Up on a cliff, I stare past my feet to the rolling, angry sea below. Far below. The frothy white caps churning against the rocks barely make a sound, and sea birds appear as small black dots, the sea is so far away. I shudder, step back—one, two, three—and turn toward the east. The sun warms my shoulders as I consider the shadow stretching before me. My shadow. I feel that familiar spider lurking beneath my ribs. Even then, it weaves frantically encasing all that I hold central to my life in despair.
I am not a traumatized person. I’m fairly stable. I’m pretty happy.
I have a problem, though. Yes, that is true.
There are times when I feel more than an average dose of adrenaline and fear—I’m sick to my stomach; I have gone still and distant; I am very quiet. I can think of nothing but running away.
I don’t want to run any longer. A great wave rumbles and breaks against the rocks. I have no place else to flee.
And the answer, at this time, seems simple.
I have considered the option before. Eyeing matte-finished BB guns made to look like real handguns behind a glass case at Wal-Mart, searching websites decorated with barbed wire for business hours, or watching children duck and take cover from bright red water balloons and the cool spray of squirt guns at a summer birthday party, I have asked, “What if?” What if I am forced to protect myself again? Wouldn’t I fight back if given the chance? After everything, am I strong enough to pull the trigger?
Phase One: Treat All Firearms as if They Are Loaded
The damp gray of early morning lifts, and bullets fly toward targets in the shape of circles or human silhouettes. I stand at a shooting range.
Inside a room with a drop ceiling and the heavy smell of sulfur and burnt charcoal, individuals fire a dizzying array of guns—little concealed-carrying types no bigger than a cell phone; solid black police Glocks; Wild West revolvers with the arched wings of an eagle on one side and the craggy face of a Hollywood Indian stereotype on the other; children’s hunting rifles; and in a specially dedicated area, AR-15s.
Instructor Robert “Bob” Evans, no relation to the restaurant, holds a pistol in his hand and says, “Visual.” Looks into empty chamber. “Physical.” Sticks index finger into empty grip. “Visual, physical. Visual, physical. Visual, physical.” He stresses the importance of making sure a gun is empty before attempting to load it.
I nod my head. This precaution makes sense to me.
As he stalks like a zoo leopard, Bob demonstrates. “See? Get a good look.” He leans in close.
I have trouble hearing him through the spongy plugs wedged into my ear canals and the protective plastic earmuffs atop my head. Like his heavy boot steps against the cement floor, his voice is felt rather than heard, a series of waves vibrating through the soft tissues and bones of my body. Trying to follow his lead, I gaze through the gun’s hollow chamber to the pockmarked ceiling and nod. “All clear,” I say. I do not want him close to me for long.
“Good,” he says. Instructor Bob’s breath is sour and metallic, powder and gun smoke. I imagine him sitting at home in his La-Z-Boy recliner, a bowl of shot shell casings in his lap. He dives a hand in and tosses one into his mouth, rolls it on his tongue, and swallows. Bullets serve as his daily breath mints, nightly snacks, and fodder for dreams.
He stands in front of his students. Hands on his hips, feet shoulder width apart, he wears camo pants and a Best Buy t-shirt. This is my drill sergeant. “My sniper rifle could take down a grown elk at 1300 yards,” says Instructor Bob. “Remember who you’re voting for in this election.”
I am nodding again. Remember, I say to myself, you must act the part.
Then, as if by magic, a gun appears in my hand. However, I haven’t learned anything about the difference between a cartridge and a bullet, a firearm’s mechanics, the chemistry involved, or the proper way to hold it. I begin to wonder if I have lost my mind. Why are any of these people here?
I make conjectures: 1) the fiancée performs this charade to impress her husband-to-be fearing the standard American bogeyman, black and male, breaking into their house and stealing their goods (and her personal goods, too) 2) the oldster can’t lay-down, call himself a man, and die without ever firing a weapon, and 3) the short, stern-faced woman has been transported through time from behind the bar of a saloon to the back of a motorcycle. She definitely wants to kill somebody.
“What’s with this newbie shit?” she says. “I want a revolver. I want to feel like Annie Oakley.”
I move to the side to let her go first.
At the counter, Instructor Bob laughs and hands over what she wants—a Colt with a striking level of detail, what appear to be gold roses and thorns entwined from the barrel to its worn-smooth rosewood grip. The weapon looks too at home in her hands.
Pretending to use the restroom, I get the hell out of there and suppose that a GroupOn was not the best way to go about this.
Phase Two: Keep Your Gun Pointed in a Safe Direction
I search for legitimate professionals.
Strolling the loaded avenues of the Crossroads of the West gun show, I feel comfortable enough. Thousands of firearms hang suspended from ceiling crossbeams, rest underneath glass cases, and point in my direction. However, security guards stand at the entrance, and volunteers offer pat-down searches for every entrant. A bucket at the main door catches stray cartridges, and two young women wearing tight-fitted t-shirts and big smiles manage the gun check-in table—no visitor may bring a weapon onto the premises regardless of whether he or she carries a concealed carrying permit. Besides these things, two young couples run a nacho and French fry stand. Their children dribble and pass a basketball by the restrooms. Behind the clothing sale racks, five elderly men play poker, and I notice several lovers holding hands. They are just people, people like me.
I sign up for the raffle and take in a show where a line of sixteen-year-olds dismantle and reassemble their rifles against the ticking of a clock. I browse the Reagan biographies. I talk to a Texan in a ten-gallon hat, a woman who specializes in no-ice asbestos coolers from the Gulf War, and a doomsday prepper who sells Czech gas masks and claims he was in the CIA. I eat peppered jerky. I fit right in, I think.
Tucked into a corner, a group of men—a retired policeman, a high school teacher and lifetime enthusiast, a farmer, and a young Boy Scout type who probably shot his first rifle just short of learning to walk—advertise several beginners’ classes. Two large posters flank them as they speak. One is of a brutish figure wearing a black ski mask, angry mouth in the midst of bellowing as he busts through a door. The other is a smug brunette, elbows locked and ready to meet this intruder, whom I can’t help but think resembles Sarah Palin.
“This one stresses home defense?” I ask lifting up a pamphlet. They flash their NRA certifications and say they’ll sign me up then and there.
On a Sunday afternoon, I stand at the same range as before, but this time eight elderly people are the students. Seven of the eight are women. Unlike Instructor Bob who planned to have us shoot his guns—a Bersa Thunder .380, Glock 26 9mm, a long barrel .38 Special, even a Sig .40 Compact—from the get-go, these professionals start everyone on a simple revolver. I am learning a lot about handguns and myself. I discover that my right eye is dominant and that I prefer a Modern Isosceles stance, which is a bit more aggressive than the standard. I rest with shoulders forward, weight on the balls of the feet like a boxer.
During this practice, the ex-cop takes a shine to me. He is the quietest of the four, white-haired with a clean mustache. After searching over their Level 2 collection, he hands me a snub nose brute with a laser sight, his wife’s revolver. “It’ll certainly get the job done. Just point and shoot.”
“Protection. That’s what you’re interested in, right?”
“Yes.” Even though I am unsure what else to say, I say this, “I think that’s the wise thing to do, to prepare. I want to fight back.”
“Smart girl,” he says approvingly crossing his arms and waiting.
I stare at the compact revolver resting on its side. Feeling as if I am watching another person’s hand, I take it. I keep my index finger off the trigger as I have been taught. My numb palms hardly sense the cool metal, but the weight, similar to a soup can, surprises me. There is effort in the lifting of the object, the opening of its cylinder, the loading of its chambers—one-two-three-four-five—and the closing. Click. The process is a countdown. The act is inherently ominous.
I position my feet, raise my shoulders, and focus down the barrel onto my front sight. The tiny metal wing rests in line with the rear sight’s gate.
“You don’t have to do that with this gun, but that’s all right,” he says.
“I know,” I say, keeping my eye on the target, a black circle against a rectangular sheet of paper. “I want to be good at this.”
He smiles proudly, a small upturn of the mouth. I catch it at the corner of my eye.
I can look at his interest in two ways. Maybe he views every woman as a victim. Or maybe I remind him of his wife or daughter. I decide to consider this acceptable for the moment, close my left eye, let my breath out, and aim.
Bam. The force of the hammer’s impact, which releases the bullet from its cartridge and sends it flashing through the air, courses over my body. The experience is similar to jumping into water—my feet break through the surface tension, and the churning fluid swirls against my eardrums. Bam. As I descend, the waves crash from far above. Bam. Bam. Bam.
I suck in a breath and laugh. “Yeah!” This is better than any movie or video game.
The ex-cop pulls a lever at his side to reel in my results. The target whirs forward and halts, swinging in the air. Five clean marks, a tight circle of friends, rest within the center.
“I think you’re what we might call a natural shooter,” he says.
Instantly, I beam and take my prize. I’m a sharpshooter, I say to myself. Bad guys, eat shit. Eat lead. I see myself loaded to the gills as Rambo, John McClane, Ellen Ripley, the Terminator blasting away at nobody in particular. Sarah Broderick, no. It’s Sarah Connor, bitches. I almost prance away from the counter.
A white-haired woman in a button-down flannel, socks, and sandals gives me a thumbs-up.
“Thanks,” I say. Yippee ki-yay, motherfuckers! I think, returning to the end of the line. I study the target in my hands and smile. Perhaps I’ll stick the sheet on my fridge. My pulse slows, and the thin sheet, no thicker than construction paper, begins to take on weight.
A few steps ahead, the thumbs-up woman and two others discuss what inspired them to enroll—all that’s been going on in the news, a series of neighborhood break-ins, overly concerned family members.
My legs anchor to the ground. I touch the paper’s marks and am suddenly very cold. The five frayed circles, each slightly smaller than a dime, in theory, would have traveled through a chest and into a body. The ladies turn, and mostly out of politeness, ask me why I am there. Guns go off in all directions. In theory, that black circle stands for another’s heart.
Phase Three: Finger Off the Trigger Until Ready to Shoot
I am more afraid than ever. I leap from the couch before the movie’s beefed-up hero has a chance to round the corner. I deadbolt the front door in the middle of the afternoon. I wake up at 3 am covered in sweat and listen to the dark.
The glow of a computer screen replaces sleep. Blue rings develop beneath my eyes as I research the history of weapons, proponents of gun laws and gun ownership, objective and overtly subjective historians, psychologies of violence, and theories about the future. I watch YouTube videos where recent college grads demonstrate the lasting power of 3D-printed plastic magazines, security camera footage reveals a child playing with a pellet gun outside of a recreation center, or President Obama pauses in an address to wipe away tears. I read NRA freedom alerts, tweets marked with #BlackLivesMatter, and Future Crimes message boards. Music like Tennessee Ernie Ford’s songs of the Civil War drums on while a dizzying and ever-changing array of statistics hover in my mind. Certain scenarios muddy my dreams—a deranged ex-student barges into my classroom and sends a spray of automatic fire into the front row; a sniper’s bullet shatters my windshield and my skull as I drive across a bridge after work; the world has fallen apart, my neighbors have turned, and I must press my full weight against the front door to keep the mad, battering ram of bodies from coming in and taking everything. No, you can’t come in! Go away! I scream.
I leave the house only for practical matters.
While walking the aisles of my local farmer’s market, I begin to chant the word “firearm” to myself. Firearm has a magical ring. I select a bright yellow spaghetti squash, weigh it in my hand. Firearm. I place the squash back amongst the other bumpy green and orange vegetables. An arm of fire. I reach out for a complimentary Dixie cup of cider. With a firearm in my holster, I will be a spirit of vengeance and light. I will protect not only myself but also others. I sip the warm fermented drink and watch a sweet young mother adjust a pale pink beanie cap over her toddler’s eyes. They should never be hurt. They should never know pain. I will be their guardian.
I decide to buy a gun.
I call the nearest firearm store. They have the one I would like in choice of matte black or silver finish. Of course. “I’ll be right there,” I say.
My car’s engine idles, vibrating the front dash and my hands as I sit in my driveway. What if I break down? Maybe a straying vehicle will strike my car’s rear end and send me flying into a ditch. I’ll try to flag down a car for help, but its driver will be distracted, and I will be run over, left paralyzed. Or maybe I’ll get to the gun store, go through the motions—the written test, the live demonstration, and the purchase—and pull myself into my car to return home, but it won’t start. “Come on, come on,” I’ll say huddled over the steering wheel clasping the key in the ignition. Like thousands of heroes fleeing villains, I’ll try one more time, but in my case the engine won’t roar to life at the very last second. My car will let out a gasp of defeat, and I’ll be stranded, as good as dead.
Spirit of vengeance? Who am I kidding?
I turn the car off and unclasp my seatbelt. A soft rain falls. I stay inside to watch the droplets gather on the windshield. Each mark is significant and adds to the rest. Some gather close together until they drop off the surface from the weight.
Phase Four: Always Be Aware of Your Target and What Is Beyond It
If I were to tell it, the story would go something like this.
A young girl lived in the middle of one hundred acres. If she walked into those fields and twirled around like a compass’s needle, she would realize that nobody was there—not another person for what always felt like miles. Then, a man lost his mind and became a danger to himself and his family. He was driven crazy from past traumas, lost his mind to recent failures, and became riddled with guilt. The man threatened to kill himself, and sometimes the young girl. Running away when he hadn’t shoved her out the door or yanked the spark plugs from the car, locking herself in the bathroom, or imagining her death and his—it all became routine. Then, one night, that instrument of destruction pressed itself upon her. Nobody would have heard her cry out if she dared.
The doorknob rattled, then his fist boomed against the door. He knew I was there, and he knew that I knew it. I stood at the center of the bathroom beside the sink and tried not to move. The room smelled damp and musty like towels that needed to be washed, and the overhead light, yellow and dim, had been left on. The door that divided us, painted eggshell white years before, had taken on a dingy hue. Many dirty palms had soiled the surface, and the claws of a cat trying to get out had scratched the paint at the bottom corner. In the middle of the door, a hole the size of a fist rested. The hole had been smoothed over with Spackle a few weeks prior. If I would have taken a step forward and traced my hand against the grain, my fingertips would have caught the rough shallow crater, the concealed puncture that marked the increasing degree of his rage. My heart beat so quickly and so deeply in my chest I could feel nothing else. I felt the throb of it in my throat, my hands, behind my eyes, and within my ears. Its leaping stirred my t-shirt, whisking the cotton blend against my stomach.
Then, in the mudroom beyond where I stood, a cupboard opened. I heard the heavy sounds of metal engaging. Thunk, click. I knew there was no longer any hiding.
He looked like any man—steel-toed boots, flannel shirt, jeans, unkempt hair—who had come in from working outside. But he shook. Even his eyes, yellow and rimmed red with need for sleep, vibrated as he bellowed with his finger on the trigger of a shotgun.
I stepped back, pinned between the wall and the washer and dryer, and him.
He said that I didn’t understand. He had failed over and again. He said that I was selfish. His life had fallen apart, and his wife had left him. He said that I didn’t care. Then, I felt the weight of the device upon my palms and the weight of his demand. He said that he wanted to die. He held the barrel to his forehead. “Do it!” he said.
I don’t remember what happened next. Not exactly. If you must, picture me as a sixteen-year-old girl wearing straight hair to the waist in the fashion of my mother. Picture this younger me standing up to my father for the first time. Watch as I wrench the gun from him and scream back that his behavior is out-of-control, childish, and ridiculous, that he needs help, help that he won’t be getting from me. Picture me walking away, fighting him off a second time, and leaving that place for good as he sobs and holds his head in his hands.
Phase Five: Absorb the Reverberation
Back in high school, a good friend of mine suggested that my father resembled Jack Torrance, the crazed hotel caretaker in The Shining. I remember laughing, but the comparison is spot-on. I wonder—how many women and children have similar flashes of recognition when watching Jack huff and puff through the snowy corridors of a labyrinth or ax his way through a bathroom door? Our lives for a time were horror stories—we need no fantasy—and unlike stories, life’s repercussions are never-ending.
What about the women who no longer have memories to share, nightmares to divulge? Every day, five women in this country are murdered with guns. Women, more than men, face violence at the hands of people they know. According to the Center for American Progress, “From 2001 through 2012, 6,410 women were murdered in the United States by an intimate partner using a gun—more than the total number of U.S. troops killed in action during the entirety of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.” How many more lives must be shattered or destroyed for something to be done?
What if, instead of sliding toward grief, my father had continued in anger and shot and killed me? Why did he, a man who had been reported as suicidal and unstable, receive his guns back? Would this man’s violence and suicidal tendencies have escalated if he had received proper treatment? Would I be different? How many women would be alive today with stricter gun policies and procedures?
I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do know this—unlike Jack Torrance, my father has kept on living. While I know it is more than justifiable to walk away, I have never cut ties with my father and have never discussed the physical and emotional abuse he inflicted upon me. Not directly anyway. The complicated truth is that I am of the forgiving sort, that I have harbored my fears and anger, and that the shadow that stalks me is mostly my own.
Because of the violence I experienced, I know what I am capable of. I know what resides within each of us. I know a part of me wanted to kill my father. Part of me in that moment wanted to blast him away—be gone; I’m afraid. And part of me still imagines that I did it. However, in that moment, a larger part of myself took over. A larger part that did not wish to hurt anybody.
Eventually—forgive me—I give my father a call.
My father and I sit across from one another at my kitchen table. Coffee and buttered toast cool between us. Finally, I am able to look at him as not a parent but a person.
He thanks me for the visit and mumbles a compliment about the life I’ve built. The words trail off. He is the sort of man whose regrets line his face, a man who failed at being a hero and instead became a villain, a man who does not deserve forgiveness. He looks away to his hands wrapped around his mug. I believe what he fears most in this moment is that dark past we share, and he knows as well as I that my face will never mirror his because I am stronger. I am stronger than him. I have been always. There are different types of strength. And that weighted constriction within my chest begins to unravel.
Taking in a breath, I gather a question that has little to do with pain.
He looks back at me—his change is sudden, desperate to forget. He smiles. “Did I ever tell you about when we were swimming in the Pacific and met a hammerhead shark?”
I shake my head. He has told this war story before, but I will let him.
“Corpsmen always had the rear, so me and Jayme…”
I am filled with pity but also a golden lifting radiating from the center of my body, a glowing lightness I cannot name. As I listen to my father recall a past where I played no part, I think, maybe this feeling is hope.
- “Women Under the Gun: How Gun Violence Affects Women and 4 Policy Solutions to Better Protect Them” by Arkadi Gerney and Chelsea Parsons, 18 June 2014. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/report/2014/06/18/91998/women-under-the-gun/