In Remembrance of Newtown
Jonathan Fast is an Associate Professor at Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University. He has contributed many articles on aggression, adolescents, and violence to scholarly journals and the mainstream press. His latest book is Ceremonial Violence: Understanding Columbine and Other School Shootings.
On Friday, December 14th, 2012 we slept late. Because we both worked Sundays, she as a Unitarian minister with a congregation in Danbury, Connecticut, I as a professor at a Jewish university that observed Shabbat, we had gotten into the habit of making Friday our weekend. We didn’t get to the kitchen until 10:30 and lazily ate our breakfast, passing bits of scrambled egg to our dog, curled up under the table. This was the part of the day I treasured most, when fresh from sleep I could take pleasure in the simple company of my wife, whether we were talking, reading the paper, or involved in our own thoughts, without intrusions from the outside world.
As if on cue my wife’s phone made a sound—a sound suspiciously like the squeak of a mouse being stepped on—heralding an email. As she read it her brow furrowed, her face took on an expression of concern I had grown familiar with over the years: pastoral crisis.
“What?” I demanded.
“A school shooting in Newtown. Two teachers wounded. They’re in Danbury hospital.”
“Are they members of the congregation?” A dozen members of my wife’s church lived in Newtown, a suburb of Danbury. I was annoyed at the prospect of having our peace interrupted.
“Nor are they dead,” I pointed out, crassly. “Maybe they just got clipped. Superficial wounds.”
The furrow was deepening. “I should go open the church,” she said.
“Why?” It was a 45-minute commute. “You’ll get there and you’ll sit in your office.”
She was silent. I knew what was going on in her head. There was no way to stop her once she had made up her mind.
She left and I cleaned up the dishes.
The phone rang, and I wiped my hands on a dish towel and answered it.
“This is BBC World Service,” a voice said. “We’d like to interview you about the Newtown shooting. Can you take a Skype call at this time?”
Some background information is in order. In 2008 I wrote a book called Ceremonial Violence, about the 13 school rampage shootings that occurred between 1976 and 1999 (the year of the Columbine High School shooting.) Since then I had become the BBC World Service’s go-to guy for school rampage shootings. They called me at odd hours, when I was at work and when I was on vacation, when I was asleep, or having dinner with friends. I always took their calls and I never ceased being impressed with myself, that people with British accents wanted to talk to me.
“The two teachers in the hospital?” I said, baffled.
“The 18 children killed at Sandyhook Elementary School.”
I felt the floor slip out from under me. “What?” I said. I had heard him perfectly clearly but I needed to hear him say it again to confirm that we occupied the same location in the space-time continuum.
He said it again.
Because I had to say something I said, “Call me back in a half hour, please,” thinking that was the time I needed to regain my equilibrium and Google a few facts.
I called back my wife, who was in transit. “Twenty children,” she corrected me. I could hear Public Radio in the background. “Maybe more. Six staff.”
She planned to keep the church open day and evening, for as long as congregants needed someplace to go. I would see little of her in the days to come.
As I prepared for the Skype call, balancing the laptop on top of the pile of books on my desk so the webcam was at eye-level, I dimly began to sense the difference between acts of violence that occur worlds away and those that happen close enough that you can feel their breath on the back of your neck. I was reminded of my friends who asked me how I could spend all day writing about horrible things like school shootings. “Someone has to do it,” I would reply jauntily, “if we are ever to understand homicidal adolescent violence.” Or: “There are no cheerful topics in social work.” Or, if a one-liner wouldn’t suffice: “By intellectualizing, I can guard myself from my emotions, a defense mechanism of which Freud approved because it nurtured scientific endeavors.” (In contrast, Freud disapproved of dissociation, which interfered with work of any sort. He labeled it a “primitive defense.”)
Most of the school shootings I had written about occurred in the Pacific North-west or in the rural South. They had taken place in communities that took the bible literally, and were committed by children who were, with a few exceptions, hardscrabble poor and poorly treated. Sandy Hook Elementary School was in gracious Fairfield County where I had lived most of my life. I had friends in Newtown. Once a month the folksinger, Rodger Sprung, would lead a sing-along at the church on the Newtown town green. He had taught me to play the banjo when I was 12. Intellectuals and artists such as James Thurber, Elia Kazan, and Renata Adler had lived there.
I should have made time to connect with my feelings about this tragic act of violence in my backyard but instead I found myself drawn into a gamut of radio and television interviews that went on for a week. Radio France International got my number from the BBC, and passed it along to L’Mouv’s English language service. MSNBC sent a limo to drive me to Weekend with Alex Witt, and Sapna Parikh, ABC’s medical reporter, came to Belfer Hall so their camera man could videotape us walking along a ninth floor corridor, engrossed in conversation. With each interview my prognosis for the human race grew darker. By the end of the week, I was Jeremiah predicting the end of Western Civilization (something I do not believe even on my worst days.)
In the rare moments when I saw my wife, I picked fights about inconsequential matters. I slept badly and lost my appetite. I dreamt that my children were little again, and that I had lost them in a maze at Rye Playland. At work I called one colleague a Luddite because he couldn’t figure out how to print a PDF file. I accused the Dean of being unfamiliar with the Governance regulations. I growled at a student for confusing schizoid with schizotypal.
Gradually the interview requests dwindled and by Saturday an unearthly quiet had descended on our apartment. No one had visited the church for two days so my wife returned home. We sat together at the breakfast table, sort of shell-shocked, sharing stories, some reassuring, some oddly disturbing, about our experiences of the week. She told me about crowds of disaster tourists cruising the streets of Newtown, and I described Alex Witt’s three hairdressers, who rushed in during commercial breaks to make sure every hair in her elaborate coiffure was properly placed. She called them her “elves.”
My wife’s phone squeaked. Another email. I braced myself. She read it to herself and then she read it aloud. It was from a social service agency that had been overseeing the provision of services to Newtown and it explained, in gentle language, that citizens of Newtown were grateful for the support they had received, but greatest need now was for prayers and the space to grieve.
“Well!” my wife said, putting down the phone. “I guess that’s that.” Then she started to cry and I tried to comfort her.