Face-to-Face with Mass Trauma
It’s true what they say: despite the evidence of nondiscrimination, you never think it will happen to you.
On July 4th, I told several people I had a story to tell them about my night out with friends. But in the days since that I’ve been processing that evening, I’ve realized I stumbled on more than a story, but a story with a window into our current America, trapped under the shadow of an over-200-year-old document.
As It Happened
It began the way most American get-togethers do: with a hodgepodge of cultures gathered around the table. Wine and pasta from Italy, rice from the East, chickens from China, and guacamole from the indigenous people of Mexico. Around the table sat a group of friends old and new. The conversation flowed in typical streams: icebreakers of where we’re from and what we do, embarrassing stories, irritation about neighbors walking over the lawn on their way to the fireworks show.
And, with each passing story and dip of a tortilla, the sky darkened, both because of the sinking of the sun and the encroaching storm. Eventually, we made our ways outside, taking up residence in the patio chairs on the east-side deck, looking out over the crowd to our south-east. The fireworks were to begin around 9:30 and it was around 9:10 just now. With twenty-minutes to go, we were celebrating the way American adults do: taking jello shots “thick with vodka” as a few of us observed.
The sprinklers along the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk had come on, startling several passerbys and forcing families, totting strollers or canes, into the street and over the median until they reached the park where the fireworks would be shot off. We enjoyed this people-watching and perhaps even people-mocking, though not maliciously. We continued in our laughter and conversation, loosened more greatly now by the pineapple-flavored jello slinking down our throats. It was now about 9:15 and our attention was pulled, like viewers of a cheesy rom-com, to the park, where a sprinkler, a big, park-appropriate one with a huge radius of spray, covered innocent attendees in city water. As you can imagine, people scattered, terrified, or perhaps giddy with fear, of getting caught up in the spray.
We, of course, thought this hilarious. In rousing laughter, and a bit of sympathy, we commented on the role of sprinklers throughout the night in providing us easy entertainment. In hindsight, people were running far harder and far further than you would expect them to when escaping a sprinkler, pouring back into the street and across the first row of houses with screams. But the problem with the present is you don’t yet have the privilege of knowing what comes next.
While we were busy with guffaws and biting commentary, we failed to notice a family, led by the husband and father, bounding up my friend’s driveway and onto the front porch. In fact, we took no notice of them until the man was at the door, reaching for the handle, and yelling at us.
“Let us in! Let us in!”
Rob, my friend and owner of the house, no doubt feeling threatened, as his child was asleep in the house, asked the man with an assertive tone, “What is going on?”
A woman, this man’s wife no doubt, clutching a young toddler and in hysterics got to the point: “Guns! Men have guns! They’re shooting!”
In horror movies, we often spend time shouting at the screen, asking the protagonist why they’re just standing there when the killer is feet away. We expect a fight or flight response, always, immediately. If you had been watching us, you might have had this same reaction. But we stood there for a good beat, processing. In that time, one of the couple’s children, or perhaps a niece or nephew, ran off, and the couple ran off screaming, chasing after him.
Rob, his wife Rebecca, their friend Keith and I were in the front door in seconds. Somewhere between the cry of guns and our entry into the front door, we had lost Rob and Rebecca’s neighbors, Jill and Bryan. Rob stood with the door open, no doubt looking for the bullet-riddled bodies of their friends. Then we noticed the bangs, quick and close.
Rebecca told her husband to close the door but leave it unlocked, in case Jill and Bryan needed help.
Rob told us all to get low.
We were surrounded by windows.
More shots rang outside. Bang, bang, bang.
I was shocked how loud they were, cowering behind the couch.
Rebecca was frantically texting Brian and Jill.
We hoped they were alive.
Adrenaline coursed through our veins, bringing with it a foggy sobriety.
It’s true what they say: despite the evidence of nondiscrimination, you never think it will happen to you. And yet, paradoxically, sometimes when you think it’s going to happen to you, it doesn’t.
As best as we can ascertain, the course of events transpired in this way. The sprinklers came on, causing people to run. The storm, rapidly approaching a county and state in the middle of a fire ban, caused the event organizers to launch the fireworks early. When everyone was distracted by a crowd of people running, and the sudden presence of bangs you felt in your chest, led people to believably assume they were the next targets of the next American Mass Shooting. So people ran. Trampled. Panicked.
Since at least 1999, we’ve kept a sort of shattered innocence just behind our eyes. The places we’ve thought were safe, like our schools and our churches, and the places we went to escape our cruel realities, like our movie theaters and concerts, have been transformed into graveyards and sites of terror. The presence of a gun, or, if you prefer, the presence of a particular kind of person holding a gun, dramatically changes the context of the scene. We’ve known this. I’ve known this. But what I realized this past Wednesday was that a gun didn’t matter at all. The trauma, indirect for so many of us, and heart-wrenchingly direct for many others, of gun violence in this country has not just ruined our sense of security. It has not just invaded our club scenes and our movie theaters and our school grounds. It has seeped into the very fabric of who we are, so deeply, that, even when we’re safe, we’re not.
As we went back out, Keith having realized from a second-story window that all was well, we looked around and saw people, carrying chairs and children, slowly walking away while looking up at the sky. Perhaps this triggering of a communal trauma, this commitment to fear, to guns, to mass-murder, was the most American way we could have spent our Fourth of July.
Editor’s note: Some names and places have been changed. See our disclaimer for more information.
Bryce Van Vleet is a psychology undergraduate based in the Pacific Northwest. He is a lover of words, terrible video-game player, and frequent drinker of soda and other sugary drinks.
The next Funny Friday will be posted on August 3rd. A special extra will be posted on July 13th since an actual funny Friday was not posted this week.
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