Episode 4: The After Show, Eli Saslow
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Paul Kix: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the after-show for Now That's a Great Story. I was going to talk today about Eli and about the moments where he's able to report things that exist across multiple points and time within the same moment. I was going to talk about the craft that he exhibits but then I thought that's not really the point of what's going on here. And I thought maybe the only way to get at what is really going on here with Eli’s story and the reason that I wanted to have him on the show -- the only way to get at any of that was to talk about in some sense my own story.
So maybe, like you, Newtown affected me. I live in Connecticut. I live about 45 minutes from Newtown and so that made it more real for me. You see the reports of these mass shootings that have happened all over the country and in some sense you're at a remove from them. but with Newtown it was a little bit different because I knew people who knew people who were from Newtown. I remember that day distinctly because, at first, I was getting phone calls from family and friends asking me if I was okay, and I thought at the time that that was sort of an outrageous question to ask. of course I was okay. Why wouldn't I have been okay? As that day wore on, and I work at ESPN, it became really clear that it was just going to be hard to work that day. And I think it was my boss who sent out -- either my boss or maybe even the president of the company -- who sent out an email and said if you just want to go home today, you can.
And suddenly that question, are you okay? I could answer. Well, no. Not really, not anymore, and in part because, at the time, my wife -- we have three small kids. They were young. We had twin boys who would have been at the time of the Newtown shooting less than a year old. And we had three kids under the age of three and you immediately start to think, my God what would have happened if I would have been in those situations? How lucky am I, how fortunate am I -- and of course that's how I felt. That feeling was quickly replaced by another and this feeling was one of anger and so I took perhaps, like most of you, I took to social media and I tried to argue what I thought were sensible solutions but, of course, on social media when you argue what you think are sensible solutions to people that might have different perspectives than you or people that don't know you, it quickly just deteriorates into something that ended up just exhausting me.
But Newtown stayed in my mind. Newtown stayed in my mind for four months if not years after the fact -- for so long that on what I want to say was the approaching of the fourth or fifth anniversary of the shooting, I was approached by a friend of mine who is an editor -- and who knew at least that I lived in Connecticut. And perhaps, I don't know to the extent that we really talked about this much beforehand, I don't remember it, but perhaps knew as well the extent to which I’d become kind of obsessed with how could something like that have happened between the shooting and the time that the editor called, and he asked would you like to do a story?
And at first I said no, I don't want to do this. I don't want to revisit the grief. I mean I had read Eli's story, Eli and I talked a lot about that story and I didn't -- first as a journalist I didn't feel that I could tell a narrative any better than what he had already done. And secondly, there was just -- I did not want to put myself in that sort of position where I would be in that close of proximity to that kind of pain that I'm sure was still there for an extended period of time. It’s just something I wasn't interested in it. And the editor said to me, no that's not actually the story I want you to do. I want you to do a story about teddy bears, and if it's like what? And I just thought thought at first that this story was kind of ridiculous because it was the story of all the stuff that in all the care packages that have been sent to Newtown from literally around the world -- thousands of pounds and then tens of thousands of pounds of teddy bears, toys and perishable goods and cards and just the sheer accumulation of people trying to show their solidarity with the people who are grieving in Newtown.
I go to Newtown. The thing that struck me was that this was not in any way a sort of frivolous story. I mean if you look at it just from the perspective of how a municipality would deal when you have tens of thousands of pounds of packages that continue to arrive to Newtown over the course of weeks and months and they were still getting stuff trickling in years after Adam Lanza walked into that elementary school. There's a question for any government, which is just what do you with all of this stuff? There are a couple of ways to respond to that. The first is, well, we should -- it’s just stuff like it's nobody knows who these who these families are. Let's just get rid of it. There was talk about burying it, there was talk about burning it.
And then there was a second. There was a flip side of that. This was the second camp. In the second Camp was no. This was, we should honor this because this was people. They were people who just wanted to let residents of Newtown know that they were not alone and some of these messages were in some ways as emotionally resonant as Eli’s story. And so as this debate is sort of going on I realize that's the prism through which I can begin to talk with a lot of people in Newtown. And I went to Newtown on a couple of occasions. And reporting that story even years after the fact, I couldn't help but think that even on the sunny days on which I visited there was this pallor that continued to just hang over the town. And it was it's of course completely unfair because Newtown is it is a beautiful little community. It's a distance suburb of New York City and it shouldn't have its legacy be what Adam Lanza did. And yet at least for the foreseeable future -- and maybe forever -- people will remember Newtown is the place where this terrible Massacre happened.
And as I walked around and talked with people I got the sense that that really pissed them off. This is not how they want to be defined, and yes they were in some sense being defined by this. And the story of the stuff, all of the care packages was one more way in which Newtown residents had to figure out what is the story that we want to tell about ourselves? Do we want to actually erect some sort of some sort of shrine to all of this stuff and honor it in perpetuity there by extending the legacy of that terrible day? Or do we want to put that legacy behind us? Is that perhaps the best thing for us to do? To forget about it in some way, to try to move on, to show that we are more than this one terrible moment? And these were really the the questions were that ended up working their way through the story.
There was a third element to this debate as well, a third way of thinking about the story of the stuff. And that was, what was the point of people taking the time to write either the 26 families affected by this shooting or just Newtown, the mayor's office, city council members? What was the point of people from all across the world writing that? What were they actually getting out of it? Was it a way for them to assuage whatever pain they felt and say that I have done something? “I have sent this care package. I have written this letter, thereby my conscience is cleared.” And this third way of thinking about the story of the stuff ended up becoming a discussion about what is actually the best way for the public at large to show that it too is mourning. And when you start to think about things from that perspective, you're suddenly not just talking about stuff, you're talking about a couple of things that are even more central.
The first he is mental health. And there was a guy who walked me around Newtown, his name is Rob Cox. He was a great guy. He's a journalist as well, I believe he works for Bloomberg. And Rob is a longtime resident of Newtown and he was showing me the mental health facilities that the state of Connecticut and the United States government had once funded. And he was telling me the ways in which that funding had decreased beginning in the seventies, extending through the 80s and into the 90s and to the point where, if memory serves, it had closed just a few months prior to Lanza walking into that school. And so that's the first question: To what extent are we all culpable here? To what extent should we have been arguing to keep these sort of facilities open? To make sure that people who have some sort of disorder who seemed to have some sort of real mental problem and pain? To what extent can we help them and make sure that they don't harm others?
The second part of this is guns, and Eli didn't preach solutions in his episode. That's not the sort of journalist he is. And there are a lot of things that I could say here. and maybe best thing for me to say is that I understand guns. I grew up a sportsman. I fished when I was a kid. I hunted a lot of lot of birds. I was a big pheasant Hunter with my dad. We would with her take on other foul. I've gone you know to shooting ranges on bachelor parties. I'm familiar with shotguns and various rifles and I get it. I get the appeal of hunting, I get the appeal of owning a gun. Looking at it strictly from a sportsman perspective I don't understand how owning an assault rifle -- the sort that lands used for some of the assault rifles that have been used in other massacres in dayton or El Paso most recently or going back to Las Vegas -- I don't understand how those weapons are in any way part of a sport. I don't understand how they could be used for sport. I don't know how to understand -- how you could consider them anything but an extremely unfair advantage over the game. I have tremendous respect for people who go pheasant hunting, go deer hunting and having like a 22 rifle or a 12 gauge shotgun with them on the hunt. I have tremendous respect for people who go bow and arrow hunting,
What I don't understand is anybody who would even think that using the sort of -- basically using the sort of weapons that the military would use. I don't understand how that could in any way bring you any sort of joy on a hunt, so if that's the case then you half of course go what is the point of a weapon like that for a civilian to have. And it's hard for me to reach any other conclusion than this is a weapon to kill as many people as quickly as possible. And so to bring bring it back to the story of the stuff that was really the final question that the residents of Newtown had to deal with: How could others across the u.s. across the world have better shown their solidarity with us in Newtown? Could it have been through writing members of Congress and saying perhaps legislation should change so that a shooting like what Adam Lanza carried out does not happen again? is it in some sense cowardly to do anything but write that letter? But call your member of call your local member of Congress? Is it selfish to do anything but notify Congress of how much you are hurting? Because do the residents of Newtown need to know that the rest of the world is hurting as much or the rest of the world is at least thinking about them? I would imagine that that would be very helpful for a lot of people and in fact in the course of my own reporting I found -- I spoke with a couple of members, a couple of families have been affected by the shootings and they said yeah and some sense it was helpful -- but after a while, after thousands of pounds of this stuff continues to work its way into the city, the question becomes what is the point of all of this? Who's grief are you actually assuaging? And is there a better way to go about this? I think there is. And that's ultimately what a lot of people in Newtown think as well.
I'll be back next week with another episode, another interview. If you like this podcast please remember to rate and review it wherever it is that you listen to podcasts. The music for Now That's a Great Story comes from Jeff Willet. Production help comes from him as well. If you want to stay in touch with what I'm doing and the people that inspire me, sign up for my newsletter at Paulkix.com/newsletter and I'll see you next week.