After Tragedy, Additional Adversity for One Newtown Family
By Lenny Pozner
December 14 marked the one-year anniversary of the murder of my six-year-old son, Noah, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. High-profile anniversaries mean different things to the public than to the “Newtown parents” like me: The media is inclined to focus on stories of perseverance and progress, because that’s what the public wants to believe. The families know that healing is not a linear process. Our recovery from tragedy is detoured by unimaginable sadness, unexpected obstacles and devastating setbacks. Most days, it doesn’t feel like progress at all.
Tragedy numbs you, but it also makes you alert to the kindness of neighbors and friends. In the days that followed Noah’s murder, the Newtown community came together. Friends opened up their homes to us. People helped my family and my two girls in more ways than I can describe. Their support was the norm, and we remain grateful for the community’s response.
My wife Veronique and I were so beaten down by the shockwave of grief—we were both suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—that we really couldn’t function. We faced additional challenges because Veronique and I were separated. We were living separately at that time. We shared custody, splitting the week in half. They were with me the night before. I made sure Noah and his siblings did their homework and were in bed on time. I drove Noah to school that morning.
December 14 shattered us, and left us vulnerable in ways we could not have imagined.
In the days that followed Veronique’s family flew out from the West Coast. In short order Veronique’s brother, Alexis Haller, began to meet with the media, which was hungry for any and all information on the families. He was interviewed by a number of news outlets, including the NY Daily News, the Associated Press and Anderson Cooper on CNN. In the process, we lost our voice and became spectators to our own grief.
Alexis and his wife Victoria established a website to solicit donations for our family, a trust fund for the children, and created a mailing address in Newtown for correspondence that was forwarded to them in Washington state. Victoria, who hardly knew my son, began tweeting and blogging about Noah and directing potential donors to the website. The public responded graciously, sending donations, made out to Veronique and me, or the Pozner family, along with sympathy mail and toys and teddy bears for my children. Unfortunately, none of these items made their way to us. My brother-in-law, who also hardly knew Noah, anointed himself the family spokesman and decision maker.
A series of family disputes ensued, many of which have played out in the press. When we attempted to access the donations, Alexis and his wife would not release them. We had to hire an attorney in early 2013 to gain access to and control over what rightfully belonged to our family. Still, Alexis continued to appear before the media even though I had asked him repeatedly in December and January to stop. Finally, in February we had to appeal to the press to say Alexis’ comments were his own and did not represent the views of my family. His behavior made our unimaginable hell even worse.
There were other difficulties that did not make the news, thankfully. A month or so after Noah’s murder, Veronique received a letter from her ex-husband attempting to gain more control of finances based on their divorce 13 years earlier. He threatened to take her to court.
At about the same time, I was sued by someone with whom I had a business dispute three years earlier. When he read that a charity was distributing several million dollars to the Sandy Hook families, he assumed every family was receiving millions of dollars and sued me for $100,000. By this point Veronique and I had engaged multiple attorneys: two to deal with Alexis, one for the ex-husband, and one for my ex-business associate, all while mending a fractured marriage, and tending to a parent in the last stages of a terminal illness. We moved through our days in a fog.
These problems were unique to our household. Others affected all the Newtown families. The media coverage, for example, was often inaccurate, especially with regard to the details around the shooting, sometimes fueling crazy conspiracy theorists I’ve read about and encountered.
Earlier this year, I stopped at a major chain hotel with my family in tow. I was in the process of registering when the twenty-something girl at the counter looked at my driver’s license and said, “Oh, Sandy Hook. The government did that.” I was able to shrug it off—she obviously didn’t know who I was—but it was painful to hear such a misguided opinion.
Such attitudes are driven in part by inaccuracies in the media. One article in the Jewish Daily Forward written the day after the shooting stated that Noah had been shot 11 times, which was untrue. I asked the reporter to make a correction and she refused. This inaccuracy became a fact that was repeated in future coverage, referenced numerous times as an extreme example of crimes committed with semi-automatic weapons. I even heard that politicians referenced it in their speeches, using this ‘fact’ to further their agendas. But this was my son they were talking about, and they were getting it wrong.
Finally, there are the inevitable scams. Nouel Alba, a woman in the Bronx, posed as Noah’s aunt—Alexis’ wife Victoria Haller—and solicited donations for what she referred to as a “funeral fund.” In truth, Noah was buried within two days of the shooting, as is Jewish tradition. In October of this year, Alba was convicted of fraud and sentenced to eight months in prison.
Veronique and I no longer live in the Newtown area. After December 14, it was apparent we would need to start a new life elsewhere. The murder of our son brought us back together. The life we were living before December 14 no longer applied. Whatever our values were back then—whatever compelled us to seek a divorce—was no longer important to us on December 15.
Now, as we close in on the anniversary, the days get even harder. On November 20 we celebrated the seventh birthday of Noah’s twin sister, Arielle, and that was very tough. We made it a positive day because it’s her birthday. We had a cake for Arielle and we added seven candles for Noah. Arielle made a wish for herself and another for Noah.
We are braced for the wave of attention that will inevitably accompany this horrific anniversary. We know we can do nothing to stop it. We know that this attention will focus on things that have more to do with various agendas and pat conclusions than with the murder victims, including Noah, who would have just turned seven.
As draining as 2013 has been for me and Veronique, we are optimistic that the worst is behind us. We will finally properly honor and mourn Noah. A killer took from us our son, and family members took from us our energy to grieve, but no one can take away our memories of Noah and our determination to keep him alive in our hearts.