A Sandy Hook Mom on How to Fight for Victims of Gun Violence — Without Traumatizing Their Families

·13 min read
Newtown Shooting Memorial sandy-hook-mother.jpg - Credit: Jessica Hill/AP
Newtown Shooting Memorial sandy-hook-mother.jpg - Credit: Jessica Hill/AP

The news that 19 children had been murdered at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, sent Nelba Márquez-Greene into a deep shock. Then came the requests that shattered her: Would you release the photographs of your daughter’s autopsy?

Márquez-Greene’s six-year-old daughter Ana was one of 20 children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. She’s endured a decade of unthinkable grief alongside countless invasions of privacy, from the neighbors who gave unsanctioned interviews to the press to the conspiracy theorists who scoured Ana’s school portraits for proof the massacre hadn’t occurred. To demand she expose her daughter’s autopsy photos shook her. “It’s just an incredibly inappropriate thing, to ask those most wounded to do more,” Márquez-Greene says.

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Parents like Márquez-Greene have been on the receiving end of renewed calls to release the photos of shooting victims — a desperate, graphic Hail Mary to possible reverse the doomed fate of stricter gun laws. Emmett Till’s open casket invigorated the civil rights movement. Footage from the war in Vietnam soured Americans on the conflict. The cell phone video of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck ignited widespread calls for racial justice. Gun control activists point to these examples as proof that images, too, could change the tide.

But behind any shared photograph, of course, is a victim of gun violence — a victim whose surviving loved ones wish to remember as anything but. “These are real people and real loved ones who are sitting with trauma,” says Christian Heyne, the vice president of policy at Brady, a gun violence prevention group. “It’s hard because there’s no way in this day and age to fully protect the image, privacy, or memory of a loved one.” The requests are well-meaning, Heyne says, but ultimately a question of “the agency of survivors to tell their own story and control their own story.”

There’s also a question of whether sharing these images would have any discernible effect, beyond causing more trauma to people who’ve suffered too much of it. Activists crave a “tragedy-to-triumph” narrative, Márquez-Greene says, one that draws a straight line from sharing gutting images to a slate of stricter federal gun laws. It’s a desire for these tragedies to be more than just tragedies, because the alternative is simply too difficult to accept. But if Republicans are already lining up to oppose gun safety proposals after 19 elementary school students were murdered a week ago — just as they did to block those proposals after 20 elementary school students a decade ago — why would anyone expect photos of the killings to make the difference?

“Our ask in these moments should not be of those most wounded, they should be of those most powerful,” she explains, “and we’re asking those most wounded to do more work because we feel desperate, we feel scared.”

Márquez-Greene is not suggesting families shouldn’t share those photographs, even if it’s not a decision her family would make. But it’s up to those families, she says, to decide for themselves how much to share in pursuit of change. “I’m suggesting it should be a family’s choice and not something driven by the outside,” she says.

I spoke with Márquez-Greene on Tuesday afternoon, a week after the Uvalde massacre. She recounted the pain of the requests and the abuse her family has endured since Sandy Hook. “It is outrageous to me that we are asking families to consider this when our lives are already filled with so much challenge,” Márquez-Greene said. “You’re asking the wrong people to do the work.”

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You’ve been inundated with requests to share photographs of Ana’s body over the last week. What has that been like for you?
Not only have the requests come in with the suggestion that I should do that, but the request that really took me over the edge was, “Could you please recommend to the parents in Texas, that if they collectively took this action, we might be able to move the needle?” While I do think some of this is well-meaning, it’s important to clearly articulate that our moments of desperation, due to inhumanity, cannot be met with more inhumanity. Our ask in these moments should not be of those most wounded, they should be of those most powerful. In this case, those are two very distinct groups. And we’re asking those most wounded to do more work because we feel desperate, we feel scared.

We are all in a traumatic state having witnessed this event, which for so many people brought them way back from where they were during the Newtown shooting. Perhaps 10 years later, because there hasn’t been ‘Another Newtown,’ they were able to fall into a false sense of complacency or comfort that that wouldn’t happen again—when the truth is that we’ve had a number of mass shootings, a number of mass shootings in schools, and 120 people die from gun violence every day. So we should never have had that false sense of security and safety in the first place. And the move now is not to ask families to do more. It’s to ask your elected officials to do more.

Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting no one should do it. I’m suggesting it should be a family’s choice and not something driven by the outside. But our asks and demands must match our support and resources. For those of you who are asking and clamoring and saying ‘We should parade Ted Cruz through a lobby of photos of dead children,’ tell me, will you be there next week to bring dinner to my house or support me while I’m weeping? This week has been hell not just because of the news, but because of the asks that have been imposed on me and Ana’s dad.

In the past, requests to see these autopsy photos have come from less friendly corners, such as conspiracy theorists who demanded them as proof that the Sandy Hook massacre actually happened. Have these requests been a constant for you in the decade since the tragedy?
It only comes up when there’s a shooting that captures the public’s attention. Occasionally, we’ll get a one-off. But you’re absolutely right. The genesis of these asks came from people who didn’t believe us in the first place. They came from people who were taking living pictures of my daughter, putting them on Facebook, and dissecting every frame of her photo. I remember once someone out there took a living picture of Ana and sent it back to me saying, ‘There’s no way your daughter was six, she had breast buds.’ So you want me to release images knowing this kind of thing is out there? I don’t think people truly understand the consequences of an ask like that for a family—the lifelong weaponizing of these photos.

Let’s say my husband and I decided to release an autopsy photo. There’s a good chance someone is going to print that photo and mail it to me in an anonymous envelope. Are you going to be the person who holds my hand while I have to deal with that? My son is 17 years old. Why on earth would I put him through a lifetime of this? I just don’t think America understands the depravity of the ask.

Those past experiences sound like a massive invasion of privacy. I wonder if the activists who are calling for you to release those photos have thought through all of the possible unintended consequences.
America wants a very clean and simple narrative. They want a tragedy-to-triumph thing with all of our actions. Okay, where’s the support? Where are the resources? Where are the safety measures? You couldn’t keep my daughter’s living pictures safe. It took Facebook six years to take the Sandy Hook hoax page down after the first complaint and you want me to give you an autopsy photo?

YouTube was another one. We asked in our daughter’s homegoing services that it not be recorded. Well, someone came, recorded it and put it on YouTube. I was fighting Congress and YouTube trying to get them to take that down. We are literally living in an age where these companies have decided to offer no protections. So if America wants me to work in this specific way, it will compel these companies to do more, too.

I’m really tired of being asked to do more when it doesn’t seem like the people with a lot more power want to do more, either. It would take Facebook very little to offer more protections. It would take YouTube very little to say ‘we will not allow the exploitation and abuse of families’ and it took and has taken them years. And I bet you that’s coming for the Buffalo and Texas families as well.

You touched on something I think is important to distinguish. There are many families in Sandy Hook who have suffered, and every family gets to make its own choice as to what advocacy and grieving look like—and it looks different for different families, right? Can you describe for me why privacy is so important in these moments of intense grief?
America needs to understand the two things needed in order to function: A sense of safety and a sense of control. So in the immediate aftermath of Texas, as I’m trying to hold myself together in deep shock with my husband, a reporter called my husband repeatedly, called me repeatedly, emailed repeatedly, texted repeatedly. That made me feel really scared. I don’t even know how these people have our phone numbers, I will have to change mine. It doesn’t add to a sense of safety or control when families are reached in this way. I know everyone wants to get that story. But we need time to grieve, we need time to mourn.

It took us three days to decide what we wanted to put in the obituary statement. It took us a number of days to figure out what we wanted to release as a family. We needed time to gather and figure it out, because nobody’s ever prepared for something like this. This fever pitch media chase after shootings doesn’t follow the rhythm of healing. It follows the rhythm of publication. It follows the real rhythm of chasing dollars. And there’s a big difference between those two rhythms.

Do you think activists are trying to be too opportunistic at this moment?
I don’t think advocates necessarily are trying to be opportunistic. I think everyone is desperate, and everyone feels like they need to try to take action. And action can take two courses. Action can be congruous with healing, or action can be divergent from healing. What I learned is that the action that America demanded of me in 2012 and 2013 did not follow the rhythm of my healing. I would eventually become a person that privileged and prioritized my survival as a human being and as a mom and as a wife over the action, because I felt like my survival, too, was action.

I don’t think activism is bad. I just think we need two teams. We need a team of folks working on policy change and screaming at the top of their lungs until we get something done. We also need people caring for families. And what we have done is we have conflated the two.

What’s your big concern right now for yourself and other Sandy Hook families who are getting all of this outreach, all of a sudden, out of nowhere?
My sense of things is not unique to gun violence survivors. We have just lost a million people to COVID, so there are a million impacted families, right? So my concern is for all of us. My concern is that we are closer to despair than we are hope. My concern is that because we are seeing very few solutions and a lot of places where we are stuck — whether that’s with COVID or climate change or white nationalism — our response to everything right now seems to be one of despair, and for good reason.

That’s why my first tweet after Texas was, ‘There’s someone right now, who is thinking about giving up, who is thinking about losing hope, and I can’t promise you everything’s going to be better, but I can tell you that it’s going to be worse without you here. Please find help if you need it.’ We’re like brake pads. Brake pads needs to have a certain thickness in order to be effective and keep us safe when we’re in our car. We have it worn down. It’s just metal on metal now.

I’m really concerned. I have to admit this week, with the pressure of everything, with the constant calls, with seeing people that I know and love — even journalists — saying, ‘maybe those parents should release the pictures.’ The demands made me feel incredibly unsafe and despondent unlike I have ever felt in many years. I have to remind people that this is hurting families. And that’s why I started speaking out.

I’ve heard from people who have said, ‘Nelba, until you started speaking, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And I was a person who suggested those families should share their photos. But thanks to your stories, I’m shifting and focusing on writing letters to my senator.’ Could you imagine if we handled rape in this country like this by saying, ‘Show me your rape?’ Like, we’re a nation insane.

What can well-meaning activists do to honor victims and their families without further traumatizing them?
The most important thing is to center the families right and to resist looking for formulaic answers on things. We want the formula, the module, the program that will give us the right thing. People say, ‘Well, how can I help you, I don’t live near Sandy Hook.’ That’s fine. Go help that person on your street, go help that person at your church, go help that person at your local Walmart who you know has lost a sibling. If we only want to help high-profile families, and not families who aren’t covered in the media, then we need to do a real analysis of our intentions.

If we can only find the compassion, interest, and wherewithal to send a quilt or a bear to Newtown, but not to Compton or Hartford or anywhere else that has been touched by gun violence, the problem is not that parents aren’t releasing pictures. The problem is that you are not paying attention to how big a problem this is, every day, in your home, in your neighborhood, and that you could be next. And that’s not something that I’m going to fix for you. That’s something you have to look in the mirror and deal with.

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