School shooting survivors speak out in new book. Their pain is terrible – and vital – to hear

Katharine Coldiron

THE WASHINGTON POST – Many books have analysed school shootings. If I Don’t Make It, I Love You simply records them, in the words of those who lived through them in a personal way: The parents and friends of those killed, those who ran from bullets they struggle to forget. There are more than 60 voices here, beginning with that of Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter, Jaime, was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018. “I think about her final seconds every day of my life,” he wrote. “But I’ve learned so much about myself since her death. I’m strong and resilient. And I learned the same is true for those affected by gun violence.”

In this shattering collection, we learn how true that is, and yet how difficult it can be to summon that strength. Here, survivors confess a variety of responses to mass shootings: Some speak of laughter when they ought to have panicked, numbness when they ought to have wept, lingering fear in the absence of anything to be afraid of. They feel shame, anger and grief in strange proportions, and above all, they feel helpless. “The weight of this felt unbearable,” Josh Stepakoff wrote of his life since being shot at age six at his California day camp 20 years ago. “If you learn one thing from me, learn that your life belongs to you and no one else.”

This book, an anthology of woe, offers a modicum of succor and hope to anyone interested in learning how gun violence is affecting our nation. That the book is uneven and sometimes unpolished reflects the roughness of the experiences it captures.

Editors Amye Archer and Loren Kleinman sew themselves into the fabric of the anthology, with a page or two of introduction to each essay and sometimes personal anecdotes. About the Sandy Hook shooting, Archer writes of her own children being the same age as many of the victims: “I remember thinking (my daughter) should not associate first grade with murder.”

The book begins with the most recent shootings, slowly moving back in time to the 1966 University of Texas at Austin tower sniper. This structure is remarkably well-considered. It demonstrates the long-term impact of trauma, transitioning slowly from survivors who are just a few months out to those who have had decades to work through their experiences. It also shows, nakedly, how school shootings have increased in frequency and deadliness from the 1990s to today, and how a particular kind of school shooting has become de rigueur.

Before about 1997, shootings were relatively few and far between, and they could be explained as flukes: People with undiagnosed schizophrenia, people with grievances, bigots with nothing to lose. But after the shooting at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, in December 1997, a pattern began to form. Kids with excess hate and access to guns showed up at school and fired indiscriminately. After Columbine, the pattern was set, and experts designed a response protocol. But the book shows how this protocol fails to account for the emotional reactions of survivors and loved ones – what happens to kids who are told to walk out of school with their hands on their heads, and elementary school students who learn how to hide under their desks, in closets or behind barricaded doors.

Again and again, survivors tell individual versions of the same story: A boy came in, he killed some of us, we don’t know why and now I will always be afraid. Some of them angrily place blame on institutions or individuals (the Virginia Tech survivors have a lot to say about their school’s response), while others explain their paths to forgiveness and healing. Jane Nicholson, the wife of a professor killed at the University of Iowa in 1991, wrote: “A bullet makes a straight-line trajectory, grief makes a circle.”