I felt a familiar, creeping dread when I saw the first mention of the July shooting in Aurora, Colorado, on Twitter and again not two weeks later when I read newspaper reports about the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. It had been even worse when I first became aware of the shootings at Virginia Tech and Columbine.
These incidents upset me not only because the violence was shocking and terrible to consider – a fear so deep we don’t allow ourselves to think about it until moments like this: that an ordinary day will be shattered by pain, death, loss and the horrible accident of being in the wrong place at the wrong time — but also because I am not only an observer. The images from these news stories open a portal to my past and bring up memories that have dimmed but never cease to be accompanied by grief, confusion and the question, “Why did this have to happen?”
In the aftermath of all these shootings, I have found myself sitting outside conversations at dinner parties and birthday gatherings, listening to well-intentioned comments about whether or not it’s possible to predict and stop such violence, and wondering if I should speak up about my own experience, but afraid that if I do, it will bring a dark mood to the discussion that will make others uncomfortable. Up until now, I have saved my thoughts and feelings for private talks with friends who know my personal history. But if we are going to live in a world where the unthinkable happens regularly, then perhaps it can be useful for those who have experienced such tragedy firsthand to try and explain how healing and a tentative understanding of the inconceivable is possible with time.
When I was sixteen and a sophomore at Simon’s Rock, an early college, my classmate Wayne Lo went into a gun shop just before Christmas. He used his out-of-state drivers license to prove he was eighteen and walked out with an SKS semiautomatic rifle. On the night of December 14, 1992, he went on a shooting spree. He injured four people and killed professor Nacunan Saez and my friend Galen Gibson. Galen was eighteen when he died. I used to sit on his lap after dinner, smoking Parliaments on the balcony of the dining hall and singing, “Sixteen, clumsy and shy, I went to London and I …” It’s my favorite memory of Galen, instantly bringing back his wild mane of curly hair, his expressive face, his wry and ready sense of humor.
This all would have been devastating enough. But to make matters worse, Simon’s Rock was my paradise, and the shooting was my fall. Like many teenagers, I was overwrought, vain, insecure, filled with an excruciating longing for exceptional experiences and terrified that I was too ordinary to attract them. Life in my redneck-infested hometown in rural Maine was unbearable. I begged to go to boarding school, but Izod made me gag, and we couldn’t afford it anyhow.
And then my mom found Simon’s Rock. To apply, I had to write an essay on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Plato! This was exceptional. Someone was challenging me to express my thoughts and encouraging me to be the dreamy overachiever I was so desperate to become. The campus was in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, a few miles from where Norman Rockwell painted and Arlo Guthrie wrote Alice’s Restaurant. It was gorgeous, serene, a safe haven. I got in.
I dyed my hair purple, and when I arrived on campus for my writing and thinking workshop, I fell for the most glamorous boy I’d ever met. He was from Manhattan and was half-Tai, half-New Zealander. His stepdad ran an art gallery and his best friend was Adrien Grenier, which meant something even back then. On our first date, we dropped acid together, climbed onto the roof of a building and made out under the full moon.
But even better than the drugs and the boys were the books. Oh my God, the books. The school was based on a “great books” curriculum, and we read everything. We read Plato, Dante, Marx, Nietzsche. We took elective classes in Yeats and Elliot and feminist film theory. We gorged ourselves on books. We argued about them in class. We talked about them over dinner. We seduced each other with our theories about them. We stayed up all night finishing them after we got back to our dorm rooms from parties where we drank forties, made out and smoked joints with Mike Watt and the Lunachicks, or whatever band had played on campus that night.
Finally, I had found a place where it was safe not only to be smart in the sense of filling in the right ovals on a multiple choice test, but to be smart in the sense of caring, being engaged, being passionate, having opinions and fighting for them in papers. Well, sometimes we didn’t get around to writing the papers – at that age, hanging out is a fairly substantial time commitment and a major part of any college curriculum — but we etched those opinions into our very hearts. Simon’s Rock changed everything. I had been so profoundly unhappy, stunted, stuck. But my mom had given me a chance and had showed me that I had the power to act on my life, to think, to be, to find community and to find myself. When I was sixteen and a sophomore, I took my first fiction class, and I knew that I was a writer, even if I didn’t know what that meant yet. Then, at the end of that semester: the shooting.
I watched from my dorm room as the police surrounded the dining hall where Wayne Lo was waiting to surrender, and I saw then take him into custody. Even as the violence unfolded, news of our shattering loss was beginning to reach us in whispers. When I called my mom in the middle of the night to tell her that campus was being closed because there had been a shooting, my story was greeted by the sound of hard plastic hitting wood. She had fainted and dropped the phone on the kitchen counter.
In the morning, yellow police tape crisscrossed the pristine snow that blanketed campus. Bullet holes dappled the walls of my dorm. We all went to the library where Galen had been shot and killed, and we watched them carry his body out on a stretcher. The adults in charge of our safety watched us from a respectful distance, wanting to minimize our pain but knowing there was nothing to be done in the aftermath but to let the grief bear down upon us so we could begin to work through it. Journalists clamored just off campus to get our stories and to catch pictures of us crying and being reunited with our families.
We buried Galen. We prepared for Wayne’s trial. His gun had jammed, sparing our lives and showing us, as his story came out in court, that sometimes getting answers doesn’t bring anything like understanding.
In January, we returned to campus. It wasn’t paradise anymore. It wasn’t even safe. Going to the library to take out a book for a paper meant walking over the place where Galen’s body had fallen. It was impossible to focus long enough to read a book anyhow. But what else could we do? The sun rose. The sun set.
Not long into that semester, I had my seventeenth birthday. I was given a book as a present. It had just come out in hardcover, and I thought that was the ultimate in decadence. Spending twenty dollars on a book! Can you imagine? It was gorgeous, snooty and intellectual, with a close-up photograph of a marble bust on the cover and a font that was sensual: “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. She had gone to nearby Bennington and was being celebrated as the lone girl in Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney’s literary boys’ club.
It opened with two quotes from Nietzsche and my old friend Plato. It was the story of a group of eccentric, impassioned students who studied ancient Greek and of a Dionysian ritual gone awry. It was nerd porn, violent and sexy. It was full of longing for the exceptional people, ideas and experiences that I, too, sought. And it wrestled with the sometimes painful consequences that can come with daring to live in a different way, which I was very much reeling from in that moment. It was as if Tartt had written the book after visiting our campus in the wake of the shooting. Here’s the first paragraph: “It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.”
Yes, that’s the chaos and shock that follows violence.
Then, from the prologue’s conclusion: “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”
Those words made me less afraid. They gave me a purpose. This was what it meant to be a writer: I would tell my story. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. In the past twenty years, I’ve never written about the shooting — until now — but everything I’ve written has been about the shooting. During my senior year at Bard College, with which Simon’s Rock is affiliated, I wrote a novella. I can only remember three things about it. The male character made the female character a hamburger shaped like a heart. Then, they went on a road trip and had sex in the middle of the highway. I seem to recall that they even laid down a blanket before they did it. How very proper. But, most important, one of the characters in my novella died. At the end of my final semester, I gave a reading from the section about the death. Afterward, a girl came up to me and said, “My brother died a few years ago, and it felt just like that to lose him.”
I could see in her eyes the echo of the pain, which still haunted her, a pain I understood so well, a pain that, according to her, I had described perfectly with my words. I was hooked. Everything I’ve written since has been about death, divorce, disappointment and our secret histories, the moments that change us forever, the violence we do to each other and ourselves. Because if it could happen in paradise, it can, and does, happen anywhere and everywhere.
But, really, my writing isn’t about death. It’s about the fallout, the survivors. It’s about life. That’s what interests me: the great privilege of loving one another and the fact of living with the knowledge that we must all lose one another in the end. I don’t understand why people are afraid to die. My fear is of being the one who is left behind because I know how it feels to survive, to wonder for all of these years, “Why?” Why Galen? Why not me?
I’ve had to answer that question for myself by finding a purpose, by finding a life’s work, by celebrating the memories of those who have left us too soon and by trying to ease the pain of those who have been left behind. I truly believe it was “The Secret History” that gave me the courage to face down my own secret history and take up this work. Like Tartt’s characters, I had wanted so much, had felt so deeply and then had been wrecked and humbled so profoundly by the life that my searching brought me. At my most raw and ripped open, her book helped me to survive, to live, to find meaning, to write.
After nearly two decades as a writer and a survivor, two ideas that will always be inextricably linked for me, I can only hope that my words will also find people at the moments they most need them, just as their lives change course forever and their own secret histories begin.
Tags: Personal Essays