'BUT YET: AN OPEN LETTER TO CHRIS HARPER-MERCER'
BY EMILY VAN DUYNE
In fall 2015, just after the Umpqua Community College shooting, we were alerted by the chief of campus police that Stockton was on a list of what the FBI considered a “credible threat” on an online forum about a school shooting. The originator of the threat was anonymous and under investigation, and the school hadn’t been named specifically—instead, the general location had been given, and we fit the bill. There were careful instructions for what to do in the event of a so-called “active shooter.” There was increased police presence on campus. There was a faculty email chain in halting tones.
My Facebook memories tell me that around the same time, I wrote the following:
Obsessively thinking about writing, via grading. I wrote “Not ‘but yet’; choose one, as they essentially have the same function.” I almost wrote “As they mean nearly the same thing,” but changed it. Which launched my wacked out brain into this whole thing about functionality versus meaning. If we think about writing as an intentional act, one with a specific goal, isn’t it more relevant to say that a given word or a given punctuation mark has a specific function, or use, rather than meaning, which is more ethereal, much harder to nail down? Especially given the way meaning seems fluid, capable of passing from one sphere to the next in a blink?
`` There were careful instructions for what to do in the event of a so-called 'active shooter.' ``
That day, with Stockton under a vague threat of mass violence, I walk as though I’m not afraid to the bathroom across the hall from my office. I hike up my skirt and pull down my tights to pee. I think about what would happen if someone came in, right at that moment, and shot me. I see those Columbine students running out of the building with their hands over their heads. As though they were somehow responsible. Were they? Are we?
Consider the tenderness of the body. The humility of it. Where would I land? Would my blood seep into the beige tiles? Would it ever come out? My bright purple tights binding my knees together. My navy pleated skirt just covering my ass. The shame. All of my work and love and fancy publications and jogs and fucks and tears and snot. For nothing. Dead on a bathroom floor.
In 2015, trying to understand why white boys and white men pick up guns and kill lots of people all at once, I decided to call Chris Harper-Mercer by his name, as I was sure someone had failed to do so with enough frequency, tenderness, intimacy, and that this was somehow linked to his decision to murder his classmates. I felt, insanely, like I needed to explain my past to him—
[My son], Hank, sleeps. His father has collapsed unconscious on the couch. His father has stolen my cell phone. His father has stolen my money. No house phone exists. His father has threatened me all day in a sing-song, half-conciliatory, menacing little voice, his pupils constricted with opiates, the end result of what I see as a field of blood-red poppies swaying in an Afghani field, plucked, stripped of their finest properties, molded into a powder or pill which he’s snorted or shot or swallowed—Plath called them “little bloody skirts.” His father snores. I consider how much gas is in the car, how far I can go on it. All day, he says I’ll take him, I’ll take him, you’ll never see him again—ah, ah, ah!—if I speak, or try to speak—ah, ah, ah! I’m talking! I don’t want to do, this, Emily, but you make me do things—
I continue, talking to Chris about my current life: My partner calls me sweetie. He calls me HONEY in a big voice, when he can’t find his keys. He calls me Mama, because I have become one to his beautiful daughter, because his own beloved one is dead, because we needed one another, and we found one another, in the manner, I have observed, of mothers and children. Writing this way, it might seem like I believe in fate, or destiny, in any of these grandiose concepts, that I believe, actually, in meaning at all, but the truth is I am mostly moored in a black sea of hideous despair which I can quell well enough in the light of day, but which seeps out at night, in my own personal gloaming, the place between wake and sleep. Strange things come to life, to the surface, as I make the trip to unconsciousness, often sure I won’t wake up. Do you know what that feels like? Did you, once?
In fall 2015, I did not yet know he had ordered a classmate back into her wheelchair, and shot her to death while she climbed.
I must have imagined myself pleading my case to Chris Harper-Mercer, as a kind of way to plead the cases of his victims, one of whom, of course, was himself—if I can survive, you can, too.
I did not then know that he had pointed a Glock at Larry Levine, his professor, and told him he had been waiting to “do this” his entire life, before shooting him to death.
If you Google “Las Vegas” the first thing that comes up in the toolbar is “Las Vegas shooting,” before “Las Vegas weather.” America is writing an endless essay about its own state, where guns are a black plague in a vast desert. Guns are blotting out the sun.
On October 1, 2017, I woke at 4 am to the news that 58 people had been slaughtered at a country music festival. I did not go back to sleep.
My best friend and I had a hard time for a while. I was so angry that she would question me. I was so angry that Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were dead. I was so angry at guns and men. I tried to reconcile all of this, as though I could do so by some grand unifying theory of America, which is to say, of race and violence. Of the invention of race to justify violence.
But all I was left with was the image of the two of us, singing Beatles’ songs over the heads of our nearly sleeping sons, one Christmas. Two of us riding somewhere…
I used to sing this to Ryan when he was in the NICU, she said—her two-pound son’s tiny finger curling around hers through the hard plastic of his bed—We’re on our way home…
On October 2, 2017, I put my children on the bus with the same terror I felt the first time I dropped Hank off at daycare after the Newtown, Connecticut massacre.
Then I got into the shower, and began to sing, to try and soothe myself. I have a tuneful soprano, a big range. I started singing the first song that came to mind, from Hamilton—“It’s Quiet Uptown.”
But I can’t get past You hold your child as tight as you can.
I think of Daniel Barden, dead on his first-grade classroom floor. I think of Tamir Rice, I think of the stupid fucking thing I said on Facebook after he died, about how Hank played with toy guns, and what if—
But Hank would never be shot by a cop for playing with a toy gun. He’s blond and fair, with eyes like cornflowers.
Eyes like Daniel Barden’s. Whose mother was at work on the day of the Newtown shootings, whose father was at the fire station where the children had been evacuated to, who was texting his wife about how he had their older son and daughter but—
And his wife texting frantically as she drove Do you have him???
DO YOU HAVE HIM YET???
I think of Hank and Stella—
I can’t think of Hank and Stella. I push away the unimaginable. I weep in the shower. The tears and snot. They mix with the soap and water.
``I Can't get past 'you hold your child as tight as you can'``
In 2015, I wrote,
I understand this. I understand the nature of the apocalypse, even, I think, the nature of wanting to bring it on. I understand codification. Erase it, erase it, goes my brain, but my fingers keep going.
At night, as I try and sleep, the strangest things happen—total despair, knowledge of death, death seeming imminent, fear I am leaving my body, that I will bite through my tongue, choke on my tongue, lose the ability to speak, somehow. That my hands won’t work. The terror. The terror. The desire to see the world as a loaded code—
When the world will not be coded into meaning, what do I do? I wake. I wake my son. I touch my partner’s hard cock and kiss the milky scent of his back. I make coffee. I run, staring at an ocean I want to float on, and know, intimately. I help my stepdaughter read. I live, minute by minute. Slowly, and then so fast. And I know, now, it will end someday, and it agonizes me, because if all that it means to live is to know the love and the beauty I now know, every day, all the time, then that is enough to want it never to end—
Emily Van Duyne is an assistant professor of Writing at Stockton University. She is a poet, an essayist and critic whose work has appeared (or is forthcoming), in Literary Hub, the Chronicle of Higher Education, So To Speak, Diagram, ROAR and many others. She is currently at work on a book about Sylvia Plath and lives in New Jersey with her family.