I guess trigger warnings are appropriate.
Last Friday I was making lunch while my eldest child did her homeschool
lessons, the younger children took a videogame break, and we all waited
for their father to come home for the Christmas break. Public radio was
on but I wasn't really listening to it when I heard mention of a school
shooting in New England. Children were dead.
Lots of children were dead.
Smoothly, in less time than it takes to blink, my PTSD took over and I was in Survival Mode.
something you need to know about my family and school shootings; we are
two degrees removed from the first school shooting. The Pearl High School shooting
happened the month after my husband started teaching high school while I
was pregnant with our first child who died shortly after birth. It
took place in a school just a few hours away from where we lived. I knew
PHS; as a teenager my high school and PHS had been rivals for the title
of top public high school in Mississippi, a rivalry fought out in every
possible form of school competition. The superintendent of the school
my husband taught at was the former principal of Pearl High School who
had permanently expelled Luke Woodham. After he left PHS and took his
current job, Woodham's mom convinced the new (white) principal that
Eddie Prather was a mean black man who hated her sweet white son for
being white; that's the only reason Woodham was allowed back in that
school. School shootings hit me hard.
As the numbness of
Survival Mode hit me, my first priority was safety. My children were
safe, my husband was at the end-of-semester Christmas party on all
all-but-deserted campus -- not a prime target for mass shooters eager
for the headlines that come with killing lots of students. Too few
"soft targets". First priority secured.
My second priority was
information. I needed to know more, not out of voyeurism or morbid
curiosity but to satisfy the demands of Survival Mode. This was the
first time I'd had a hooked-up TV during a school shooting. I shooed
the children off the video game and turned on CBS. The children were
surprised; I don't watch TV during the day or on a commercial network.
This was no ordinary day.
My husband came home. The children piled on the sofa. I threw the lunch fixings in a soup pot and hurried back to the TV.
girls are 13 and 11, and when they wanted to know what was going on I
told them. The 13yo wanted to know more, so I told her. She had been
too young to notice when I did this in front of a computer.
"What are they doing?"
an investigation and dealing with the survivors. At this point look at
the firsthand accounts by witnesses and the basic facts the cops
release. Most of the information that comes out about the shooter this
early is going to be false. See, they can't even get the guy's name
right. Cops handle facts like a starving man handles a drumstick; they
don't let go until they've stripped all the meat off. They'll start
releasing information about the shooter around three days out."
anchorwoman is clearly holding herself together through sheer
willpower. I remind myself not to get annoyed. I can't feel anything
at this point -- or more precisely I feel a deep rumbling in the buried
core where my potentially debilitating emotions live, but Survival Mode
has sealed off my direct access to them. It would take all my
concentration to pull them up right now, and I have other things to do.
But I'm not normal. The 4year old has hidden himself in the sofa throw. It's time to hug him, turn the TV off, and have lunch.
13 wants to understand why. I tell her I don't know about this
individual, but I can give her the general background. I gave her a
quick rundown of the history of mass shootings in this country from the
early 1970s onward and the Brevik shooting in Norway. It never occurred
to me to lie to her and tell her we don't know why this happened; we
know why in general if not yet in particular. The sociological profile
of mass shooters is one of the most consistent criminal profiles on
It also never occurred to me to tell her the other lie
people hide behind in these situations, that we can't understand the
killer, or that if we could there would be something wrong with us.
Hogwash. The killer is a human being, an especially petty and
vindictive member of the breed to be sure, but as human as the rest of
us. He has no emotions inside him we don't share; on the contrary he
lacks something we possess. I fully expect to understand where the
little shit came from before it's over without descending to his level.
I am bigger on the inside than him.
"You remember the Japanese
saying about when a Japanese man gets to the end of his rope he closes a
window and shoots himself, but an American man gets to the end of his
rope he opens a window and shoots other people?"
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, so?"
remember me telling you about the post-World War II economic boom and
the cultural norm that grew out of that time that every white male who
wanted one could find a job, and if he couldn't there was something
wrong with him personally, and how this started breaking down in the
economic collapse of the early 70s, which caused many white men who were
no longer guaranteed jobs by their status and the economic conditions
to take offense at the rising civil rights of people who weren't white
She stared at me. "What, that AGAIN? That was 40 years ago! This guy wasn't even born then. How could he believe that junk?"
"Because a lot of young white men are still being told it's true," her father replied.
of 63 mass shooters were male. Most were white with a smattering of
Asians and Hispanics, no African-Americans so far. All were middle
class to lower upper class. All were reared in conservative,
authoritarian households. Most were brought up in right-wing Christian
churches. Most were Republican, if not something more conservative than
Republican. Many of the shootings involve racism, almost all involve
misogyny. Not all of the killers suffered from mental illness, but all
suffered from a clash of cultural expectations. For some reason they
felt unable to live up to the cultural and economic expectations of
their class, and they blamed that failure on others whose social status
was rising, usually women. The term that's been coined to describe this
condition is "aggrieved entitlement".
We tell her about the
workplace and college shootings by laid-off workers and disgruntled
students of the 70s and 80s, and how their driving sentiments blended
with the survivalist movement and morphed into Oklahoma City. We tell
her how the cops noted at the time that the perpetrators would begin
going after "softer targets" from then on. Then the perpetrators got
younger and schools became the target.
I got to Columbine and froze, unable to speak any more. The horror was too near the surface.
tell her they are temper tantrums thrown by bratty white males eager
for the notoriety such a crime will bring them while hoping to die in
the bloodbath so they don't have to pay the consequences for their
crimes. I tell her what the cops said after the mall shooting in Oregon
the week before: Go up against a kid who's robbed a liquor store and
you've got a fight on your hands because the kid is stealing money to
live, but mass shooters are pushovers who usually save you the trouble
of arresting them by taking their own lives before the cops even get
there. They're just in it for the attention.
I haven't told her
what happens to the ones who go to prison, how after a few years the
wretched little attention-seekers approach right-wing Christian pastors
and exploit their notoriety to became celebrities in the Christian
sin-and-redemption narrative which fuels conservative Christian
churches, while the same pastors exploit the killers to achieve greater
status within their own community. She's too young and innocent for
that degree of cynical manipulation.
A few days later I turn away from pictures of the victims who look too much like my 4 year-old. That night I search Daryl Cagle's
editorial cartoon collection looking for visual metaphors of the
shooting with a strong right hook. I look for the ones that hurt, the
ones that pack enough punch to break through the congealed numbness that
envelopes my heart until I can finally feel again.
And then I weep.