On Thursday, May 10, 2018 I sent an email to Melinda, asking if she’d be interested in contributing her story to a book I was co-editing about survivors in the aftermath of school shootings. I wanted to learn more about her experience during the Umpqua Community College (UCC) shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, which left nine people dead on October 1, 2015. I wanted to find out what life was like for her three years later, and I was hopeful that by working with survivors to tell their stories, I’d begin to understand the ripple effects these shootings have on their lives and on their communities.
Between 2017 and 2018, my co-editor, Amye Archer, and I set out together to collect primary narratives from survivors of school shootings from the last fifty-five years. In the months before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we discussed ideas for a new anthology. It quickly became clear that gun violence, and those left in its wake, was of particular interest to both of us. For Amye, Sandy Hook changed everything, as it did for many parents across the country. Her twin daughters were the same age as the children murdered on that day, and she has been advocating for change ever since. I’d been writing about trauma for years after my own experience with rape, but never had the opportunity to coach anyone to write about their own trauma narrative. But I was unaware, at the time, of how being a receiver of their narratives might intertwine with my own.
But I was unaware, at the time, of how being a receiver of their narratives might intertwine with my own.
Finding survivors willing to work with me on this project was challenging, and my experience with locating survivors of UCC proved this. Out of the twenty individuals I reached out to, some of whom were active on social media, two of them returned my queries and were open to talking via phone. They shared survivors were cautious of media because at the vigil after the shooting, they didn’t respect their space and tried to facilitate interviews during their observance. They felt exploited rather than supported. But even after I assured them of my pure intentions, they were not interested in contributing. Eventually, I connected with Lori, a Journalism instructor at the University of Oregon, who helped me make contact with the first UCC survivor, Melinda, 56 at the time, and an associate professor teaching in Humanities and Social Sciences, who was on campus the day of the shooting.
After we exchanged a few emails, Melinda and I set a date and time to talk. Over the phone she described the day. On the morning of the shooting, she was preparing lecture notes and packing up to go teach in Snyder Hall rooms 15 and 16. “Just as I am going out of the door a student on the newspaper staff I advise called me. He first asks me where I am,” she said. “Then he tells me the school is in lockdown and a shooter is active and there have been deaths in Snyder Hall rooms 15 and 16.”
After the shooting, Snyder Hall was torn down, and in its place, “a new building was built on its footprint,” Melinda wrote me in a follow up email. But tearing down school shooting sites isn’t new. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012 that left 20 children and six staff members dead, the site was closed for almost four years. Remaining students were sent to a nearby elementary school in a town nearby while the original school was reconstructed. Most recently, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the Parkland, Florida shooting, awaits the end of the state’s death penalty trial of the shooter. For now, it stands only as evidence.
Sometimes the building is torn down to minimize triggering trauma and in other cases, like the failed proposal to rebuild Columbine, it’s about reducing trespassing. In either case, I’ve learned there’s no amount of rebuilding that can minimize trauma memory. Melinda knows this well. She told me that “the new building looks a lot like a fishbowl, with lots of glass on exterior walls and a glass wall for each classroom. Exactly what a lot of us didn’t want at first.” She later noted that, “the architect told me that the visibility was an intention to reduce a repeat offense, but I can still feel vulnerable, on display, at times.” Melinda’s sadness and frustration was palpable. “People don’t realize that after a shooting the buildings come down. They don’t realize how hard it is to go back to those buildings even after they’ve been rebuilt.” My stomach dropped. I asked myself, is it like going to school on a gravesite?
Before starting this project, I knew this collection process wouldn’t be easy. I did exactly what my therapist advised when taking on projects that involve close contact with victims of trauma. I upped my self-care: meditated and committed to weekly therapy sessions. But still my therapist was concerned. She questioned if working with survivors would trigger my own experience with trauma, a rape I experienced more than 13 years ago. “How will you protect yourself,” she asked me during a session. I had no idea how to answer that. I saw so much of myself in their suffering. I was them, too.
“The sadness is perpetual,” Melinda shared. And while I have never experienced a school shooting, that statement returned me to the memory of my rape. I believed Melinda made the same kind of return when she spoke of seeing the mothers behind the police tape. “It still makes me cry. Their faces were physically distorted. They didn’t look like mothers anymore.” I know what she meant. After my rape I no longer looked like me — an image of myself in quick passing. “I think you should write about this in your essay,” I said to her. “I think you can tell the story about how pain changes our shape.” She agreed and said she’d send me the essay in a few months.
While I waited for Melinda to send me her piece, I started working with another survivor of the UCC shooting, Kindra. I first connected with Kindra after reading her illustrated comic on Facebook, a self-portrait of grief after a school shooting. I messaged her and asked if she’d be interested in talking about expanding her illustration for the book. A few days went by. What if she never returns my messages? Anxiety filled me. What if — ? And then she did.
In our first conversation, she described a gunfire that broke the gentle quietness of campus. It was like a “plank of wood clattering to the ground,” she later wrote in her essay. Kindra’s voice changed. Suddenly, I felt myself. I was running with her. Down the nature path away from the shooting. Both of us out of breath as we run “through the tall dried grass.” Both of us “slipping down the steep incline.” And then her breath slows. So does mine. “But I couldn’t do it,” Kindra said. And she took me back up the incline and then back to campus where her and some students were ushered by a faculty inside her sociology classroom. At the time, no one knew that the adjunct English teacher, Lawrence Levin, was dead, as were many others. Some of which the shooter made beg for their lives. “I was frustrated,” she said. “Some students thought it was a joke, and were talking about how “terrible the emergency plan for the school was.” She could hear the barrage of sirens outside the window. “I was still trying to catch my breath.” We both were.
“I wish I could say it ended there,” Kindra said before ending our call. I wish, too. I muted the phone for a moment. I don’t want to do this anymore, I said through my tears. But Kindra had no choice. I unmute the phone. “I’m so sorry.” I repeat it again and again. “I am just so sorry. So sorry.”
A few months later, in the waiting room of my therapist’s office, I see Melinda’s essay arrive in my inbox. “I’m terrified to open the email,” I tell my therapist at the start of our session.
“Why?” she asks.
“Because I know what she meant when she said the sadness is perpetual. It is for me, too.”
Do you think you’re transferring your own pain onto these survivors?” My therapist questioned. “That you’re confusing their suffering with your own?”
It’s called pain transference,” she said. “It’s when you own apply your feelings and outlook to another person.”
Perhaps I was, but if so, it was unconscious. What my therapist called transference, I perceived as empathy. I identified with being a survivor so profoundly that I felt my own suffering had entwined with Melinda and Kindra’s, as well as other survivors I worked with. I questioned whether this transference undermined my ability to work objectively with survivors or affected how I coached them to tell their stories. Maybe I needed them in order to feel my own pain.
“Just try to keep in mind that you are coaching them to tell their stories, not using their stories to heal your own pain,” my therapist said. “Keep in my mind your original reason for the work you’re doing,” she added.
But that original reason was sometimes overshadowed by the nature of this project. That nature facilitated attachments with people I hardly new. Sharing pain has a way of speeding up intimacy. And during phone, email, or face-to-face interviews, I moved from zero (not knowing this person at all) to 100 (knowing the most personal details of their lives).
Wherever I go I feel their pain. It’s as soft as a hand on my back. Kindra and Melinda are with me as I travel across the country to visit my in-laws in Washington state. While my husband and I settle in the guest bedroom, I think how close I am to Roseburg, Oregon. A part of me wants to drive to the small wooded campus and meet Melinda. To sit with her and remember our trauma together. To see the tall grass from the steep incline Kindra slid down. To walk past the glass that supports Snyder Hall. But there’s another part of me terrified to go there. It’s the there from which I might not never return. It’s the grief both recognizable and distant. Both stranger and lover. And as much as I want to meet them, I’m cautious our heartache might keep us in a perpetual place of sharing, of transferring, of cycling through grief. I’m hesitant to hand over pain’s empty space, even if I tell myself there is freedom in the transfer. That it will not change my shape.