This is probably not the best time to start writing this piece, because in three hours I am going to be at the truck rental place, after which it's a day of wrangling a preliminary load of Stuff up to our new home. But I have been up since 4:00 a.m. and, as has been the case since Friday, May 23rd 2014, in my quiet time when I have not been in Packing-and-Moving overdrive, I have been reading online articles about the massacre in Isla Vista.
I probably don't have anything original to say.
I am not going to give the man who perpetrated this slaughter the thing he craved - recognition from a woman - by talking about him by name. My compassion and my recognition go out to the victims of his grandiosity and his delusional thinking. Weihan Wang, age 20. Cheng Yuan Hong, age 20. George Chen, age 19. Veronika Weiss, age 19. Katherine Breann Cooper, age 22. Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez, age 20.
All of them younger than my stepdaughter Brianna was when she died in 2012 at the age of 23.
I know part of what the families are suffering. But only a part. I know the incessant, unending pain that a family goes through when a child dies. It doesn't matter how old that child is. It's something a parent never recovers from - outliving his or her own child. I have met many other bereaved parents since we, too, became part of the club nobody wants to join, and the feelings of shock, bewilderment, anguish, and despair are the same for the people whose baby was born, but never drew a breath, as they are for those in their eighties whose children have passed away before they did.
But what I cannot know is what it feels like to have had this happen because someone deliberately decided to take my child's life. I am not the parent of a murder victim. And when I think of our own pain, and then think about what it could have been if we had lost Brianna in this fashion, I realize there are always deeper levels of Hell, and I have not been there yet. And because I still have one child, whom I just sent off to his first day of a summer job at 5:00 a.m. with the injunction to "Be careful...the subways are a little deserted at this hour, so try to get on a car that isn't totally empty. And please - send me a text to let me know you got there okay - I know, I'm being silly..." - I can only say yet. I won't know till the day I die whether that yet ever becomes my daily existence. Because when you have a child, you give a permanent hostage to Fortune.
So I am thinking about the families. And when I think about the families who lost their children, I have to think of the family of the young man who carried out this unimaginable act and caused all this senseless, bottomless pain. They, too, have a son who was shot that day. And I think about that, and then about how it would feel to know that my child is dead, and that he lived a life that was so twisted and tortured, and that he died so full of rage and hatred, despite all my efforts to give him a good upbringing and teach him decency and values. And to know that there was something so terribly wrong with him that I could not succeed - that all the love in the world was not going to get through to this child. And, worst of all, that he had killed others and caused all this terrible pain and grief before ending his own life.
And then I realize there are always deeper levels of Hell, and I have not been there yet.
Richard Martinez, the father of Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez, has offered to meet with the father of the killer to extend his hand in working together to prevent future tragedies of this kind. Here are his words:
“I lost my son. He lost his son. We have that in common,” Richard Martinez said. “We want, if possible, that the deaths of our son and his son should mean something.”
I am in awe of his generosity of spirit and the depth of his understanding. I don't know if I could have gotten to where Richard Martinez is as quickly as he did. I am afraid I would have spent far too much time in the special, self-constructed Hell of blame, recrimination, and fantasies of revenge. Don't believe me? Well - spend a moment thinking about the killer's clearly stated and well-publicized motivations for this massacre. And then tell me that blame, recrimination, and fantasies of revenge are a cage we can afford to dwell in.
There are always deeper levels of Hell, and I have not been there yet.
The motivations stated by the killer have sparked a vigorous worldwide dialogue about misogyny and the sense of entitlement to women's bodies that societal mores have fostered in some men. I'm not going to weigh in with my opinions here. But I am going to tell you about a conversation I had last night with my husband.
"Hey," I said. "Maybe you can tell me. You're a guy. Do guys ever...I mean...I'm trying to imagine what it's like to live without...you know...fear of sexual violence. I mean, not even - necessarily - fear of actual rape. Just... tell me. When you are out walking alone at night, are you ever afraid? I mean, afraid that somebody, a total stranger, might say something to you, something ugly, something sexual? And that it could escalate, and what would you do if that happened? How could you get away? Do you start second-guessing yourself - like, 'Oh, I shouldn't have walked home this way. That was stupid - I should have just sprung for a cab, even though I don't really have enough money'?"
He looked completely taken aback. He did think about it for a short while, in order to do justice to the question. But then his answer was prompt and definitive. "Nope. Never happened in my life."
I have a pretty good imagination. I can read Anna Karenina, and I can understand what it's like to be, in turn, Anna, Kitty, and even Levin - the whole time, I am right there in the book, feeling what they feel, experiencing what they're experiencing. I can talk to friends who are going through great joy, or through great sorrow, and I can empathetically feel what they are feeling. But I cannot imagine what it is like to walk around in my own neighborhood, minding my own business, and never have to be on the alert that this kind of thing happens to women who are not constantly on the alert. And even to those who are on the alert. I cannot imagine not living with constant subliminal fear.
At first, I couldn't remember a time when I had not experienced this fear. It has been part of my ordinary daily existence for so long that it seems like I've always had it as a part of my internal life. But I knew that was absurd. Nobody is born with this kind of instinctive fear. It's something we learn. When had I learned it? It wasn't until I was lying awake on the pillow next to my husband's, staring at the ceiling, that it clicked. There was a moment, and I know what it was.
I must have been eight or nine years old, and was on vacation with my family, visiting friends who lived in a very rural area. Their daughter and I quickly became fast friends, and one golden afternoon we decided to take a long walk through farmland and through the woods. We had a glorious time, walking along together, singing and skipping and linking arms, the way that happy little girls do on a gorgeous summer day, and we must have been gone for about three or four hours.
Unfortunately, it hadn't occurred to either of us to tell our parents where we were going.
We got home to two frantic sets of parents, who had been searching everywhere for us. We were grabbed, embraced, lectured, scolded, admonished - and, as a result, we were completely confused. Why were they making such a fuss? We'd had a wonderful day, and of course we'd gotten home all right!
I voiced my thoughts to my father, who regarded me severely and said, "Listen to me. What if you'd met a stranger, and he'd tried to talk to you?"
Having been raised to be polite, I knew the answer to that one. "I'd have said, "Hello! How are you?"
My father's aspect grew severer. "And what if he'd tried to get you to go somewhere with him?"
"Then I'd have said, 'No, thanks, I'm already walking with my friend,'" I retorted cheerfully.
My father's voice didn't change, but his next words took me completely aback. "And what if he'd said, 'Little girl, do you want to play with my you-know-what?'"
I was stunned by the question, but I smiled pertly and declared, "Well, then I'd just have told him NO THANK YOU!"
My father shook his head. He wasn't angry - just very serious. "And then - he would have killed you."
I stared. For once, I had no reply to make. It had never entered my mind that anything so monstrous could happen to a happy little girl who was simply walking along in the sunshine.
But from that day on, I walked under that same sun in the knowledge that it could happen, and that it did happen. And I was never again so free as I'd been before.