The Story of the Stuff

Apr 15, 2015

After the tragedy at Virginia Tech eight years ago today, people all over the world sent messages of sympathy: handmade cards, letters, mementos and more.  A new web documentary explores this modern mourning ritual, that’s becoming part of our culture. It’s called, “The Story of the Stuff.” 

Ashley Maynor was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech. Now a filmmaker and digital librarian at the University of Tennessee, she was on campus in Blacksburg when the sympathy cards and gifts – more than 90 thousands packages from 80 countries, started coming in.

A few years later, Maynor was in the process of making a documentary about the carefully archived remembrances… their preservation, their meaning, and their sheer volume---when word of the Sandy Hook Middle School shootings came. She expanded her film to include the tragedy in Newtown Connecticut.

“For me this is a project that I began in earnest in 2012 but it was precipitated by going through that experience in 2007, as being in Blacksburg, as a community experiencing the media invasion and this intense loss and grief that accompanies a tragedy of that scale and unimaginable kind of nature.”

Large-scale tragedies capture wide attention – and the largest amount of ‘stuff’ sent in sympathy. These objects seem to carry deep feelings of their senders so they must be handled carefully.

“One of the things I discovered in doing the research for this project is, there aren’t protocols for floods of teddy bears.  For when you get 65,000 that show up in your small town.  There aren’t contingency plans for half a million letters that shut down the regional sort facility.”

For her film Maynor spoke with some of the people who sent condolence items. 

“You have a prepaid call.  You will not be charged for this call.  This call is from, ‘Jaimie Davidson.’”

Davidson is in Federal Prison in Pennsylvania for the murder of a police officer.  He describes the reaction of his fellow inmates as news of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech reached them that day.

“I came from work and I was sitting down and first of all I was wondering why everybody was quiet.  Everybody was watching the news on CNN. I could see individuals wiping their eyes and these are what society calls stone cold criminals, they’re wiping their eyes, nobody talking. I mean, you could hear a pin drop.”

The inmates wanted to send a group card to the school, so Davidson made one in the prison shop...

“Well of course, we did get your card and a lot of people saw it. The physical card lives in the permanent archive at Virginia Tech. So it’s there, in person.  People can actually request and touch it and then there are, of course, digital copies online so it’s out there and available to a lot of people to comfort them.”

Ashley Maynor says making The Story of The Stuff was a way of coping with her own grief. Much like the people who sent or created the condolence items. A comment by Davidson frames the issue: 

“Everybody finds a way to do their sentence. You know we’re all kind of looking to make meaning in a world, where things, even our own actions, put us in different kinds of situations, and for him that’s like responding to tragedies like the one at Virginia Tech.”

Visit here for information about Virginia Tech's collection.