(From the movie Zero Day, by Ben Coccio. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of googling pipe bomb instructions)
This was written one day before Christopher Harper-Mercer opened fire in a classroom at a community college in Roseburg Oregon.
One of the first memories I have in my life is of watching television, the program was something similar to 20/20, and the highlighted real was of a fuzzy home video. Two boys live in an affluent neighborhood and drive by this woman on a bike with paintballs and shoot at her multiple times, then yell at each other asking if she is dead.
The thing is they didn’t know her, they had no reason to shoot at her, it was simply something fun to do — and that was what was traumatizing to me. This is called “sport killings.”
Since then (and perhaps too just as a defining personality trait) I have always been someone who absolutely detests violence. It makes me uncomfortable. Sure injustice as well but it is violence that packs a different – for lack of a better metaphor –punch. And I’m not talking about Batman and Robin action sequences, gladiator stories, or Saw films (I’ve actually watched all the Saw films 5 times each.) I’m talking about real senseless violence. Those stories where a seemingly normal couple in a subdivision is really holding a 16 year old girl captive in their basement and raping her. The story about someone leaving their dog tied up for hours without water in 100 degree weather and then beating it when it cries. Of course I also (who doesn’t?) can’t fathom or stand random senseless killings, most often associated in our culture now as mass killing sprees.
So of course, because writing is tapping into the scary and the interesting, and make no mistake about it what I am scared of I almost always am also fascinated by too, I decided to focus my third novel EKLAND The Journal of Grayson Tyler Mitchell exactly on that.
Ekland, at 48,500 words, is based loosely off the Columbine High School massacre, another event I am nearly obsessed with and have been since I decided to dig into it fully during high school for a school violence article in my journalism class.
Spurning all of this is the novel that I wrote because of that fascination.
The novel like anything started as a thought.
And my thought, like almost everyone I know after reading all about Columbine was WHY?
Sure I could have researched more to satisfy that need (I did). I could have bought the theory of those writing dissertations, of those newscasters on CNN, of groups of concerned parents. To me what wasn’t enough, to me that wasn’t going to tell me the WHY. That was going to tell me the HOW. And the HOW is never as interesting.
Why does anyone have the drive to kill someone? Why does anyone have the drive to kill multiple people? And then let’s take it a little further and let’s focus on this particular massacre again. Why did Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold want to do it? Why did no one see this coming? Why did they find and trust each other? Why did they want to commit suicide? Why did they commit suicide? Why did they go to prom one week before they planned to blow up their school? Why did they listen to the music they did? Why did that matter? Why did they film it all? And was there a moment when they were looking to be saved?
The thing is I don’t have these questions about other killers, about people who go and stab their wife when they find them with a new lover, I can be disgusted by that but I can get that. That’s revenge. But not with Aurora, not with Virginia Tech, and not with Columbine.
Is revenge a part of it? Of course. But is it all of it? No.
If we can buy the fact that these humans are human enough to put on death row than we have to realize they are human in every aspect. They are multi-faceted individuals. They are more than the last thing they did although they will be defined by it forever. They are not worth studying and writing about for glorification but for understanding.
And I write to understand. I wrote the Brigades of Aldo as a true piece of adolescents preserved, the struggles of growing up, the personification of love, why I was the way I was senior year before college. I wrote Across Eight States to understand why someone in my life acted the way he did, how he treated me, and found that I stumbled upon a story about family, racism, and poverty. I wrote Ekland because I needed to know why Klebold and Harris did what they did, but in my head I took it a step further. I wanted to see the world from their eyes and I wanted to tell the rest of the world what they were thinking. Because if it was intriguing me this much it must mean something. (For the record, this idea has been rolling around in my head for give or take two and a half years.)
As a result of those thoughts came research and research and more research. I was grateful that I had already done that research for “fun” but now I needed to do more. I needed to pour over Klebold and Harris’ journals. I needed to watch all their homemade videos, because I couldn’t write a story in good conscious about the people who did this without connecting and understanding my protagonist. And I needed to do this fast because the book demanded it. As with any tough situation, pulling the Band-Aid off was the best thing that I could do.
I spent two weeks writing this novel, more editing it than writing, and in those two weeks I entered a world that was gritty, disturbing, and void of any type of hope. Six hours a day of writing did this to me, leaving me feeling physically exhausted. I’ve spent my life at a desk…and this was different.
It was the result of getting so close to a fire but not actually touching it — it was becoming a part of Klebold and seeing himself in me.
I don’t mean that in the way people fear that others will, rather that I began to understand more of the why rather than the how.
With the dismissal of what I’m saying as trivial or egotistical, the ordinary person cannot write a book like Ekland. Or cannot write it convincingly. Because relating to at least some part of your characters is needed, at least of course for an author like me. And writing a first person book is not omniscient, it’s going straight into the battle field of morbidity. It’s telling the world the bold face lie. This is some, if not all, of what he was thinking. It is taking away how other people view these people and instead focusing on how they view themselves.
Ekland for me really was about the mental health issues, the idea that 80 percent of those who wanted to commit attacks like this at one point wanted to kill themselves. 80 percent, that’s not revenge on someone else. That’s revenge on yourself. That’s allowing the power of the thoughts and brain to control you. And that’s what I could bring to Ekland and more importantly what I thought was important to bring to it.
Destruction of others can only come when you destroy yourself first, and with Tyler that came from thoughts, crippling thoughts of suicide.
I wrote Tyler as a male because that was the only way he would be taken seriously. Because he lived in entitlement. It was the same way I wrote him rich and from suburbia. I wrote him depressed for this reason too and I felt that I could do him and Klebold justice with this.
Like Klebold, at one point I lived in a world with such tunnel vision that I could never see real happiness and empathy for myself. I lived for moments of peace as rare as they were. Finding joy in my life, permanent joy, did not come from my amazing surroundings (and I did have great surroundings like Tyler) It came from me inside. And the me inside was unknowingly self-sabotaging. But like anyone with some mental problems my brain was talking to me and lying to me and saying I was worthless.
Through my own mental battle and personal journal entries, I gave some to Tyler in hopes that it would make him a more relatable person and bring about more sympathy and more concern. And because of course the Columbine killers, particularly Klebold, thought these things themselves. If the novel had ended after part one I like to believe viewer would feel bad for this individual, would really see –excuse the vulgarity – how fucked up he is. But because of part two we don’t feel bad for him.
My hope is that we catch people at part one of their story and not at part three.
Of course Ekland brought and brings me concern, I sent it out to agents in hope of a pull but I still have a responsibility. I created this work and I know how art in any form can be influential. But I’m also selfish, and if you can bear with me here unselfish as well.
I wrote something that scares me, that is not me, and I hope that is at the very least real. I don’t want people to say I wrote a good male as a female. I want people to say I wrote a messed up good male period. So that means wanting to make a work I’m proud of in public, to garner that attention on the level of “it’s just about me and my career and showing that I can truly write.” This might have come after Brigades and Across Eight States and it might be about teenagers but I have versatility. I am not one note and this not West Texas or Route 66. I can do gritty, I can do it very well. I’m capable of having the privilege of a unisex brain.
But in all honesty I’m unselfish too in my hopes. I want to start a dialogue about killers that is not about gun control and the left and right. I want to tackle mental health and I do want to tackle the infamy and the blasé.
Because if the reiterated point is anything it’s this. We dismiss these people. We want to hate them for hating others but we dare not hate them for hating themselves. If the battle is in your head, “they” say, then fix it and don’t involve me. But if it’s involves someone else…then I’ll care.
We think the bombers, gunmen, don’t have thoughts like this, the ones I wrote about, but they do. Many might not be this eloquent or this dark or extensive but again, most of the time there is something.
Understanding, as what I did and hopefully the reader does, is not condoning. Nor is it saying that understanding on some level means that it will never happen again. If we just do a, b, and c we are good. Because it will happen again. A lack of reaching out in time is just as vital as wanting to be reached out to. And some people, it’s taken me a while to say this, are just psychopaths. They will kill because they were born that way. They want the fame and they get off on destroying. And no therapist or God can help them, they’re like a bad dog that needs to be put down for society. Yes it’s hard writing that, which is why I didn’t write that! I wrote a real human. A real human who wanted to be understood and involved and cured. He was on the line of countless of problems but I like to believe there was a cure to them. To bring back my point I think of Marilyn Manson (a man solely responsible for Columbine if you can believe it because the killers listened to his songs) who was asked what he would tell the Columbine killers if they were here today. His response? “I wouldn’t say a thing I would listen to them which no one ever did.”
Tyler has traits of a psychopath but in the end he has thoughts about love and he has some bit of remorse and he kills people in cold blood anyway, which to be honest is worse, and I wrote it for that “worseness”. Because the excuse is not there and the sentiment to him is real. He is going to kill people as a person with a lot of mental problems but not without lack of a conscious. Again, isn’t that the person we actually want to read about?
What did I get out of Ekland? I empathized a little more, and weirdly enough after a while I was desensitized, there was a time when I couldn’t look at Dylan and Eric’s suicide photo in the library. Now, minus the fact that it’s insensitive to any human, it can sit right there on a tab open up next to Twitter and whatever YouTube video is relevant that day. Again terrible, but the truth is usually terrible.
I learned that they deserve forgiveness too, and that their families need more support than just about anyone. I learned that saying their names might lead to contagion, something which again makes me nervous about releasing something like this to the world. But that’s my truth and I must state my truth and I hope people see my intentions are truly the best. I want parents and peers to look at this as the most honest wakeup call.
I learned young minds are impressionable but I did not write this book for young minds, this by no means is young adult. I wrote it for people who are older, who know that back when you’re 17 you don’t have it all figured out, and that despite not having depression, tunnel vision exists in high school. Everything is the end of the world and in this case according to Grayson Tyler Mitchell it should be.
I learned that they harbored a level of rage that I can never understand. That on that day they put on a show and became who they wanted the world to see them as. Everything from their attire, to their weapons of choice, to their name. Would Tyler want to be seen as Grayson? Of course not. He would want to be seen as Anarchy, because Anarchy demands respect.
I learned even that they, Klebold and Harris, Reb and vodka might want me saying this twenty years later, mulling over motivation.
I learned that we need to get better about gun control, we need to ban the sale of assault weapons and make it as difficult to get guns as it unfortunately is right now to get mental help. We need to talk to our kids. We need to worry about video games and movies that makes violence so acceptable. We need to let men show their emotions, encourage their fluidity and stop their seemingly normal violent tendencies. We need to stop bullying and look at it as a legitimate concern not “kids will be kids.”
I learned all of this and the worst part is I am still left with questions. Because for every question I do answer another one pops up, and none of them will actually get answered.
I have my thoughts about helping but that’s not what this is about. I wrote Ekland for the questions and answers yes but as always I wrote it for me. To conquer that little bit of obsession and fascination. To reaffirm that sometimes it is about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. To show and preserve a part of our culture — one people don’t like to think exists and is ignored after it happens.
But it does exist doesn’t it?
Ekland answers some of the questions sure but it doesn’t live in our present time and it is that which makes it special.
It is truly a book about the cusp of the millennium and make no mistake about it that’s important. Ekland, Columbine, is the start of acceptable school violence and in this case it is more apparent with valid reasons, it transcends the wanting of fame and the social media craze a killer might know will follow his actions today. In this case Klebold and Harris wanted revenge on the school as a building and whole because that is what drove them to do what they did. Sometimes it is more than we would like to admit. And sometimes supporting free mental healthcare, not a movement for socialization (although we can come close) is looked at supporting a crazy mindset.
Is Ekland writing about the human condition? I certainly hope so. As always I will write detailed blogs about gun control and the infamy others now crave because of our multimedia generation. Again, this is not that.
I wrote Ekland to be first and foremost why someone would commit that type of crime as a teenager on a place that means something to them, a place seen as a threat — everything else is secondary.
I wrote Ekland because like most writers I was given a muse, a story outside of myself that I feel I was able to really tell, a point I mention in my author note I tried to do with as much authenticity and tact as I possibly could. I don’t think I could write Ekland as well today as I could months ago, despite becoming (hopefully) a better writer. Ekland was a story that scared the shit out of me.
And if you are scared of that story too, if it gets under your skin, it’s because you know that it’s real. And like my character said you should be scared.
These things happen and we need to fix them. Because the most valuable thing is at play here… our lives.