“Tomorrow was created yesterday.......And by the day before yesterday, too. TO IGNORE HISTORY IS TO IGNORE THE WOLF AT THE DOOR.”
― John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man
When I was younger, I was raised to have an instinctual fear of firearms, because they killed women we knew. I was three or four when my mother was tapped to be the executive director of a tri-county domestic violence center in rural Pennsylvania. As her child, I often accompanied her as she grew into her role, one often fraught with fear and anxiety. My mother received death threats for trying to better the lives of battered women, and needing the partnership of the authorities in each county, the men from whom she was often asking cooperation were very often perpetrators. She would travel to colleges and give presentations, showing slides of women no longer recognizable to themselves: puffy and purple, with the confidence literally beaten out of them. I can still move through the images in my mind, they are so ingrained.
Guns also lingered freely in the hands of my grandfather, father, and uncle, all of whom were hunters and alcoholics. My father, a self-proclaimed sportsman, had rifles in his clear, glass gun cabinet, standing tall and intimidating, shiny and dark next to the sinewy, curved bow and razor sharp arrows. They spoke to me of the times when they spit out their bullets into the muscular flesh of deer, piercing their hearts, the pulsating blood eventually slowing to a trickle, the reflection of their eyes fading to a dull sheen. He kept the stuffed head of one of them, its glass eyes empty, the horns brittle, the fur coarse and golden. Examining its massive skull, I understood from a young age that the spirit departs and leaves behind its temporary home, a mere shell. I also understood that the deer’s soul had not parted with its temple willingly, and that cold, molded steel played a role in surrendering the breath of the living. My father at least had the decency to lock the frail cabinet doors, the molten sand quivering when shut, providing a tiny speck of comfort that the cold barrels were under lock and key, however false.
With my grandfather and uncle, guns were a more constant threat. They were located throughout my grandparents’ house, and often trotted out when one of them had been imbibing, upping the ante on the nervousness already surrounding their tumultuous relationship. Every time we went camping as a family, weapons were the undesired members who always managed to show up. I was taught by my grandfather to shoot a B.B. gun, to hold the long barrel balanced in my palm, my eye trained to gauge the distance and line up my potential target, an empty can of generic soda. My finger learned to pull the trigger, listening for soft ‘pfop’ as the b.b. would tear through the surface of the frail aluminum, marring its colorful skin. I would do this over and over, moving down a line of cans perched on ragged tree stumps, each slightly off center, and only made less even by the constant impact that warped their bodies. I can remember the rush when I would hit the target exactly where I had aimed, feeling a sense of accomplishment for my steady hands. And then one trip, I accidentally hit a bird, forever silencing its song, and I recognized that my hands had no right to hold such life detracting power. After that, I put the gun down for good. I still dream of the shatter of its voice, how its notes perfumed the air, and then evaporated into quietude with the pull of my finger.
While my grandfather was a philosophical drunk who mostly wanted to talk about god, Montaigne, and existentialism after swigging his forbidden, hidden vodka, he consistently picked at my uncle when intoxicated. As my uncle grew older and began drinking himself, this often ended in savage eruptions, harsh words thrown at each other across the small kitchen, the anger then flowing over and out into the backyard, where I witnessed the violence grown men were truly capable of as they pummeled their meaty fists into each other’s face. To this day, boxing makes my stomach churn, a constant reminder of their bruised and bloodied knuckles, lips doubled in size, and purple splotches that eventually faded, taking evidence of their bloodshed into invisibility.
My uncle, especially, made me nervous as he aged, and it became clear that he likely suffered from some form of mental illness that seemed largely ignored by those closest to him, or perhaps I was just shielded by secrecy. His world began to crumble in high school when he discovered that a woman he loved had suffered a horribly traumatic past, and she left him, his heart in tatters. He attempted to go to college but had trust issues with his roommates, who didn’t recognize boundaries and consistently robbed him of his food and possessions, and he returned after one semester. Eventually, he enlisted in the Marines, but walked away during a field exercise, going AWOL. I remember the sheriff’s car speeding down the road to my grandparents’ house to pick him up after he had found his way home from South Carolina as I stood outside playing in the garden. He was removed in handcuffs, head down, defeated. Somehow, he was given an honorable discharge, but spent the rest of his life living at home, with hardly any friends save my grandmother, seemingly a brutal byproduct of PTSD, addiction, and trauma that remained unresolved. Yet, he had his guns to keep him company. He quit drinking for a long spell and seemed to improve. He found employment where his loyalty seemed to pay off, and he finally seemed to be creeping from his self-imposed shell. He made a couple of friends. Still, there would be awkward moments when he would laugh to himself for no reason, or, when feeling anxious, he would snap his fingers over and over, often increasing the frenetic rhythm. It instilled a fear in me that I could never shake, and there was always, and still lingers, a sense that he should never be angered. When he again took up alcohol later in life, he slowly began retreating once more into himself.
When my grandmother died suddenly from an aneurysm, my uncle was devastated, and I remember my mother’s anxious concern that he was staying at the house, alone, surrounded by firepower and the ability to join his mother with a mere twitch of his finger. It was the first time I can remember anyone in my family vocalizing what I had always felt: he should not be someone trusted with weapons. My family, always good at burying the darkness, never uttered these unspoken fears, maybe never wanting to believe that he might be capable of any destruction, despite signs to the contrary. Although he has never injured anyone, the mere possibility feels too real for me to assuage my fears and pretend it didn’t (or doesn't) exist.
I am stymied by how little has changed, as I have grown, when it comes to our fallacy that guns are merely innocent bystanders. That they don’t infuse the hands that cradle them with a godlike, drunken power that enables men to communicate their fury in death. When mixed with rage, and a select sense of white, male injustice, that sense of authority and control becomes deadly, and the metal machinery accompanying becomes no less than a direct accomplice. It feels unreal that we continue to treat these horrific moments of bloodshed and violence as if they should be weaved into our collective narrative, another trauma to bury alongside other denials, such as slavery and native genocide. By ignoring historical travesties, by continuing to shun the crisis of domestic violence, and refusing to deal with the mental health plight we have created, we have now set the stage whereby younger, white, men, modeling what our society has repeatedly both glorified and suppressed, have turned their sights onto our most innocent. It is no secret that many domestic abusers suffer from mental illness, and that mass shootings are often linked to offenders with a history of domestic or family violence. These are not isolated incidents of single, affected men who have merely gone over the edge. It is a clear case of us now reaping what we have sown by disregarding the historical roots of these increased incidents of savagery.
When I taught in documentary film program with AmeriCorps in Pittsburgh ten years ago, I worked with adjudicated youth who often had gang affiliations and lived in some of the more desolate, and brutal, sections of the city. My first group did a film about African American homicide, which was framed by police brutality and gang violence. We filmed in sections of the city that, a decade later, are still rife with nightly shootings and extreme violence, exacerbated by unresolved poverty and racism, such as Homewood. Often my students would come in after school and talk about the shootings in the neighborhoods they lived in, the sound of bullets echoing through the deserted streets at night, the repetitive trauma building a callousness to the shock. Yet, it wasn’t until I worked in the public school system in Santa Fe that I learned about keeping a bucket in my classroom in case my students had to urinate or defecate during a lock-down, and I while I felt uneasy in certain situations in my previous role, I never had a moment where I outright felt unsafe.
Working in a middle school here, we were taught to prepare for the worst in all scenarios, but never has it seemed a more real possibility. The immature suggestion of conservatives that teachers carry responsibility as a first line of defense by packing firearms in the classroom does nothing to stem the cultural bleed that implies that our children are not as worthy as the metal so many long to carry in their hands. It is horrendous to recognize that many teachers go to work daily, saying good bye to their own families, knowing they might need to choose between being a human shield casualty that leaves their own kin devastated, or allowing innocent children to perish at the hands of reckless, violent, and white men.
My heart feels waves of desolation and the ache of helplessness. When my ten-year-old comes home, somber, and asks me when he can expect someone to come and shoot at his school, and I am left speechless in how to reply, because I now know it is a possibility. When my five-year-old daughter details step by step what actions are taken during a lock-down. When I drop my children off at school and take as many extra seconds as I can to linger on their faces as I drive away, the heart restless and uncomfortable, because you just never know if it’s for the last time. For all those parents, whose babies will never come home again, the ghost children who became mere memories after leaving their homes in the morning, and especially for those who had the audacity to believe their children would be safe and didn’t have the chance to say goodbye.
Like the brave, student survivors who have risen to the occasion, fueled by righteous fury, we should all be called to act. Support students walking out of classrooms and protesting, or let’s do one better, and encourage the entire country to strike until those in power, who have financially bartered in the currency of innocent blood, get the message that we will no longer tolerate the anguish, fear, and loss that their greed has wrought. Strike until concrete changes are made that strive to end domestic violence, treat mental illness, and gun control is enacted that prevents the horrendous cycle of mass shootings in our schools that are becoming as commonplace and comfortable in our psyche as our other historical moments of shame.
I can’t believe that we are allowing the slaughter of our future, body by body.
I can’t believe my uncle still has his guns.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...