Brandon Wolf, who carries heavy survivor’s guilt about the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, thinks people are too quick to put trauma behind them. People want to rush on, rather than stay in the uncomfortable place of acknowledging the current reality.
“I’ve been thinking about our need as a society to move on. Our desperate need to find closure to these things,” said Wolf, 30, who was at Pulse the night of the shooting, which left 49 people dead and more than 50 injured. “We prop up people who were once physically injured that have made [that part of] their recovery.”
June 12 was the third anniversary of the 2016 Pulse shooting, and like many other dark anniversaries, postings of photographs of the dead and memorializing words exploded on Facebook and other social media platforms.
Wolf’s survivor’s guilt was more than the “normal.” That is because he urged his two best friends to go out with him that night. Wolf’s former partner had contacted him to see if they might get together. After saying yes, Wolf sent a message to his best friends Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, and Drew’s partner Juan Ramon Guerrero. But Drew said they were not up for going out. Brandon persuaded them to change their minds.
“I need backup,” he told them. “I’m going to pull the best-friend card. And I need you there with me.”
They agreed. “We got in the Uber. And flipped a coin, basically, and said, ‘Where do we go?’ And we landed on Pulse.”
That choice would change their lives forever. For two of them, it would end their lives. Wolf escaped, but his two friends did not. He still cannot describe that night without what-ifs and stinging tears. Wolf rearranged his life priorities to initially respond to his feelings of guilt, and later to simply work toward making the world brighter, and safer.
He and others started the Dru Project, a nonprofit that “gives scholarships to students who truly exemplify Drew's spirit and desire for unity, inclusion, and love,” according to the website. (The spelling of “Dru” comes from the fact that Drew Leinonen, like many millennials and Gen-Zers who brand themselves, had branded himself online as the Dru Project.)
Wolf has also become an activist for gun reform, modeling his work after the Parkland students and calling it his life’s purpose. He met high school activists who helped him choose this path. After the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Wolf attended a memorial in Tallahassee, where he had moved after the Pulse shooting. He could not stop crying.
“It's really hard to figure out or feel out when you're gonna have an emotional reaction to something. That particular tragedy really shook me. I think that was the most emotional I've felt since June 12th. So much so I think that you could feel the ripple effects outside of that,” he said. “I felt responsible that I had failed them in my advocacy. And I'm watching the TV and 17 people are dead, most of them children. And I thought, ‘If I had just done more. If I'd just said more, if I'd just fought harder, maybe this wouldn't have happened to them.’”
His plan was to slip out, but a man stopped him.
“This lawmaker grabbed me and he said, ‘You need to say something to these kids.’ And I said, ‘Well, what I have to say to these kids? I failed them. Why would I talk to them?’ And he said, ‘Because you're the only one who gets it.’
“So I went over. And I tried to talk to them. But again all I could say was ‘I am so sorry.’ The kids put their arms around me. And they said to me ‘It's gonna be OK.’ And so I made a bond and a pact with them in that moment. That I would not stop talking,” he recalled. “They’ve challenged me to think beyond what's possible, many times.”
Wolf reflected on the trauma of a live shooting.
“It’s difficult to describe,” he said, sitting in an Orlando Starbucks. He worked at Starbucks for more than 13 years, and now does media relations at the nonprofit Equality Florida. “It’s a bit like being in this moment. Where we're just talking, we’re having a conversation, we're at a Starbucks and, without warning, we’re in the middle of a warzone. There's 49 people there drowning in their own blood. There's somebody trapped in a bathroom with five people half of them are either dead or injured. The police are outside. There's 50 sirens. Everyone is holding an assault weapon. In an instant.”
Wolf said some people push for quick recovery, so they can feel good about moving on. He recalled an event at which he and other Pulse survivors were being honored. He was standing with another survivor, who had been injured and now used a cane. He said a bystander told Wolf he was very lucky to be standing “next to such strength. Look at how he’s recovered and he’s so strong now. I am so proud of him for that.”
Wolf reflected on how that might make the survivor feel.
“Knowing that the world is waiting for him to be well, so they can move on. So they can be well. When in reality 25 years from now he will still have the same issues that he has today. And when at what point did survival become about physical fitness? Rather than emotional healing?” he asked. “To be a survivor is not to check boxes. It's not to be lucky. Or proud. It's to fight for your life every single day. You don't ever stop surviving that experience. You just keep reliving it over and over again.”
Wolf said Pollyanna thinking can be toxic.
“That doesn’t allow us to find a solution. Because we’re so stuck on the idea that we have to close the book, that we can’t write the ending,” he said. “My purpose has to bring some good out of it. That for me is what actual closure looks like. That we find the hope in it all. That we find the humanity in each other. So that we can do things that make us all better.”
May 31, 2019. Another day, another deadly shooting.
This time, a Virginia Beach engineer murdered 12 people and wounded four. After resigning via email on a Friday morning for “personal reasons,” the man returned to his municipal workplace and gunned down 11 co-workers and one contractor.
Tragically, most Americans are not surprised. How could they be? Every day, 100 Americans are killed by guns, and hundreds more are injured. But they might be curious about a growing trend: omitting the perpetrator’s name.
The local police chief named the killer just once, and then said he would not utter his name again. Virginia Beach Police Chief James A. Cervera told reporters that Saturday, June 1, would be the only time police would announce the gunman's name. After that, he will be referred to by police only as “the suspect,” to keep the focus on the victims, Cervera said.
Not naming the perpetrators of these shootings is becoming more common, often at the request of survivors.
In fact, in Dave Cullen’s nonfiction book Parkland, about the gun-reform movement that grew out of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, the murderer is never mentioned.
Many shooting survivors, be they the wounded or family members of those killed, criticize the media for putting more attention on the perpetrator than those people killed or wounded.
“The only thing that I have to say negatively about the media [is that] our tragedy has become sort of like an opiate for them,” said Lori Alhadeff, the mother of Douglas High School student Alyssa, 14, who was killed in the shooting.
“They continue to glamorize the shooter. And I have a big problem with that. There should be no notoriety,” Alhadeff said. “You probably don't know what my daughter looks like, but you all know what the shooter looks like. Stop showing his picture. He should be a black box with an X on it. Stop saying his name.”
She said that while overall she has been treated well by the media, she wished journalists would focus on those killed, rather than the killer.
“Instead of saying the shooter's name, say, 'the killer of Alyssa Alhadeff.’ And then it brings people back — ‘Well, who's Alyssa Alhadeff?’ And we remember the victims instead of remembering the shooter,” she said.
Pat Maisch agrees. January 8, 2011, Maisch was waiting in line to meet United States Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords at a political event outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson, Arizona. Instead, a young man obsessed with Giffords shot her in the head and then shot 19 others. Six people died that sunny Saturday morning, and 13 were wounded, including Giffords. Maisch is credited for grabbing the gunman’s extra magazine before he could reload. The gunman was tackled by two men, and is serving life in prison.
Maisch, who became a gun-reform activist after experiencing the Tucson shooting, said many survivors want every gunman’s name wiped out.
“You never say the names of the victims,” she criticized. “You're always saying the names of the perpetrator.”
Maisch added that many survivors also argue against using the word “shooter,” which might sound positive in the mind of someone violent or troubled.
“Call him ‘the perpetrator’ or ‘him’ … instead of ‘the shooter,’” she said. “You don't need to keep saying his name.”
Maisch also accused the media of giving too much attention to the perpetrators, named or not.
“They shouldn't say anything about him,” she said. “They should talk about the victims.”
She criticized an article about a court hearing in which an accused gunman was described in detail, down to his “fashionable sunglasses.”
“Who cares what the perpetrator wore to court?” she asked.
Alhadeff, of Parkland, said by focusing on the killers, the media glorifies the person wielding the deadly guns. She added that many gunmen do not care about their lives, which makes them untroubled by the possibility of getting killed during a violent encounter.
“So they'll say, 'Well, I'll go and shoot up a school and I [if I] kill myself like, whatever, I don't care. At least I'll kill other people and then I'll become famous,’” she said. “We have to stop that. And the media is the one that is creating this, this monster, and creating this glamorization of being a school shooter.”
If the media printed and said the name and focused on the people murdered, like her soccer-playing daughter Alyssa Alhadeff, it would help people to remember her, and also might make these shootings more real to everyone.
“I think it just, it helps to remember who was tragically taken,” she said. “Because I think we become so desensitized, desensitized to these shootings. It's become such a norm. And that's terrible to think that someone being shot is normal in this horrific way.”
After the Virginia Beach tragedy, the vice mayor became one more person shaken by another shooting.
“I don’t say I’m in shock,” Vice Mayor James Wood told the press. “I’m numbed.”
* * *
June 7 is National Gun Violence Awareness Day. #WearOrange to honor victims and survivors of gun violence and show support for solutions to the gun violence epidemic.
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.