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Newtown Parents Seek A Clearer Window Into Violent Behavior

Dec 12, 2013
Originally published on December 12, 2013 10:22 am

The shooting in Newtown, Conn., last December has left families of the 26 victims, most of them children, struggling to heal in different ways.

Jeremy Richman and Jennifer Hensel are one such family. They lost their only child, 6-year-old Avielle, in the shooting. In the year since, they've responded as any parents would: Asking why such a tragedy could have happened.

But they also responded as the two scientists they are: They immediately threw themselves into trying to answer the question. The foundation they've started is dedicated to supporting research into the forces that increase a person's risk of violence and aggression.

As much as they hope their work will help society avoid another tragedy, it's also helping them to heal and move on from their own loss.

'The Question Was Why'

Even before she was old enough to say it herself, Avielle Richman was totally into her name. She loved that no one else had it — and decided that everyone and everything else deserved a unique name, too.

"She named everything," Richman says. "She named our trees Maeve and Efford. And our gargoyles on the house, she named Grolig and Galen."

At home in Sandy Hook, Avielle's parents are surrounded by their late daughter's creativity, from the three identical baby blankets she named "Pink," "Blink" and "Basil" to her pet fish, "Khaihawana Punk."

The couple laugh just remembering the day Avielle gave the fish its name. Perhaps that's a sign of healing — that one year ou,t a memory can bring a laugh. But just as often, it doesn't.

"In my office there's a great triptych of her smiling and then busting out laughing because her brand new kitten was biting her feet," Richman says. "One minute it just busts me out laughing, and then the next minute, it just breaks my heart because I miss her so much."

The anniversary of the shooting, and the holidays, are relentless reminders to the couple of all they had and so suddenly lost. "A year ago we were going to go see the Christmas Spectacular at the Radio City Music Hall," Hensel says. "We were talking about going sledding, being with family for the holidays."

Then, like 25 other families, they found themselves tormented by the same question.

"Why? Why would somebody do this? It's unfathomable. Why would somebody want to kill my child?" Hensel says. "Why would somebody want to kill as many as they possibly could? The question was why."

Seeking To Understand Violent Tendencies

With his training in neuropsychopharmacology and her background in infectious disease, the couple is pushing for more integrated research — examining both nature and nurture — to understand the biochemical and external factors that drive violent behavior.

To that end, Richman and Hensel launched the Avielle Foundation, shortly after the shooting. "It is our responsibility to be outraged, to take action, to ensure this doesn't happen again," Richman said at a press conference in Connecticut in January. "With this foundation, it is our hope to honor our beautiful Avielle and others who have fallen to such senseless violence."

Understanding the underpinnings of violence, Richman and Hensel hope, will eventually lead to treatment for people with violent tendencies. The foundation's tagline, "You can imagine," is a nod, the couple say, to what's possible — and to the need for people to not turn away.

"Everywhere that we went in the beginning, people were all like, 'I can't imagine what you're going through. I can't imagine,' " Richman says. "But they are imagining it. That's the terror they're feeling when they say those words. And we need to imagine it. Because otherwise we can't drive change, innovation, ideas."

'A Reason To Get Out Of Bed Every Day'

Richman and Hensel dream of advances in brain imaging that might one day enable routine brain "checkups," much like the way doctors measure blood pressure. They've been meeting with lawmakers in Connecticut and Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President Joe Biden, to lobby for more awareness and training that they say could help identify those prone to violence, like the gunman at Sandy Hook and elsewhere.

"The shooters were not in their right minds," Richman told one legislative committee earlier this year. "Upon reflection, those who crossed paths with these individuals consistently express the sentiment, 'There was always something not right about that guy.' "

Richman and Hensel's work is a means to an end, but also, they say, an end in itself.

"No question. We need a reason to get out of bed every day. And it's not so easy and so obvious to pull out of that despair," Richman says.

And while they feel lucky to have the language and lens of science to help them find answers, they're also quick to concede that there are questions science can never resolve, like, "Why Avielle?" or, "What if?"

"You just can't go there," says Richman.

"It's a circular path into nowhere. Spiraling, even, to a place that doesn't help," adds Hensel "It's not a place of beauty, I can tell you that, and it's not a place of hope, and that's where we have to move forward."

From California to Colorado and Connecticut, local fundraising events have brought in donations from $10 to tens of thousands for the foundation. The pair says the outpouring helps their healing — one example of what they call the "bits of beauty" they're constantly looking for as an antidote to their pain. "Anything that would blanket my brain with something good," says Hensel, "and this foundation does that for me."

Back home, a dog and two cats fill the house, as do many pieces of Avielle's artwork, framed and named, like, "The Life With Stripes" and, "The Life with Polka Dots, It Lives In Water."

Also framed are a few favorite photos of Avielle, with her brown curly hair and a spitfire spirit as big as her grin.

"She was very happy and wanted everyone else to be, too," Richman says.

Time is supposed to heal, but one year later, Richman says, they miss Avielle even more.

"At some point in every day, your breath catches in your throat," he says. "I cry every day. Jen does every day."

No one can bring Avielle back or lessen their grief. Their hope now, Richman and Hensel say, is just to spare another parent the same.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Saturday marks a grim anniversary in Connecticut. One year ago, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six adults. Families of the victims have spent this past year in different ways. And this morning, we meet the parents of Avielle, a 6-year-old girl shot in Newtown.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Even before she was old enough to say it herself, Avielle Richman was totally into her name. She loved that no one had the same one, and decided that everyone - and everything - deserved a unique name, too.

JEREMY RICHMAN: She named everything. She named our trees Maeve and Efford. And our gargoyles on the house, she named Grolig and Galen.

JENNIFER HENSEL: Galen.

SMITH: At home in Sandy Hook, her parents, Jeremy Richman and Jennifer Hensel, are surrounded by Avielle's creativity, from her three, identical baby blankets she named Pink, Blink and Basil...

HENSEL: And she knew the difference...

(LAUGHTER)

RICHMAN: You would test her. You'd be, like, which is this one? And that's Pink. That's Blink.

HENSEL: And that's Basil.

SMITH: To her pet fish, she named...

RICHMAN: Khaihawana Punk.

(LAUGHTER)

HENSEL: And we said, OK.

RICHMAN: OK.

SMITH: OK.

It is, perhaps, a sign of healing that one year out, a memory can bring a laugh, but also a sign of the unrelenting pain that just as often, it does not.

RICHMAN: In my office, there's a great triptych of her smiling, and then busting out laughing because her brand-new kitten was biting her feet. And I look at that picture, and I think to myself, oh - you know, one minute it just busts me out laughing at how she was just so free with laughter and goofing around, and she was funny. She was silly. And then the next minute, it just breaks my heart because I miss her so much.

SMITH: This season, especially. The one-year mark and the holidays are relentless reminders of all they had and so suddenly, lost.

HENSEL: A year ago, we were going to go see the Christmas Spectacular at the Radio...

RICHMAN: City Music Hall.

HENSEL: That's what we were planning for this coming weekend. We were talking about going sledding, being with family over the holidays.

SMITH: Then, suddenly, like 25 other families, Hensel and Richman found themselves tormented by one question.

HENSEL: Why? Why would somebody do this? It's unfathomable. Why would somebody want to kill my child? Why would somebody want to kill as many as they possibly could? The question was why.

SMITH: Hensel and Richman approached the question as the scientists they both are. With his training in neuropsychopharmacology and her background in infectious disease, they're pushing for more integrated research; looking at nature and nurture, to understand the biochemical and external factors that drive violent behavior.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHMAN: It is our responsibility to be outraged, to take action, to ensure this doesn't happen again.

SMITH: Just a few months after the shooting, the couple officially launched what they named The Avielle Foundation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHMAN: With this foundation, it is our hope to honor our beautiful Avielle - (Crying) - and all the others that have fallen to such senseless, senseless violence.

SMITH: Understanding the underpinnings of violence, Richman and Hensel hope, will eventually lead to treatment for people with violent tendencies.

HENSEL: It's not unreachable. Those answers are there. Let's go get them.

RICHMAN: The foundation's tagline is: You can imagine.

SMITH: A nod, Richman says, to what's possible, and to the need for people to not turn away.

RICHMAN: Everywhere that we went in the beginning, people were all, like, I can't imagine what you're going through. I can't imagine. But they are imagining it. That's the terror that they're feeling when they say those words. And we need to imagine it because otherwise, we can't drive change, innovation, ideas.

SMITH: Richman and Hensel dream of advances in brain imaging that might one day enable routine brain checkups.

HENSEL: What I envision is, just like we measure blood pressure, every time you go to the doctor. Or...

RICHMAN: Or what if you could come up with other ways that don't require, like, an fMRI? Let's say - I mean, I'm just being ridiculous, but using your Xbox or your PlayStation. Or what would be perfect is, if you could do something in the home. A mom or a dad could then say, hey, let's...

HENSEL: Take your temperature.

RICHMAN: Yeah. Let's take your temperature.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHMAN: The shooters were not in their right minds...

SMITH: Richman has been testifying to lawmakers in Connecticut and D.C., insisting that more awareness and training could help identify those prone to violence, like the gunmen at Sandy Hook and elsewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHMAN: Upon reflection, those who have crossed paths with these individuals consistently expressed the sentiment: There was always something not right about that guy.

SMITH: As Richman and Hensel continue to pour themselves into their work, it is for sure a means to an end; but also, they say, an end in and of itself.

RICHMAN: No question. We need a reason to get out of bed every day. And it's not so easy, and so obvious, to pull out of that despair.

SMITH: And while they feel lucky to have the language and lens of science to help them find answers, they're also quick to concede there are questions science can never resolve - like why Avielle, or those what ifs.

RICHMAN: You know, you just can't go there. It's not - it's not a good place to go.

HENSEL: It's not. It's a circular path into nowhere, spiraling, even, to a place that doesn't help. It's not a place of beauty, I can tell you that, and it's not a place of hope. And that's where we have to move forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF FESTIVE NOISES)

HENSEL: All right. Put your hand on your head if you'd like a stamp. Moms and dads, we are ...

SMITH: From California and Colorado to Connecticut, carnivals, 5Ks and concerts have brought in donations of $10 to tens of thousands for the Avielle foundation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I'll love you long after you go, and long after you've gone, gone, gone...

SMITH: The outpouring, Hensel and Richman say, helps their healing. It's one of what they call the bits of beauty they're always looking for as an antidote to their pain.

RICHMAN: You know, just...

HENSEL: Anything that would blanket my brain with something good, anything that's beauty; and this foundation does that for me.

RICHMAN: Maxwell.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

HENSEL: Lay down, buddy. He needs his blanket.

SMITH: Back home, the dog and two cats Avielle grew up with fill the house, as do many pieces of her artwork, framed and, of course, named.

HENSEL: The one in the middle is "The Life with Stripes," and the one on the...

RICHMAN: "Life with Polka Dots."

HENSEL: "The Life with Polka Dots." It ...

RICHMAN, HENSEL (In unison) ...lives in water.

SMITH: Also framed, a few favorite photos of Avielle with her brown, curly hair and spitfire spirit as big as her grin.

RICHMAN: She was very happy and wanted everybody else to be, too.

SMITH: Time is supposed to hea, but one year later, Richman says, they miss Avielle even more.

RICHMAN: We pretty much, at some point in every day, your breath catches in your throat. And there's not a day that goes by that - you know, I cry every day. Jen does every day.

SMITH: No one can bring Avielle back or lessen their grief. Richman and Hensel say their hope now is just to spare another parent the same.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.