At first, I know Fort Douglas—once a US Army post during the Civil War—mostly as a small stretch of red brick buildings that curves along the ridge of a hill in the eastern part of Salt Lake City. Just beyond the buildings is an old cemetery, and I walk here on fall afternoons to clear my head and acquaint myself with a certain view of the Wasatch Mountains, an outline I trace with one eye closed, my finger against the sky.
This is the first landlocked state I’ve lived in, and though the topography here is impressive, at first it feels oppressive. I can’t help but sense that the mountains are keeping me from the ocean, that just on the other side of this range the rocks abruptly yield to a flat blue horizon. Of course, I’m wrong. Beyond the hills, lie more hills. I don’t know it yet, but I’ll grow to love this landscape as much as any place I’ve lived. When I stumble upon the old Fort Douglas cemetery during my first few weeks in Salt Lake, I’m reminded of the old New England cemeteries where I grew up, of different kinds of stone: the headstones lined in cramped, off-kilter rows, so many names lost to years of hard weather.
It’s fall 2012, the first semester I teach. I’m unaccustomed to so many things—the landscape, the dry air, my first-semester college students who veer between bouts of wild enthusiasm and apathy. I’m struck by their openness and how clearly they see me: You’re not from here, they say, before I have a chance to tell them I’ve just moved from Brooklyn. That makes sense, they say afterwards. You have such short hair.
I’m teaching Rhetoric and Composition. Before the semester is over, Obama will defeat Romney, and my students will engage in heated classroom debates about gun control, abortion, and religious freedom. We’ll talk about logical fallacies using language from the election. More than one of my students will plagiarize their entire papers, and more than one of my students will drop the class because of the demands of supporting their young families. Before the semester is over, Adam Lanza will shoot and kill twenty children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
This is what happens: When I’m nineteen, an ex-boyfriend, who is only a year older than Lanza will be at the time of the Sandy Hook Massacre, throws me to the ground and gives me a concussion. He’s walking me home from a party, and we argue. He turns to walk away, and I put a hand on his shoulder. He turns toward me, hard, throws me to the ground, throws me clear of my own flip flops, purse contents spilled everywhere. By the time I can get up he’s gone, and two women have come out of their apartment to help me, and a man has crossed the street to ask me where I’ve been hit. I’m crying so hard I can’t answer.
My ex is a ROTC Army student, and though I know from his stories that he’s capable of violence—that he has previously thrown and broken furniture—he has never hurt me before. Despite the concussion, I am decidedly clear-headed about the course of action I wish to take, and so I report the incident to the school, ask for a kind of restraining order, and go on about my business. My business, at the time, is forgetting—the boy, the incident, the people who insist it didn’t happen, and then the alternate stories I hear later: he said you fell because you were wearing heels. I heard he had to write you an apology letter.
I put the nonexistent letter and nonexistent heels aside. To do otherwise is dangerous. To do otherwise is to risk becoming hysterical, though later I will become hysterical, will be so consumed by depression and anxiety that I’ll begin to self-destruct. At the time, my business is to minimize the damage. At the time, I think I am doing a fantastic job. I almost immediately begin dating someone else.
The semester after Sandy Hook, one of my quieter students stops coming to class. I know he’s fresh out of the military, that this is his first semester in college, that he’s been struggling with the lack of routine. He is exceedingly polite and attentive when he’s in class, but I’m beginning to worry that his absences are adding up, and there’s only so much I can do to help him. When he returns following a week of absences, he stays after class to talk. I instinctively move behind my desk so that there’s a barrier between us, partly because we are alone; partly because I can never predict how students might respond to charged course material; and partly because, although he is polite, he is difficult to read. I’m recovering from extensive leg and ankle surgery, and my limp, which I do my best to hide when teaching, is not unnoticeable. I cannot run.
My student asks if he can write his paper on gun control. We’ve talked a lot about guns in class—campus carry is legal in Utah—and I think I see where this conversation is headed, but I’m wrong. Look, he says, I’ve served. No civilian should ever have an assault rifle.
I leave class thinking about the word “civilian.” How it’s tied to “civil” and “civility.” How I can’t seem to find anything civil left in the political discourse I analyze with my students, or in the countless headlines about sexual assault or mass shootings. It’s a civilian who videotapes the rape of an unconscious girl in Steubenville, Ohio. It’s a civilian who uses a Bushmaster XM- 15 rifle and a .22-caliber Savage Mark II rifle in Newtown, Connecticut. A civilian, by definition, is neutral; neutrality, by extension, is ordinary. And this is what I keep coming back to: extraordinary acts of violence, committed by ordinary individuals.
Statistically speaking, we know many men who commit acts of mass violence have histories of domestic assault. We know that we culturally support, protect, and embolden these men, more so when they are white. We also know that those with mental illness are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crimes. Violence is instinctual, and in this way, ordinary. Without a fight-or-flight response, none of us would ever survive. Violence both connects us to the world around us, and protects us against it.
But what sets humans apart from other animals, of course, is the ability to create, judge, and articulate different contexts for behavior. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry explains that the difference between a weapon and a tool is determined by the surface you use it on. Use a saw on a table leg, it’s a tool; wield the same instrument on a person, and it’s a weapon. I’d argue that context plays an equally important role. Use a knife on a person to rob them, and it’s a weapon. Use a knife on a person to perform life-saving surgery, and it’s a tool. The surface—the body—in both instances is the same. Context is everything.
After I’m assaulted, I respond in much the same way I respond after each childhood surgery, each corrective surgery to fix leg and foot birth defects: I draw a distinct line between body and self. In this way, I can admit that the physical damage is real, can acknowledge that I am both hurt and hurting. In this way, I can also look you in the eye and tell you I’m fine, and mean it, and know it to be true. I am not my body. My body is hurt, but what is fundamentally me is not. I must keep believing and being me in order to maintain some sense of control. I repeat the same facts over and over until they are meaningless. I live with certain pain and deformities, but try to hold their emotional tenor at arm’s length. And for the most part, this works. But the sensory details of one’s environment—the sound of a cast saw, the smell of anesthesia—don’t always adhere to the same rules. Still, the framework that separates my self from my body is also the framework through which I’ve narrated my body, and its physical limitations, for my entire life.
When this narrative is challenged, not by my environment but by people, as when two boys in eighth grade question why I’m using a wheelchair after leg surgery—her other leg is fine, I overhear, why doesn’t she just use crutches—I make it my business to forget. I make it my business to minimize the damage those boys do. To do otherwise is dangerous. To do otherwise is to risk becoming hysterical. This is also why, after reporting the assault, I don’t take off time from school. Schoolwork focuses me, and so I work. I already know my body as a surface. I’m familiar with weapons and tools.
Eventually, if we follow Scarry’s logic, a tool or a weapon changes the surface it works upon. It follows that the result must be either creation or destruction—or possibly both. In the case of a table leg, where a lathe files away excess wood so that the shape of the leg can appear, we would call it an act of making. But of course it’s an act of injury, too, though no one loses much sleep over it since wood has no feelings.
Weapons are made to destroy, often by altering something’s fundamental shape or state. In most cases, weapons are meant to be used on bodies, or on equipment or objects adjacent to those bodies. But bodies are more than surfaces to be acted upon. They are also weapons and tools. And perhaps there are no two acts where this becomes clearer than sex and war: when bodies make or destroy other bodies.
My student’s claim that civilians shouldn’t have assault rifles is a claim made by a person whose body was deemed a valuable tool—in this case, a tool and a weapon—by his government and country. If, in his role as a soldier, he took lives, and if he took lives with an assault rifle, he did so in the context of protection. To do this kind of work, I imagine, requires a strict adherence to a certain narrative logic: I take lives to save lives. I do so to protect the country I love. I do so to protect American values. My student’s claim that civilians shouldn’t have assault rifles is a claim made by a person whose body, now that he is no longer serving, is no longer an active tool and weapon of war. If he takes up an assault rifle now, within this new narrative context, we must imagine a different logic: He takes up a gun to cause unspeakable damage, or he takes up a gun in self-defense. It’s this damage—the same damage my student no doubt witnessed or caused within a different context—that he believes can be avoided by keeping assault rifles out of the hands of civilians.
In a very literal sense, my student doesn’t want a tool of war to be used as a domestic weapon. In order to make that distinction, he has to believe in, and adhere to, two separate narrative frameworks: When a gun is used in war, it is sanctioned and acceptable. When a gun—or, specifically, an assault rifle—is used domestically, it is an act of terror. But my student is struggling with framework. He already misses the discipline and routine of military life; he is trying to reinvent an appropriate life for himself as a student, apart from the life he knows as a soldier. Believing wholeheartedly in received narrative frameworks can enable us to perform unbelievable acts, often ones we imagine we are incapable of, because we can buy into the larger structure in which they occur. But in order to maintain a sense of control, we have to really buy into—we have to deeply believe in—the narrative structure that frames the behavior. On an even broader scale, we must buy into narrative frameworks in order to perform any kind of assigned identity: man, woman, solider, civilian.
But when a person, a real living being, moves between contexts, there is always a risk: the physical body misreads the situation, and the entire framework ruptures. This is why, I imagine, when a noise or a smell from one context appears in another, the body often responds as it would in its initial context; why for example, when I hear something that recalls the very specific sound of a cast saw, or I smell something in the grocery store that reminds me strongly of anesthesia, I immediately begin to sweat and shake. Logically, I know the sound or the smell poses no threat, because I am in a grocery store and not a hospital. But my body, which is always with me, does not have the same knowledge. My body doesn’t know the difference. The body can, in no time at all, collapse one moment into another. In that collapse, the body is asserting its narrative continuity. The body says to the brain: You can’t change the context of physical memory, because it is continuous. The body says: I am a surface with a cumulative, present history.
The night before Halloween 2017 is a Monday, and I’m home with a cold, settling in to watch Stranger Things with my husband. The first text comes in at 9:07pm: Campus Alert Update: Shots fired, Red Butte Canyon. Shelter in place. When my cell phone screen lights up, I ignore it for a few minutes, assuming it’s nothing important, and when I do check it, all I can do is repeat the message out loud. Isn’t that right near the military base? Fort Douglas? my husband asks. The next text comes in a little over an hour later: Continue to secure in place. Active police situation. Heavy police presence in Red Butte Canyon.
Try as I might, after I’m assaulted I do not immediately function as a carved table leg, because I do, in fact, have feelings. Though I am, for most intents and purposes, physically intact, the shock of having encountered my body as an object at someone else’s spontaneous disposal begins to invade almost everything I do. If my body was always a site of medical intervention, and if I’ve now learned it as a site of violence, who in the world would want to treat it gently? Certainly not me. I begin to cultivate my body as surface—I engage in dangerous behavior, sexual and otherwise, as if to say, go ahead. Try me. No one can hurt me more than I can. If I am in charge of my own objectification, I am building a thicker skin. The ultimate harm can only come if I say it can. Just try.
A boy I loved then says: I wish I could leave my wallet on the ground and come back in an hour and it would still be there, but that’s not the world we live in. You have to be more careful. A boy I loved says: Don’t show so much skin. Leave something to the imagination. Don’t you know I’m always imagining a different body? I’m showing a lot of skin. Look at me. Let’s imagine my body is my body is my body is mine.
Everyone I know who has experience with guns is either a hunter or a soldier, and I keep struggling to find some kind of common ideology among them. What came loose inside my attacker the night he assaulted me? What’s the context in which he views that night? I want to know how he tells the story. I want to know how his version accounts for the fact of my body, the fact of my body on the ground. In his version, what does he hear when I call out?
As the official texts come in about the active shooter on campus, other texts arrive too, mostly from my friends who also work on the university campus, most of them women, making sure I’m home and safe. The situation isn’t under control. Eventually, the shooter’s face and name appear on the news. I am immediately relieved it isn’t one of my students. The shooter, who is twenty-four years old, can’t be located. We learn that he attacked his wife, and that as she sought help from the police, he shot and killed a student in an attempted carjacking. It’s 3 a.m. before students no longer shelter in place. It’s 3 p.m. the next day before someone recognizes the shooter at the downtown library branch and calls the police, and he’s taken into custody nonviolently.
I keep coming back to the wife. I keep coming back to the violence before the violence, the moment of narrative rupture. I want to know how she tells the story. I want to know who hears her call out.
I begin to fall apart about a year after I’m assaulted, after all the things I’ve tried so hard to maintain begin to slip away. I’ve stopped going to class. I’m sleeping all the time, or I’m not sleeping at all. The relationship I’m in is over, because I’ve been dishonest about my past relationships since the time of my assault, and I’ve been reckless: I don’t know how to talk about the choices I’ve made and don’t regret, the choices I’ve made and do regret, and the choices that were made without my consent. I don’t know how to sort out what’s my fault, though I’m certain I’ve brought this on myself.
I’ve tried and failed to construct a version of my life where I am in control, where I am the kind of woman everyone expects me to be, with the kind of history every good woman should have. Of course, when you are dishonest about one thing, people naturally question everything. Of course, someone decides to question my assault. It’s then that I hear the stories about a letter and high heels; it’s then I am pushed out of my own narrative, a kind of violent erasure that doesn’t feel altogether different than being pushed to the ground.
Most of the men I know who have served are smart, and careful, and take the consequences of their actions seriously. They are sometimes undone by what they’ve seen. They are sometimes unable to function as civilians, because the narrative they bought into as soldiers doesn’t account for the nightmares, the guilt, or the shame they feel at having taken another’s life, even within a sanctioned framework.
When we compartmentalize, we are clinging desperately to a desire for narrative stability, for a version of the world where it’s possible to kill someone and also be a good, kind person; where it’s possible to suffer real, physical pain and insist upon the unharmed nature of self. But lived violence doesn’t care about boundaries, or compartmentalization, or frameworks. It can force the recipient and the witness and the executor of such violence to see or hear or smell or feel its repercussions well beyond the initial event. And as those repercussions begin to announce themselves, it can be like finding yourself trapped in a burning building, when you’re the one holding the match.
A month before the shooting, I show up to support students protesting Ben Shapiro’s appearance on campus. Among the crowd I spot an old student—one who showed up to class drunk and combative before dropping the course; one who struggles, like my other student, with the violence he committed and saw while serving—and time begins to collapse. The body says: Remember the fact of your body. The body says: Get out of here as fast as you can.
The narrative is rewritten, and I’m excised from my own story. And so I write a letter of my own to the two women who picked me up off the ground and drove me home the night I was assaulted, both to thank them and to ask what they remember. I consider asking my doctor for a copy of the letter he sent the school detailing my concussion, but ultimately don’t, because I can’t bear to read it. I begin to distrust myself. I compulsively gather records around me so I can read and remind myself of my own life. I am studying the narrative. I am trying to figure out what happens next.
What happens next is that I lose my shit, or my narrative thread, or both. I swallow a handful of Ambien and put my family through hell. I spend the day in the ER, and I can barely look at my parents, and I immediately regret what I’ve done. I go to therapy three times a week, and most of the time I cry hysterically, and most of the time what I’m upset about isn’t what I’m actually upset about, though it will take me years to sort that out.
The building’s on fire, and I’m holding the match, and I can’t seem to figure out if I’m the one going for the fire extinguisher or feeding the flames or both. This is the violence the mind visits on the body when the mind knows the body is built for it. I am nothing if not a practiced and practical object, politely tolerant, a queen of watching the knife or the needle without flinching. Pain is, perhaps, the thing I do best.
Pain, like violence, resists neat contextualization or categorization. This is why, when a slew of accusations against men like Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, and Kevin Spacey (and the list continues, even as I write this) emerge within weeks of the campus shooting, so many women I know begin to lose their shit. They begin to see, in their own attempts at managing histories of violence and assault, that absolute narrative control is a myth. As much as we try to control grief and pain, when what causes them persists—when what causes them is so very pervasive—we begin to feel them again, or anew, or feel them differently.
We begin to see, or remember, that we are always a hair’s breadth away from experiencing violence, a hair’s breadth away from being re-cast in our own narratives as objects for someone else’s pleasure or blame, from being re-cast as the woman who asked for it, who ran her mouth, who didn’t say no loudly enough, who didn’t speak up soon enough. No amount of progress, distance, emotional labor, or proverbial healing can change that.
I keep coming back to the wife. I keep coming back to myself at nineteen. I’m trying to be measured and fair, trying not to say fuck these men, while saying, more articulately but just as loudly, fuck these men. I get to choose when and how I speak about my body, about my history, about what I’ve done and what’s been done to me. But I do not get to choose when I have nightmares, when I mistake a stranger for my attacker. I do not get to choose when one of my male students speaks to me in an aggressive tone, or stands too close to me, or questions my authority or my expertise because it contradicts his limited version of the world. I do not get to choose when a student brings a gun to class. I do not get to choose when a student says to my face, I bet you got a lot of dick-pics in high school. I do not get to choose when a student leaves inappropriate comments on my course evaluations: Ms. N is beautiful. That alone makes it worth going to class. I do not get to choose what I yell out in sleep, or scream out in sleep, or which night of the week it happens, or how and when my husband and I will drag ourselves through the next day, exhausted from being repeatedly jolted awake. I do not get to choose who believes me, or who hears me, or who looks away.
This is difficult because, as a teacher, I encounter boys who are the same age as those whose faces I see on the news, boys who are roughly the same age as boys I trusted—boys who hurt me. As a teacher of writing, it is my job to teach them about language, about narrative, and about frameworks. It is my job to show them what narrative rupture does or doesn’t achieve, to ask them to think about the relationship between form and content, to be precise and careful with words. It is my job to complicate their understanding of what stories can do, to show them the difference between what is real and imagined, and to explore what happens when the distinctions between those things collapse.
I know Fort Douglas is a scarred piece of land, a site of war and training for war and, now, the murder of a college student. Wherever the student who wrote about gun control is now, I know he’s trying the best he can to create a life after war: a life in which he is kind, and good, and makes a difference. I know he is doing his best to buy into an old American narrative, the one where he returns home and is stronger for serving, has a greater understanding of life’s meaning because he sees that everything is temporary. I know, too, that this narrative has failed him. That it threatens to undo him precisely because sometimes violence doesn’t mean anything, because the violence he’s witnessed or perpetrated has cast him as both object and weapon.
I want to tell my students that narrative has power. I want to tell them that words matter, that telling a story, and telling it well, matters. On my best days, I believe these things to be true. But I know—as does the young woman who misses my class because she runs into her rapist in a coffee shop—that narrative can be messy and duplicitous. And that narrative is controlled as much by a reader or a listener as it by its writer. I know that we believe and hear what we want to, and not always what we need to.
Time collapses when my body’s history demands I respond a certain way, despite my brain’s logical insistence otherwise. The distant sound of a leaf blower or a saw is always the sound of a cast saw, is always the onset of panic. Time collapses when I hear that yet another young man has attacked his wife, or his mother, or his girlfriend. The face on the news is not a face I know, but I know the face. Time collapses when I learn another mass shooting has occurred, when I learn the shooter has a history of domestic violence.
One of my students, a young woman, says: I am telling you what happened to me, because it keeps happening.
Here is what has happened since the shooting on campus: 26 people have been gunned down in a church in Texas, and five more have been killed in a shooting spree in Northern California, with seven children among the wounded. I want to tell you this because by the time you read these words, nothing will have changed, except more people will be dead, and those who are doing the killing will probably be men, and those whom they hurt first will be their wives or their girlfriends or their mothers or their mothers-in-law. I want to tell you this because it keeps happening, and will continue to happen, and when it does time collapses for someone, somewhere, and every time it does, narrative fails to contain us, and we have to start again at the beginning. We have to start again with: I am telling you what happened to me.