I‘ve known Susan, the White woman at the heart of a Montclair racial controversy that went viral, for 21 years — and I have some good things to say about her.
Saturday, July 18, was hot and sticky. Kate, who was hosting our book club, stirred up icy gin and tonics. She had just perfected the recipe on a trip to Cape Cod. We were on the patio in her sweet Montclair backyard, over by Mount Hebron Road. We settled into lawn chairs surrounded by pretty hydrangeas.
Our longstanding group had met monthly on Zoom since the pandemic took hold in March, but we missed being in person, and thought we could swing it if we stayed masked when not eating or drinking, sat at a distance and didn’t dig into a shared platter.
Counting our hostess, six of our seven members were there. After we ate the bagged lunches we brought, Kate plated still warm, melty brownie squares that were gluten-free, to accommodate member Anne.
The book we had read: White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo. (Adding this note December 31, eight days after publishing this Medium story. I should clarify that my book group read the book, but I only skimmed its premise. I do that a lot, as we have started to meet more often — monthly —and I cannot maintain the pace. I get distracted and scattered with other reading, work, remote school and complicated family issues. Simply put, I can’t keep up with the reading, whether fiction or nonfiction. But my fellow book group members do — and the discussion was heated that day. I had a lot to say, even without reading the book.)
That topic sparked one of our most heartfelt and emotional exchanges, precisely because of that precarious moment in time. Several of us had walked (separately) on Sunday afternoon, June 7 in the Black Lives Matter March in Montclair.
I had joined the protest with my young adult daughter and my friend, and when we walked past the Montclair Police Station on Valley Road, I noticed a young, uniformed Black officer leaning on the threshold, watching. What did he think, caught on a precipice between being a Black man and a police officer, listening to our chants against police brutality?
We six White women on a patio that Saturday afternoon knew full well that we could not really understand how it felt to be Black, though we tried mightily. We couldn’t fathom how insidious discrimination and racism were — how prevalent, how sneaky, how cruel. We admitted with chagrin that only a generation before, some of our own parents had been party to quiet White privilege.
We knew, we said, that it was time for a reckoning, that the Black community’s unrest and our support was warranted and that police brutality was way, way beyond the pale, as George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis painfully proved.
The patio part is important, because there had been upsetting news in June — the story had started on Facebook and gone viral — about a shouting match between a woman in town and her new Black neighbors. (A story about it appeared this week in The Cut, from New York Magazine.) She had reportedly pestered and interrogated them when they were updating their home (with a paint job, a patio). The woman, whose name later came out as Susan, had walked over and asked the neighbors if they had a permit to add the patio. She was quickly labeled a Karen, the then newly coined term for a White woman who calls the police with a complaint about a Black person.
I watched the video a few times before I realized that the Susan in it was not a faceless villain, but someone I had known for 21 years. My heart lurched a little. It lurched more when I heard people had organized a march, protesting right in front of Susan’s family home.
When I left my long career as a Good Housekeeping staff writer to freelance from home and spend more time with our young daughter, my husband and I helped our nanny place an ad about her availability in the Montclair Times.
She quickly found new employ with Susan and her partner, who were the mothers of twin babies, a boy and a girl. I got to know the family and the house a bit when our daughter wanted to visit the nanny soon after she left — that broken nanny tie can be hard on a child.
Susan, who worked in the science field, was always friendly and welcoming. So was her partner, who, like me, worked at Hearst Magazines. When I started freelancing two days a week in the city, we often caught the same DeCamp bus on the morning commute to New York.
I like to walk or bike downtown to get groceries, birthday gifts, a cup of coffee or prescriptions, or to go to the beauty salon. I loved walking to town on Saturday mornings with our baby girl in her stroller.
It’s a straight shot down Valley Road from my street, a 25-minute walk. I pass Susan’s house en route and would often see her trimming the shrubs or gardening. We always exchanged warm greetings.
My husband and I have shared one car for years, and sometimes, our car dies and we are carless until we find another one. I often overloaded my backpack and my bike handles with groceries in town, then trusted those two wheels to carry me home.
Once, after leaving Kings Supermarket, the gear chain came off my pink bicycle as I pedaled. I couldn’t get it back on and was stressed and running late to meet our younger girl’s schoolbus. Our cupboards were bare — this was before the prevalence of Ubers and Instacart — and I had to hurry with the milk, bread, chicken and other groceries on my back. I didn’t have time to walk the bike home and carry all those heavy bags. Susan’s house was nearby.
I rang her bell and she came out, told me to take the groceries off the handlebars, turned my bike upside-down, and fixed the greasy gear chain. I thanked her profusely and pedaled home. What a good neighbor, I thought.
There’s something you should know about Montclair — I know it after living here for nearly 30 years. (As newlyweds, my husband and I rented an apartment downtown for almost four years while saving money to buy our small house.) While our village has an image of promoting racial diversity — yellow public schoolbuses carry our children to all ends of town, to try and keep neighborhoods more balanced — we do have an air of privileged former Upper West Siders and Brooklynites here, too.
By that I mean that like Susan’s new neighbors, my husband and I have had our neighbors approach us about certain cosmetic things on our property. The boxwood shrubs are uneven and choppy, looking messy in this picture-perfect suburb. The pine tree branches are flopping over the fence, dripping sticky sap on expensive cars. I understand these things and do not object. We all have rights, and concerns. My husband tied the pine branches back with a bungee cord. We need to co-exist peacefully.
But worse than that, when a tree fell through our 1920s Dutch Colonial on a freak, wind-whipped night in 2010, and we moved to another town for eight months while the house was rebuilt, neighbors (we are not sure who) called the town to report that our lawn was unmown and that the storm-damaged sleeper sofa we put out for curbside pickup was an eyesore. Yes, that did hurt. But this was White on White reports, so you couldn’t say these were Karens.
Still, through it all, we love our tight-knit block and our neighbors. We live side by side in a complicated world.
When I read the latest accusations against Susan this holiday week, calling her the “beer-pong mom” who let her high-school kids have drinking parties past curfew, I grew even more upset. Are you kidding me? Is this even true? And do you really think beer parties are not happening in our town, or in other towns?
How many rocky insults will be hurled?
My husband I were/are naive, gullible and clueless sometimes — I’m telling you the truth. I remember the red plastic beverage cups, the package of ping-pong balls in our basement, at least one night when our daughter was in high school. We were home but did not fully realize we should halt what was going on, or that it was unsafe. Her friends were good kids, smart kids. Would you call me the “beer-pong mom”? (With our second girl, now in seventh grade, we of course know better.)
All of this is to say that there is another side to Susan, and I wanted you to know that. News reports are not all just Black or White. And sadly, the few times I have seen Susan lately on my walks to town, she has her cap pulled down and doesn’t even seem to hear me call out hello.
Alice Garbarini Hurley lives in Montclair and writes for magazines and websites. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Coastal Living and Brain & Life.