An Open Letter in three parts about mass shootings, whiteness, the writing classroom, and coming to terms with uncertainty.
BY EMILY VAN DUYNE
In fall 2015, I began and then rapidly abandoned an open letter to Chris Harper-Mercer, the perpetrator of the Umpqua Community College massacre:
Early last Saturday morning, I was grading papers on my couch when I thought about writing to you. I have been told by multiple people from a multitude of authorities that I should not say your name. They would not say your name. I have considered this, but discarded it as grandiose, and absurd.
I reread this, my mouth pressed into a straight line. I had known that somewhere on my desktop was the false start of an essay on gun violence. I had tried to stretch the argument to encompass teaching writing, but had given up, or been crunched by the combination of work and parenting that takes up most of my life. I remembered the title, or thought I did—But Yet—an homage to a common mistake first-year writers make. They mean to write “And yet” as the start of a counterpoint, but stumble into a redundancy, instead. In rhetoric, we call the artful repetition of a word or phrase at the start of successive clauses anaphora. I teach my students anaphora as a positive model to help rid their writing of redundancy.
In fall 2015, after the Umpqua Community College massacre, I felt America had crashed into a bloody repetition, but still clung to the hope that positive models, that language itself, might set us straight. It could offer counter-points, heal by artful repetition. We could still become an elegant argument, beautiful for the very first time: the third or fourth draft of an essay. When it finally sings.
My aborted essay notes the exact moment I learned of the Umpqua massacre:
…did you know, I have a friend in Oregon, a poet, a professor, a mother, a beautiful woman with the unusual name Shaindel, who was married once, very young, in a lacy white wedding dress, done up in red lipstick, playing a saxophone over the cake? When I heard the words shooting and community college and Oregon, my heart sank and landed somewhere in my empty stomach, and in my head I said her lovely, unusual name: Shaindel—
My grim mouth unlined itself at this rendering of the poet Shaindel Beers, a teacher at Blue Mountain Community College, then resumed its grim look. My aborted essay had wanted to dwell in the halls of memory, eternity, naming—at the time of the Umpqua Community College shooting, which was the deadliest mass shooting in Oregon’s modern history, Sheriff John Hanlin of Douglas County, Oregon, told the press “I will not name the shooter… I will not give him credit for this horrific act of cowardice. Media will get the name confirmed in time … but you will never hear us use it.” My aborted essay makes much of this topic, asks if the shooter was called by his name enough:
``I will not name the shooter… I will not give him credit for this horrific act of cowardice. Media will get the name confirmed in time ... but you will never hear us use it.``
…perhaps not enough people ever said your name, to you, in the light of day, or tucked [you[ into a bed at night, perhaps you were not privy to this most basic act of recognition, which I am freakishly blessed with every night: my son, who is nearly 5 years old, still calls me Mommy, and when I lay with him to get him to sleep sometime between 8 and 8:30 every evening, he tucks his melon-head into the nook between my shoulder and arm and sighs and says Mommy; then, he sleeps…
I was silent as I reread the 1,809 words I composed at my dining room table in October of 2015. That year now feels like the last scene in The Exorcist before Regan becomes possessed, when she’s drawing horses and rainbows in her playroom—it all looks bright enough, but you know the devil lurks. In 2015, Donald Trump was just a punchline, but everything still felt wrong. That summer, I had devoured Between the World and Me in a matter of hours. Then, I went to sleep and dreamt of it: Ta-Nehisi Coates and I were sitting in an orange-lit room, staring at one another, saying nothing. He reached out and took my hand, and I felt his warmth travel through me. Outside, it rained.
In my waking life, I spent the fall trying to teach the book to my sections of developmental writing, and failed. I could not translate the warmth of my dream, so different from the false promise of the American Dream that Coates takes to task in his book. That false promise was strong among my students, and stood between us like the wall Trump was promising to build. My best friend called me on a Sunday morning that same fall to ask if we could talk. Her husband is a cop in Atlantic City. She was upset about what I had been posting on Facebook, about Black Lives Matter. She wanted to know what I was telling my students. In the air between us, satellites tried to curry my voice to her and hers to me: instead, each word became a brick, until a wall went up between us for the very first time.
In fall 2015, a young man named Chris Harper-Mercer walked into his introductory composition course at Umpqua Community College and, after tormenting his fellow classmates and his professor, shot and killed nine of them. The victims included his composition professor, a novelist and fly-fisherman. Harper-Mercer was wounded in a firefight with two plainclothes police officers, and then killed himself with a single shot to the head.
At the time, I was so horrified by this that I took the time to write 1,809 words in reaction to it. As a teacher of introductory college composition, and the daughter of a fly-fisherman, I thought the event had branded me permanently; I had digital shouting matches about it on Facebook with gun-owning friends.
In fall 2017, I reopened the file, and noticed the subtitle—
But Yet: An Open Letter to Chris Harper-Mercer
And I wondered who that was, and picked up my phone to Google his name.