Woman at the Window Judging Edward Snowden from Next Door

Joyce Kinsey and Edward Snowden were neighbors. She observed him night and day. Now that he's gone, she is passing judgment on the former NSA contractor turned whistleblower. Like many Americans, Kinsey views the world from a narrow suburban perspective.

By Alexander Osang


Joyce Kinsey lives in a clay-colored house in a forested area of the US state of Maryland. She views the world through two openings. One is her flat-screen TV, the other her kitchen window. She watches nature shows, crime dramas and Fox News through the one opening, and the seasons, her neighbors and the weather through the other.

Until recently, it was easy for Kinsey to separate these two windows from reality. But then the lines between them became blurred. Her kitchen-window images appeared on her TV screen, while television crews appeared outside her kitchen window. No matter where she went in her house, the images were all the same. And sometimes she even saw herself on TV, as if looking into a mirror.

That was last summer, when whistleblower Edward Snowden shocked the world with his revelations.

Snowden was once Kinsey's neighbor. It was a while ago, but she hasn't forgotten the experience. He lived on the other side of a narrow path between their two kitchen windows. They were 12 feet (3.7 meters) apart, says Kinsey. Perhaps she's just guessing, or perhaps she actually measured the space. For a time, the distance seemed relevant to issues of global politics.

The neighbor became a witness, and her experiences an indication of how far Snowden and his fellow Americans have grown apart. Kinsey can attest to this with every fiber of her being. The quiet young man has become a threat to America and, with it, to Kinsey herself. In the summer, a majority of Americans were convinced that Snowden deserved to be put on trial. This stance is especially widespread in Kinsey's age group.

She was so close to him. They were practically facing each other, with Snowden on one side and Kinsey on the other, two Americans who were home a lot and didn't get much sleep. Snowden was reportedly constantly glued to his computer. Kinsey suffers from neuropathy, an illness of the nervous system that makes it hard for her to walk. Besides, there aren't too many places she could walk to in her neighborhood.

Kinsey lives in a community called Woodland Village, which consists of 309 two-story wooden houses, all built in the same year, lined up in cul-de-sacs like pearls on a necklace. Some are brown, some blue and some green, like the little boxes in the 1962 song of the same name by Malvina Reynolds, a satirical reference to suburban tract housing. There is a blue one and a yellow one, and they all look just the same.

Woodland Village is a neighborhood in Ellicott City, a town made up of similar developments, all with appealing names. It's easy to get lost in Ellicott City. A sign at the entrance to Woodland Village sends a clear message to outsiders: Private Property.

My Neighbor, the Traitor's Mom

On a gray November day in Maryland, Kinsey opens her door a crack and squints into the daylight. She is wearing a dark-blue sweater with a pattern of stars and snowflakes. The Christmas season starts early in American suburbia. Kinsey looks out at the empty street. The air is clear, and she can hear the sound of a leaf blower in the distance. She shuts the door behind us. There is a dining chair in front of the kitchen window, which she apparently uses as an observation post of sorts when she wants to look out the window. The Venetian blinds are lowered and only open slightly, but enough to see the Snowdens' windows between the slats.

Edward Snowden moved into the house 12 years ago. He lived there alone for two years, had a roommate for one year and then his mother, Wendy, moved in with him. Snowden subsequently lived in Switzerland, Japan and Hawaii, but his mother still lives in the house.

Wendy Snowden is at work. She works as a court employee. Kinsey watched her leave the house for work this morning, and she'll watch her come home again later on. Sometimes the two women meet on the path between their houses. They used to chat briefly with each other whenever that happened -- about the weather, the children, the dog or their respective ailments. Wendy Snowden is an epileptic, while Kinsey has diabetes.

But they no longer speak to each other. Her neighbor's son is a traitor to his country, says Kinsey, who is convinced that Snowden's mother and his sister knew about his plans. The two women visited him in Hawaii shortly before he left the country. Kinsey insists that they were there to say goodbye. She knows that that was the reason, although she declines to say who told her. She has thin lips. There no excuse for that sort of behavior, she says.

When she runs into her neighbor today, Kinsey looks down at the ground. She pets the Snowdens' dog, a Labrador named Cinder. He's a good dog, she says, and it isn't his fault.

The last time the two women spoke, Wendy Snowden asked Kinsey why she had to tell a journalist that she, Snowden's mother, is an epileptic. She was worried that it might cause problems for her at work.

"I assume she was trying to make me feel guilty," says Kinsey. "But it didn't work. After all, her disease isn't a secret. Actually, what I want to know is why she's still allowed to drive a car."

She nods at the Snowdens' window, where there isn't much to be seen since the curtains are drawn. Wendy never had curtains before her son flew to Hong Kong, says Kinsey, and she was always thought that was odd. Or perhaps she has just now decided that she thought it was odd. Kinsey is trying to form an opinion about her mysterious neighbor. She is trying to reconcile the images outside her window and the ones she sees on TV, images of her small world and the much larger world beyond it, of her idealized suburban world and a world of high treason. On the one side, there is Hong Kong, Moscow and trans-Atlantic relations; on the other, there are the leaves changing color outside her window.

Kinsey says that she has found 1,367 hits on the Internet that mention her name in connection with Snowden. She once counted the number of hits, just as she seems to know the distance between the two houses.

Thrown into the Spotlight

Kinsey, 63, grew up in Florida and later moved to Maryland with her husband. She was trained as a hairdresser, but she never worked. She used to cut her husband's hair, but today she only cuts her own. She has trouble standing up, she says, and besides, most people don't know how to describe the kind of hairstyle they want, which only leads to misunderstandings.

Kinsey has spent much of the last 30 years of her life basically sitting at the window, looking outside and waiting for her husband to come home from work. He works as a quality inspector in a factory in Baltimore that makes piston rings and seals. His commute to work takes exactly nine minutes, she says. They've timed it. He calls her when he leaves work. They have no children. They go bowling on Tuesdays, and they barbecue on Sundays. There were few surprises in Kinsey's life -- until, of course, the day when Edward Snowden was in Hong Kong and the first stories about his revelations started coming out.

His fate has shown a spotlight on Kinsey. But now that he's gone, that light is beginning to fade.

"It was never about me, just about the man over there," she says.

She looks through the slats in the blinds, the November light giving her face a grayish tint.

Kinsey fidgets nervously on her kitchen chair. She hasn't felt as safe at her observation post recently as she used to. One neighbor berated her because she had talked to the media. He lives diagonally across the street from the Snowdens. She calls him a hothead and says that even the police agreed with her assessment, when they were called to the house after he had had a fight with his girlfriend, and they took away his weapons. She thought he was working today, she says, but apparently he's home. She sees his curtains move. The guy is a ticking time bomb, says Kinsey.

She moves her head away from the blinds. The neighbor hasn't been living in the house very long and didn't know Snowden at all, says Kinsey. She and her husband, on the other hand, have been living there for more than 16 years, longer than most residents of Woodland Village. And she has always been there, after all, and sometimes was even up at two or three in the morning. She hasn't been sleeping well since she became ill. She had surgery on both feet. The pain keeps her up at night, she says. When she couldn't sleep, she would watch TV or look out the window. And there he was, she says, always at his computer.

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peskyvera 12/06/2013
1. optional
I realize this woman is slightly incapacitated, but getting her news from Fox News...that says a lot about her.
ncwood 12/06/2013
2. You people
Well, that's the condescending, anti-American Der Spiegel I know and love: "Like many Americans, Kinsey views the world from a narrow suburban perspective." And perhaps she views Snowden as a traitor because HE IS A TRAITOR.
broremann 12/06/2013
3. woman in window
a true horror story
allenels 12/06/2013
4. Joyce Kinsey POV
As an American, I can attest to the sad reality that Ms. Kinsey is the face of judgmental 'neighbors' with far too much time on their hands. She represents what should be characterized as "This Day In Crazy!"
chihhsing 12/06/2013
5. optional
Undoubtedly, the American middle-class can be nauseating, but every country has its Mrs. Kinsey. And worse.
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