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Now Fill the World with Pride

On the night of Saturday, June 11, I went to bed and proceeded to have a lengthy, vivid stress dream in which I was involved in a mass shooting. As is common for many of my dreams, whether good or bad, this dream was intricate, realistic, and epic. It went on for what felt like hours, the setting evolving over time but the basic premise remaining the same: the sound of rapid-fire gunshots growing closer, the rising screams of those around me, and a sense of helplessness and dread as I understood I had little chance of escape.

I woke around 3 a.m. with the dream still alive in both my body and mind. I was exhausted, but I tried to stay awake a little longer to clear my thoughts and replace the dream reality with something else. But the nightmare was persistent. When I fell asleep again, I only succeeded in changing the dream’s setting. Once more, I heard gunshots and screams. Once more, I had to weigh my options: expose myself and run, or hide in an enclosed space and hope I would remain undiscovered.

In the morning, when I woke to the news of the Orlando shooting, I did not consider my dream prescient. Instead, I saw it for what it was: my subconscious, creeping acknowledgment of how routine such shootings have become, and how they could affect any of us at any time.

*

Several years ago, I sat at my desk at work watching a workplace violence documentary. Part of my job involved covering workplace violence news, and so I sometimes attended seminars on the topic, spoke with experts, or watched documentaries like this one.

While I was no stranger to the horrific details surrounding mass shootings, this particular documentary took a turn that made me blanch. Before I had time to fully grasp what I was watching, the documentary flipped to security footage of a warehouse. A gunman entered the frame. He approached his fellow employees, took aim, and shot them point blank.

This wasn’t a reenactment or a graphical depiction. This was real. Those were real people crumpling to the ground and breathing their last breaths.

I felt sick. While it might be impossible to escape hearing the gruesome details of such shootings, I didn’t expect to see it actually happen. I didn’t want to watch those people get shot. It felt wrong, voyeuristic.

Whenever a new mass shooting occurs, all of us get a taste of that voyeurism in one way or another through the ensuing, constant media coverage. Each time, without fail, I think of the following 2009 clip from Charlie Brooker’s show Newswipe, in which forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz says:

If you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24/7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story. Not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localize this story to the affected community, and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.

That clip of Dr. Dietz cuts off just as the news anchor begins expressing what sounds like disbelief at his suggestions. Not make a mass shooting 24/7 news? Make the story boring? Don’t lead with the body count?

Impossible.

*

I’ve read various disturbing details about the Orlando shooting, but one in particular remains with me: that investigators working inside the Pulse nightclub had to ignore the constantly ringing cell phones on the dead bodies.

What am I supposed to do with this information? Maybe some would say it paints a more vivid picture of why we so desperately need policy change. Writers know the emotional heart of a story is often found in its details, so perhaps highlighting devastating moments like this can help shift how we approach gun control. But I’m not so sure. I don’t need to imagine victims’ phones helplessly lighting up with calls from concerned loved ones to understand why we need stronger gun regulations. The fact that fifty people—people targeted because of their sexuality—were gunned down is enough for me.

And yet those ringing phones haunt me. I’m left with another voyeuristic detail, another little horror to contemplate in the midst of the larger violence.

*

I’ve mentioned before that my short story collection focuses on the taboo. In both my research and my writing, I’ve seen the value of shedding light on what is considered unspeakable. I believe that silence often leads to more harm, and that pretending something ghastly isn’t happening doesn’t do anyone any good in the end.

But when a shooting like this happens, I don’t want to watch the news. I don’t want to listen as every last sensational detail is brought to light. The 9-1-1 audio. The text messages a young man sent his mother before he was killed. The woman who hid under corpses. The cell phones ringing against lifeless bodies. These details are shocking and painful, but how they are presented in the news cycle also makes them seem exploitative. Most of all, I see little connection between sharing them and creating positive change.

It is true we’re naturally drawn to the tragic, the dark, the catastrophic. That’s part of why I felt compelled to write about taboos. But as I wrote my taboo stories, I endeavored to not be controversial for the sake of being controversial. I was aware of the inherent sensationalism of some of my topics (incest, necrophilia, cannibalism, euthanasia) but didn’t want the stories themselves to be purely sensational. I wanted the characters to be at the center. I wanted the stories to have heart.

Relentless, graphic news coverage of mass shootings doesn’t strike me as having any heart. But if you know where to look, you’ll find it in other places: in the communities worldwide holding vigils for the victims, in the impromptu celebrations of queer life all across the country, and in Pride events that not only carried on in the shooting aftermath, but flourished. (This Slate article offers a rundown on the various ways people are showing their love, joy, and support following the shooting.)

And then there’s the sonnet Lin Manuel Miranda read at the Tonys, which concludes with this line:

“Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.”

*

On Sunday, the day the Orlando news broke, I enjoyed a rare day off. The weather was gorgeous. I jogged by the lake. I spent some time tending the garden. I did laundry. I visited relatives. I practiced my ukulele. I read a book cover to cover. I lived.

But when I went to bed that night, I couldn’t stop thinking of the people who’d been shot. I thought of their families and friends. I closed my eyes and saw guns, flashing lights, rainbow. I wondered if I’d dream about a mass shooting again that night. The Orlando shooting was so present, so vivid in my mind, that I didn’t see how I could not.

I fell asleep. I’m sure I dreamed—I always dream—but when I woke up, I remembered nothing. The day to come would be filled with more news about the shooting and more wrenching details, but in that moment, everything was quiet. I’d had no nightmares that I could recall. The night before was blank, and I felt rested and peaceful. Lucky. Alive.