By Mallary Tenore TarpleyWashington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox has spent six years covering stories of gun violence and children, fashioning a beat out of one of America’s most heartbreaking realities.
Yet when he first heard about the shooting last May at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, he was stunned. It had been just 10 years since 20 children and six teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Despite that, and Cox’s deep immersion into a subject, he couldn’t fathom that so many children — 19, along with two teachers — had lost their lives.
The Post asked if he wanted to fly to Uvalde to cover the immediate aftermath of the shooting. He declined.
“I could not be one of the 10,000 reporters on the ground banging on doors, desperately trying to get a quote from one kid,” said Cox, who was in tears upon hearing the final death toll. Instead, he wrote about how survivors of other school shootings were responding to the news, and he began thinking about how his eventual Uvalde coverage would unfold.
One month after the shooting, Cox did fly to Uvalde and ended up spending the summer with survivor Caitlyne Gonzales and her parents. The Posts’s former managing editor, Steven Ginsberg, had encouraged him to travel Uvalde and pour all of his experience covering gun violence into a single story. What resulted was an 8,500-word piece that confronts the stereotype of the plucky survivor while uncovering the ups and downs of trauma and the challenges of recovery.
The story, “An American Girl,” published in The Washington Post on Oct. 24, 2022, is a powerful example of a restorative narrative – stories that show how people and communities are rebuilding in the aftermath of trauma. Rather than sugarcoating hard truths, these narratives address them head on and explore the messy middle between a tragedy and one’s recovery from it.
Showing a fuller picture of trauma survivors
If you’ve followed the Uvalde coverage closely, you may have seen photos of Caitlyne speaking at school board meetings or delivering a talk to Congress about the need for a ban on assault weapons. She has become, as Cox wrote, Robb Elementary School’s most public survivor: “a voice for her friends who were dead and for those who were alive but too daunted to say anything … a 4-foot-8, 75-pound embodiment of the maroon ‘Uvalde Strong’ flags flying all over Texas.”
Cox used patience and insight to report past these outward displays of resilience and show the inner pain, fear, and struggles that Caitlyne has faced in the tragedy’s aftermath. He portrays Caitlyne not as a fully recovered survivor but as a human being who grapples with strength and sorrow, love and loss. He achieves this through a poignant mix of details, juxtapositions, interviews, and reconstructed scenes he witnessed first-hand.
The juxtapositions he sprinkles throughout are striking. In one part, Cox describes Caitlyne as
a child who didn’t know how to ride a bike without training wheels but did know about ballistic windows and bulletproof backpacks and the movement to ban assault weapons. Who spent as much time following the Instagram pages of her favorite gun safety champions as she did Bad Bunny’s TikTok account. Who was 10, but seldom acted her age, speaking in public about fear and death with the eloquence of an adult, while in private, enduring flashbacks so vivid that she needed bedtime lullabies meant for toddlers to soothe her.
Later in the piece, Cox shows Caitlyne’s fear of going to sleep by herself. The night of the shooting, she had asked her mother to stay at the foot of her bed. As time passed, she asked her mom to sleep beside her, then face-to-face, breath-to-breath. “Caitlyne needed to know her mother was alive,” Cox told me.
After more than two months of building trust with Caitlyne and her family, Cox gained their permission to install a GoPro and baby monitor in Caitlyne’s room for one night. He wanted to see how she wrestled with trauma behind closed doors, when the world wasn’t watching. Cox recalls sitting in the Gonzales’ kitchen that night as Caitlyne’s parents tried having a few moments to themselves in the living room before going to bed. On the baby monitor, he watched Caitlyne unravel as she waited for her mom to come into her room. Audibly crying, she curled up in the fetal position on her bedroom floor in front of her Barbie Dreamhouse.
In an interview, Cox reflected on how difficult it was to watch this scene unfold. “Here’s this kid who has no ceiling, right? Her potential is just like, unlimited. But this is what she has been reduced to,” Cox told me. “She’s the kid who cannot sleep alone, who cannot even be in a dark room alone without her mother for 15 minutes without coming completely undone because of something that she has no control over. She cannot control the way her body is responding to that fear.”
Unveiling the complexities of trauma
Cox’s story is a testament to the complexities of trauma and the unpredictability of its effects.
“A piece like this is important because it shows the broader, longer-term, insidious impacts of trauma,” says trauma psychologist Kevin Becker, who has helped journalists think through restorative narratives. “It helps people understand that the impacts of trauma ripple through many, many aspects of your life, even if you’re a child.”
Trauma recovery, he said, is a developmental process – one that unfolds over time with ebbs and flows. Stories that pull back the curtain on this process can generate greater understanding and empathy compared to surface-level stories that show children recovering quickly from tragedy.
“The more accurate a picture people have of what trauma does and what the impacts of trauma are, the more caring we can be, the more understanding we can be and the more trauma-informed we can be as a culture,” said Becker, who founded ORI Consulting, an organization focused on trauma response and recovery. “If all we know is something that looks nice and neat and clean, and we don’t hear about all the struggles and the messy middle, then we’re really not educated about the impacts of trauma. And for journalists, if you’re not able to tell these kinds of stories, then you’re probably not telling a completely accurate story.”
There’s a tendency to think that children are more resilient than adults and that they bounce back faster from tragedy. “That’s one of those myths that’s out there and it’s really not true,” Becker said. This isn’t to say that children’t aren’t resilient, but when we only focus on their resilience, we miss the opportunity to explore other aspects of their lived experience.
Cox was cognizant of this when reporting and writing about Caitlyne. “I’ve come to hate the term ‘children are resilient’ because it’s dismissive. It allows adults to not take on the responsibilities that they should,” said Cox, who authored the book “Children Under Fire: An American Crisis.” “We see children being happy and running around and joking around. And people think, Well, they’re fine, right? We so desperately want kids to be okay that we will cling to evidence that they are alright. We will seek out that evidence and ignore the rest.”
Making the most of limited time
Though Cox was able to spend the summer with Caitlyne and her family, he normally doesn’t have this much time or access. When on tighter deadlines, he tries to spread his interviews out over at least a two-day period. Showing up on the second day shows children that you’re committed.
“There’s a layer of trust that they afford you,” Cox said. “The leap that you’ll make from that first conversation to the second is really significant.”
Before interviewing children, he asks their parents or guardians a couple of key questions: Is there anything I shouldn’t say? and Is there anything I need to avoid? He also asks them to describe the types of questions the children are asking.
“The questions they’re asking give you insight into their anxiety and what’s on their mind. Suddenly you’re getting past that initial barrier of ‘I’m fine,’” said Cox, referring to the common response children give when asked how they’re doing. “They aren’t going to say, ‘This makes me sad,’ or ‘I feel bad about this.’ But if they’re worried about the shooter coming after them, they might be asking about the shooter. If they’re worried about the security of the school, they might say, ‘Well, is there going to be a fence? Are there going to be cops there?’”
Cox tells the children he’s interviewing that he’s not an authority figure — and that they can choose whether or not to answer his questions. He also tries to sit on the floor during interviews with children so that he’s not towering over them.
Cox asks questions related to details, scenes and memories, knowing that memories can be windows into a person’s innermost feelings and thoughts. When children start opening up, Cox likes to ask “What happened next?” as a way of showing interest and advancing the storytelling process.
Drawing upon his expertise as a trauma psychologist, Becker suggested some other questions that journalists can consider asking children (or anyone for that matter) in the wake of traumatic events:
- What’s been the hardest part about this? And what has been most surprising? These questions invite people to reflect on how a tragedy has affected them in ways they may not have expected.
- Is there anything positive that has come out of this? Not everybody gets to a point where something positive comes out of a tragedy, Becker said, but it can and does happen for some. Capturing this in the person’s own words is an important part of the reporting and storytelling process.
- How has the tragedy impacted your relationships with those closest to you? Whether we’re dealing with trauma as a 10-year-old or 40-year-old, we lean on the people who are closest to us, Becker said. Trauma can shift and shape our relationships in unexpected ways.
- How has the tragedy affected your view of the world? This may seem like a lofty question, but it can reveal a lot about the ways in which trauma changes people.
- What’s been the worst part of this experience? When Becker asks his patients this question, he’s often surprised by the answer. It’s the type of question, he said, that can show how trauma rippled through a person’s life in ways that aren’t apparent to outside observers. And it can help a person open up on their own terms. Giving an interview to a journalist isn’t the same as therapy, Becker said, but it can be therapeutic for people who are struggling.
Transparency as an act of respect
While reporting “An American Girl,” Cox structured the story in his head, plotting the beginning and ends of sections. He talked at length about the structure with his editor, Lynda Robinson, and together they arrived at a shared vision for the story.
”I write with so much more confidence and authority,” Cox said, “when I feel like somebody who I trust completely has the same vision.”
After he finished writing the story, Cox took Caitlyne’s parents through the story in detail as part of the fact-checking process. He asked them to let him know if anything was wrong or if they feared that any of the details could put Caitlyne in jeopardy or harm her emotionally. He later shared parts with Caitlyne as well.
Cox wanted to make the reporting and storytelling process as transparent as possible, knowing that many people have never been interviewed by the media and don’t know what to expect. Transparency is an important part of cultural competency – and of the understanding that different communities have varying levels of experience with, and trust in, the media. “I think the more people understand what we do,” Cox said, “the easier it is for them to trust us.”
By sharing parts of the story ahead of time, Cox could ensure that Caitlyne and her parents wouldn’t get caught off-guard when reading the published piece. In many ways, it was an act of reciprocal respect.
“(Caitlyne’s parents) were entirely open, entirely exposed, entirely vulnerable,” Cox said. “They gave me this extraordinary access into the most vulnerable moments of their child’s life. They trusted me with that, and the least I could do was show them how the process works.”
Cox has kept in touch with Caitlyne and her parents in the months since the story was published and said he plans to continue reporting on her journey.
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Mallary Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. She’s the author of the forthcoming book, “Slip: Recovery, Sickness & the Space in Between,” an examination of the under-discussed complexities of eating disorders and recovery.