was clear.
“What can we do?” Jackie said.
“Nothing,” Mark said, and he sank down next to her on the couch. Whew, tough note to finish on. Was this always your ending? Yes, this was pretty much always the ending: the bus coming, then going, and them left with really nothing to do, the resignation of that. I wanted to start, in the first sentence, with the idea that they were willing to try everything, and at the end with the slow but steady realization that there was nothing they could really do.