In this shattering collection, we learn how true that is, and yet how difficult it can be to summon that strength. Here, survivors confess a variety of responses to mass shootings: Some speak of laughter when they ought to have panicked, numbness when they ought to have wept, lingering fear in the absence of anything to be afraid of. They feel shame, anger and grief in strange proportions, and above all, they feel helpless. “The weight of this felt unbearable,” Josh Stepakoff writes of his life since being shot at age 6 at his California day camp 20 years ago. “If you learn one thing from me, learn that your life belongs to you and no one else.”
This book, an anthology of woe, offers a modicum of succor and hope to anyone interested in learning how gun violence is affecting our nation. That the book is uneven and sometimes unpolished reflects the roughness of the experiences it captures.
Editors Amye Archer and Loren Kleinman sew themselves into the fabric of the anthology, with a page or two of introduction to each essay and sometimes personal anecdotes. About the Sandy Hook shooting, Archer writes of her own children being the same age as many of the victims: “I remember thinking [my daughter] should not associate first grade with murder.”
The book begins with the most recent shootings, slowly moving back in time to the 1966 University of Texas at Austin tower sniper. This structure is remarkably well-considered. It demonstrates the long-term impact of trauma, transitioning slowly from survivors who are just a few months out to those who have had decades to work through their experiences. It also shows, nakedly, how school shootings have increased in frequency and deadliness from the 1990s to today, and how a particular kind of school shooting has become de rigueur.
Before about 1997, shootings were relatively few and far between, and they could be explained as flukes: people with undiagnosed schizophrenia, people with grievances, bigots with nothing to lose. But after the shooting at Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., in December 1997, a pattern began to form. Kids with excess hate and access to guns showed up at school and fired indiscriminately. After Columbine, the pattern was set, and experts designed a response protocol. But the book shows how this protocol fails to account for the emotional reactions of survivors and loved ones — what happens to kids who are told to walk out of school with their hands on their heads, and elementary school students who learn how to hide under their desks, in closets or behind barricaded doors.
Again and again, survivors tell individual versions of the same story: A boy came in, he killed some of us, we don’t know why and now I will always be afraid. Some of them angrily place blame on institutions or individuals (the Virginia Tech survivors have a lot to say about their school’s response), while others explain their paths to forgiveness and healing. Jane Nicholson, the wife of a professor killed at the University of Iowa in 1991, writes: “A bullet makes a straight-line trajectory, grief makes a circle.”
Some write poems or draw graphic stories; some rely on photographs or tweets to tell the tale; still others speak in interviews with Archer and Kleinman or write letters to their murdered loved ones. The variation in these stories lies on the surface. Fear, violence, loss, and the bright line between life before the shooting and life after the shooting — these qualities all run bone-deep, and the survivors express them again and again. “My moments of silence in my backyard became torture,” writes Mona Samaha, the mother of a student killed at Virginia Tech, speaking for many others. “I felt fear instead of peace.”
Frankly, the sheer repetition of this book is depressing. The events described here are horrible; over and over, they are even more so. Some survivors write about joining Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety, while others pursue healing and help in more individual ways. Columbine survivors have founded private groups to support school shooting survivors, and they reach out after every new incident. It’s awful that this is necessary, that there are enough school shooting survivors that groups specifically intended to help them through trauma had to be created. But survivors from pre-2000 shootings say they had no notion of where to turn or what to do. “Every time I went to a counselor, I was told they had no idea how to help me,” says Christina Hadley Ellegood, who survived the Paducah shooting but whose sister did not. “There was no one else like me in America.” Survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting and others credit the Columbine group with helping them get through.
The purpose of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You” is clear: to compile and tell these stories. That’s an important, even necessary endeavor. In these pages, hope comes in tiny measures, and suffering overwhelms. It would be a gross understatement to say that opening a chest of horrors like this one is difficult. Open it anyway.
Katharine Coldiron is a critic and essayist based in Los Angeles.
IF I DON'T MAKE IT, I LOVE YOU
Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings
Edited by Amye Archer and Loren Kleinman
Skyhorse. 492 pp. $27.99