For weeks, nobody slept. On the first night after the shootings in December, Raul Arguello lay awake in his bed in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, listening to the sirens coming from the direction of his daughters’ school. His children, thank God, were warm and breathing under his roof, but the sirens reminded him that bodies—twenty of them first-graders—were being taken from the building under the cover of darkness and brought somewhere, maybe the morgue. The next day, in their large, comfortable house on a high hill, Robert and Debora Accomando made meatballs and spaghetti sauce for all the families, feeling that it was the least they could do; one of the murdered boys had been on the same wrestling team as their son. Twenty minutes down the highway, in Waterbury, Lisa Brown was riveted to the cable news. Ten years earlier, her own daughter had died, suddenly, of an asthma attack, and now she felt the parents’ pain like a hole in her own heart. Lisa heard her daughter that first night telling her what to do: Raise $15,000 to buy a bronze angel, and donate it to the town in honor of the dead.
It was ten days before Christmas; the gift-giving season was in full swing. And so the outpouring began. The governor and the news crews came at once; the president arrived on Sunday. By the following Thursday, the town assessor, Christopher Kelsey, had an additional job, which was to sort, catalogue, and store all the stuff that well-wishers were sending, unbidden. The quantity was astonishing: 63,780 teddy bears by Good Friday; 636 boxes of toys; 2,200 boxes of school supplies. Backpacks, bicycles, and paper products, much of it tissues from Walmart. “Tissues seemed to be popular. There was a lot of crying going on. Tissues made sense.” Kelsey found a spare warehouse and, with the help of a crew from the Seventh-day Adventist church, led an army of sifters and sorters. Five hundred and eighty volunteers spent hour upon hour separating iTunes gift cards from Starbucks cards. Every item earmarked for the families went into huge, pallet-size boxes upon which victims’ family names were printed. Soto, Lewis, Barden, Hubbard. Books, cards, angels, Christmas-tree ornaments. Charm bracelets bearing a particular name.
Children have not been to school at Sandy Hook Elementary since the morning of December 14. The community recently voted to raze the school and erect a new one in its place—the demolition has begun—but this past December, it was where everyone wanted to be, and an enormous shrine grew up in the grassy space by the road, spreading down the main street and into the central intersection of Sandy Hook, by the Subway shop and the hair-cutting place, a seemingly boundless jumble of flowers and cards and signs and votive candles and more stuffed animals and more Christmas trees and more ornaments and angels. “Someone would put a teddy bear down, and all of a sudden there would be, I don’t know, twelve bouquets of flowers and a partridge in a pear tree,” David Brooker, a local artist, told me. A crew from out of town appeared one day with tents to erect atop the offerings, and Kelsey strung utility lights, so the constant pilgrims could at least see their way.
The residents of Sandy Hook were both overwhelmed by the world’s attention and infuriated by it. Shrines, news trucks, and tour buses filled with well-wishers clogged the town’s arteries so much the place became virtually unrecognizable. You couldn’t drive anywhere; you couldn’t park. The writer Renata Adler, who has lived in Newtown for 35 years, told me she got lost on the way to the post office.
“You’d pick up the phone,” says Patrick Kinney, a PR man on loan to manage the influx of offers, “and it might be a quilter in Appalachia” looking to donate a blanket she’d made with 26 appliquéd angels. “Or it might be Quincy Jones.” On the night of the shooting, Harry Connick Jr. drove to Newtown from wherever he was to keep company with the family of Ana Grace Márquez-Greene; her father, Jimmy, had played in Harry’s band. Giants receiver Victor Cruz paid a visit to the family of Jack Pinto, who had been buried in his Cruz jersey. James Taylor gave an invitation-only concert at a church in Bethel nearby; up front, as Taylor sang “Sweet Baby James,” sat the Mattiolis. James was the name of their 6-year-old son.
The goodwill of the world descended on Newtown, yet the people there received it in unequal measure. The Bethel church holds only 850, which in a town of 28,000 meant some who felt that the tragedy affected them were excluded from the concert. There were trips on Air Force One, but only for the family members who would lobby lawmakers for new gun laws; there were 4,000 free tickets to a July Yankees game, an amazing boon, but 4,000 is less than a fifth of the town. NASCAR memorialized the Sandy Hook victims with a special car at the Daytona 500, and the fire chief who had stayed outside Sandy Hook Elementary that morning had the honor of unveiling it, not the police chief, who had entered the school.
As grief settled on the town, so did money. Cash poured in from everywhere, arriving in envelopes addressed to no one. To Newtown. The town of Newtown. The families of Newtown. There were stories of cheerleaders, having sponsored fund-raisers, walking around with $30,000 in their pockets. A guidance counselor at Newtown High School reportedly opened the mail to find $1,000 in cash. Around the country, people sold ribbons, bracelets, cupcakes, and sent in the proceeds, five and ten dollars at a time. The Davenport West honor society in Iowa sent in a check for $226.69, and the parents of a 3-year-old named Lillian sent $290.94, donations from her birthday party. According to the Connecticut attorney general, about $22 million has flooded the town since December 14, finding its way into about 70 different charities set up in the wake of the massacre. Very quickly, the matter of disbursing these funds became something else, a proxy fight over how to evaluate grief.
Foundations were created in the names of nearly every victim: an animal shelter for Catherine Hubbard; an autism fund in the name of Dylan Hockley. But there were other funds, started by others in town moved by the tragedy, whose priorities occasionally collided: A handful of gun-control groups were launched, each endeavoring to claim distinction, in a town where Democrats hunt for fun. Rob Cox and a group of friends who play Frisbee together launched Sandy Hook Promise, a moderate gun-control group that also provides family support; the Newtown Action Alliance is a political-advocacy group; and United Physicians of Newtown, started by doctors, focuses on public health. From their kitchen table, the Accomandos launched My Sandy Hook Family Fund to help the victims’ families cope with the immediate aftermath; within the first month, they raised a million dollars to help parents pay the bills and organized volunteers to cook dinner, make airport runs, shovel driveways, iron shirts. The Rotary Club raised money, and so did the Lions Club. “We have become a town of activists,” says Arguello, a pediatrician and a founder of the doctors’ group.
The biggest fund by far was the one set up by 9 p.m. the day of the attack, under the auspices of the United Way of Western Connecticut. By April, it held $11 million, and local psychiatrist Chuck Herrick was named president of the board of the fund, a position that has made him one of the most unpopular men in town. It was Herrick, along with a handful of others, who had to help calculate the disbursements to the parents of murdered children, and who had to defend those calculations when the bereaved accused the United Way of being unfair, insensitive, condescending, elitist, paternalistic and, in a mantra recited by the grieving, of “raising money on the backs of our dead.”
The tension between the families and the United Way reached its first peak in the spring. On April 9, in a letter sent to the families with a press release attached, Kim Morgan, the CEO of the United Way of Western Connecticut, explained that the board had decided to make an “initial” payout of $4 million. E-mails instantly flew among the families. How did they come up with the $4 million figure (less than half the full amount)? Why was it taking so long to decide what to do with the money? Why should they, the grieving and bereft, entrust this process to a disembodied board, comprising, as the Newtown Patch website said, “local dignitaries”: Herrick; Monsignor Robert Weiss, the Catholic priest; a lawyer; a prominent business owner; and a former town finance officer. Didn’t the money belong to them? “This is when it will get cutthroat,” a commenter on the Patch predicted.
On April 11, Morgan, Herrick, and the rest of the board met with 30 or more family members in an auxiliary room at St. Rose of Lima Church, the enormous Catholic church in town. Chairs were arranged in a circle, remembers one participant, and in a tense exchange, families asked questions. It had been four months, one parent complained. The drawn-out process was adding pain to their pain. What about people who hadn’t been able to get back to work and really needed money right now? asked another. Above all, some expressed fury that the board was making unilateral decisions regarding money they felt was intended for them. The board was less sure. The donations had not been made with a stated purpose, they said, and the fund had been designed from the outset to compensate the victims, yes, but also the community at large. That $11 million reflected a nation’s sympathy, the parents answered; at whom was that sympathy directed if not at them? “Some people were shouting, and some people were crying. It was all pretty new,” says that family member. A few mothers ran out of the room.
After the shooting, the media became enamored of Newtown’s quaintness, but until that day, whatever “small town” feeling the town possessed was, the townspeople say, mythological. Sandy Hook is officially part of Newtown—governed by the same town council and part of the same school system—but it is a distinct and separate place. Newtown’s center is picture-perfect New England, grand houses settled around a flag. Old-timers remember Sandy Hook as where the riffraff used to live—I heard a legend about a Hells Angels shooting where a guy got his face blown off in front of what’s now Sandy Hook Wine & Liquor—and other than that, it was pasture, “more cows and horses than people,” as Brian Mauriello, who grew up in Newtown, likes to say.
Over the past twenty years, though, Sandy Hook has grown into a very ordinary exurb: big houses, bigger lots, curvy roads, and cul-de-sacs. It’s an appealing home for busy professionals, attracted by the real estate and public schools. They work in Hartford, Danbury, Armonk, Stamford, and Manhattan, and at the hedge funds in lower Fairfield County. Until “12/14,” it was a place where busy people watched television after a long day, where parents sending their children to the same school might remain strangers for years. Over lunch at her dining-room table, Francine Wheeler told me she can’t count the number of people who approached her after her 6-year-old son, Ben, died in his first-grade classroom to say these kinds of things: “I’ve lived down the street from you for years; I’ve seen you playing outside with your boys; I’ve always been meaning to meet you.”
The tragedy changed the tenor of Newtown, drawing people out of their cocoons and propelling them to something beyond neighborliness. It wasn’t just the meals and the home visits, the endless prayers and letters and offers of help. And it wasn’t just that people started to use their turn signals at the crazy intersection by the flagpole or that they continue to pay it forward at the local Starbucks. It was a kind of solidarity that you see among veterans: When a group of family members helped to draft legislation suppressing crime-scene photos, support in town was nearly unanimous. And when one of the murdered children has a birthday, word often gets around. On the day that Jack Pinto would have turned 7, all the kids in town went to school in their sports jerseys, having organized the tribute themselves.
Herrick and his fellow board members had initially faced two questions: first, how to calculate disbursements to the grieving, which meant drawing lines around groups of victims and prioritizing their grief. And second, how to weigh the immediate pain of the bereaved against the future (and unknown) needs of the town. The fund’s steering committee spoke early on to Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney who after 9/11 found his calling advising municipalities and families on the best way to collect and distribute funds in the event of a mass shooting or terrorist event.
Feinberg’s method is bloodlessly simple: Create one independent fund. Collect as much money as you can in a short period of time. Figure out who the victims are and develop an algorithm for distribution, stipulating that such a calculus will never be fair. Distribute the money quickly, and shut the fund down. Feinberg believes subjective measures of victimhood, like “need” or “entitlement,” should never be part of any such accounting. “Don’t send in your tax returns or tell us how much you have in the bank. We’re not going to say Johnny’s death is worth more than Mary’s death,” Feinberg told me. “Money is a poor substitute for loss. That’s it.”
But the situation in Newtown didn’t subject itself to such cold, actuarial analysis, the board felt. When Adam Lanza opened fire, he hurt everyone in town. As Herrick said, “It’s two degrees of separation.” And unlike in Boston, or Aurora, or in New York City after the 9/11 attacks, where grief could dissipate over a large geographic area or among a great many people, the grief in Newtown was exponentially more concentrated. Here, if you were the relative of a victim, you had many comrades in grief. And your neighbors, who were grieving, too, often expressed their pain in conflicting ways.
Adam Lanza took 40 victims, a number most—but not all—people in town agree on. He shot and killed twenty first-graders in two classrooms. Those are the victims most have focused on, often called, simply, “angels.” Reports say Lanza made eye contact with the children; some of them nestled in their teachers’ arms as he murdered them. Jesse Lewis yelled “run” before he was shot, his mother, Scarlett, says; reports say Noah Pozner was shot eleven times, losing his jaw and his left hand. There were also adult victims, whose deaths have received less attention: Lauren Rousseau and Victoria Soto, the first-grade teachers; two teacher’s aides; the school psychologist; and the principal. In Newtown, the dead make up the first tier of victims: the 26. Over time, that number came to describe not just the victims of Lanza’s massacre but their immediate families, too. These and two people who were wounded would receive compensation under a Feinberg-type plan.
But there is another group that Herrick’s committee also hoped to take into account. These are the twelve children in the two classrooms who survived—one little girl in Lauren Rousseau’s class and eleven children in Victoria Soto’s, six of whom survived by running as the shooter reloaded his gun. These kids have been called “survivors” and are also known as “the twelve.” One person I spoke to heard the following version of that morning from a 7-year-old girl: The bad man shot my friend. And then he shot my other friend. And then he stopped, and I took my friend’s hand, and we slipped in blood, and we bumped into the bad man, and we ran and ran and ran and ran. They found their way to a neighbor’s house, where he discovered them, sitting in the driveway and crying and reportedly saying the most unbelievable things. “We can’t go back to school.” “He had a big gun and a little gun.” And: “There was blood in her mouth and she fell to the ground.”
The parents of the twelve were, with the two and the relatives of the 26, initially part of “the 40,” but they have since seceded, forming a separate and nearly impenetrable clan. They are estranged from the 26; they rarely speak to the press. Their kids saw unimaginable things, and the parents are protective above all, worrying about nightmares now and PTSD and behavior problems down the road. But as the town began to weigh and measure degrees of grief, the parents of the twelve saw that in their plight was a horrible paradox and found themselves unable or unwilling to fight very hard for their share of the funds. Their children may have to cope forever with the memory of what they saw. But at least they can be kissed good night.
To describe the way grief afflicted the town, many people invoke the metaphor of concentric circles, the ripples created by a rock in a lake. At the center are the 26, and then the two and the twelve. Beyond that are all the teachers and children who made it out alive, including the children of Robert Bazuro, who skipped school on the 14th in order to honor their uncle, who had recently died. “I feel that my brother saved the lives of my children,” says Bazuro.
Then there are the cops, and the firefighters, and the EMTs. There are all the people connected to the people at the school that day: parents, grandparents, cousins, and friends. There are scoutmasters, camp counselors, coaches, pastors, and clerks: the lady at the checkout with a special fondness for a certain kid she’d been saying hi to since he learned to walk.
Herrick and his colleagues on the steering committee believed that the needs in Newtown would be great, and that they would be unforeseen. They talked to folks in Columbine, Colorado. They talked to folks at Virginia Tech and in Oklahoma City. They learned about the slow unraveling that occurs in a community after an event like this, the rise in divorce, spousal abuse, alcoholism, teenage truancy and drug use. They thought that while some of the $11 million might go to the victims’ families, to help them start to heal, some could be used as insurance against such outcomes, to pay for mental-health support and other kinds of preventive services. They saw themselves as the most conservative type of guardians, hoping “to prepare,” as Herrick put it to me, “for the long term.” In an audit this summer, the Connecticut attorney general acknowledged to Kim Morgan and Chuck Herrick that the foundation had not violated donor intent—of the 20,000 envelopes and cards the A.G. inspected, only 1,373 were addressed to the families. But he also slapped their wrists for mishandling the process: “I am, however, concerned,” he wrote. Poor communication by the board “facilitated the misunderstandings about and inaccurate public information related to the fund.”
Until June, families were allowed to schedule walks through Sandy Hook Elementary School with police escort, and, just before the school was shuttered for good, Cristina Lafferty-Hassinger, daughter of the slain principal, Dawn Hochsprung, took the police up on their standing offer. Cristina, who is 29 and has four young children, lives in Oakville, a 30-minute drive from Newtown, and had never seen her mother’s workplace. Her mother was fierce, a fighter, and Cristina was having trouble getting a picture of that morning right in her mind; her stepfather, George, came along for moral support. Together, they stopped at the spot where Dawn was gunned down. “I know she didn’t have time to think,” George said later. “But if she did have time, she would have said, ‘Look at you, you scrawny little shit. I could take you.’ ” On the edge of her bathroom sink on the day I visited Cristina, there was a green rubber bracelet of the Livestrong variety. It said WWDD: WHAT WOULD DAWN DO?
Among the families of the 26, there are a few who became full-time warriors, and Lafferty-Hassinger is one of these. She believes that she has been freer than members of other families to agitate against the United Way, because she does not live in Newtown and is thus protected from the judgment of her neighbors. In February, she had discovered that families were being asked to fill out paperwork to claim any emergency funds (held separately from the $11 million), a fact she found outrageous. Many of the 26 families had still not gone back to work; some were still not getting out of bed. “One of the families said they’d rather lose their house than go hat in hand and go begging,” she told me. On February 25, she posted the following message to her Facebook page: “The United Way of Western Connecticut gallantly stepped up to manage the influx of donations, but who are they really helping? They offered their trusted name to evoke confidence from eager donors, but more than two months later the victims’ families are being asked for proof of hardship before even the smallest disbursement is issued. Proof of hardship?”
Many in town found the public fights about money distasteful. One person told me the phrase “embarrassment of riches” came to mind. In March, Monsignor Weiss told a reporter for the Hartford Courant that the $11 million must not become a “perverted lottery” for the bereaved.
But Cristina doesn’t really care what people think of her, and she doesn’t believe that grieving people ought to face judgment for simply claiming what’s theirs. She quotes Tom Teves, a new friend who lost his 24-year-old son in the Aurora theater shooting: “If I want to gamble my $200,000 away at a Vegas casino, who cares? My son is dead—it’s none of your business.” A lot of the families agreed with her, Cristina told me, but felt inhibited to speak. “They don’t want to walk into the grocery store and have someone whispering, ‘They’re asking for money because their kid died.’ ”
“The process of grieving is as individual as your fingerprint,” Francine’s husband, David Wheeler, told me. Many of the 26 will not speak to the press. Some of them are on TV all the time. Scarlett Lewis was on the Today show last week, and as she sat there waiting to talk to Matt Lauer, she thought, This is so surreal that at times your brain just explodes. The 26 may be a fractious group, but those I spoke to defend one another’s right to be idiosyncratic—ugly, compassionate, silent, loving, selfish, spiritual, depressed—in their grief. There are also those who feel Sandy Hook Promise has claimed too large a role for itself. And there are those in town who discount Lafferty-Hassinger’s persistent agitating as a symptom of her deeper, broader anger. “It is hard,” Morgan says, “to argue with someone who is suffering.”
After the April meeting, under pressure from the governor’s office, the board announced that it would not disburse the funds a little bit at a time, as it had planned, but in one lump payment of $7.7 million. And Ken Feinberg was invited to Newtown to advise the board and meet with the families.
Still, the families were unsatisfied. At a meeting over the summer, when some of them queried the board how it arrived at the $7.7 figure, Second Selectman Will Rodgers pushed back. The families were lucky to be getting anything, Rodgers suggested, according to people who were there. (When asked about his comments, Rodgers says he was speaking about the possibility that other organizations less committed to victims’ compensation could have taken control of the fund early on, and that this recollection takes his comments out of context.) In August, each of the 26 received a check for $281,000. The two got $75,000 each. And the twelve got $20,000.
Some in town believe that the twelve were shortchanged. I raise the issue with Lafferty-Hassinger. Don’t these kids, who have been through so much, deserve the benefit of a safety net? She responds with a quip she has heard among the 26. “Okay, it sucks. You only got $20,000. Want to trade?”
Ben Wheeler appears to his mother in dreams. Recently, Francine says, “he just came and hugged and kissed me. I said, ‘Oh, no, it’s a dream. Is it going to turn into a nightmare?’ But no, he just kept hugging and kissing me.” Early on, in January, she had a dream that she rode an elevator all the way down, and when the door opened, Ben was there. “Mama,” he told her. “I’m so happy. I’m loved. I’m okay. I’m so happy. I’m okay.” And then, “Don’t let them trademark you, Mama.”
The Wheelers are among the most active of the Newtown families. In January, David Wheeler gave passionate testimony before the Connecticut State Legislature. In April, the Wheelers stood by the president in Hartford as he pressured Congress to pass gun-control legislation. Just before the vote, Obama handed his weekly video address to David and Francine, who wept as she remembered her son, who wanted to be an architect and also a paleontologist. In May, the Wheelers did a long interview with Bill Moyers, both of them breaking down when David mentioned December 13, the day before the day their lives became unrecognizable to them.
The Wheelers’ very public displays of grief are incomprehensible to some, though Francine says their outspokenness is a way to make connections with others and continue being good parents to both of their sons—to Ben, who died, and to Nate, who is 10. If they can change the politics of gun violence by telling their story, she believes, they can save lives. But David, formerly an actor, now a graphic designer, always looks devastated, with basset-hound bags beneath his eyes. Francine’s face is more motile, sparkling one minute, crumpled the next.
It’s not so hard to be public in public, the Wheelers tell me. They’re both performers; it’s only natural, says David, that trauma would force them back into comfortable roles. It’s much, much harder to have to be public all the time, Francine explains—in Newtown, the families of the 26 carry the celebrity of all tragic figures. Everyone in town knows their names and the names and faces of their dead; they are perpetually exposed, even in their everyday routines. There are three groceries in town, but Francine likes Caraluzzi’s best, and she has a hard time there, even now, because she visited so frequently with Benny. She would let him loose in the aisles, to the annoyance of the other shoppers. It is horrible, she says, to have to break down in a place where everyone knows exactly who you are, and what, exactly, happened to your kid. “My greatest need of strangers is to treat me like a stranger.”
Stories circulate among the 26 of those who, in stabs at empathy, have said entirely the wrong thing: “Move on,” or “This too shall pass,” or “Will you hug me for me?” The rest of the town, even those very close to the grieving, find themselves on eggshells, constantly worried they’ll misspeak, or misstep. Nelba Márquez-Greene can feel how much other people in town want her to be better. “We are the face of every parent’s nightmare,” she says. But nothing makes her feel better. “I feel terrible, and I’m giving myself permission to say I feel terrible.” She is a tiny, neat person, with a dispassionate way of talking, and is working for Sandy Hook Promise now, busily giving keynote speeches and a TED talk, but the idea that her work life might console her, or ease her pain, is laughable. It’s as if, she tells me evenly, you needed a liver transplant and someone came up and gave you a heart.
Every day, Francine Wheeler makes a list of the things she’s grateful for, and she always includes her morning coffee. Around her neck, she wears a tiny picture of Ben in a tiny square frame and a silver pendant in the shape of a treble clef. When I admire it, she tells me that Ben’s ashes are enclosed in the necklace. “He had perfect pitch,” she says.
When I visit them at home, David shows me his amulets, too, more ashes in a pendant, a bracelet of green agate, another one, on a leather thong, strung by Ben’s counselor at camp. But by three o’clock, the Wheelers are distracted. Nate is due home from school, and they’re listening with all their nerve endings for the squeak of the bus. Nate was at Sandy Hook Elementary School on 12/14 as well. When he arrives, on time, he shows his parents the new Guinness book he got that day at school. He has his brother’s ashes in a pendant, too.
In October, a coalition of gun groups announced that it was declaring the first anniversary of the shooting “Guns Save Lives Day.” Pat Llodra, the first selectman, was flinty in her response. “We will not host a political rally of any stripe on that day and we hope that all such inclined persons understand that they and their agenda are not welcome. We ask for privacy and expect that all caring folks, including the media, will accommodate us.” And then, like the schoolteacher she used to be, she added the unveiled threat of her own judgment: “Those persons … who choose not to accede to our request … show the world their own personal and ethical fiber.”
This is the question before the town now: how to lay claim to an uncertain future, to move forward without moving on, and build unity among the various factions. What is an acceptable tribute? What is too much? Some locals have told me that, when out in the world, they try not to say the name of the place they live; “Newtown” evokes in outsiders such horror. “This is a good town,” says Arguello, the pediatrician. “We don’t want to be remembered just for that day.”
Monsignor Weiss has a hunch that the future of Newtown will not include him. Pastor of St. Rose for fourteen years, he is haunted, he says, by the memory of crunching glass under his shoes, for when he approached the school that day, a police officer asked if he cared to enter and give the children a blessing, and he declined. “It gets me,” he says, beginning to cry. “I said, ‘You know what? These children don’t need a blessing. They are with the Lord already.’ ” He turned around and went back to the firehouse, feeling that the living needed him more.
But that memory, and the eight funerals he performed in five days, and self-doubt over his leadership these past months continue to torment him. He never wanted to be the face of the town, he says, the small-town priest consoling his decimated flock. But walking away from the firehouse late that first day, he was mobbed by reporters, and “all of a sudden,” he says, “you find yourself talking to Katie Couric.” He’s chronically ill now; his digestion is shot; he can barely control his emotions. “I feel like I’m a museum piece. Everywhere I go, people stare at me. I think I make people uncomfortable.” Friends in the priesthood are counseling him to save his health and find another post or another parish, and he is taking their advice seriously. “Every time I stand at the pulpit, I wonder, Am I a reminder of 12/14?”
Llodra has taken a different approach. Petite, blonde, and 71, she had been in her mayorlike position for three years and was getting ready to retire when Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary. The events of 12/14 forced her into a role she could hardly have imagined and to which, by most accounts, she magnificently rose: She was the sensible, compassionate den mother to a collection of people screaming in pain and acting out, as people do, in anger and selfishness and love. It was Llodra’s idea to ask the wrecking crews at the school to sign stringent nondisclosure agreements such that no photos of the interior ever appear online and that no souvenirs from the school ever show up on eBay. She redeployed her staff to cope with the influx of goods and visitors; she tried to smooth relations between the families and the board. In the waiting room to her office on the day I was there hung the green sign that has become the hopeful mantra of so many: WE ARE SANDY HOOK. WE CHOOSE LOVE. (Some I spoke to rolled their eyes at the phrase, knowing how fractious the town has been.) She introduced the metaphor “sacred soil” to describe the shrines she cleaned up last winter, a deft bit of wordsmithery that allowed the entire town to feel good about turning a nation’s love into compost. Llodra is a pull yourself up, brush yourself off kind of person, and now, she feels, enough is enough.
“It’s not all about the victims,” she told me during an interview in her office. “It could have been any one of these children. By happenstance, he turned left instead of right.” Newtown must not become absorbed in its own victimhood, she believes. It must “grow through that specialness and not become the thing that defines them.” In July, Llodra announced on her blog that the town would no longer be hosting special events. And last month, as the anniversary approached, she asked well-wishers to keep their gift-giving impulses in check and to express their generosity through other means.
For many people in Newtown, the killing of those 6- and 7-year-olds resurrected the pain of previous trauma or loss. In interviews, I heard about the death of a brother in a car crash; the near death of a child; an attempted rape; a gunshot wound. Llodra is one of these. Four years ago, she lost her 42-year-old daughter Sharon, and Llodra believes that her own experience with grief helped her understand the incomparable suffering of losing a child. Many in Newtown, she believes, have been like families stuck in the initial phase after a death, when the women with casseroles are still coming by to stock the freezer. The next phase is harder, and more personal, but necessary. “I would give anything to have my daughter back,” she told me, “but I like who I am now better than who I was then.”
Llodra is no longer planning to retire. She has a lot of things to do: resolve the acrimony around Fairfield Hills, the campus of the dilapidated psychiatric hospital in town, which is now the focus of a development fight. Manage the issue of armed guards in the local schools, on which the town remains divided. And, of course, rebuild Sandy Hook Elementary School. The 400 Sandy Hook kids have taken over an empty school building in Monroe, ten miles away; parents are complaining about the length of the bus ride and the stress on their kids. Once again, Llodra is in the position of having to acknowledge generosity without bowing before it. Monroe has been great, but “these are our kids,” she says. She wants Newtown to become again what she knows it can be: a place where there are great schools, and playgrounds, and where parents on the sidelines of sports events, she says, can be overheard “crabbing about taxes.”
That jocular, suburban normalcy seems possible, even now, if only in glimmers. There are all kinds of places to eat and drink in town—pizza, passable Japanese, a bowl of chowder—but probably the most popular is My Place, a regular Italian joint of the vinyl-booths variety. The real draw is the pub, tucked in the back, where, in an amber haze, amid televisions and twinkling lights, the co-owner, Mark Tambascio, pulls the taps on a wide selection of microbrews. I went there during the first game of the World Series to meet Rob Cox of Sandy Hook Promise; he wanted to show me the bar stool dedicated to the Flatliners, the name of his Frisbee team, so called because all the players are approaching heart-attack age. When I arrived, every seat was taken. People stood in clumps, holding pints and greeting newcomers by name—high fives and backslaps for all.
Nancy Lanza, Adam’s mother, whom he shot four times on the morning of December 14 before driving to the school, was a regular at My Place, and I had the strong feeling that everyone at the bar could tell me which stool had been hers: down near the end, by the entry to the restaurant. The Frisbee team regularly retires to My Place after its Tuesday-night game, and Cox recalls occasionally exchanging small talk with Nancy. Tambascio was friendly with her and is a neutral party in town—his bathrooms are marked YANKEES and RED SOX, because in Fairfield County, even tight-knit families can have split allegiances. For all these months, he hasn’t spoken ill of her.
Cox arrived, on his way to a 10:40 p.m. hockey game in a neighboring town—it’s hard to get ice time—and introduced me around. There was Terrence Ford, enormous, with a biker-guy look, who showed up out of nowhere to help direct traffic in Sandy Hook that day; cop cars were screaming so fast down the hill he could smell their brake pads burning. “That day was shit,” he hollered, over the din. “It’s still shit. It will always be shit.” There was Scott Wolfman, who works pro bono at Sandy Hook Promise and was busy organizing a trip for a few of the dads to see Pearl Jam that weekend in Hartford. There was the girl Cox took to the sixth-grade dance, now standing in a posse of moms, all of whom had just been to a seminar at the library about how to handle teenagers’ moods at home. Just shrug it off, the experts said. Laugh. Be goofy. Don’t engage. It wasn’t clear how much of this camaraderie was built in the aftermath of the shooting and how much survived it. But the atmosphere in My Place that night was very much the town’s own idyllic picture of itself.
And on TV, the Red Sox were winning; the Cardinals had committed three errors in one game. Nelba Márquez-Greene came in to meet me, texting on her phone, having just finished taping a TED talk. Someone else had a picture on their phone of Márquez-Greene speaking, gazing up and smiling, but Nelba seemed embarrassed by the attention. The conversation turned to Wolfman’s Halloween party: an annual event, a bawdy blowout, no kids allowed. Cox was teasing Márquez-Greene, encouraging her to come, but she said she probably wouldn’t be in a party mood. In the meantime, though, right now, she thought she might be persuaded to have a drink.