After the most recent American mass-murder at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut well-known podcaster Edward Champion decided to come out of radio retirement to do a new series on guns in America.
He interviewed me yesterday about my experiences as a gun crime survivor and how gun violence affects my life. It was the first time I’ve spoken publicly about the event that shattered my life in 2000.
Twelve years, man. It doesn’t get any easier.
I was surprised that the hardest part of the interview wasn’t recounting the events that led up to and after Wendy’s brutal murder, but rather when he asked me to talk about my life in the years since. Nobody has ever asked me that question and I was floored. Cue waterworks.
Since October 28, 2000 there has not been a single day in which I haven’t thought about death, murder, guns. Many of my days have been spent living in fear, reliving that night, especially when there’s a new shooting or mass-murder.
In the wake of Sandy Hook I’ve been an absolute wreck, almost like I was there myself. I know exactly what it felt like, the fear, the smell of blood and gunsmoke, panic, how your mind goes blank, how none of it feels real and yet is the most real ever. I worked with children that age for two years, I could see their little bodies and what the bullets did. I spent the day throwing up after the story broke.
I also know what the future holds for the survivors: flashbacks, extreme anxiety, fear, depression, suicidal thoughts, and yes, I’m afraid there will be survivors who’ll either attempt or manage to take their own lives. Possibly even some of the little ones as they get older and and more haunted.
The pain is so great considering all these things I know, I haven’t even words to describe it. One main reason I left the US for almost ten years was I couldn’t stand to live in a gun culture any longer.
Now I’m back in America and the crippling terror is just as I remembered it. In twelve years, nothing has changed in this country. After every other mass-murder in a developed nation gun laws changed to prevent it from happening again, and those tighter laws worked. But somehow, in all the years I was gone the gun laws in this country have only become more lax. Florida was the first state to legalize concealed weapons for civilians and enact Stand Your Ground laws, which have resulted in a huge spike in gun-related deaths.
How can this be in the nation that prides itself as the world’s superpower? I feel like I’m living in a dystopian Cormac McCarthy novel except that guns were better regulated in the Wild West than now. “How?!” I keep asking myself. “How can this be?!”
Speaking with Ed was one of the hardest and most painful things I’ve done. But as he asked me thoughtful questions I started to realize why he was focusing on the years since Wendy’s murder, rather than the night itself: to show how five minutes in the presence of a gun can ruin a life forever. Many lives. Cue second round of waterworks.
I’ve made the best of things, trying to pull my life back together in positive ways. I write, I paint, I dance, I love. But the person who I am now is not the person I was supposed to be. Fearful, anxious, nightmares, night terrors, so dependent on others for help and support. This is not the person I was before a gun entered my life. I don’t even know who this person is, but she’s who I am now.
Every so often I think about the plans I had before Wendy’s death — I would have gone on to get my PhD at UC Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness program, an amazing and exclusive program headed by my heroes Donna Haraway, Angela Davis, and Theresa de Laurentis. If you’re thinking I might not have gotten in then you haven’t read my book, the original draft of which was conceived when I was nineteen years old. I was a shoo in. I’d probably have ended up being an activist professor writing heady academic books about feminism, anthropology of film, and travel. I’d be the world’s first official expert on monsters.
Wendy would have been Queen of the Universe by now. She would have had gallery shows around the world of her art and photography. She might even be designing clothes, eccentric stuff like Alexander McQueen. She might even work for Lady Gaga. She’d be writing songs, silly and otherwise, making people laugh, cry, dance, pretend they were a part of Riverdance. Wendy was limitless. When I imagine all that she would have done I’m overwhelmed. The girl could do absolutely anything she put her mind to, and she would have done it all. Wendy would have given this world so much beauty and joy.
Such tremendous loss.
Instead, I can barely hold down a full-time job. I prefer to work from home or part-time because I’m so reactive. Work stress turns into trauma stress which turns into illness, again and again. Old Sezin would have smacked you for even hinting that she’d be anything but a fearless, independent, badass bitch. She’s still in here, when ZUZU HULK appears there’s the ghost of the old me peeking out from behind. But PTSD wins every time.
And then there’s the feeling that I’m disappointing Wendy, that it’s a dishonor to her memory that all these years later I’ve never managed to get over the incident. I have brief reprieves that are such a relief, but then another deranged person with a gun goes out and murders and I’m right back to square one.
I’m uncharacteristically envious of everyone who gets to remember Wendy as she was, not shaped by such a senseless and cruel death.
I should not have returned to live in America and I have no idea how I’ll manage here.
When abroad, tragedies like Sandy Hook and Aurora would affect me, just as they do now. But I didn’t have to worry that someone would pull a gun on me walking to the store or when in the car. My secondary trauma only had a place in my head and body, there was never an actual external threat of which to legitimately feel. Now when I have anxiety about gun violence it’s far from unfounded, entirely within the reasonable scope of an American reality in which I could get held up again at gunpoint, or a crazed gunman could shoot up the restaurant or bank we’re in.
In America these things happen, often and close by.
Every year in America is the Year of the Gun.
After the Sandy Hook tragedy, it is now more than ever we Americans need to seriously look at gun control in this country.
That’s the main reason why, as heart-ripping as it was, I agreed to speak about what happened to me and what’s happened since. I don’t see guns having a place in any civilized society, but at least let’s start by getting automatic and semi-automatic weapons off the streets. Let’s get magazines that hold dozens or hundreds of bullets off the streets. Let’s take Chris Rock’s advice and charge more for bullets.
Let’s start having deeper discussions about the roots of violence in this country. Let’s acknowledge that this country’s bloody founding could have a great deal to do with today’s gun violence. Let’s not gloss over the genocide of indigenous peoples upon which this country was founded. Let’s not laugh about the grotesque history of slavery and torture. Let’s agree that the Iraq war was illegal and those who lied to make it happen need to be held accountable. Let’s agree that torturing prisoners is not something the so-called global champion of human rights does. And so on.
For a developed nation the accountability gap in the United States is staggering — we need to fix that. Only after can America can finally think about joining the rest of the developed world in theory and action.
Come on 2013, let’s usher in a new era.
RIP Wendy-bird, you are so crazy missed. RIP Sandy Hook Elementary children, I’m so sorry you’ll never have the life you should have. RIP Aurora victims, Trayvon Martin, and everyone else lost this year to senseless gun violence. And may my kindred survivors one day find peace.
Your thoughts on gun control and/or gun violence in America are welcome below in the comments.
©Sezin Koehler 2012, Image via GlitteryTales