Journalists are supposed to keep a certain distance from our subjects, the people we interview. We let them feel our interest, our empathy even, but best keep our own emotions in check.
At least that is what I tell my college journalism students. On the last day of their classes for the semester, I always hand out Tootsie Roll Pops. “Be hard on the outside, but soft on the inside,” I tell them. The lolly pops get a laugh, but the students know I mean it.
So I have been watching myself with the 50-plus survivors of gun violence whom I have interviewed over the past nine months, 20-some within the past month. Especially talking with parents whose children were murdered in school, or in a neighbor’s house, or on a street just blocks from home.
I find that keeping the hard shell is no longer working for me.
Not that I’ve ever been an icy interviewer with a yardstick between the source and me. But this is the hardest professional thing I’ve ever done.
Because, of course, my heart breaks for them. Every time. And there have been so many times, so many numb faces, so many tears, and so many parents. They are determined to live well and be good parents for their remaining kids — the siblings of the murdered children — and to find ways to create a living legacy for their slain ones.
Then there are the single mothers of their only sons, now buried beneath the hard ground, as they battle out of depression, searching for reasons to live.
All these houses are so quiet, they tell me. The sound of him or her clapping, or jumping down the stairs, or joking around or playing the once rather irritating music.
Now back home in northern Arizona after a month’s reporting trip, I will go through transcripts, listening again to the stories. In the mean time, I finally let myself feel it.
I suppose, it naturally caught up with me.
I drove to the woods for a run, the radio tuned to National Public Radio’s “Live From Here” musical radio show. I stopped at a parking lot near the trail, a lot which also serves an inside ice-skating rink. Here I found myself surrounded by family vans and SUVs there for the youth ice hockey tournament.
On the radio, the host talked about what his house was like that week with his wife and 3-year-old out of town. He said something like, “Here’s what it sounds like,” and then there was utter silence from the musicians. The audience laughed appreciatively. He continued talking about how wonderful the silence was at first, and how after a while it was no longer so great. He missed his family, his little one. He was lonely.
Then the band played “Hard times, come again no more.” He sang, and the crowd joined in. I have heard it performed movingly by singers like Bob Dylan and Nanci Griffith. But actually this is a parlor song written in the 1850s by Stephen Foster, who was asking the more fortunate to help those with less. Hearing it on the radio that morning, though, it seemed to me like it was written for the parents of murdered children.
That’s when my journalist Tootsie-Roll Pop husk melted away. In my mind’s eye, I saw every dead child’s parents who I have sat with, listened to, and sympathized with these past few weeks. I saw the children I’d never had the opportunity to meet, and nobody ever would again. The host’s jokes about the empty house would have been entertaining to me just a month ago. Now I no longer laugh about too-quiet homes.
Because I’ve had so many parents tell me how their homes are too silent. “Life without him is, is pretty quiet. It’s like a(n) eerie quiet,” said Tisa Whack, of the Charleston area. Her 23-year-old son Tyrell was gunned down not far from home.
Another mom told me their house I was sitting in was not the one in which they had raised their kids. “I would sit in his room all day long,” said Kristin Song, whose 15-year-old son Ethan was killed when playing with an unsecured firearm at a neighbor’s house. For months after his death, she could still smell him. Then one day, she says, his smell was gone. And it became too painful for her to stay in the house.
Soon she talked to her husband. “I said, ‘I can't live here anymore.’ And so we literally sold our house I think in two days,” she said. It was too painful for her to stay in the house where she and her husband Mike had raised three children including Ethan, their youngest. They moved into the new house seven months after he died.
Another family, whose daughter was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, has chosen to keep their daughter’s room just the way it was. “We just haven’t been ready to do it. To clear her stuff out just to make an empty bedroom doesn’t…” JoAnn Bacon began about Charlotte’s very pink room, her sentence fading. “Why? No.”
As I sat in my car near the woods, listening to “Hard Times,” I finally cried. I let the images flow along with the tears. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel, hoping the young hockey players would not notice me as they clunked by on their huge, guard-covered skates toward the rink.
Soon I was running in the woods, thinking of the parents and of the children who will never become adults. (And another school shooting occurred in Colorado this week, leaving more parents to grieve for their dead or injured children.)
This blog is not about me, and I would never claim to feel the kind of pain that these parents do. But even outsiders and journalists feel the ripple effect. And in this era of mass shootings, neighborhood killings, random, accidental and suicide gun deaths, one has to feel something.
So I did, and I do.
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.