In the weeks and months following the Sandy Hook shooting, the news reports about the wave of letters and donations that poured into Newtown caught Ashley Maynor’s attention. The stories raised questions she’d thought about for years: Why do people send gifts in the wake of mass tragedy? And is there an obligation to keep them?
A documentary filmmaker and digital librarian, Maynor was familiar with the outpouring of grief on a massive scale. At the time of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, she was living in Blacksburg, Virginia, working at the university as an adjunct French professor and running an arthouse movie theater a block away from campus. She lost friends that day. Not long after the massacre, she filmed the makeshift memorials that lined the university’s drill field: heapings of flowers, votive candles, American flags, and rainbow pinwheels.
The gifts and messages of condolence offered comfort and broke hearts. Chris Kelsey was among those who bore the weight of sorting the outpouring.
“This was my home movie, and, as a filmmaker, the way I grieved — with my camera,” Maynor would later write. “The world, on the other hand, sent their sympathies in the form of stuff: Hundreds of banners and posters. Tens of thousands of cards and letters. Thirty-two-thousand paper cranes. The packages kept coming.”
Maynor ultimately embarked on a film about the flood. She was working on that project when the Sandy Hook shooting happened in December 2012. Curious about the fate of all the donations Newtown was receiving, she traveled to Connecticut, where she learned that the volume of gifts there far surpassed what had arrived at Virginia Tech. Residents told her that the town was inundated with so much stuff, they were struggling to house it all. Maynor decided to shift the focus of her film to Newtown, and spent the next year creating a multimedia documentary called “The Story of the Stuff.”
Following the Virginia Tech shooting, Maynor filmed the makeshift memorials on the university’s quad.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, one Newtown resident, Yolie Moreno, sifts through letters the town received from countries around the world, including the Philippines, Malta, Cameroon, Kenya, and Guam.
Maynor’s film is as much about the stuff that filled up warehouses and shut down post offices in Newtown as it is about the residents who volunteered to sort through it. Each of them had a different perspective on the process. One resident found it therapeutic to archive the half million letters the town received, while another wondered whether preserving the donations caused more harm than good. The project took a toll on Maynor as well. “We kind of weren’t built for this much sympathy,” she says. “There can be an overload.”
Maynor’s project also gave her insights into the phenomenon of spontaneous shrines surfacing in the wake of mass tragedies — a trend that she traced back to 1982, when visitors left sentimental totems at the foot of the newly unveiled Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. These temporary memorials have since appeared following the Oklahoma City bombing, Princess Diana’s death, the Columbine shooting, the attack on 9/11, and recently, the mass shooting in San Bernardino.
Maynor was never able to completely nail down why some people use gifts as a means to express their grief after unspeakable events. “The one thing I do know is that people feel like they have to do something,” she says. To try to harness that goodwill, Maynor developed a web tool called Cranes for Change, which allows people to send letters to lawmakers urging them to pass gun reform legislation. “Teddy bears don’t undo violence,” she says, “no matter how many we send.”
[Photo: still from “Story of the Stuff”]