It was 1980, I’m going to guess. I had the news on while I was making dinner, so I must have been listening while I cooked and then peering into the living room to see specific coverage. We had a very small black-and-white TV then, one I could put into the closet when I got tired of its noise. I remember Michael was sitting rock-still in front of it. He turned to me and asked, with quite a bit of anguish for a five-year-old, “Why is it men who always do the bad things?”
In Anxious Attachments, Beth Alvarado’s essays explore the writer’s personal struggles—from quitting heroin to caring for premature infants to tending to the dying—and become a lens through which she allows readers to see our shared social and political lives. As a larger narrative, the book is about the power of compassion and our ability to revise who we are, what we believe, and what our story is.
This was long before any of us could ever have imagined someone going into a school with an assault weapon and shooting children. I mean, there was that one white guy in 1966 who’d climbed up the bell tower in Austin and opened fire on the students, killing 14 and wounding more, and then in 1970 the National Guard had killed four student protestors at Kent State, and the Mississippi State Police had killed two at Jackson State. Still, those seemed isolated incidents, nothing like the regular fare since Columbine.
Now we say: Where? And: How many this time? And: How old?
Yesterday, as Kathryn and I were watching the footage of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were murdered, I told her that story about her brother. I said, “Little boys are so sweet.”
We were both thinking, of course, of her twin toddlers, not even 18 months old, and how when you hold them, they gaze into your eyes and twirl your hair with their fingers, how they rub their faces against yours in affection. I was also thinking of Michael’s sons, nine and 12, and of Michael, himself. Five sweet boys.
As a friend of mine says: boys wear their hearts outside of their bodies.
In November 2016, when Michael came with his family to visit for Thanksgiving, I kept hearing the older boy, as they were playing video games, saying to the younger one that he would sacrifice himself. Every time I heard him say this, even though I knew it was his character he was talking about, I felt he was being noble and sweet. They take their games very seriously, after all, and disputes can erupt in fistfights. This Thanksgiving, as I sat down next to William and watched him play, I realized his character—or avatar?—was really a suicide bomber.
This game, I don’t know how to explain it if you’ve never played one, is not realistic. It’s like you are in the world of the game—not watching from outside, but inside the head of the avatar, a first-person protagonist. You see only what the avatar sees so, generally, down the sites of the barrel of a weapon. As the avatar rushes down a street, the landscape rushes by as if in your peripheral vision. In this particular game, what the avatar sees is a bunch of blocks rushing by or, more accurately, buildings suggested by line drawings. Your mind has to fill in the details and this must draw you even more deeply into the imaginary because you participate in creating it.
“Where are we?” I ask William.
“In a mall,” he says.
“A shopping mall?”
“Yeah,” he says, not missing a beat. We are hurrying, scurrying on, staying close to what I guess are walls for cover.
“So, this is about urban warfare?” I ask.
“No,” he says.
“But we’re in a shopping mall,” I say.
William is smart. Only 12, he’s been reading at the high school level for a few years. He can read a thick novel a day, two if he doesn’t have to go to school or is on restriction from electronics. He has been saying to me, since he was two years old, “Well, actually, Nana. . .” and thus, politely, correcting my errors in many matters, even physics and the anatomy of birds.
“Okay,” he says, “Yeah. I guess you could call it urban warfare.”
“What are we doing?” I ask him.
“Well, we want to get in a crowd before we detonate. We want to take out at least four or five others.”
“We’re a suicide bomber?”
“Well, it’s just, technically, the more we take out, the more points we get.”
“But we die, too, so we’re a suicide bomber.”
“Okay. Yeah.” He shrugs. Then, “Watch out! See that guy up there? He’s a sniper. Snipers are the bane of our existence.”
I did some research on suicide bombings for a book. They cause a lot of eye injuries, I wanted to tell him, because when people hear the noise, they turn to look in that direction. They open their mouths to scream and, sometimes, bone fragments from the bomber get lodged in their lungs.
When I was a child, I would not have known what a suicide bomber or even sniper was. Now I cannot see a video game except for through the lens of reality and, therefore, the lens of suffering. I cannot divorce the game from the events that gave rise to it in the first place. But William can because, to him, I guess, it’s just a game. A video game may not be art, but it is mimetic in its own way.
When Michael was little, I made him “stun guns” out of clothespins. I told him they would just put the enemy to sleep, so he could get away. This seemed to satisfy him. When he had little plastic cowboys and Indians, and his cowboys, the good guys, were dispatching the Indians, I tried to explain the history of the West. But how do you explain genocide to a four-year-old? Soon the Indians were retaliating and winning. When I asked my mother-in-law what she thought about giving him toy guns, she said, “He knows it’s just make-believe.” And so I let his 14-year-old uncle, who often babysat him, make them guns out of wood and sticks and they, along with Michael’s aunt, who was eight, would chase one another around in elaborate games of hide-and-seek.
Now, when I watch Michael’s sons, they argue about who gets the Nerf gun that holds the most “bullets,” so essentially the dispute is about the magazine, the fire-power. Why is it that their worst fights erupt over guns or video games? That Gavin’s worst nightmares happen after he watches movies like Star Wars? They don’t watch the news, so I’m not sure if they’re even aware that our country has been involved in a war for longer than they’ve been alive, but they do know what suicide bombers and snipers are.
Am I over-thinking it? But I wonder, sometimes, what kind of inchoate messages are coming down to them? Something about dominance. Something about violence as a form of power. Something about anger as a thing that makes you strong and even excuses aggressive behavior. Something about masculinity that, for Michael, took the form of the question: “Why is it men who always do the bad things?”
Emma González’s body was vibrating with anger in her first speech after the mass murder in Parkland, Florida. Her head shaved, her expressive face, her voice hoarse, she was wiping away tears as she spoke. When she addressed those who had criticized the students, saying they had ostracized the shooter, her voice became even more raw with anger. Still, she spoke: “You didn’t know this kid. We did.”
If you are a parent, chances are you know this kid. When Kathryn was a young teenager, probably 14, her boyfriend, who was older, was one of those kids. When she broke up with him, he came into our house, while she was alone, and slit his wrists in front of her. They weren’t deep cuts, but she felt threatened, afraid he would turn the X-Acto knife on her. She remembers embracing him and telling him that she loved him while she slowly walked him to the door, thinking, the entire time, please don’t cut me, and then she shoved him out of the house and locked the door between them.
When she still refused to see him, he got three of her girlfriends to break into the house with him, again when she was alone, and threaten her. She locked herself in our bedroom and wouldn’t come out. There was no phone in our room; there were no cell phones. She listened as they continued to yell at her and call her names, as they banged on the door. She listened as they started to wreck our house, taking food from the refrigerator and throwing it all over the kitchen and living room. We decided never to leave her home alone again. I withdrew her from school and started taking her with me to the classes I was teaching at the university.
Around this time, the boy’s mother called me and said she was worried. Her son had been acting out more than usual. He would not obey any of their rules. “My husband has guns,” she said, “and they’re locked up, but I’m still afraid my son will get a hold of them.” He had fought with his father the night before, trying to get the key. He had pictures of Kathryn hanging all over his room.
For months, maybe, he stood outside our house watching for Kathryn to come home every night. Sometimes we saw him standing down the street; sometimes we couldn’t see him, but the phone would ring as soon as she walked in the door. At this point, we sent her to live with her aunt while we filed restraining orders, all the time knowing that a restraining order does not stop an angry person from doing what he is determined to do. Finally, he tried to stab his father—or perhaps he cut himself in front of his parents? Or he cut his father when his father tried to get the knife out of his hands? This is when they had him committed to a local psych ward. From there, even though he shouldn’t have been able to, he still called her. He sent her a letter with his driver’s license. Don’t forget me, he wrote.
We borrowed money from my aunt. We moved out of that house. Kathryn enrolled in another school. She couldn’t see any of her old friends, of course, not even the loyal ones, because we were afraid he would follow them to our house or he would talk them into giving him the new address or phone number. He was handsome and charismatic, true, but also many of the girls she knew blamed her for his suicide attempts and his aggression in general. If she had been more understanding, they assumed, he never would have done those things.
“Time and time again we reported him,” Emma González said of the shooter “No one was surprised that he was the one.”
And this was true in our daughter’s case, too. Few of the adults who knew him were surprised at his behavior. Person after person told us that he was a narcissist, that he felt entitled, that he had problems with anger. Even the school, even as they refused to expel him because none of this had happened on school property, even they acknowledged that he had a history of acting out. In our culture, male anger is often loud and explosive and dangerous and, although now we send them to classes to learn to “manage” it, we still accept it as an excuse for violence.
Emma González was trembling with anger, righteous anger, as she countered other people’s assumptions about who was responsible for the shooter’s actions. She was wiping tears away. She was passionate, yet articulate, and totally in control. I admired her.
Anger is simply an emotion, after all, like love or fear. What matters is not that you feel it, but what you do when you feel it. But with most school shootings, like most mass shootings, there is something cold and calculated. It’s more like hunting than a crime of passion.
In 2002, at the University of Arizona where I taught, a man who was flunking out of the College of Nursing shot and killed three of his professors and then committed suicide. This incident did seem rooted in deep anger: he was middle-aged, ex-military, flunking out of nursing school and, instead of taking accountability for himself, he blamed these women for failing him. There may, of course, have been other underlying factors; regardless, the murders were carefully planned and carried out.
For instance, this guy had a concealed carry permit, five handguns with him, and 500 rounds of ammunition. Some think he was planning on killing some of the students, too, but then changed his mind and told them to leave the room after he killed their professors. He spoke to each woman before he shot her, asking her a question about her area of expertise. He shot each of them three times, twice in the chest and then once in the head.
After this happened, I got an email from a former student: I hope nobody ever does something like that to you. I wanted to be touched by this, but the email left me feeling uneasy. I hadn’t seen this student for at least two or three years and, when he was in my class, it was clear that he was disturbed. He would sometimes get up from his desk and sit on the floor in a corner and rock himself there.
When I talked to him about it, he said he was on Accutane—an acne medicine which, I knew, could cause serious psychological problems—and sitting with the girls in his group made him so uncomfortable that he had to leave. They were so beautiful, he said, and they kept looking at him, they were disgusted by his skin. He and I would sit on a bench in the courtyard outside of the building and talk for at least a half an hour after every class. As much as I was concerned about him, I was also trying to ascertain if he could be a threat, especially to those girls he found so beautiful and judgmental.
When this student came back to class after a week or two of absences, with his forearms both wrapped in white bandages, he told me he’d been in a motorcycle accident. I thought maybe it had been a suicide attempt, either with a knife or a razor or his motorcycle. I walked with him over to student health to see a counselor. I advised him to make his health a priority and drop the class and take it when he was feeling better. He dropped the class—in fact, he may have dropped all of his classes—and I didn’t hear from him again until after the shooting. After that, quite a few times, he would come by my office, which was in an isolated building, I was usually the only one there, and he would walk by the window, not recognizing me. Once he poked his head in the door. Still, he didn’t recognize me. He mumbled, “Oh. Sorry.”
When I went to the main office and asked about him, the administrative assistant said, “Oh, yes, he comes in asking for you a few times every semester.”
“Does he ask about other teachers?”
“Yeah,” she said, looking a little surprised.
“I wonder if we should report him to the dean’s office.”
She shrugged, “We could. I guess.”
And just what, exactly, could we report?
I’m not sure why he made me so uneasy. He was a lost soul, obviously. He couldn’t even make eye contact with me. He desperately needed connection, especially if he was stalking me—and other women—after so many years. And stalking is what it felt like. I didn’t reach out to him. I don’t feel guilty about it because, as illogical as it may seem, that one sentence—I hope nobody ever does something like that to you—felt like a threat. Like it had occurred to him that someone might.
“We have to pay attention to the fact that this isn’t just a mental health issue,” Emma González said. “He wouldn’t have hurt that many students with a knife!
“How about we stop blaming the victims for something that was the shooter’s fault?” she went on to ask. “The fault of the people who let him buy the guns in the first place?”
There is no way a teacher in America can enter a classroom without wondering how she might help her students escape, how she might escape herself. In the classrooms where I most often taught, there was no escape because the building was underground. The long corridor, which had classrooms on either side, was arranged in a large U, with one entrance/exit at each end of the U. There was one door into each classroom, sometimes two. At the bottom of the U, there was an auditorium that could hold about 300 people. There were no windows in any of the rooms, of course. There were no closets. There was no way to lock or barricade any of the doors.
In another building, one whole wall of the classroom was a huge window the width of two or three sliding doors. If someone started shooting through the glass from the outside, we would all have to drop to the floor and try to crawl through the one door out into the hallway. In other older buildings, classrooms might have a wall of windows out of which students could jump, but we might be several floors up. This is exactly what happened during the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Professor Liviu Lebrescu, a Holocaust survivor, died holding the doors to his classroom shut so that his students could escape by jumping from the second story windows.
I’ve begun to wonder if architects are going to have to take school shootings into consideration as they design new buildings. If the shooter is coming from the outside, I know, some newer buildings, like where I teach now, can be put on lock down. But what if the shooter is already in the classroom? The lockdown, then, is designed to limit the murders to that one area? So the students in that area become a kind of sacrifice to save the others? A kind of collateral damage? What if there is more than one shooter? If the shooter is a student or ex-student, like the one in Parkland, he’s been through the drills; he’s aware of all of the emergency preparations and how to circumvent or use them to his advantage.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all 50 states allow citizens to carry concealed weapons if they meet certain state requirements. Since 2013, 33 states have introduced legislation that would allow concealed weapons on college campuses. In 2014, five states introduced legislation to prohibit concealed carry weapons on campus; none of those bills, prohibiting weapons, passed.
After the shooting in Parkland, I was watching the first reports with my son-in-law as we took care of the babies. A few of the newscasters and medical experts commented about the kind of damage these weapons can do to the human body, something I’d never before heard in television coverage, although I’d read about it. “About time,” I said.
Justin, who hunts and is aware of the damage that different weapons and calibers can inflict, flinched. “I don’t know if they should go into that on television,” he said. “Think about the families.”
Whereas a typical bullet, from a 9 mm, say, goes cleanly through the body, “looking like a knife cut,” according to a doctor who’d been in Iraq, a bullet from the AR-15 explodes and fragments inside the body, shreds the flesh, turns bone to powder, causes massive bleeding. There is very little chance that the victim will survive.
Also, it seems to me, the families are not the ones being protected from this knowledge. It’s the rest of us whose sensibilities are being spared. The families are going to find out exactly how extensive the damage was.
A friend of mine, who is an EMT, told me that according to new guidelines for first responders, they are no longer supposed to wait for the area to be secured. The wounds from these assault rifles are so devastating that they are to go in and try to perform triage immediately. Soon, she told me, they will hang tourniquets—just as they do fire extinguishers now—in all public places where a mass shooting is likely. Shopping malls. Concert venues. Movie theaters. Churches. Donut shops. Schools.
And, in fact, while there have been “active-shooter training” sessions for a few years at the school where I now teach, this morning I got an email encouraging me to attend “Stop the Bleed” training. It detailed where the bleeding control kits would be kept and what they contain. These are state of the art kits, with “Israeli” compression dressing; all AED—automated external defibrillator—boxes will contain them. Like Israelis, we are training for terrorist attacks on our soil but, here, the terrorists are almost always white, homegrown boys and men.
This last December, I sent my son a text:
Me: What is the name of the video game the boys were playing at Thanksgiving?
Michael: You mean, Die die die, cocksucking motherfucker?
Me: Yeah, that’s the one, but when I googled it, the FBI showed up at my door.
Michael: LOL. Roblox is the platform. The game is called Phantom Forces.
Me: Special Ops?
Michael: It’s a FPS.
Me: Oh. Ok. Thanks.
Michael: (First-Person Shooter)
Me: Oh, ok. I like your name better. I’m standing in the dog park, laughing.
“I can’t believe Michael and Sara let the boys play that game,” Kathryn had said at Thanksgiving.
“I know,” I told her, “I think it’s odd, too.”
“Especially Sara,” Kathryn said. “She doesn’t even like football.”
One of us, I can’t remember which one, asked Sara about it, and she said that at first she’d been really against it, but she figured that they would be exposed to games like that through their friends, so better to play it at home, where Michael can monitor it. After all, he loves to play video games, too. Always has.
Roblox games, like Minecraft, are games where the players construct the world, which does involve some creative problem-solving skills and the negotiation of community rules. I had watched William and Gavin play Minecraft before and they spent most of their time building their houses and trying to zombie-proof them. Gavin, in particular, loved to show me, step by step, how he was constructing each room in his house: bedroom, living room, kitchen. It all looked like Lego blocks to me, but he was very particular. Michael and the boys used to play together, each on his own device, sitting around the dining room table, and once, when Gavin was maybe five or six, he started freaking out because the zombies were coming.
“Deep Breath!” Michael said, “Look up. Where are you? You’re in the dining room. With us. There are no zombies.”
In Phantom Forces, the “players” or the figures that you chase down and shoot look like Lego characters, just as they do in Minecraft. There is nothing realistic about the renderings of the setting or the characters and yet, when you shoot someone, the color red pools out.
And then all the YouTube videos that tell you how to play the games: I’ve watched several with Gavin. His favorite guy, from the sound of his voice, is in his 20s and from Britain. His shows are about Minecraft and I think Gavin likes them even more than the game itself. The guy gives advice about zombies and axes, etc., and shows you how to make cool “plays” and advance to the next level. These videos are pretty harmless, although laced with a little dark humor and enough swear words that Sara, when she overhears, will tell him to turn it off.
I, however, searched YouTube for Phantom Forces and posed the question, “Which guns are best?” Even though, again, the images were clearly not representational, there was a human voice—again, an adult male voice, this time with an American accent—saying things like, “MP5 is my favorite gun, for its high fire rate, pretty solid damage, accuracy rate is not bad.” All the time I was hearing this voice-over, I was also watching the speaker’s view of his screen. “So I’m just walking around casually, looking for a couple of kills. . . oh, what’s this? A fucking guy! Had to shut him down real quick, curb-stomp his face into the ground. . .”
I have no way of resolving my cognitive dissonance over my grandchildren, who are now 12 and nine—or anyone’s children, really—watching videos like this one, which seem worse than the game itself. Certainly this guy’s voice, on the video, dehumanizes people. He does not seem angry. Rather, his persona is kind of jocular but cruel, bullying, and matter-of-fact about it. His fascination with the weapons, which are not imaginary but correspond to real counterparts, signifies to me a deep longing for dominance, for power and control, and so it also signifies its opposite? A lack? A need? A fear? Why else the obsession with things that can harm others?
If reading fiction, as brain-imaging technology has shown, can help people become more compassionate and empathetic—and after all, in reading fiction, we are deciphering marks of ink on a page—could playing games like this desensitize us? The answer from research on first-person shooter games, so far, is yes, but they don’t know to what extent or if the desensitization to the images translates into behavior. In the studies I’ve read, most of the subjects were in their 20s and 30s, and I, of course, am worried about children, whose brains are still very plastic.
But why couldn’t video games be designed to strengthen the neural pathways connected to compassion, like reading fiction does? The player’s imagination has to fill in gaps, just as it does in reading. In addition, the games are interactive and the player’s physical actions are repeated over and over again until they’re almost unconscious. This makes me think that playing these games must shape neural pathways even more effectively than reading does.
Still, it’s hard to imagine an American market—because everything depends on the market, after all—for a video game that emphasizes compassion rather than aggression, collaboration rather than competition. What would such a game look like? How would one “win” it? Like all art, video games reflect our values and perhaps reinforce them in an endless feedback loop. This is why it might be important to ask: What do these games reflect back to us? How are they mirrors of what we believe, fear, and desire?
When I went to visit Michael in January, to help with the boys because Sara was out of town for ten days, the boys were no longer playing Phantom Forces. I’m not sure why and I didn’t ask. For one thing, I had set aside the idea of writing an essay about it and, for another, I trust Michael and Sara’s parenting decisions. Still, I wondered if it was because of the violence or because it was one of those games where players interact with other players from all over the world and so, therefore, it could be a problem in terms of strangers having access to the children and their information. I figured it was probably a little bit of both—or, maybe, the boys had become bored with that game. One can only hope.
For whatever reason, they were now playing a game where whales drop out of the sky. Gavin played this game on cross-country dates with a little girl, a family friend who lives in Brooklyn. Her voice was on a kind of speaker phone. One night I heard her say, “Poison me.” Gavin, evidently, didn’t want to poison her. “No,” she said, “go ahead and poison me.” A friend told me later that this was probably a collaborative move that meant they would be able to go to the next level.
Some other bits of random conversations I overheard:
“A lightning gun. It’s not the best. It shoots balls of lightning.”
“I just killed someone with a stop-sign axe. It was gross.”
“That’s the zombie-apocalypse!”
“Does the dinosaur eat other people?”
I was just glad, frankly, about things as fanciful as whales falling out of the sky and swordfish swimming through the ocean, spearing donuts to get points.
For the whole ten days of my visit, William was procrastinating on a multimedia project about Mexico. He eventually wrote a passionate essay in defense of open immigration and the Dreamers, so passionate partly because he’d been watching videos on YouTube of people fleeing cartel violence, trying to make their way here on the train called La Bestia. “Watch this one, Nana, it’s so sad.” We watched together.
Only a few months later, William participated with his mother in the March for Our Lives. At the event in Washington, D.C., Emma González would stand silent for six minutes and twenty seconds, the time it took for the shooter to kill 17 people. Her generation, it’s been pointed out, is the first to grow up with mass shootings in schools as part of the normal landscape and with active-shooter drills as part of the normal curriculum.
I told William at one point during my visit that I didn’t think Aunt Kat was going to allow the babies to play video games even though they obviously loved electronics and were always stealing our phones.
“Oh, Nana,” he said, shaking his head, “they will not be of their generation.”
I’ve been thinking, ever since, about what that might mean. Emma González and the other student activists, and William and Gavin, and even the babies, are all of that generation. And so is the shooter. They all play video games, or will. They all feel anger and every other possible emotion. There are pictures of Emma González hugging others and laughing. When William and Gavin first see you, they still want big hugs, and their faces are open and beaming. And the babies, who are now toddlers, like all toddlers in all generations, run to you like tiny drunken sailors. They lift their hands in the air to be held. They snuggle against you for occasional warmth and comfort. They have just learned to kiss.
Header image by Mark Peugh, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Beth Alvarado by Brigette Lewis.