An Autobiography of My Life as Mass Shootings at Schools
October 1, 2015, Roseburg, Oregon: 26-year-old student Christopher Harper-Mercer opened fire in a hall on the Umpqua Community College campus, killing eight students and one teacher, and injuring nine others. When police arrived he killed himself.
At the time of this shooting I am 52. I live in Dublin, Pennsylvania but will be moving back to Philadelphia sometime soon. I can’t honestly say the news of this shooting is triggering shock or grief or horror. Just exhaustion, after a lifetime of such shootings.
A lifetime I find myself needing to document because “a lifetime of such shootings” is a reality. Is my reality, forcing me to acknowledge how deeply the history of school shootings has shaped my life. How these shootings are the story of my country and I am its citizen and how the contours of even my most intimate self have grown around these acts of violence as a tree planted beside a barbed wire fence envelopes the barbs and keeps on growing.
So I am today writing this autobiography of the school shootings I remember in my lifetime. I was born in 1963, meaning I was old enough to be aware of the outer world and remember things from it starting in the mid 1970’s. Today I am searching my memory for all these acts of violence I can recall, starting with those I know only as remembered snatches of evening news or conversations at school or between my parents, and working my way forward. I know there are many many stories that happened but will not be on my list. For this is my autobiography. Everyone reading this will have their own, and it will be unique. Some events will overlap but with different resonances or utterly different meanings. Some lists might seem to be from completely different times and places though they, too, are from citizens of my country.
But this is my autobiography told in mass shootings at schools, and it starts in 1979.
January 29, 1979, San Diego, California, 16 year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire on Grover Cleveland Elementary School from the window of her home across the street, killing two adults and wounding nine others, eight of whom were children.
I was 15, in my local high school of 110 students. I remember the details about someone shooting out a window and of many kids being shot. After this, I started having nightmares about being in my high school as a group of heavily armed men came in, of running frantically, trying to hide in lockers, heading for the third floor to save my beloved English teacher, sick dread as the tiny little school building offered nowhere to hide.
May 16, 1986, Cokeville, Wyoming: In a ransom scheme, David and Doris Young took 150 students and teachers hostage. Their demand for $300 million came to an abrupt end when Doris accidentally set off a bomb, killing herself and injuring 78 students and teachers. David wounded John Miller, a teacher who was trying to flee, then killed himself.
I was 23, in grad school in California. In my memory this story of was all tangled up with the bus full of children who were kidnapped in California ten years earlier; the combination of guns, bombs, and rooms full of terrified children became this canyon in my brain, carved deeper by flood of violence since.
May 20, 1988, Winnetka, Illinois: Laurie Dann, 30, shot and killed one elementary school student and wounded five others, then took a family hostage and shot a man before killing herself.
I was 25 and living in Minnesota after growing up in Illinois and going to college in Wisconsin. Because this story was in my homeland I noticed it, but, honestly, I now remember almost none of the details. That the shooter was a woman did stick in my mind, as I was deeply involved in radical feminism and this story defied the norm of men doing this combination of intimate and public violence.
January 17, 1989, Stockton, California: Patrick Edward Purdy, 24, fatally shot five children and wounded 32 others at the Cleveland School. Purdy then killed himself.
Still 25, still living in Minnesota where I was finishing an MS in Women’s Studies. In my memory this was another Room Full of Terrified Students, and tangled up with many other shootings in California through the years. I still sometimes had the dream of being in my high school with gunman in all directions, but less often, now eight years away from that building and that town.
December 6, 1989, Montreal, Canada: Twenty-five-year-old Marc Lépine, armed with a Mini-14 rifle and a hunting knife, shot 28 people, killing 14 women, before committing suicide. He began his attack by entering a classroom at the university, where he separated the male and female students. After claiming that he was “fighting feminism” and calling the women “a bunch of feminists,” he shot all nine women in the room, killing six. He then moved through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, specifically targeting women to shoot. Overall, he killed fourteen women and injured ten other women and four men in just under 20 minutes before turning the gun on himself.
I was 26. I taught Women’s Studies in a small university and small city where I and my friends were THE known Feminists. We were demolished by the grief, and living in terror. Just walking in to teach the next month or more would send us into near panic. The women killed were our age, and our identification with them was instant and chilling. Even now teaching in a classroom with only one door spikes panic, panic I can finally almost completely shove back down under the pressing weight of rational reasons why I’ll be ok. That day of murder keeps living along with me. I mark the anniversary in some way every year, I recite the women’s names, I try to imagine them growing older as I grow older. I refuse to let their absence from the world go unnoticed; even writing this brings tears welling up.
And of course the nightmare started up again. I don’t know now how long its frequent recurrence haunted my brain. I do know that dream and the murders in Montreal became intertwined, I do know that my mind would not believe that they were separate.
December 14, 1992, Great Barrington, Massachusetts: Wayne Lo, 18, shot and killed one student and one professor, and wounded three students and a security guard at Simon’s Rock College.
I was 29, living in Philadelphia, but this memory is wrapped up in my involvement with The Women’s Peace Camp in Romulus, New York. A close friend there had gone to Simon’s Rock only a couple years before, and I watched her grief as this tiny community of kids who had been outsiders and loners in their high schools but had created family at this college were now slammed with disbelief and grief and loss. Another rush of clusters of terrified students through my canyon, although smaller than the others, more removed from me. I don’t remember the nightmare coming back.
October 1, 1997, Pearl Mississippi: Luke Woodham, 16, murdered his mother at home before killing his ex-girlfriend and another student and wounding seven others at Pearl High School. The perpetrator attempted to flee police and continue his killing spree at a nearby middle school, but he was stopped and detained by the Vice Principal
34 now, still living in Philadelphia, working with Feminist newspapers. I remember this story more clearly because of my feminist community, and because email had been invented so we could instantly share and discuss news. Another man who had shot a girlfriend for leaving him, taking out others in the process. Another clearly troubled teen with unlimited access to guns. The sheer ordinariness of a man murdering a woman partner somehow didn’t add this one to the canyon, only to the ever-growing mental list of “domestic” violence victims. My mind also collapsed this incident with the one below, coming only months apart and both being defined by Christian groups that claimed a “war against Christianity:”
December 1, 1997, West Paducah, Kentucky: Three students were killed and five wounded by Michael Carneal, 14, as they participated in a prayer circle.
For my community, what both of these shootings had in common was that the men targeted women. In West Paducah all three students killed were women, and four of the five injured were women. In the Feminist media world we all kept running counts of our dead, because they mattered to us and because the mainstream media refused to acknowledge gender played a role.
March 24, 1998, Jonesboro, Arkansas: Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, killed four students and one teacher and wounded ten others as Westside Middle School emptied during a fire alarm intentionally set off by Golden.
About this killing I remember my outrage at what the press wasn’t saying. Three shootings in six months, only girls or women killed, but gender was never part of the discussion. At Jonesboro the boys used scoped hunting rifles to intentionally target first girls who had broken up with them and then the friends of those girls. Only after that did they start firing indiscriminately. I wrote a long impassioned email that was forwarded across my community, I got pieces about it into the Feminist press, but none of that budged the wider world in any way whatsoever. This time my high school nightmare didn’t return, but even now I have flashes of a waking nightmare, one of rifles in the woods and an 11 year old girl’s head exploding. That image is another canyon in my mind, alongside the rooms full of terrified children, just as likely to flood and deepen each year. And sometimes there is a flood so enormous it roars through both channels at once. My shorthand for this: Montreal.
After killing his parents at home,
Kip Kinkel, 15, drove to Thurston High School
where he shot and killed two students
and wounded 23 others.
He was sentenced to 111 years of prison.
I have no memory of this.
How can I have no memory of this?
It had to have been all over the news.
April 20, 1999, Littleton, Colorado: Columbine High School, where Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, killed twelve students and one teacher, and wounded 21 others before committing suicide.
If you were old enough to have social memory by 1999 you had to know we were all coming to this point. I was 36. I lived in Philadelphia, I had just started a job I loved working for Children’s Literacy Initiative as assistant to the director. I was getting dressed to go to work when I saw this on the morning news on April 21st. I called my boss – I’m not even sure why except I had to talk to someone. We both said all the predictable things. What I didn’t say was either of the sensations that overwhelmed me – the ever-near-the-surface terror of my high school dream, and a strong pulse of understanding how bullied outsiders could do be moved to violence: They showed those arrogant fucking cheerleaders and jocks. In my high school each senior (all 32 of us) got to choose a quotation to print under our photo in the year book. My choice was not allowed—the Pink Floyd line from The Wall “If I had my way I’d have all of you shot.” I wasn’t angry enough to have considered actually shooting anyone, but was angry enough to feel the resonance of the truth of it enough to say it out loud.
I don’t remember now how long it was before the initial terror of that day faded. I dreamed my own old-version of the assault nearly every night. I followed all the news obsessively—now there was the web and I could read newspapers all over the world. No big web-based media though, so no endless array of blogs and self-published opinion pieces. But access was making stories grow longer. It was easy to go back in time (only a few years at this point) to find the roots of a thing, in this case the Oklahoma City bombing one year earlier*, and easier to hold on to a thing to link it to what would come. The web was the end of the lie of “isolated incidents,” because each of us could sit at home and search for names and dates and descriptions from an exploding variety of viewpoints.
(* actually it was four years earlier – I remembered it as being only a year before)
In my memory, Columbine is all caught up in 9/11 too, via Michael Moore and backlashes against gun control and the 1999 presidential election. The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and Columbine and endless air strikes against Iraq and Bush and 9/11 are one continuous story about men and violence and Whiteness and bullying and consequences. Columbine, that should be my own ultimate example of The School Shooting, somehow exists simultaneously inside of the school shootings narrative and yet also outside of it, in a larger, international narrative, in the same way the gunmen in trench coats worn to hide guns and bullets exists inside Columbine and outside of it, entrenched in our culture of cowboys, gangsters, spies, crazed loner killers and crazed loner killers of killers.
March 21, 2005: Red Lake Reservation, Minnesota: Jeffrey Weise, a 16-year-old student, killed his grandfather and grandfather’s companion then drove his grandfather’s police vehicle to his Red Lake Senior High School. He shot and killed five students, one teacher, one security guard, and then committed suicide. Seven other people were wounded in the shooting.
42, still in Philly, still with strong ties to Minnesota and a few friendships with Native women there. This shooting I remember because it was on the Reservation, because Indian Country is small and everyone I knew with ties to it was in shock. So many Native young men go down under addiction, poverty, police violence, but never like this. I don’t remember my dream coming back then, but by then I was fighting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was deeply involved in Jewish groups organizing for Palestinian civil rights. Maybe my dreams were already full up with grief and fear.
September 27, 2006, Bailey, Colorado: Duane Roger Morrison walked into Platte Canyon High School and took six girls hostage and sexually assaulted them. As police entered the classroom he killed one hostage and then shot himself.
October 2, 2006, Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania: Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk truck driver, shot to death five Amish girls and wounded five others before killing himself in an Amish school.
April 26, 2007, Blacksburg, Virginia: Seung-Hui Cho, aged 23, shot and killed 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech, and wounded another 17 students and faculty members in two separate attacks on the same day, all before Cho committed suicide. It was the deadliest attack by a lone gunman in US history.
How many times can one continue to be shocked? This time I stepped sideways, took up another angle. The media kept referring to this as the “biggest massacre in U.S. history,” but I knew that wasn’t true because I’d had a Native Studies class and I knew about Wounded Knee – where 300 Lakota people, mainly women and children, were killed within hours using the Hotchkiss canons, the newest killing technology. The letter I wrote to my network of friends and activists talked about the technology of killing, the fascination with numbers of clips and rounds and how fast bullets could leave the gun.
Only in going to find that letter, part of which was posted on someone’s blog, do I remember what I had blocked remembering –that this, too, was Montreal¸ for the shooter first murdered his ex-girlfriend, after which the campus hadn’t been notified and locked down because that murder was “only domestic violence.” I ended my letter like this:
So as I hear and read the news, a ticker tape of other shootings runs across my internal screen, with a soundtrack chant of “Wounded Knee, Wounded Knee.” So I have to write this, and share it. Because the truth matters. Because the silence around the history of racist and sexist violence in the U.S. matters. Because, if violence is domestic, I need to be wild to survive and challenge it, and I want all of you to be wild, too.
February 14, 2008, DeKalb, Illinois: Steven Kazmierczak, 27, shot multiple people in a classroom of Northern Illinois University with a 12 gauge Remington Sportsman 48 shotgun, killing five and injuring 21. He then committed suicide.
DeKalb I’ll always remember, because an old friend taught there, and as the story developed I realized that, as Chair of the Sociology Department, the murders happened in her classrooms. I tried calling for hours, finally got her partner on the phone, who said she hadn’t been at school but was there now and might not be home until tomorrow or the day after. We finally talked, briefly; all I remember is the shock and exhaustion in her voice.
And as the number of times reporting from NIU kept bringing up Virginia Tech grew steadily, I remember thinking, DeKalb has been Sonny Bono’d.
And now I remember that at the time this latest round of shooting in a classroom didn’t set off my high school nightmare. I can’t be sure, as memory is never sure and dreams are slippery, but I think I never had that nightmare again after the Columbine terror receded. I remember the dream, still, but I haven’t had the dream. When reality tops nightmare does nightmare give up and go out to pasture?
December 14. 2012, Newtown Connecticut. Sandy Hook. 20 first-grade children aged six and seven were killed, along with six adults, including four teachers, the principal, and the school psychologist.
I was 49. I was in a job with people I thought I didn’t like, and this day and its aftermath proved it. I feel like there is no part of this I don’t remember. In part because it was so horrifying. In part because the script was so predictable and everyone said their part right on cue, including vowing, “Change!” when there would be no change. Internet culture did allow some new scenes to be added to the script, including a whole community of people dedicated to proving this never happened, that it was some kind of Obama-staged plot to take away their guns. A community of people who still send death and rape threats to family members of the murdered children.
Because there are always way the horrific can get even more horrific.
May 23, 2014, Isla Vista, California. 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a stabbing and shooting rampage just outside the main campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rodger stabbed to death three men in his apartment. Leaving the scene in his car, he drove to a sorority house, where he shot four people outside, killing two female students. He drove to a nearby deli and shot to death a male student. He then sped through Isla Vista, shooting at bystanders and striking four people with his car. After crashing his car he committed suicide.
51 now, my life split between two households, one in Philadelphia and one in Center Valley, PA. I wasn’t watching tv as this story unfolded, and don’t actually remember a lot of the exact details. What I do remember is the fight that erupted around how the cops and parents and friends and media ignored or tried to downplay the role his hatred for women played in his violence, including his targeting of a specific sorority. Public conversations erupted about men’s rights groups and trolls and friend-zoning and how women are stalked and terrorized online. These conversations have kept on happening around certain cultural icons – Gamergate, Anita Sarkeesian, #NOTALLMEN, #YESALLWOMEN, PUA.
And now something I find challenging to write – I see how my memories are strongest of events that fit into my political narrative about gender and violence against women. I know why all of these events play against a soundtrack of the Judy Small chorus, “Why does “gunman” sound so familiar, while “gunwoman” doesn’t quite ring true? What is it about men that makes them do the things they do?” And I see in my list that the first two shootings I remember were by women. And see how my experiences in the late 1980s trying to help a lesbian being battered (included threatened with a shotgun) by her partner and then trying to get the lesbian community to acknowledge lesbian battering taught me searing lessons about how women can be much better at intimate violence than men ever could. And that nonetheless I hate how the media has adopted “shooter” rather than “gunman” because the former disguises gender, pretending this isn’t part of male-pattern violence. I remember events that fit my narrative and not ones that don’t, which only makes me human. The challenge for me is to figure out how to honor people who remember totally other events, or the same events in totally different ways, in order to fit their own narratives. Because yes, I do think my narrative is more true than narratives that ignore gender or narratives that assert “guns don’t kill people.” But now, at 52, I know I am much less interested in being the one who is right, much more open to nuance and gray areas and complicated answers. I’m trying hard to learn what it means to live with a Niels Bohr insight I discovered through the writings of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan: the opposite of a great truth is another great truth.
Which brings me to this week, October, 2015, and the shooting at a college in Oregon whose name I’ve already backgrounded. Being honest with myself, I probably won’t remember this particular shooting in ten or twenty years. Or maybe I will, because of its ties to the assertion of U.S. right-wing Christians that there is a “war” against them and this shooting is more evidence of that. Because those particular Christians are part of the war against Patriarchy that fits into my own life story.
This shooting isn’t triggering my high school nightmare, nor shock nor grief. But there is horror of a new kind, the horror of acknowledging how deeply these school shootings have shaped my life. How I would not be the same me without them. How they are the story of my country and I am its citizen and how the contours of even my most intimate self have grown around these acts of violence, as a tree planted beside a barbed wire fence envelopes the barbs and keeps on growing.
“the contours of even my most intimate self have grown around these acts of violence”
I keep hearing the voice of Linda Hunt’s character in The Year of LIVING Dangerously echoing in my head, as Billy Kwan watches the coup roll inexorably across Jakarta: “what then must we do. what then must we do. what then…”