I knew something horrific had happened just from my friend Lisa’s email: “R U watching the news?”
When you report on violence, when your family has been pierced by violence, people assume you are interested in violence. And you are. Very. Like cancer victims are very interested in CAT scans.
Maybe it’s inchoate coping, maybe it’s autonomic rubbernecking, but the first thing you always need to know is how someone learned that life as she or he knew it was over. I got a phone call. It was about midnight on October 23, 1998. I thought it was my husband calling to say he would be late. It was my stepfather saying, “I have some bad news.” I thought, “My mother or my sister?” He said, “Your uncle Bart has been shot and killed.” For a brief, bright moment, all I was, was relieved.
A mother of an 18-year-old girl who died in the massacre at Columbine got her news by radio. She was pulling into the parking lot of a mall where she planned to pick up things on her daughter’s off-to-college list, when a DJ on her easy-listening radio station cut it to say there had been a shooting at the high school. The mother turned her car around and headed straight there. It was 11:30 a.m. so she knew where her daughter was: the library. She knew the very table the girl sat at. So the mother figured she would march into the school and bring the girl straight home. Their new Yorkie puppy would so happy. By the time the mother was halfway to the school the DJ had more news. Most of the shooting took place in the school library. There appeared to be fatalities.
The mother was still focused on her mission. Getting to the school. But SWAT teams had set up a perimeter. Trucks. Sharp shooters. Big dogs. It looked like a war. It looked like a Bruce Willis movie. People in uniforms told the mother to go to an elementary school across the way. There, a handful of super lucky, sobbing teenagers were waiting for their super lucky, pale parents on a stage in an auditorium. Other parents, having checked and re-checked a sign-in list of bubbly teenage scrawl for their children’s handwriting, stood sentry outside—on rocks, on fences, anywhere to get a first glimpse of the busloads coming from the school.
The mother prayed. Maybe superstitiously she decided not be selfish about it. She didn’t ask God to let her daughter be alive. She prayed for strength, for succor for everyone. The tearful reunions continued until nightfall. They continued until counselors and nuns in habits outnumbered wild-eyed parents. Then some guy came over and asked for identifying information about their children—jewelry, tattoos, dental records. Two women went outside and threw up.
A man who was shot while watching the premier of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado this July remembers that he was sitting in the fifth row of the theater. When the theater filled with smoke, he remembers thinking, “Wow, they’re really going the extra mile with special effects.” Then there were booms and white flashes and screams. And then he remembers thinking, “Wow, guns shots are so much louder in real life than on film. Human screams, too. And what’s with the white flashes?” He and his date were already cowering behind the seats in front of them. He remembers that she was cowering, so she was alive then.
The shooting stopped, so they got up together to get the hell out. But then it started again, and they were down again, and the screaming was more like a moan now. At some point, the man guesses his girlfriend fell. Pretty suddenly, it seemed, she was on the floor. And he remembers that he hadn’t known that blood was slippery and that the weight of the dead is so ungodly heavy. He learned that someone’s face can just feel wet when it is bloody, and if it’s bloody, well, you think it’s just blood and not brain. He remembers absolutely definitely trying to pick her up because that is just what a gentleman does. But then he remembers the shooting starting again and just getting the fuck out. He remembers not remembering being shot himself.
So all of that is a little something of what the victims and the parents of the victims of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School now have. Every horror is utterly, terribly unique, but there are universals. In a super white, super loud flash… or a DJ’s croon… or a telephone’s brrng brrng, when you become forever lonesome. Because you know the real secret. Anything can happen. Aliens could land.
Among the outrages of living in a time of violence is that victims feel the need to rank their suffering. “What I suffered pales in comparison,” the Aurora victim who tramped over his dead girlfriend, who still has shrapnel in his own body, told me.
No, I told him back. If there is anything good about pain, it is that there is no way to win or lose at it.
My uncle Bart was my mother’s younger brother. He came to live with us shortly after my father died when I was four years old and my mother was eight months pregnant with my younger sister. We were a little train wreck of a family. I was crippled with arthritis, my mother suffered bouts of grief and rage, Bart had a peripatetic relationship with medical schools in two countries, and we were somewhere south of broke. But we slogged along and clung to each other and bitched each other out and slogged some more and some how all emerged with lasting relationships, advanced degrees, and upper-middle class incomes.
Bart became an obstetrician/gynecologist—because, truth told, sick people really upset him. Also truth told, he did not perform abortions out of any political passion, but because he believed that doctors picking what procedures they do was as professionally moronic as police officers choosing which laws to enforce. Also, Bart was very combative—the kind of kid who had been prone to school-yard fights, an adult who could go a little apeshit if someone cut in a supermarket line. He’d never have succumbed to “bullying” pro-lifers, people so low they harassed his kids on their walk to elementary school by following them and whining, “Don’t murder babies like your daddy!” Then there was the thing that those who have been poor always think about: money. By the time Bart finished medical school he was drowning in debt. He eagerly pulled shifts in ambulatory units, emergency rooms, and abortion clinics. And old habits die hard.
All Jim Kopp knew was that Bart terminated pregnancies. And that really gnawed at him. So the then 42-year-old biologist spent those fin de siècle Indian summer nights skulking around the scrawny pine trees in the woods behind Bart’s fat faux-Tudor home with a SKS assault rifle.
On the evening of October 23, Kopp leaned against one of the larger trees and waited for Bart and his wife, Lynne, to return home from Friday night synagogue services. Through a window, he watched them enter their kitchen. Onto a little table, Bart emptied his keys, change, and wallet. He went to the refrigerator and got soup to heat up the microwave. He chatted with three of his four sons, then seven to fifteen years old. A Buffalo Sabers hockey game was playing on the television in the adjacent den. There was a ping and a little shattered glass. Bart said, “I think I’ve been shot.” Lynne said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” And a bullet ricocheted all around the kitchen leaving crazy splats of blood, flew into the den, whizzing right by my oldest cousin’s head, then fell against the marble fireplace with a little clang. Bart was flat on his back, his glasses askew. My aunt, a nurse, performed CPR. The oldest tried to staunch his father’s wounds with paper towels. But Bart was already dead.
I got to know my uncle’s killer, Jim. He’s a chatty, earnest, sometimes flirtatious man with twinkly blue eyes. He studied biology as an undergraduate and graduate student with the original hope of becoming a doctor—a profession Jim’s parents, a Marin County, California lawyer and a nurse, held in his such esteem that as a child Jim was taught to stand anytime a physician entered a room. But even though Jim was arguably the brightest of the five Kopp children, and even though he graduated high school early and earned honors in college, medical school didn’t happen. By his middle 20s, he was probably just too weird—prone to getting all righteous about eating rotting food, wearing wet clothes, and carrying his feces around in a bag because he refused to use a toilet.
He claimed his passion for suffering had something to do with Christ, and his religiously-voracious mother tried to be supportive and encouraging, like a parent might be for a child with loads of enthusiasm but rather limited talent for, say, football or acting. But as Jim’s arrests piled up for doing things like chaining himself by the neck with double kryptonite locks to abortion equipment, his father—his revered, remote, rageful father—dismissed him as a “damn fool.” And in the end it made perfect sense that the aborted man took murderous aim not just at an abortionist, but at a dad.
It is no surprise that mental illness runs in Jim’s family, or that Gabby Gifford’s Tuscon shooter Jared Lee Loughner is a diagnosed schizophrenic, or that Aurora shooter James Holmes had seen three psychological professionals just prior to buying four firearms and 6,350 rounds of ammunition, or the Columbine killer Eric Harris is said to be sociopath, or that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, is described as having been “the challenge of [his] family.” Dress it up anyway you want. They are all just crazy guys who got guns.
I hope in the coming days we have some meaningful, productive conversations about crazy guys and guns. Really, all I hope to do here is to encourage that. To say to everyone out there, “R U watching the news?” And to make the awful, but true words to that Christmas song ring ceaselessly in your heart: “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”