Elizabeth Williamson is a writer at The New York Times who, for the last four years, has been chronicling the Sandy Hook parents’ fight against liars and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones who falsely claim that the shooting was a hoax. She recently published Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth. As part of her reporting, she spent a great deal of time with the parents of the children who died in Newtown, Connecticut, almost a decade ago. (Disclosure: She also interviewed me, about my reporting on Alex Jones.) The book is meticulously researched, and the story she tells is written and reported with an admirable empathy and respect for its subjects. It is, as you might expect, extremely hard to read at times. But both her careful re-creation of the tragedy and her examination of the parents’ fight to preserve the legacy of their children reflect the kind of story we ought to bear witness to now.
If I’m being honest, I called Elizabeth because I’ve been struggling to process this tragedy at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, myself. I read her book in March, and so much of what she described in those pages already seems to be unfolding again. There’s no real sense to be made of a moment like this, but I felt like she might be able to put some of what we’re seeing in context. As it turns out, she’d been speaking with the Sandy Hook families and was able to offer insight into what has sadly become a recurring nightmare.
Charlie Warzel: I recently read Sandy Hook and the first hundred pages of the book, which is based on your extensive interviews with the Sandy Hook families, are just gutting. The moments you detailed where the parents were waiting for hours in holding areas to learn if their children were alive was so tragic that I had to keep reminding myself that it was a real thing that happened. My brain almost didn’t want to believe what I was reading. And then, on Tuesday night, I saw reporters tweeting about the same thing happening—10 years later—a true nightmare repeating itself. I guess the first thing I want to ask is what your reaction was to the news coming out of Uvalde?
Elizabeth Williamson: My first reaction sounds cliché but it is just that I couldn’t believe it. I contacted some of the Sandy Hook parents who were the main subjects in the book and, lacking anything more meaningful to say, I just told them, “I’m so sorry.”
Warzel: What did they tell you?
Williamson: They shared their thoughts. Some were extended conversations—a few phone calls but mostly texts. And I got their permission to share some of those conversations. Of course part of their reaction is that this feels so similar. But it’s also important for them to be remembered and for their situation to be remembered as its own tragedy. Because so little happened on the policy side after Sandy Hook. And so many of the families have an impulse to reach out to families that this happens to and help them out. That’s because they are the only people who know what this moment feels like. In some cases they had people reach out to them after their tragedy and they appreciated it and they’re repaying that kindness.
Warzel: I’ve never heard about that. How absolutely tragic that this network has to exist at all. It really drives home just how alienating living through this type of tragedy is.
Williamson: It’s been described to me as this fraternity that exists that nobody wants to be a part of.
Warzel: Can you share more about the reactions from the Sandy Hook families?
Williamson: It varied. Broadly there was anger. Many see what happened through the prism of how they’ve devoted parts of their lives after the shooting. For Lenny Pozner, who made it about combatting mis- and disinformation after Sandy Hook, he saw it through that lens. He immediately saw the deniers spring up and the campaigns to flood the zone with shit.
Somebody like Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse died at Sandy Hook, she saw the gunman was a bullied kid and looked at it through the lens of, How many times are we going to fail to attend to social-emotional health of kids?, which was a part of Adam Lanza’s story—how he suffered from profound underdiagnosed mental illness and, at beginning stages, was suffering from bullying and neglect within the school system. Robby Parker, whose daughter Emilie died, his impulse was to want to go there and be with these parents. He and his wife, Alissa, sat with a couple who lost their daughter at Parkland, Florida. His desire is to be a part of that support network.
Talking to them, one of the things I thought about was back when Sandy Hook happened, one of the warnings they’d seen from survivors of previous mass shootings was to be careful of charities raising money in the name of your family and children—warnings that the money won’t be shared with the families. That was an unbelievable thing for them to hear and many didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with that at the time. And there were real problems, like United Way raising money for their programs by using Sandy Hook and then telling the families that they could potentially apply for United Way services, but couldn’t access the money.
Warzel: I remember reading that part in the book and being shocked by it. Not only by the scammers but by the fact that, in the midst of the families’ shock and horror, that they had so many logistical things to deal with and people and organizations trying to have a piece of them.
Williamson: One thing we talked about was how nowadays, the surprising thing to people who are survivors of mass shootings—the conversation the Sandy Hook families have with the next generation of parents who suffer this loss—is that there will be people who will say this tragedy never happened. This was something that wasn’t on the radar for Lenny Pozner but now it’s a big part of the experience of being a survivor.
Warzel: It’s unspeakably grim that each set of survivors is forced to deal with an evolving set of horrible behaviors from the outside world.
Williamson: Yes, it’s an ever-lengthening list of humiliations and indignities and base human behavior they have to deal with.
Warzel: You spent four years for your book immersing yourself in the details of the events surrounding and after Sandy Hook—including the grifter-conspiracy industrial complex spreading viral lies about Sandy Hook being a hoax. It’s been just under a decade since Sandy Hook, and the information spaces have matured a great deal in that time. Watching the news out of Uvalde, can you tell me what dynamics in the aftermath of this tragedy feel similar and what feels different to you?
Williamson: In the beginning after Sandy Hook, there was this free-floating lying about the tragedy. Like, there was Alex Jones on the day of the shooting having listeners call in, and you can watch them prodding him to talk about it as a conspiracy and almost goading him into yelling about false flags. This kind of gathering storm became the Sandy Hook hoax story. And you had people like Wolfgang Halbig, a retired Florida public-school official, who was trying to be a “school safety consultant” and found this macabre way to do it by “investigating” Sandy Hook as a hoax. You had these things kind of start out in their own separate spheres and then of course, they merged and fueled each other. Halbig becomes a content creator for Alex Jones, Jones doubles down on Sandy Hook, camera crews show up torturing people in Newtown.
Now, I see it differently. It has started to harden among a larger cadre of the far right opposed to any and all gun legislation and it’s hardened into an actual strategy. We can see evidence now that, after the Parkland shooting, the National Rifle Association was encouraging people like Halbig to cast doubt on the shooting.
Warzel: I think that’s definitely a product of these information systems maturing. People have a very good sense of the role they need to play when news like this happens. There’s not a lot of scrambling to find a position; people just jump right into it.
Williamson: And I don’t even know if the rampant misinformation or the hoax stories convince people, or that the people spreading it care if they convince people. I think they’re just flooding the zone with shit. And people only sort of paying attention get confused—they see reports of the shooter that aren’t true. They see the hoax and then the nearly useless debunking and then by the time the real information is out they’ve thrown up their hands already. And you have people fighting online trying to correct people who won’t be convinced, or engaging with all the shit and becoming apathetic because they feel things won’t change. I remember talking with Lenny Pozner, and he told me that a lot of the people who were most traumatized and susceptible to the hoaxes were moms with kids around the same age as the ones who died. It was that they just didn’t want to believe a thing like this could happen. Lenny called it a form of PTSD.
Warzel: I think, too, that one effect of the more developed online ecosystem and the established nature of a far-right media ecosystem that amplifies a lot of these lies is that there doesn’t even have to be a shadowy cabal organizing coordinated harassment campaigns. Those exist for sure, but so much is also organic, too.
Williamson: There’s definitely a combination that includes a lot of self-interested, individual players who then achieve a certain aggregate effect. After Sandy Hook, this felt very new to a lot of the people I’ve spoken to. In the five years between the Virginia Tech shooting and Sandy Hook, you had a mass adoption of tech platforms, the introduction of the retweet button, more efficient ways to spread information. In 2012, it felt to a lot of people in the survivor community like a bug of these platforms that people would latch onto these horrific false narratives about their tragedy. Now, they view it as a feature of these platforms and, as such, whenever it happens, people capitalize on it.
Warzel: As a journalist, how do you think about covering the stories of mass shootings and gun violence in America after the last few weeks. Something I’ve felt and also seen expressed quite a bit, is that it’s becoming difficult not to feel trapped in this cycle. When you look at the Buffalo, New York, shooter and see him following the viral livestream template of other white supremacist terrorists, or you see the similarities between Sandy Hook and Uvalde, it starts to feel hard to find new things to say, which can make it feel like there’s nothing to say, even when that’s obviously not the case. What I’m trying to get at is this feeling like we are stuck in a doom loop where we’re confronted with these horrible tragedies and the grief and new people who’ve lost their lives and devastated communities, and that’s alongside this total void of leadership and reprehensible inaction from lawmakers. As a journalist with real proximity to these families and their stories, how do you think about how we move forward?
Williamson: I was talking to an NPR affiliate this morning and the host was doing the thing where they are trying to wrap up the segment with a bright spot. And they were asking, “What are the good things people are doing?”
And I started to talk about some of the research in the information sphere—pre-bunking and people thinking about how to stop people from going down rabbit holes—and then I stopped, and I felt so much despair going over this stuff because of what’s happened in the last two weeks, because it is a time to feel despair. The one thing that’s a positive is that people are outraged and invested in this right now and that is useful momentum. Sometimes I try to focus on the online element of it because you can wrap your mind around it. After the shooting in Texas, on Wednesday morning, Lenny Pozner sent me the links of Facebook posts by this asshole named Tony Mead, who was already at work trying to pose the shooting as a hoax. He was the moderator of the Sandy Hook Hoax Facebook group. And you know myself and others made note of that on Twitter and people reported it to Facebook and the posts got taken down, and that is something. I think there’s a broad recognition of the information problem and that we cannot have real discussions about what we need on a policy level if this is the information environment we’ve built for ourselves.
Warzel: What about outside of the information environment? I don’t want to let any tech companies off the hook here. It’s absolutely inexcusable that somebody like Mead is still able to use Facebook to inflict this kind of pain on survivors after a full decade. I’m curious how you’re thinking about the other, non-platform information problems.
Williamson: I do feel really defeated. But at the same time, speaking this week to the Sandy Hook families, I don’t know where they get the grace they have—the way they remain so positive. There’s this feeling they articulate—they feel we’re going to keep chipping away at this and something good will come from that. I mean, Lenny Pozner sent me those links at 7 a.m. this morning. I saw that Mead stuff and it made me so furious. But Lenny Pozner wasn’t furious. He was methodical about it. The posts got taken down and he was very calm. He kept talking about small victories. I don’t know where one gets that fortitude but these families have it. And I want to be clear that I haven’t lived with their story long at all—it’s been four years for me and a lifetime for them.
Warzel: I’ve heard similar anecdotes from reporters who’ve spent time with other survivors of horrible tragedies—that there can be a strength or resilience or force of grace and will that is impossible for anyone who hasn’t dealt with that trauma to understand.
Williamson: I think, from my conversations, they’ve all had that thought of, What if I just give up? I could choose that route and I bet nobody would blame me. And they don’t choose it. And they have all kinds of reasons—surviving children, faith. They decide, I’m not going to choose to end it, even symbolically. But they are, at the same time, very much resistant to people telling them, “you’re so strong,” because there are days when they aren’t. And to have people constantly tell them they are is robbing them of that agency to feel weak when they in fact feel weak. As Robby put it to me, that impulse of mine to say, “you’re so strong,” is a reflection that I, Elizabeth Williamson, can’t stand the pain I’m in when hearing their story. It’s that I can’t sit with it so I want to write a happy ending for them. And, of course, we cannot.
Warzel: That’s a really important thing for all of us to remember right now.
Williamson: I think so many of us, in a small, small way, are faced with a dead end when these tragic events happen. You’re confronted with the fact that there’s no will in this country to change the policy that makes it happen. In these dark moments, there’s a slight lifting of the veil and you see a glimpse of the kind of dead end that people who experience these tragedies firsthand experience every single day of their lives. It’s the smallest, tiniest glimpse, and I’m not comparing the experiences, but when I talk to these families and see that they aren’t giving up, it also puts things into perspective. If they are willing to keep talking about this—if Lenny is willing to keep collecting URLs of people who are spreading misinformation and turning them in dutifully to Facebook in the hopes of getting those small victories—that’s pretty motivating for me.
Warzel: It is. I think a real feature of living in America right now for many people is feeling like parts of life are getting gradually, but consistently, worse and more unstable, and that nobody in charge will do what’s necessary to help. And I think there is something to the gradual part that really lulls us into feeling powerless. These mass shootings should be seismic events that rattle and shake us into action. But they’re such a common occurrence that we sadly tend to view them as part of that gradual decay. I’m thinking out loud, but perhaps that determination and grace and resolve you describe with people like Lenny—alongside the lingering tragedy—is what comes from having the fabric of your life forever torn apart.
Williamson: Lenny is the best at articulating this but I’ll attempt to summarize it. If you look at the people on the other side of the coin—the ones spreading this shooting hoax stuff—there are lots of reasons for it, but there’s also a real nihilism and a desire to burn everything down. And If you buy into this fuck everything mindset, there is a way where it’s hard to distinguish yourself from the people on the other side, where mischief and inflicting pain is the only thing left for them.
Warzel: It’s a pretty good motivator to fight against it.
Williamson: I think about the epilogue of my book where Lenny says, “I won.” He says that because, thanks to his efforts, nobody will mention Alex Jones without also mentioning that he tormented the Sandy Hook families. And, when you look at the inaction on the policy front after the shooting, what he’s describing is a real victory.
There’s this one thing Lenny told me about his son Noah—about his scent. He told me that he used to go into his room at night—parents do this, and your baby is sleeping and they have this, like, sweaty-baby scent that is sweet and lovely—and he’d sneak in at night to be close to him, just to experience that. And I’d think about that in the context of what he was trying to do, trying to get Sandy Hook lies off the web. His big worry was that in 2013 to 2015, if you googled “Sandy Hook Shooting” the first stuff to come up was the hoax content. When Noah died, in the weeks and months after, Lenny went through his clothes and he wanted something that smelled like him. He wanted something to remind him of the essence of his son. And I think with Lenny’s story, part of what he’s tried to do is to get back Noah’s essence. He was so worried that the lies were going to erase that fundamental part of his life and story.
He felt like he needed to rescue his story and he’s done that. Now, he doesn’t have that sense that, If I’m not 24/7 chasing this, that Noah would fade to nothing. When you think about what an unbelievable task that was and that he was successful in it, there’s something to hold onto there. It’s been years since Alex Jones has mentioned the Sandy Hook shooting on the show and the families. Lenny took Noah’s name out of Alex Jones’s mouth. And that’s a big mouth.
Warzel: What seems important to me about that is that it’s a reminder that the work, the fight, matters. Even if it feels fruitless.
Williamson: I really feel for the journalists who are covering these tragedies from the scene. Or reporters like John Woodrow Cox at The Washington Post, who wrote the book Children Under Fire about child gun violence. He has covered so many shootings and it’s this unending drumbeat. And that would just, I think, be soul destroying. But if you look back at the coverage and what somebody wrote, you can see at least one thing that helped humanize people, that helped the stories live on, or that motivated somebody to do something that mattered. And you see it with the families. The way that the Sandy Hook families just won a $73 million suit against Remington. That was not easy but they have pierced the shield of protection surrounding that company when people said it couldn’t be done. Those victories are meaningful. They inspire other mass-shooting survivors to give it a try. The work—all the work—it matters.