We haven’t met. My name’s Anne and I live in Western Massachusetts. I’m an artist and educator, and I’m into local politics and community organizing. I make cute hats and I teach kids, and I’ve been an autobio cartoonist since I was 16. I have tattoos and cats, and I’m a roller derby official, and I love Iceland. I look younger than I am, but I don’t get carded at bars any more. I dye my hair. I work at a museum.
Most of the time I look like I’ve got it pretty together. I finished my bachelor’s degree at a little liberal arts college at the end of 1994, went to work for an experiential education company for a semester, and started graduate school at the University of Delaware in August 1995. I put myself through graduate school as a teaching assistant, and I was 27 when I finished my PhD in 2002.
On the surface, we might not have much in common. But I too am a survivor of gun violence.
In December 1992, a classmate of mine was able to easily and legally buy a cheap, Chinese made SKS through a then-loophole in Massachusetts law that honored the laws of the purchaser’s home state. He was from Montana. He loaded the gun with the bullets he’d had shipped to campus and walked through the cold December air, firing at anything that moved. We found out later that he had enough ammunition to kill us all, but the gun kept jamming. Frustrated, he called the police and surrendered.
I drive past the courthouse where his trial was held almost every day; it’s a major landmark in the city where I work. I once had to contest a traffic ticket there. I knew I’d been in that building before, but I don’t remember being there. I’m told that I was at a protest at the State House in April 1993, where we called for action, but I remember none of this. I have profound memory loss; part of that is time, but more of that is trauma.
It took me years before I talked about it with people who weren’t at Simon’s Rock with me. It was six months before I could fall asleep without sobbing. My mother says that I woke up screaming in the weeks after it happened. I don’t remember it.
Our school shooter is still alive. Newsweek interviewed him after Virginia Tech. He gets national news coverage and people on the internet who defend him, who latch on to his easy fabricated excuse about hearing voices, and give him sympathy. And that makes me angry.
I went to school with a murderer. I sit with that heavy truth sometimes.
I worry about losing my dead as time passes. I wear them on my skin, as if to keep myself from forgetting; two tattoos of origami paper cranes on my shoulder blades for my friend Galen, who wordlessly pressed folded paper cranes into my palm one day as we walked across campus; a Franz Kafka illustration from The Trial on my leg, the first tattoo I got all those years ago in grad school, for my brilliant, charming professor Ñacuñán, whose love of learning and sense of style I’ve never seen matched. After I returned from an intensive leadership training in Washington, D.C. last year, learning how to amplify my voice as a gun violence survivor, I had an image intended to represent infinite space, along with the epitaph from Ñacuñán’s grave marker in Argentina, added to my shoulder. They are always with me; they will never leave me; I wear them on my skin the way this tragedy is woven into the very fabric of the adult I have become.
I have lived with this for more than 25 years. It is only in the last five that I have really been able to think of myself as a survivor of gun violence, and only within the last year that I have been able to center my activism around it. For years I thought about writing it down, creating a book or document, something to tell my story, and for years I could not. What changed me was Sandy Hook, which happened twenty years to the day after my school shooting. That overlapping tragedy feels overwhelming; an avalanche of unyielding horror. It spurred me to action.
And I still feel like it is not enough, because -- as we both know too well -- gun violence in our country has reached epidemic proportions. And each mass shooting, every time, feels like all of the air leaving your lungs, like the ground giving way, like everything is wrong.
So, from one survivor to another, I offer these thoughts:
You will meet people who will tell you how you should grieve. Do not listen to them. You know the contours of your own heart better than anyone else in the world.
They will ask you if you’re over it yet. We both know you will never be over it.
People will not know what to say to you. They’ll offer you statements that are well-intentioned but feel empty. This will hurt.
People will talk about forgiveness. Everyone has their own journey, but I now know that I am not less of a person for recognizing that the perpetrator has no forgiveness with me.
You’ll hear a lot about therapy. If it’s useful, do it. If you don’t think it’s useful, know how to get it anyway. PTSD is nasty and not well understood, and we’re terrible at dealing with grief and tragedy in the United States. I wish I’d done more of it.
Find purpose. I have found purpose in my work as an Everytown Survivor Fellow, where I tell my own story to legislators and lawmakers and people at meetings. I make people cry, and I feel badly about this, but I know that they will remember who I lost, and that is powerful.
You will feel badly that you wound people when you tell them your story. There is power in this.
Do not believe the Myth of the Good Survivor. There are as many ways to be a survivor of gun violence as there are gun violence survivors. Some days getting out of bed will be your most major achievement. Some days you will not be able to get out of bed.
Self-care is good care. Remember to eat. Try to sleep if you can. It’s okay if you can’t.
Honor your dead.
Know that I see you.
Anne Thalheimer holds a BA in Literary Studies from Simon's Rock College of Bard, and her MA and Ph.D. from the University of Delaware. Currently, Anne teaches at the Yale English Language Institute. She also serves as the treasurer of her local cultural council, a grant-funded program that supports arts programming throughout Massachusetts. In addition, Anne has a long history working in independent media and self-publishing, including comic books and graphic novels. She's also a roller derby referee, having once skated in three different countries in a single year (one was Iceland), and shares her home with two dramatic Siamese cats.