Like everyone, I’ve been trying to make sense of two mass shootings in the United States that took place within 10 days of each other. Of course, they don’t make sense at all. They are impossibly senseless.
Yet our minds are uncomfortable with the senseless. We want to understand. We want motives. We want a story. We will create one, no matter what.
Our brains require that kind of order. Michael Austin discusses this in his book Useful Fictions, describing how Robinson Crusoe, the titular character of the novel by Daniel Defoe, suffers indescribably upon seeing a single footprint in the sand on his deserted island. One footprint?! Is it the devil? It must be something supernatural! Ultimately, he is relieved to discover that cannibals have been coming to his island and ritualistically killing and devouring human beings.
That’s how much our brains need a story to make sense. Crusoe prefers cannibals to not knowing.
Since we make up stories to create sense, it’s useful to look to stories in making sense of the world. The one that came to my mind with these 18-year-old killers is Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” which he started writing in the 1930s and was first published under a different title in 1940.
As I read about Salvador Rolando Ramos, the Uvalde shooter, I thought about Dave from Wright’s story.
Ramos has been described as a lonely child who was bullied for his speech impediment and raised by a mother addicted to drugs. He became more and more isolated and more violent, purposely cutting his own face, eventually living with the grandmother whom he would shoot in the face before killing 19 children and two teachers.
In Wright’s story, Dave seems to have a more stable family, but he is a black 17 year old in the racist rural South who faces hardship and disrespect by the very nature of his skin color.
Our very first introduction to Dave is at the end of a long day working in the field where he has felt ridiculed. He thinks he has the answer though. “One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy.”
But he is a “little boy” whose wages are sent directly to his mother who must remind him to wash up for dinner. He waits until his father has left the kitchen after eating and, behaving like a child, begs his mother for the money to buy a gun, whining “Please, Ma! Ah loves yuh, Ma.”
His mother agrees upon the condition that he give the gun to his father. He doesn’t. Rather, he sleeps with it under his pillow, leaving extra early for work the next morning in order to avoid getting into trouble — as any “man” would do in avoiding his parents and consequences for disobeying them.
Dave, knowing nothing of guns or manhood, accidentally kills his employer’s mule, Jenny, the next day.
A large crowd gathers when news spreads of the mule’s death, including his parents who confront him as he attempts to lie his way out of trouble, which doesn’t work. His father promises him a beating. His boss, Mr. Hawkins, tells Dave he must keep working for him at $2 per week until he’s paid off the $50 that he’s owed for Jenny. Ashamed, “He heard people laughing. Dave glared, his eyes welling with tears. Hot anger bubbled in him.”
Wanting to avoid the beating and the embarrassment, Dave takes his gun and runs away.
I don’t pretend to know what Ramos felt or thought, and there is no excuse for his monstrous actions.
But the reports are that a few days after he turned 18 and could do so legally, he bought the guns and ammunition that would result in mass slaughter. He seems a bit like Dave, a young man who felt denigrated and equated guns with manhood and respect.
In his book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker talks about how those who feel no empathy and go on to commit violence so often come from homes that offer no love or support. De Becker says his upbringing lacked both. The difference was one person, just one person who reached out and cared.
That one person could be anyone: a relative, a coach, a minister — a teacher.
So let’s protect the children and the teachers and stop equating manhood with violence. Let’s honor all of the victims in Uvalde and Buffalo and Oxford and Atlanta and Colorado Springs and Boulder and Parkdale. . .
How? Write and call your legislators. Demand change.
And if you see someone struggling or being bullied, be that one person.