Reporter Naomi Zeveloff ’06 of the Jewish Daily Forward reflects on interviewing the mother of the youngest victim in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and on writing a complicated portrait of grief. This piece was originally commissioned for The Dart Society, an association of journalists who cover violence and tragedy.
Nine days after her son, Noah, was killed in the Newtown shootings, I interviewed Veronique Pozner for a story about the family’s grieving process for the Forward, the national Jewish news organization. The family had just finished observing the official Jewish mourning period, called shiva.
I spent over an hour with Veronique; she talked me through her experience on December 14 and the days that followed. Her story was filled with moving and harrowing details: her dream of wandering an abandoned building calling out for Noah, her meeting with President Obama at a vigil at the local high school and her decision to get a tattoo of angel wings and Noah’s name the day after his death. The details that stuck with me the most — and the details which I felt most conflicted about putting in print — were Veronique’s descriptions of the damage to her son’s body. He was shot multiple times; she told me that his jaw and his left hand were mostly gone.
There were certain things Veronique wanted for Noah’s funeral. She felt that his body had suffered too many indignities already; she was adamant that he not be autopsied. She wanted him to be buried with a Jewish prayer shawl and with a clear stone with a white angel inside — an “angel stone” — in each of his hands. Veronique was only able to put the stone in his right hand because the left was “not altogether there,” she told me, crying for the first time in our interview. She asked the funeral director to put the other one in the left hand spot. “I made him promise and he did.”
Veronique told me that Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy visited her in the funeral home, and she brought him to see Noah’s open casket. I asked her why it was important for her and for the governor to see Noah’s body. “I needed it to have a face for him,” she said. “If there is ever a piece of legislation that comes across his desk, I needed it to be real for him.”
Veronique continued on in this vein for a few minutes. But I still felt that I didn’t understand why she, as a mother, chose to see Noah’s body, so I asked her again: Why, for her? “I owed it to him as his mother, the good, the bad, the ugly,” she said. “It is not up to me to say I am only going to look at you and deal with you when you are alive, that I am going to block out the reality of what you look like when you are dead. And as a little boy, you have to go in the ground. If I am going to shut my eyes to that I am not his mother. I had to bear it. I had to do it.” Several family members also chose to view Noah’s body.
Then, unprompted by me, Veronique described what she saw: “We all saw how beautiful he was. He had thick, shiny hair, beautiful long eyelashes that rested on his cheeks. He looked like he was sleeping. But the reality of it was under the cloth he had covering his mouth there was no mouth left. His jaw was blown away. I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don’t talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven. No. They were butchered. They were brutalized. And that is what haunts me at night.”
After I left Newtown, I couldn’t stop thinking about this part of my conversation with Veronique and I wondered whether or not I should put it in the story. On the one hand, she had made it clear that she wanted the public — or at least, public officials — to have a picture of the damage inflicted on the children’s bodies. But on the other hand, I worried about sharing what seemed to be the most personal, most painful details. Would I be unnecessarily exposing the family? Were these details gratuitously violent? Would I be shocking readers instead of informing them?
I wrote the story, and included the details about the damage to Noah’s body just the way Veronique had described them, in the context of his funeral preparations, in the second half of the story:
The family placed stuffed animals, a blanket and letters to Noah into the casket. Lastly, Veronique put a clear plastic rock with a white angel inside — an “angel stone” — in his right hand. She asked the funeral director to place an identical one in his left, which was badly mangled.
Just before the ceremony, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy came to the funeral home to pay his respects. Veronique took him by the arm and brought him to the casket. Noah’s famously long eyelashes — which she spoke about in her eulogy — rested lightly on his cheeks and a cloth covered the place where the lower half of his face had been. “I just needed it to be real for [the governor],” she says. “This was a live, warm, energetic little boy whose life was snuffed out in a fraction of a second because our schools are so defenseless.”
Even though the Forward typically eschews quote verification, I offered it to Veronique, thinking she would want to know about this part of the story. I called her brother — my liaison to the family — the day before the story went to print and asked him if she’d like to speak with me about the article. Through him, Veronique declined.
At this point, I felt that we could ethically print the description. But I wanted to double check with my editor, Jane Eisner. I wrote her an email that evening: “Do you think the detail about his jaw being blown away is too much?” She responded: “It’s important to show the true violence.”
One problem remained: we hadn’t verified the fact that Gov. Malloy viewed Noah’s body. Since we were on a tight deadline, we removed that detail when we published the story online, and we added it back in after I had checked it with the governor’s office.
After the story went to print online, I was surprised that the dozens of people who Tweeted, commented and emailed about the story didn’t mention our inclusion of these horrific details. Then Salon.com published a brief write-up of the story, highlighting the sensitive portion: “in a harrowing description of Noah’s corpse laid to rest, some idea is given of the damage the assault weapon wrought on his young body.”
On Salon’s Facebook page, one person wrote: “I didn’t need to read that. I would not have published it either.”
But many others defended our choice:
“People should read this, as hard as it is to do so, to see the damage these guns inflict – psychologically and physically”
“If nothing else can bring you to tears, the phrase ‘a cloth covered his face where his lower jaw had been’ will.”
“Not publishing allows people to gloss over the horrible details. Like banning photos of coffins coming back from the war. If people want to keep these guns available, the effects shouldn’t be hidden.”
Though I have not spoken with Veronique since the story went to print, I have a feeling that she would agree with these comments. I now believe that she told me about what happened to Noah’s body so that I would use it in the story, and give the public a clear picture of the brutality of the Sandy Hook shooting.
To view the original story online, go to: http://www.dartsociety.org/cms/choosing-sensitive-details-in-one-sandy-hook-story/