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The Sunday Salon: Finding a Narrative in Tragedy

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How does narrative help us process tragedy? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself all weekend, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School led me down a rabbit hole of stories about school shooting.

As details about the shooting was trickling out on Friday afternoon, I was glued to the television and online news sources trying to find more information. That’s my impulse when tragedy occurs, to just find as much credible information as I can. I have no patience for cable news speculation or “expert” interviews. I just want to know, from people who are close to the situation, what is going on. This is not unique to me, I’m sure, but I think it helps explain what I did next.

As I was getting ready for bed on Friday night, it got to a point where there wasn’t going to be anymore information available. We knew some things, but the answers to so many other things were going to have to wait until morning. I was sad and frustrated… and then had this impulse to read Columbine, journalist Dave Cullen’s definitive account of the school shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

At the time (and truthfully, even now) it seemed strange. I figured I’d start the book, decide it wasn’t really what I needed, and move on. Instead, I read almost straight through the book, starting with about 100 pages on Friday night and finishing it up with a long morning marathon read on Saturday morning.

Reading a book on one school shooting in the middle of another, on some level, doesn’t make any sense. But for me, I think reading Columbine helped give me a narrative that I was looking for, even if the narrative had nothing to do with what was actually going on in the world. Cullen’s book is not an easy read — he goes into incredible detail about the day of the shooting, then simultaneously backs up and moves forward to show what led two teenage boys to attack their school and how the community responded as those affected tried to recover. But for me, I think it emerged as a difficult and necessary read at this moment.  

Reading Columbine wasn’t exactly comforting, but reading it did remind me that with time, hard work, and support the people directly affected by this tragedy will be able to move forward. They may still be angry. They will always feel a loss. But it’s possible to recover from an experience like this one, eventually. I know that’s sounds hollow today, just a few days after, but I believe that’s true and I believe coming to that understanding was part of why I felt the need to read Columbine now.

Today, it sees like the first accurate narratives are being constructed about what happened at Sandy Hook on Friday morning. But those investigating this crime are still working on the why, and we as a nation are still working on the what happens next. Those are not stories will emerge quickly or easily or provide much comfort in the weeks ahead. But they’re narratives we need to work on because we as humans eventually find comfort and strength in these stories.

I don’t have a good concluding statement, I guess, other than I hope this post doesn’t sound crass or insensitive to the people directly affected by this shooting. Moments like this one make everyone of of us feel something, and I just wanted to share what I was thinking about the last few days.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jackie (Farm Lane Books) December 16, 2012, 11:56 am

    Thank you for writing this honest post. I think you behaved in a far more constructive way than I did. I think I watched too much TV and read far too many online articles, depressing myself. This horrific shooting has really shocked me, especially since I have children a similar age. I think my time might have been better spent reading Columbine as at least it might have helped me to make some sense out of the situation instead of just grieving for those poor children.

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:30 pm

      I’m not sure if this was constructive, necessarily, but I know it was better for my mental health than trolling online news and watching tv. That really wasn’t helping. I don’t have kids, so I can’t imagine how scary this whole thing would be as a parent.

  • Stephanie December 16, 2012, 1:14 pm

    Excellent post, Kim, and thanks for the links. Your response to this situation was much more constructive than mine. I was following every link that popped up on Google and Facebook. A little distance and perspective — like what you got from reading and thinking about this book — would have been better.

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:31 pm

      I did the link following thing much of the day and evening on Friday until I realized there wasn’t going to be any “new” news for awhile, at least not news that would be useful to me. I think the distance did help, in some ways.

  • Athira December 16, 2012, 5:12 pm

    I’ve been searching through the net as well, looking for solid news rather than speculation. This was such a depressing tragedy, I’m still in shock that someone could walk into an elementary school and kill tiny kids.

    As for Columbine, I read it a few years back and it was definitely worth reading – I found it pretty powerful.

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:32 pm

      It’s a very powerful book. Uncomfortable too, knowing that part of what those boys wanted was notoriety and reading the book helps perpetuate that.

  • Diane@BibliophilebytheSea December 16, 2012, 7:57 pm

    How very sad, tragic and difficult to understand. We live about 1.5 hours from Newtown:( No reading for me this weekend.

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:34 pm

      Oh goodness, I’m so sorry Diane. I hope you are your family are safe and doing ok.

  • Lu December 16, 2012, 8:05 pm

    I found myself thinking a lot about this book on Friday, especially as incorrect information came from all directions. A lot of people blamed social media and our media culture right now, but Columbine by Dave Cullen proves that this was true even then, before social media. I understand the strange impulse you had to read this book. When I read it a few months ago, I read it the same way. It’s an all consuming book. All I did was read it when I wasn’t working and when I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about it.

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:36 pm

      I wanted to talk to you about this one, but I keep missing you online. I remember some of your comments from before. It really is a consuming read; it’s so hard to put down. It was a lot, but in a good way.

  • Sheila (Book Journey) December 16, 2012, 8:31 pm

    I read Columbine a year or so ago and was so impressed by the passionate writing. I have been avoiding the media on this one as I am just overwhelmed with heartbreak over the whole ordeal.

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:39 pm

      The writing is really excellent, descriptive without being graphic unnecessarily, and honest about the victories and failures that happened.

  • Susan December 16, 2012, 11:21 pm

    I have been torn about how much to follow this weekend about the shootings. It’s been a terrible tragedy to watch unfold, and I’m grieving so much for the loss of all those young lives. I have children the same age, and so our coverage has been limited, and even so they have been very upset at times.

    I want to say thank you for your thoughts on Columbine, and I will be looking for this book now. One of the things I knew after Friday’s events was that anyone who had been through something like this, or any kind of trauma, would relive it, and indeed on Saturday some of the Columbine survivors opened up about how they were surviving. This was a thoughtful and helpful post, Kim, and thanks very much for it.

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:40 pm

      I spent a little time after finishing the book looking for more information about the Columbine survivors. I must not have looked in the right places to see their responses to Sandy Hook. I do think one of the comforts in reading this book is learning that people can and did survive — even people who seemed beyond saving — and that communities can recover.

  • Jennifer December 17, 2012, 6:03 am

    I found myself thinking of this book as well. Especially, as Lu mentioned, when information was coming from all over. I kept reminding myself of how these “facts” are more than likely not exactly true and that the real truth of what happened might not be forthcoming for weeks, if not months. I tried to stay away from any social media on Friday and for most of the weekend as well. It was all too much 🙁 Thanks for this honest post.

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:41 pm

      Absolutely. It’s hard to watch (and report) breaking news, since information that appears correct at one moment is often not the whole story. I try not to believe things I see on Twitter without extra verification, but even Friday reliable sources were spreading incorrect information (even though it appeared factual and verified at the time).

  • Vasilly December 17, 2012, 5:24 pm

    I had the same urge this weekend to read Columbine to find a “why” too. I didn’t read but I do understand.

    • Kim December 18, 2012, 7:42 pm

      In the couple days since I read this post, I’ve seen other people say they read or thought about the book, which made me feel like I wasn’t alone. If you get a chance to read it, I do recommend it.

  • Christy December 19, 2012, 8:02 pm

    I read Columbine early this year, and the shootings at Sandy Hook made me think of that book too – mostly about how it will be a while before the whole story comes out. Also, Dave Cullen was a guest on a couple of radio shows I was listening to.

    • Kim December 30, 2012, 10:16 am

      I figured he probably would be making the rounds on news programs, if only to remind people of exactly what you said — it will take awhile before the story becomes clearer.

  • christa @ mental foodie January 14, 2013, 4:39 pm

    I didn’t know about the school shooting until a little later, and then after the facts were developed, I had time to read back on facebook the comments people made earlier as the tragedy unfolded – and found so many inaccuracies, and how certain people already were about the event (already linking facebook pages of the alleged suspect at the time, which turned out to be false, saying things like there’s something wrong with him from his old postings etc etc). It totally reminded me of Columbine as I was reading those comments… I guess things still haven’t changed much since then…

    • Kim February 3, 2013, 8:40 am

      The Facebook page thing was terrible. Major media should NEVER have linked to that page, and I wish others hadn’t. That, to me, is one of the most awful mistakes.