MY NINE-YEAR-OLD daughter came home from school today with a sealed envelope. Inside was a letter from the school superintendent listing the steps that parents need to take to make our children feel safe. The letter is a response to the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, about 50 miles from where we live.
Twenty children dead, most with multiple bullet wounds. The principal dead, the school psychologist dead, and a few teachers too. These facts are fatal to a child’s innocence. We are being asked to shield our children from television and other media.
In fact, the first news I got of the unfolding tragedy was a message on my phone from the director of the pre-school where my younger child goes every day. Her appeal was simple and direct: we are in shock, we are grieving, but please know that the pre-school “is off limits to any discussion of this type of news event”.
On the car radio, I heard that the parents of the 20 victims were gathered in one room in an old firehouse near the Sandy Hook Elementary School. In another room, the surviving children were watching cartoons. A policeman broke the news to the parents that their children were gone. When I heard this, I hurried to the after-school facility to pick up my daughter early. I hugged her, but I could not in any way share with her the grief I felt for those poor, poor parents and their murdered children.
The letter from the school superintendent says: “Stick to facts. Answer questions factually.” In the days since the tragedy, I have been afraid that one of my children will ask me about the kids who were killed, or about guns, or about violence in the world. I don’t know whether I will at all be able to answer the questions factually.
A child psychiatrist has been quoted in the papers, advising parents to tell children, “I’m going to do everything I can to keep you safe.”
Forgive me, but my confidence is at a low ebb. Let’s stick to the facts. Last night, I read the news about the young woman in Delhi who was beaten and raped in a bus.
The bare details available at that time were horrifying. I was reading a report about the rape on The Times of India website. On the right side of the screen were additional links under the headline, ‘Top Stories Across Cities’: ‘Girl student set alight by senior’; ‘Wife, brother kill man, chop body into pieces’; ‘Professor kills wife for insulting him’; ‘Man gets 4 years for slashing woman’s face’; ‘Man gets 10 years rigorous imprisonment for raping nine-year-old step granddaughter’; ‘Man stabs estranged wife in Manipal Centre’; ‘Pune: Infant drowns in bucket”. To this long list of appalling news, we can add another: the media as a curator of horrors.
Now, more details of the rape have emerged. The victim was beaten so badly with an iron rod that her intestines needed to be removed. A doctor has said that the rapists were “psychopathic”.
As a writer, I deal in details. But details are precisely what must be hidden from children. Their imagination will feed on concrete bits of information. Abstractions are safer. Honest acknowledgment of death, yes, but nothing else that makes it real.
The letter my daughter brought home today asks parents to “be optimistic”. Yes, tell them how helpful the teachers were — one of them saying to her students “I love you” over and over because she didn’t want gunfire to be the last thing they heard. But with adults, let’s stick to more disturbing facts. After the shooting in Newtown, gun sales have surged in America. The logic defeats me.
My mind tries to trace the analogy in Delhi — the popularity of the moving vehicle as the stage on which a violent urban male fantasy is enacted — but fear or despair won’t let me go further. Whether I’m being adult about this, or more like a child, I will let you decide.