The Eclipse Skipped Charlottesville

One week later, we cannot look at the sky. We are still staring at the ground.

Charlottesville, Virginia
People visit the makeshift memorial to car attack victim Heather Heyer on Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Want to listen to this article out loud? Hear it on Slate Voice.

“Don’t look directly into it.” This was the ubiquitous advice for watching the eclipse of the sun, a celestial event that transfixed the nation on Monday. It could just as well have been offered as the strategy for people trying to reckon with the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched on Charlottesville two weekends ago. Locals are still trying to process the violence, murder, and denial surrounding these events, and the politicized, occluded, and fact-challenged conversation that followed. They are trying to make sense of the president’s complaints about the violent “alt-left”; they are gazing at Nazi threats through a scrim of sheet cake and arguments about Tina Fey; they are struggling to move forward. They are—even now—trying to filter what happened in Charlottesville through whatever pinhole camera allows us to tolerate the glare of all that torch light and hate. The same president who looked directly into the eclipse on Monday declined to look straight into the events of Aug. 11–12. On Monday as other people celebrated the sun, Charlottesville citizens took over a city council meeting to secure the promise that their local government would not also look away.

We moved to Charlottesville 16 years ago. For most of that time, when people asked where we lived, we would say “Charlottesville,” and they would say “North Carolina?” and we would say, “No, Charlottesville, Virginia.” The sports fans would eventually nod and say “UVA.” And now, the whole world thinks of Charlottesville as some distant radioactive event, a freakish explosion of the silly old South, or a one-off failure of policing and policy, vanquished by Boston and eclipsed by an eclipse.

Except of course, in Charlottesville, a real city in real Virginia, the events are still settling in, questions about the university and the police are still unanswered, and everyone still jumps 30 feet in the air each time a plate clatters to the floor. A week ago, you couldn’t make your way to the drugstore without seven TV cameras seeking comment. On Tuesday, everyone there is still walking around blind. There are no protective sunglasses to be found. I canvassed friends and neighbors for their one-week-later thoughts. Many of them wanted to be identified by first name only.

Susan, a mother of three, put it this way: “We’re jittery, paranoid (eyeing any young white man with close-cut hair suspiciously), unsettled, bad dreams; trying to figure out how to talk to kids about personal safety in light of straggling Nazis still hanging around; bolstered by financial support of all the GoFundMe campaigns; concerned for local economy.”

Another friend relates this story: “At the city farmers market this weekend, a train either hit something or stopped short. I’m not sure what happened, but there was an unexpected and sudden loud bang. The person I was speaking with and I both jumped and grabbed each other’s arms and tears of fear sprung into our eyes. The entire market stopped and became eerily silent, everyone frozen in place until we realized that it wasn’t some kind of attack. My friend and I broke into hugs and tears, recognizing just how raw we are feeling here.” The same friend she was with adds: “My epiphany was that the event feels more traumatic because it has not been condemned outright on a national scale. We’ve been put in a position of defending our communities’ actions, been labeled radical leftists. And then the realization that this sense of trauma—a national ignorance of this strain of supremacism, hate and violence, or willingness to overlook it—is what African Americans have been dealing with to varying degrees for centuries.”

Cora put it this way: “Spells of crying, anger, fear rise, and I let them have their say. They’ve become less frequent; I can go hours without thinking of Aug. 12. I still cry downtown. Sometimes it’s the signs on the doors with Heather’s name, sometimes the piles of flowers that have started to wither.”

Lin says, “I can’t stop talking about it, processing it. I wasn’t even physically on the [Downtown] Mall—just watching live feeds from my house.” Veronica says she is “numb, tired, loved, and grateful for my life and my loved ones.” Marjory says the same thing: “Emotionally exhausted, crushed, weepy, worried, alert. In public places I look around wondering which of the people in the crowd are white supremacists. Occasionally grateful and uplifted. Then back to the other stuff. And I should say—I was out of town for most of last weekend. I wasn’t even here directly facing the violence. There is still fallout.”

There are a lot of people who feel guilty for not being in town that day and others who feel guilty for not having been out on the streets. This has become its own source of worry. Elly puts it this way: “There is an extra layer for folks who were not in town. They were affected just as much as those in town. Some have expressed a type of sadness that they were not here with Charlottesville physically when we were violated.”

There were assaults and jumpings that occurred throughout last week, long after the agitators had supposedly left town. One correspondent told me alt-right protesters were still in town attacking individual pedestrians until they decamped for Boston last weekend.

More than one mother has told me they cannot let their kids do their usual errands because there are still people open-carrying in public. Amy says this: “I’m a lot more wary of letting the kids out of my sight in public. … And I’m a lot more aware of everyone around me since I spotted some jerk on the Mall the day before yesterday open carrying a 9mm pistol. Told myself he was a detective and tried to shrug it off, but I was offended and pissed off about it. I still am I guess. Angry in general. A lot more than usual.”

Manuel also describes a rising anger: “I’m angrier each day at UVA and the city—first for failing to protect its community members and second for not explaining why they behaved the way they did. In a weird way, I’m less angry at the Nazis. They behaved the way Nazis do; nothing surprising there. We’ve known since around 1933 that they are evil scum (though I didn’t appreciate until Aug. 11 that they are here). But the feeling of abandonment by the civic authority infuriates me.” As an afterthought he adds, “I did not find any of my out-of-town friends’ efforts to mock the Nazis funny. In fact, I don’t think I really laughed until Thursday when I watched Tina Fey.”

Teachers both in the local schools and at UVA expressed concerns about balancing honesty and emotional support in their classrooms. Tucker, a high school teacher, put it this way: “I’m overwhelmed by the idea that in two days I will have all of my students back in classes, and that I am tasked with somehow helping them to process their experience of this. They are 15–18 years old—too young to ‘just move on’ without addressing things directly somehow, but what is the right tone/balance between teaching and empowering them and avoiding retraumatizing them?”

The fears about whether anyone outside the town can really comprehend the magnitude of what has happened are their own form of trauma. Kimberly says, “at least one person from high school said what occurred was no big deal and refused to believe it when I mentioned they threatened to burn the synagogue. I was told next time to take video. Next time?!”

One friend notes that despite an outpouring of love and support at the synagogue, and the contribution of a huge, anonymous sheet cake from Canada, services last weekend were at least somewhat clouded when two white vans parked outside the synagogue again last Saturday morning, a week after men with guns paraded around the building threatening to burn it down. The two vans, she reports, were parked outside, “one identical to the ones they pulled up in en masse on Saturday and another one with a Trump/Pence sticker and a sticker about greedy Jews. No one was in the vans, but it was real clear what the message was. So we had to walk into temple past that shit.”

For reasons that have nothing to do with Nazis and everything to do with terrible timing, my family is in the midst of a long-planned move from Charlottesville this week, meaning that my own processing has been filled with other mundanities and terrors. I share the experiences captured above of nightmares that play on an endless loop, a new fear of strangers, vague efforts to discern whether passersby are friends or foes, a sense that something has shattered but not been named or repaired.

While the news cycle has moved on, the anxiety and sense of mistrust in government institutions is only starting for those of us who lived through this. Nobody yet understands how the UVA grounds became safe for hundreds of Nazis on parade one Friday night. It’s still unclear why the police seemed unprepared and disengaged. The statues still loom over everyone at the heart of the town, and the rally’s organizers promise to return. The outpouring of love and support from around the country and the world has been inspiring. The vigils and acts of generosity are unparalleled. But the sense that we knew months ago that this was coming and nobody heard us, and that now that it’s over, nobody really heard us again, even when they were staring right at us, remains acute. The word Charlottesville doesn’t mean what it meant a month ago. People in our new neighborhood treat us like refugees from a war zone that has nothing to do with the America they know. Nobody seems to think Charlottesville is in North Carolina anymore. More and more, it feels like it’s a small colony on the moon. But this wasn’t a celestial event—this one happened right here, at home.