In the months following the Newtown elementary school shootings — one year ago today — hundreds of thousands of letters made their way to the grieving town. A lot has been said about the meaning of the Newtown massacre since last December, as the deaths of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School became a national rallying cry for a stalled attempt to change the country's gun laws. But the messages sent there, many of which were written by children, say something else.
Despite the ease with which the tragedy has become a rhetorical device, Newtown, both the town and the event, is not primarily a political conduit. It is a place of grieving, and of rebuilding. That is quite possibly part of why the town has closed itself to the press for the anniversary day, in lieu of a public memorial. Some terrible things are actually unspeakable. This is one of them.
But the Newtown letters, taken as an archive, seem to dwell in that gap between a tragedy and the ever-present, ultimately futile need to articulate its meaning. Earlier this week, the Hartford Courant reported on a new database, launched Tuesday, containing a selection of the letters sent to the town in the wake of the tragedy. It's called "Embracing Newtown," headed up by Newtown resident Yolie Moreno.
Moreno is among a group of volunteers — Newtown residents, for the most part — who took on the larger task of preserving and archiving, physically and digitally, the letters, art, quilts, and poems sent to the town over the months. In Mother Jones, Newtown resident Ross MacDonald wrote about the preservation effort back in February, explaining that the outpouring of support had become too much for town officials to handle on their own:
They line both sides of the long main hall, and fill up the branching halls and offices. Posters, paintings, quilts, and flags cover the walls. There are banners from students at Columbine and Virginia Tech; there are letters from school kids across America and from people as far away as France and Australia. And there are boxes of Kleenex on every table for those who read them.
Eventually, the volunteer preservationists received help from outside conservationists and librarians, including Tamara Kennelly of Virginia Tech University, as the Courant reported. Kennelly also advised the team on the emotional fall-out of handling the letters, as the Virginia Tech community had to do after a 2007 massacre there.
Many of those letters are touching messages of consolation, solidarity, and sadness. Others, as the Courant noted, are negative: conspiracy theorists sent their rants to the Newtown town hall, while some fundamentalist Christians wrote the town to tell it the shooting death of 20 children was a punishment from God for America's moral crimes. While volunteers initially tossed some of the negative letters, a representative sample have been preserved for historical accuracy.
Embracing Newtown, however, is not about those negative letters. It is a selective archive, emotionally curated, of empathy. Below are just a few of the messages sent to Newtown over the past year, with permission from Yolie Moreno and Embracing Newtown:
The full archive is here.