I was buried in finals at the library when a voicemail from my mother’s work phone arrived. It is rare that she calls me from anything but her cell phone, so with slight panic in my gut, I listened carefully:
It’s just one of those days I just need to hear your voice even if it’s your voicemail…I can’t stop thinking about those families in Connecticut…I loved all of your childhood years and I love all of your current years…I can’t imagine being one of those parents…I just wanted to tell you how much I love you…
To me, the message was cryptic—I hadn’t heard anything yet, but I could tell from the voicemail that there had been another shooting and with the mention of my childhood, I became intensely anxious about what I would find getting online. A shooting at Newtown Elementary School in Connecticut, son kills his own mother, her students, and then himself. Paralyzed by shock and horror, I searched for more information, more voices on the situation. I listened to Press Secretary Jay Carney address the press, how a man asked him about how the event would impact gun control laws going forward, to which Carney replied “I’m sure there will be a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I don’t think today is that day”; I listened to President Barack Obama’s public statement—how he was responding first and foremost as a father, and most loudly, the pauses he took to compose himself and catch his voice; I listened to Lieutenant Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police describe the tactics with which the police force entered the school building. I wasn’t sure exactly what I hoped to find in researching the day’s events, but the impulse to hear the voices of others seemed human in the most basic sense, and all of the voices available belonged to men.
We are in the darkest days of the year, the solstice around the corner. I left the library and walked to my apartment. In the dark grey Cambridge light, the smell of leaves. It has been too warm this December, I thought, too much like late fall in the Midwest. I thought back to my first days of school in Deerfield, Illinois: excited by my new teachers and friends, by my new backpack and folders, by new games at recess. And I remember feeling differently in middle school. I remember Columbine and being afraid as I walked through the hallways in the following weeks. I remember thinking that trench coats were for hiding guns. I remember learning the word disenfranchised.
In all of the killing sprees that come to mind from Columbine until now, I am thinking of men with guns. And adult men who belong to male-dominated institutions who respond to these killing sprees. As a woman and teacher, I’m unsure of what to make of the pattern: what is it about men and this kind of violence? This question leads to many other questions about gender, about the relationship between parents and their children, about cultures of violence, etc. So what do I do with this information going forward? Basic logic leads to the usual places in the instance of reflecting on a school shooting: consider what policies exist and how they might change to better insure the safety of people, think about the relationships I have with my colleagues and students and how they might facilitate peaceful citizenship, etc. But those logical paths do not comfort me. They do not ask others to engage in this complex dialogue about the relationship to this way of thinking and responding and what it might have to do with how we do or do not cultivate values and behaviors in a gendered way instead of an engendered one. Because the larger question in all of this: why does extreme male depression manifest this way—in rage, in homicide?
I’m sure there are exceptions in each situation of these shootings: of mental illness, circumstances, cause of motives, etc. But what of that commonality—that the behavior belongs to these disenfranchised boys? Moments of loss challenge our identities as individuals and as collectives because we have to evaluate our own intellectual and emotional response to the alarming actions that befall us. “These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods”, said Obama referring to our responsibility as a country to account for those lost in these events. And so too, these boys are our boys. And I would like to learn how to account for that truth also.
Though I find a relieving authenticity in Obama’s tears, or Carney’s desire to defer the conversation about gun laws in honor of the affected families, I worry about what’s embedded in those censored, silent matters beyond the moment—it encourages a prolonging of those “usual Washington policy debates”, a day many Americans have actually been waiting for since Columbine, or since the assault weapon ban expired, or since Aurora, Wisconsin, and Oregon. What is absent in the public dialogue—the one being explicated by these male voices—is similar to what might be missing from the lives of these shooters: complexity, comfort, empathy. In favor of male reticence so dangerously sentimentalized in our day-to-day lives (from our own dinner tables to the novels we teach in schools, to what we see in media), we have silenced the voices of empathy, have taken power away from their value.
So what will it take to change the dialogue? The things that my school and country say—the things floating in the airwaves—are not going to greatly reduce such atrocities. Remember to be vigilant; if anything looks suspicious… And sure, this is part of encouraging accountability, but these simple ideas of safety are no match for the potential violence our teachers, students, and citizens can and will be faced with in this climate.
There is more to be researched, written, and explicated—many books to write, many cases to study, many lives to save. No one person can answer these questions alone—we need a multiplicity of voices. As a teacher myself, I think very carefully of the works I include in my syllabus. My students are unknowing consumers in the world. If you are what you eat, and most of your consumption belongs to Call of Duty, hunting, or coping with unequal power in the streets of your neighborhood, then I would like to help you counter that, and so, my purpose in teaching is to help students consume beauty. It might seem too small or too lofty that if people take their dose of poetry for the day, then violence will be abated or at least our relationship to it will change. But I can cultivate a space in which we consider beauty and in which we learn to empathize with complex characters in our books and in each other. And if I can get that right in my classroom with my students, then maybe when they leave, those values will make them more conscious, more awake in their homes, their neighborhoods, and then the world. This is to say that I believe if you take your doses of poetry, it will be much harder to let your hands kill instead of create, hold, or love. That if you’ve thought about your raisons d’être—be they your mother, making the world better, survival, graduating college, having your own family, being a better father than yours was, taking care of a sibling—it will be much more difficult to kill. That if you give power and time to beauty and empathy, the world you occupy will beam with it.
The effort toward this way of spending my hours with my students is not just about beauty or intellect: it is about cultivating voice—those in the art and literature as well as my students’ voices in response to the content of those texts. It isn’t enough to be a culture that values, say, Mozart, German poetry, and the like, for this is the kind of thinking that has led to trouble before, has led to the banality of evil. The Nazis were famously literate, but intellect alone has never been the thing to save us as individuals or as a culture. Becoming a culture of reflection, a culture of aware voices: that is the change to make. Of all the things missing from the public dialogue and from the lives of young boys that I named before (complexity, comfort, empathy), it seems without them, voice cannot be enabled at the level of the individual, and therefore the collective is one of staunch reticence. I responded most strongly to Obama’s very few, soft tears because we are in a culture of severe male reticence, and those tears, more than what Obama said, finally stood for Obama himself—Obama the parent, Obama the grieving man, not the politician.
And so the large question—the one I’ve raised about severe male depression in relation to rage, the one that will take many mental health professionals, psychologists, cognitive studies scholars, and cultural studies leaders to help us begin to answer—is one, more broadly, about making voice vital and relevant in a time of reticence. For isn’t reticence a version of silence, of censorship? And isn’t censorship one version of quiet violence? I am thinking of the voices I heard today, and imagining what’s to come in the next few weeks, and it seems my impulse to write this is because as a teacher who will be a bit anxious walking the halls of school, just like I was as an eighth grader after Columbine, the composure of these men—in their way of speaking without allowing their own feelings and reflections to be visible—while quite diplomatic, does not feel deeply human, does not match the visceral sadness, anger, and fear that have entered the mind and body of us all.
Of all the voices, the one that I come back to is my mother’s: I just need to hear your voice. It is that voice which makes me feel both comfort and urgency. It is in that voice where I feel relevant. It is in that voice I find a corrective to my lost hope. It is in that voice—the one that wants to love, protect, and remember—where I return to feel safe.
Lisa Hiton received her MFA from Boston University. She was a Robert Pinsky Teaching Fellow and co-curator of the reading series, Writers at the Black Box. Her essays and poems have been published or are forthcoming in the Indiana Review, DMQ Review, elephantjournal, toridotgov.com, and Redivider among others. She is a current nominee for the Pushcart Prize.