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On the rare occasion Noor Salman ventures outside, she does so in disguise. She says it's all about looking different from the photos of her on the news.
Grey contacts, dark lipstick, and pitch-black hair extensions are her armor of choice, which she fortifies with constant movement, refusing to stay in any public place for more than five minutes at a time. “It’s insurance that even if somebody were to recognize me, they would have doubt,” she said. “I would be gone by the time they figure it out.”
Salman has reason to hide: Her husband, Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and injured 53 in the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016 before police killed him. Seven months later, Salman was charged with helping her husband prepare for the massacre at the Orlando dance club, now considered one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11.
Over the years, Salman has tried to erase every sign of her connection to Mateen. She’s changed her family’s last name, and instructed her young son to tell his classmates he doesn’t know the identity of his father. She has finally started venturing out in public, but that took years. If asked, she tells strangers that she became a mom as a result of a one-night stand with a stranger. “It’s easier than to say this is what happened,” she told me. “That he killed people and [I] became a single mom.”
Charges against Salman would come after she made a series of incriminating statements to FBI agents during an 11-hour interrogation that began in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. In January 2017, prosecutors brought federal terrorism charges against her. She was tried for aiding and abetting her husband in the attack on Pulse and obstruction of justice for lying to investigators. She faced up to life in prison if found guilty.
Though she was ultimately acquitted, the verdict did little to dissipate the cloud of suspicion that hung over her in Orlando.
Salman would spend over a year in prison during these legal proceedings, some of it in solitary confinement. Though she was ultimately acquitted, the verdict did little to dissipate the cloud of suspicion that hung over her in Orlando. For many Pulse survivors and family members of those killed, her acquittal was just a technicality, a failure on the part of prosecutors to legally prove their case. “She was found not guilty, but she is not innocent,” said Christine Leinonen, whose son Drew was killed in the attack. “She was morally culpable, and at some point she had to rationalize why she would not protect society.”
Equally adamant are those who believe Salman was another victim of Mateen’s violence, and of a justice system that was able to scapegoat her because she was Muslim. They point to the fact that she herself showed no signs of extremism or a history of violence and that key parts of her confession were proven false.
“I thought the whole thing was a travesty,” said Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and domestic violence researcher who submitted expert testimony for the defense during Salman’s pre-trial hearings. “I do not believe she aided and abetted. I believe she was trying to get through to the next day,” she told VICE News.
Salman maintains that she had no idea her husband planned to do what he did. She did not testify in her trial. And with the exception of one interview with the New York Times before charges were brought against her, the public has never heard from Salman directly. After she was acquitted, Salman went silent, fleeing Orlando for her native California.
In a series of exclusive interviews with VICE News, Salman has finally told her side of the story, one that provides a glimpse into how the private violence of domestic abuse can evolve into the public terror of a mass shooting.
Salman, now 35, is tall and sturdy with saucer-sized brown eyes that constantly scan the room. Deep-set circles betray a recurring battle with insomnia. Our first meeting took place in her childhood home in Rodeo, California—a former oil refinery town 25 miles northeast of San Francisco where Salman grew up and now lives.
Salman has finally told her side of the story, one that provides a glimpse into how the private violence of domestic abuse can evolve into the public terror of a mass shooting.
In the lead-up to her first interview, Salman started telling me she was hesitant. As I was boarding my flight, she FaceTimed me with a barrage of questions. “Can I get in trouble again?” she asked. “Could speaking up get the FBI after me?” Speaking out, she feared, could put another target on her back.
Salman says she wants to go on the record now because she feels as if her silence has been taken as a tacit admission of guilt. “People were like, if she’s innocent and didn’t do [anything], why isn’t she clearing her name?” she said. “I just didn’t talk because I didn’t have the strength.”
“It’s time people know the truth,” said Salman. “I hate how people assume I didn't care or that I supported him. It hurts sometimes to think that people assume that I am this kind of monster.”
At first, Mateen was a charming stranger Salman met online.
The two met in 2011 on a website called Arab Lounge and wed after a short courtship. They had both been married previously. The abuse, which would dominate their later years, did not start right away. “He was the sweetest when we first met,” she said. “After I got pregnant, the script flipped.”
Avoiding Mateen’s wrath became Salman’s full-time job. “I made sure I never pissed him off. I was on eggshells every day.” It wasn’t that it was always bad, but she knew that once something set off Mateen’s volatile temper (and any little thing could), there would be dire consequences: kicks, punches, menacing threats, a barrage of insults.
Mateen raped her repeatedly throughout their five-year marriage. He would also lash out at their young son: One time, when her son was 2, Mateen took the child’s toy pig in a fit of annoyance. “My husband flies off the couch, takes a knife, cuts it in half in front of my son,” recalled Salman. “And my son starts screaming "My toy!", you know? And I remember gluing the pig back together for him.”
She was enraged: “I remember sitting outside getting in his dad's face, saying, ‘It's one thing when you want to hurt me, but don't attack the child like that. Don't scare a child like that.’”
That’s when Mateen slapped her and warned her to never challenge him like that again. He then threatened to kill her if she ever left him. Salman said she then considered leaving her husband, but after thinking through her options, she decided she had nowhere to go.
“It hurts sometimes to think that people assume that I am this kind of monster.”
She was nervous to ask family, immigrants from the West Bank, for help. Her father owned a liquor store when she was growing up, and he died suddenly in 2012. Salman’s mother, with whom she has a rocky relationship, was left struggling financially while battling chronic illness.
At one point, though, Salman said she did reach out. In 2012, shortly after her father died, Salman turned to her father-in-law, Seddique Mateen, and asked him to talk to his son about the way he was treating her. Salman said Seddique told her that he did ask Mateen to treat Salman better. But it wasn’t like his family was treated well: One night, Salman recalled that Mateen threatened his brother-in-law with a knife after an argument. She was firmly instructed not to tell anyone about the incident, though other family members witnessed it. “I felt like it was like, what happens in this house stays in this house,” she said. (The Mateen family did not respond to a request for comment.)
Sitora Yusufiy, Mateen’s first wife, has a similar story. Yusufiy and Mateen met in 2008 when she was just 19 years old. They, too, had met online—on MySpace—and married quickly. In interviews after the shooting, Yousify recalled the same unpredictable temper, the same thirst for complete dominance, and the same prison of forced isolation. In an essay published in Marie Claire, Yousify said that she began to see Mateen’s "dark side" after just one month of marriage.
“He became increasingly violent and also afraid that I would leave him,” she wrote. “He didn't want me to call my family or go anywhere except the day care center where I worked.” She recalled Mateen waking her up to beat her and being thrown against a headboard when he found her on the phone with her mother. After five months, Yusufiy fled with the help of her parents. (Yousify declined to be interviewed for this article.)
For some members of Noor Salman’s family, there did seem to be a sense that all was not right in her marriage to Mateen.
Neighbors told local reporters that Salman’s mother complained about Mateen not allowing her to visit her family. Salman’s aunt Susan Adieh told VICE News that she was unsettled by Mateen when he was completely unresponsive when spoken to at a family gathering. And in the spring of 2016, just months before the shooting, Salman’s sister Shurooq Salman observed what she said was a disturbing dynamic between the couple while she was staying with them in their Fort Pierce, Florida, apartment.
“If she believed somebody was going to be hurt by his actions, she would have made sure—even if she was put in the line of danger—she would make sure that the right people knew.”
In an interview with VICE News, Shurooq said her sister was hyper-alert and anxious in Mateen’s presence and that Mateen “wouldn’t let her out of his sight.” Shurooq also noticed that Noor’s weight was fluctuating wildly. When Shurooq asked if Mateen was hurting her, Salman insisted things were fine. Shorooq was unconvinced but did not press the matter further.
Though Shurooq Salman now believes her sister was in an abusive relationship, she insists her sister still would have sounded the alarm had she known of her husband’s violent plans. “I do believe in Stockholm syndrome, but I don't believe that it got to that point,” she said. “If she believed somebody was going to be hurt by his actions, she would have made sure—even if she was put in the line of danger—she would make sure that the right people knew.”
For years, Salman explained away Mateen’s behavior toward her in one way or another—“Maybe this is just his personality, maybe he just has a quick temper,” she would think. “Looking back now, I should have seen the red flags. I should have seen his behavior. I should have seen it.”
Others did see it. In 2013, Mateen showed up on the FBI’s radar when co-workers reported he had claimed connections to al Qaeda and Hezbollah; they alleged that he said he hoped to die a “martyr.”
Mateen was placed on a terrorist watch list as the FBI conducted its 10-month investigation, though the bureau then concluded he did not have ties to al Qaeda or Hezbollah and was not in communication with terrorists or suspected terrorists.
The FBI, along with local law enforcement agencies, has been tasked with preventing mass shootings and investigating threats of violence in the U.S. based on tips from the public, of which they receive 20,000, on average, every week. But Mateen fell right in the FBI’s blind spot: a man obsessed with violence whose propensity for acting upon it was most apparent in his romantic relationships with women.
Throughout this investigation, the FBI did not question Noor Salman or Sitora Yusufiy, Mateen’s first wife, despite the fact that their divorce was finalized only two years prior to the FBI’s investigation.
“The FBI did not look at the Mateen case like a violence prevention model. They looked at it like ‘Is this guy a terrorist or have terrorist ideology,’” said Mike German, a former FBI agent and author of Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide, a critical analysis of the post-9/11 FBI. German says that the agency is much more likely to assume white men who come into their dragnet are disturbed lone wolves and to investigate connections to larger movements when investigating Muslim men.
Mateen fell right in the FBI’s blind spot: a man obsessed with violence whose propensity for acting upon it was most apparent in his romantic relationships with women.
The problem, of course, is that Mateen likely fell into the first category. The terrorist connections he told coworkers about in 2013 were merely claims of grandiosity, and the declaration he made to ISIS three years later may have also been just that.
“ISIS has never heard of this person and they certainly shouldn't have been given credit for that attack,” said German.
Salman grew agitated when I asked her how much she knew of Mateen’s fascination with ISIS and other jihadi groups. “How, if our own government did an investigation and dropped the ball,” she snapped. “How is a girl that has no training supposed to know what the signs are?”
Three years after the FBI first learned about Mateen, around 4 a.m. on June 12, 2016, Noor Salman was jolted awake by a phone call. It was the night of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
William Hall, a long-serving officer with the Fort Pierce Police Department in Florida, was calling; he had just gotten a dispatch telling him that this was the home of an active shooter in Orlando and was next to her brick apartment building. He’d been warned the house could be booby-trapped with explosives.
“Come outside,” Hall told Salman. He waited for her and crouched behind a tree holding a long-range rifle. Four other officers encircled the long, dark entryway that led to apartment 107.
Noor Salman emerged in her pajamas.
As the attack on Pulse was still unfolding, she was taken to an FBI field office nearby and questioned for the next 11 hours. Initially, FBI agents did not tell Salman what had happened, though Salman claims to have overheard police officers talking about the shooting as she waited for the agents to arrive.
The world would soon wake up to news of a massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Morning broadcasts played grainy cellphone videos of club-goers running for their lives on a loop, some carrying their injured friends toward a swirl of red and blue police lights.
During his rampage, Mateen had proclaimed allegiance to ISIS on a call with 911 operators and a local news station. Mateen was killed in a shootout with police shortly after 5 a.m. By morning, the FBI had already declared the shooting an act of terrorism. The FBI agents questioning Salman mined her for any information on possible co-conspirators or secondary attacks.
Inside the FBI’s Fort Pierce office, as dawn turned to morning and then afternoon, and Mateen was dead, the focus began to shift to Salman herself. Salman’s interrogation was not videotaped or recorded. She was too shell-shocked to ask for a lawyer. “I am trying to process the fact that overnight I became a single mother, a widow, [and] my husband just committed a crime that is horrific,” Salman said. “The last thing I'm thinking is do I need a lawyer.”
Morning broadcasts played grainy cellphone videos of club-goers running for their lives on a loop, some carrying their injured friends toward a swirl of red and blue police lights.
When agents told Salman that her husband had committed “a violent act,” as they called it, she denied that it was possible, pointing to the fact that he’d paid bills the night before and purchased tickets for the family to visit California. But toward the end of the interrogation, Salman would dictate a 12-page statement that would form the basis of the case against her. In the first one, Salman admitted to seeing Mateen visiting jihadi websites, expressing anger at events unfolding in the Middle East, and buying a rifle that he told her was for work.
In another statement, she told the agents something that they took to be an admission of advanced knowledge: “I am sorry for what happened. I wish I’d go back and tell his family and the police what he was going to do.”
According to his trial testimony, the agent questioning her then said, “You know, Noor, I realize that you knew what Omar Mateen was going to do. You knew what was gonna happen.” Salman denied knowing, but he pushed back. “I know you knew,” he said.
In court, the agent testified that this is when Salman broke down in tears and told him “I knew.”
The last statement Salman gave mentioned Pulse by name. She admitted to casing Pulse with Mateen the week before the attack. She claimed he showed her the Pulse website and told her that it would be his target, just two days before the shooting. News of Salman’s confession ricocheted around the country. But within days of the shooting, the FBI would determine that these claims were likely false. There was no evidence of a visit from Mateen’s devices on the Pulse website’s servers, and an analysis of the couple’s cellphone location data concluded they hadn’t been to the club either.
None of this would be revealed publicly until the trial, nearly two years later.
When I asked Salman directly about her original confession, she was guarded. She told me she just wanted to get out of that room, that she begged for a lie detector test. And during the trial, her lawyers argued she was particularly vulnerable to a false confession because of her low IQ. This was backed up by others: Salman’s special education teacher in middle school told ABC News that she “had difficulty with conceptualizing” and understanding.
“There were no words that could come out of her, only crying.”
After the shooting, Susan Adieh drove down to Florida to extricate her niece from the growing media maelstrom. Adieh drove Salman back to Adieh’s home in Mississippi and described Salman as catatonic during the 13-hour drive. “There were no words that could come out of her, only crying,” she said. FBI agents in black SUVs trailed Adieh’s car as she drove and remained outside her home for the entirety of Salman’s stay.
Three days after the shooting, the cover of the New York Post featured a selfie of Noor Salman, her eyes encircled with heavy eyeliner, her mouth pursed in a knowing, close-lipped smile. “She could have saved them all,” screamed the headline in bold, certain text.
Salman’s trial began almost two years later, in March 2018, in a federal courtroom just two miles from the site of the Pulse massacre. In the lead-up, Salman had spent a year in prison.
The trial was covered closely in Orlando, though some Pulse survivors, like Brandon Wolf, ignored news about the event altogether. “I actually have made it a point to not allow the shooter or his wife to take up emotional space in my life. For me, it’s a form of self care,” he wrote in an email. But there were many who felt it would be their only opportunity to get answers on what happened to their loved ones that tragic night. The court set up an overflow room to accommodate the over 300 survivors and family who wanted to attend.
Armed with what amounted to a written confession, it seemed like Salman’s trial would be an open-and-shut case. At the beginning, there seemed to be little public questioning of her involvement in Mateen’s plotting. Surveillance footage showed Salman accompanying Mateen to buy a gun and ammunition. It was reported that Salman went to a gun range with him months prior, and the lavish spending by the couple in the days before the shooting, that went far beyond Mateen’s modest $30,000 annual income, struck many as uncanny timing.
But Salman’s defense didn’t deviate. They argued she was a battered, impressionable woman with a low IQ who was coerced into a false confession. They insisted that Salman did not know of Mateen’s plans and that she believed his legal gun and ammunition purchases to be for his job as an armed security guard.
Despite the two weeks of testimony, the details of the domestic abuse Salman endured at the hands of Mateen were never fully explored.
As the proceedings continued, the government’s case began to crumble. Contrary to key parts of Salman’s confession, it turned out that everything about Mateen’s movements that night indicated that his decision to attack Pulse was made on a whim the night of the attack. Authorities ultimately concluded that his original target was likely Disney Springs, an outdoor entertainment complex in Orlando that had a heavy police presence that evening.
The testimonies shared, however, were harrowing. One woman said that she survived by hiding under dead bodies. Surveillance footage shown in court showed the shooter spraying the packed club with bullets. It also was the first time the public got a detailed look into the makings of a mass shooter: a peek into the man’s internet search history, his habits, his relationships, and his gradual but steady path to mass murder.
But despite the two weeks of testimony, the details of the domestic abuse Salman endured at the hands of Mateen were never fully explored. While Salman’s lawyers originally planned to delve into the abuse, they changed their mind. As Salman’s lead defense attorney, Charles Swift, explained it, that aspect of Salman’s story could have hurt more than it helped in court. “You see: Yes, she was abused. But here's the problem with that part of it: Why would that be relevant if she didn't know? I'm not making excuses. She didn't know, right? That's what the evidence says. Ultimately, I decided I've got enough. I don't need it. I need to keep it simple. Forget the rest.”
This change in strategy, however, did not sit well with domestic violence expert Jacquelyn Campbell. She felt the abuse Salman endured was essential to understanding how it was possible that Salman was left in the dark on Mateen’s plans that night. “At first, I was frankly angry,” she said. “I thought it was the wrong way to go as far as I was concerned.”
In the world of domestic violence advocacy, Campbell is as close to a celebrity as it comes. In 1986, she created a questionnaire called the Danger Assessment—a questionnaire that actually quantifies the chances of an abused woman being seriously injured or killed by her intimate partner. It is widely considered to be the most important tool to identify and intervene in intimate partner violence today, used by emergency physicians, police departments, and social workers across the country.
Salman answered Campbell’s assessment in jail as she awaited trial. Her hand-scribbled yes or no answers said that Mateen had strangled her and raped her, that he beat her while pregnant, and had threatened to kill her. According to Campbell’s assessment, the cumulative score of her answers put her in the highest level of danger possible of being seriously injured or killed by her partner. (Campbell has tested her questionnaire posthumously on women who were actually killed or seriously injured by their intimate partners using data from their relatives or police reports and found the assessment to be an accurate predictor of their murder in 90% of these cases).
Around this time, the debate over Salman’s case went national. Reported opinion pieces in the New Yorker, Huffington Post and The Intercept questioned why an abused woman was being prosecuted for her abuser’s unthinkable crime, and an open letter penned by over 100 organizations condemned it as “rooted in gendered Islamophobia and patriarchy.”
This did not shake the confidence of the prosecution; when it came time for jury deliberation, they were so confident of a guilty verdict that they encouraged families of victims from Puerto Rico to wait until Salman’s sentencing hearing to fly in, according to Krista Torralva, a court reporter at the time with the Orlando Sentinel. But the hearing would never come: The jury found Salman not guilty in a rare and surprising loss for federal prosecutors.
The verdict, however, was far from vindicating.
Within hours of the trial’s conclusion, the jury’s foreman released an anonymous statement to the Orlando Sentinel explaining that the jury felt Noor Salman thought Mateen was planning a violent attack but may not have known the specifics. And without a recording of the interrogation, the foreman explained, the jury was essentially forced into a not guilty verdict. Salman won her freedom, it seemed, on a technicality. It was an ending that offered no one a sense of closure.
Most mass shootings in the U.S.—53%, according to a report from Everytown for Gun Safety—are acts of domestic homicide where the perpetrator kills an intimate partner or family members during their rampage, like the case of Adam Lanza killing his mother before making his way to Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Then there are the other 47% of these attacks—attacks like Pulse—where perpetrators kill people they don't know.
Psychologist Jillian Peterson and sociologist James Densley are trying to learn more about that 47% with their Mass Shooter Database project. Compiled by the Violence Project, a nonpartisan think tank, and collated into a book of the same name, it is the largest single study of mass shooters ever funded by the U.S. government.
Domestic violence is not completely separate from the public violence of a mass shooting but can be a steady march toward it.
To build the database, Peterson and Densley combined open-source data like media reports with their own interviews with five incarcerated mass shooters and over 50 people who were related to or knew a mass shooter. They found that 36% of the mass shooters who kill strangers also had a history of domestic violence, engaging in “coercive control against their wives and families as a precursor to committing a public mass shooting.”
In this way, domestic violence is not completely separate from the public violence of a mass shooting but can be a steady march toward it.
Peterson and Densley resist being too prescriptive with their findings, and most abusers never become mass shooters. But Salman’s story, and Mateen’s own violent evolution, tracks with much of the Mass Shooter Database project findings. These days, as Salman tries to recover from the events of the last five years, she is focused on raising her now 9-year-old son.
She says her goal is to “raise him to be normal.” The boy is fully aware of what his dad did, she told me. During the year his mom was in prison, the boy would often watch news reports on the shooting’s aftermath and on his mother’s trial.
His understanding of what happened, Salman said, evolves as he grows. The anger at his father for what he did bubbles up occasionally, most predictably around Father’s Day, which also happens to fall within days of the attack on Pulse. Salman recalled his outburst at Target one year in front of a Father’s Day card display. “He just took the card and tossed it on the ground and said, ‘I hate Father's Day.’ This man is behind me looking at me like I'm crazy,” she said. “I put it back and walked away because you can't explain to this stranger why your son hates Father's Day.”
Though Salman’s son is a lot of what keeps her going, she’s still incredibly frustrated to be raising him alone. "You did something so selfish, so evil, and you stuck me with your child,” she said. “Now I have to figure out how we'll survive.”
Salman has not worked since her acquittal. She lives off of Mateen’s Social Security survivor benefits, which will go to her son until he turns 18. It’s a $1,000-a-month check that Salman stretches to cover their daily expenses. Since her mother owns their home outright, Salman doesn’t have to pay for housing.
Friends and family also occasionally send her money, including Fritz Scheller, one of her former defense attorneys, who has become a confidant of sorts to Salman. After her acquittal, she would call him for help in making daily decisions like what color to paint her nails or what to do when she got into a fender bender. “I have a strong relationship with her,” Scheller, who talks or texts with her almost weekly, said. “Just her being found not guilty doesn’t mean she does not have her whole life ahead of her.”
In February 2020, Salman was the keynote speaker at the Muslim Legal Fund of America’s annual gala, a black-tie affair that took place in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, a northwest suburb of Chicago, in a golf course banquet hall outfitted in black and gold balloons and white floral table settings.
At first, she refused the invitation outright, unsure if she was ready to be out in public again. It took weeks for Scheller to convince her to accept. I called Salman before her flight to Chicago and she told me she was sure she would be questioned by the FBI at the airport and possibly even detained. She said she had a dream that the plane crashed the night before.
I had dismissed her fears as pre-flight anxiety, but when I visited her hotel room after she landed, Salman said she was held and questioned by TSA agents for nearly two hours when her name was flagged in the airline’s system during check-in. She missed her flight and landed in Chicago at 4 a.m.
“I still have people that won’t associate with me even after my acquittal.”
At the gala, she looked polished in a black blazer and plaid trousers as she entered the reception hall. The event’s organizer, Arshia Ali-Khan, attempted to give Salman a pep talk before her speech. “Speak from your heart,” she said.
Only half the tables at the event were occupied. “It's been really hard to get people in the room,” Ali-Khan admitted, looking down at the empty chair beside her. “Some people have said to us they didn't want to associate with you even for this event.”
Salman nodded in recognition, unsurprised. “I still have people that won’t associate with me even after my acquittal,” she said.
Salman’s voice shook, and at times broke, as she read her speech from a tattered piece of white paper.
“Two years later, I cannot sleep without a pill and I never want to leave my home. I've had to build a wall around myself for my own protection. I flinch if someone touches me, and I hate surprises, and that innocent, happy girl who used to wear colors dresses in black,” she said
The room listened in polite silence. She walked off the podium to scattered applause. Looking around, it seemed like attendees did not quite know what to make of her speech, that perhaps the entire thing was just too heavy to process.
Over a year later, in June 2021, Salman told me she had stopped going out in disguise. The fear is still there, but she thinks more about her son now. “I realized my son's not going to be small forever, and I do need to get over my fear before he gets old enough to realize why is my mom not like every other parent? Why is mom hiding?”
She’s begun applying for jobs out of necessity, but that slowed down due to the pandemic and her son’s virtual learning.
“The first day of therapy, I remember to this day saying why was I so stupid? How did I not see the red flags?”
One ongoing struggle for Salman is the matter of forgiving herself for what she says she did not see when it came to the man she married, when she simply did not realize the danger she was in or the danger he posed to others.
“The first day of therapy, I remember to this day saying why was I so stupid? How did I not see the red flags?” she said. “If [I] now went into the past and saw his behavior, then yeah, I would be like, oh shit, something's wrong.”
She says her main form of self-protection now is to trust no one.
“I need to think there's more to somebody than what they're showing you,” she said. “You don't know anybody these days.”