Trigger Warning: this post deals with domestic violence and horrendous human shittiness. (Also, it is not funny.)
Something happened two months ago, and I’ve been struggling to write ever since. I’ve been struggling to do anything, to be honest. But I’ve been creatively stuck and I’ve been looking for lighthearted things I can write about to make people laugh, which is my clearest goal here. It would seem that I can’t. I can’t think about other things yet, so I’m going to write about the terrible thing here and remove it from my soul, like a fatty blockage in my heart. It’s rough but here we go.
We have to go back to the late 90s and early 2000s, or, as I like to call them, the aughts. I had just graduated from the university here in Salt Lake City. All of my college friends had moved away, and I stayed here with my husband at the time, who had a grown-up job. I didn’t have one of those yet, and I was trying to figure out what came next. In that time, I met a lot of people – all through my husband, Vin – and we became something that I later referred to as an “urban tribe.”
We went to the gym together. We met for lunch a couple of times a week. We went to bars and drank cocktails. We had breakfast at some chain dive every Sunday morning. We went to Vegas together once a year. I had nothing in common with these people, really. But we bonded and created a profound number of memories.
It was a transitional period for all of us, and I sometimes felt that we were clinging to one another instead of trying to figure out what came next in our lives. (Relationships? Children? Career change?) My friend Gina used to refer to Vin’s male friends (they were mostly men) as “the Lost Boys,” a reference to Peter Pan. Every Saturday, as they gathered at our house or another house to play violent video games, I would look up from a book at them and feel that was apt. But what was I doing? What was I waiting for?
One of the men I met in those years was named Brian. I had a hard time with him from the start, to be honest. I found him sexist and homophobic and I would argue politics with him regularly. He was dishonest and an all around bad influence. I wanted to cut him out of the group, but it wasn’t up to me. Vin saw the roughness that I saw but he was more inclined to bring Brian closer, rather than pushing him away. That was Vin’s way; be compassionate and ignore the bad behavior, all while being a good example. That was hard for me. When Brian said something awful, I felt it reflected on me because I was sitting there, associating with him. He drove a Hummer and voted for George W. Bush. Twice. I wanted to cancel him before cancelling was a thing.
That said, Brian had his moments. He could be funny. He could be kind. I think he tried to do the right things, sometimes. As it happened, I had been pleading with Vin to get a dog but he was set against it. One weekend, just before the 2005 Independence Day holiday, we (Brian, and his newlywed wife) went to lunch. Brian took up my canine cause and – as a consummate salesman – won Vin over on my behalf. The next thing I knew, I had a tiny Yorkie puppy in my arms that we would name Wenselydale after the favorite cheese from the Wallace and Gromit shorts that I loved, and my life would never be the same.
Brian even paid for Wensley! He bargained with the pet shop and got a discount for paying in cash. I paid him back with a check later that afternoon. I will never know why he did that for me. But he did.
I think my strongest memory of Brian, however, comes from years before Wensley. It was 2002 and we went to see The Ring in the theater. The Ring was a big movie that year; it seemed like everyone was talking about it. I didn’t like scary movies, but I was outvoted, and I decided that I could survive some terrible images and a few nights of bad dreams. I even had to admit to myself I wanted to see what all the buzz was about. And it was scary. It made me jump and cover my eyes several times. It was something to do with a tape (those were our DVDs, kids) you shouldn’t watch because if you did a monster child would come out of the TV and kill you in an undefined but terrible way. That might not be right. It’s been so long, and I never saw it a second time. Mostly I remember thinking that the creators of the movie really understood just how creepy hair and fingernails can be, and I learned that wet hair is even creepier.
Anyway, the next day I talked to my sister, who was dating one of the Lost Boys. Neither of us are much more than 5 feet tall and back then we were around 100 lbs. Brian was a weightlifter / bodybuilder who liked to show off his biceps, but he was scared out of his magic Mormon underpants after that movie. She told me that he had asked her to walk him to his car, and that when she put him in the driver’s seat he told her that he was going to drive straight home to pray. Which, we later confirmed, is exactly what he did. The idea of this sexist muscle bound man needing my tiny sister to walk him to his car… My sis and I laughed about it for years.
That was a troubled time in my marriage and all of those weekends Vin played video games where I sat off to the side, bored and contemplative, didn’t help. We split up 2006. I have stayed in contact with a few people through facebook or similar, but for the most part these were the friends that I lost in the divorce. I accepted that and created a new life.
Okay, enough stalling. We’re in it now.
On the first Tuesday in June, around ten o’clock at night, I was getting ready for bed when I got a call from Vin. I knew something wasn’t right because that wasn’t normal, but I had no idea what was going on. My fears were confirmed when the first thing Vin said was, “are you sitting down?”
That is when he told me the thing that I have been trying to make sense of for the last two months. The thing I will probably never make sense of for the rest of my life. He said, “Brian killed his kids,” and then burst into sobs.
We talked for a long time and I was slowly able to assemble the pieces of what had happened. Brian and his wife, the woman who had helped me wash and feed Wensley that first day he was in my life, were divorced in October. I knew this, as she and I had reconnected on social media and I saw her and their two boys at a Halloween party, shortly after the split was final. I also knew that Brian had been struggling with his mental health, but I didn’t realize the extent of it. I knew he was depressed, but he was also bipolar and trying to come to terms with having lost his family.
She is a nurse and has been working long shifts, like all health care professionals in this country. Brian’s job was either paused or lost due to COVID. There have been no summer camps or daycare, so it made sense for Brian to watch the kids during the day. (The local news said he was “babysitting” which made me want to kick the reporter in the dick. “Pretty sure that when it is YOUR child it is called parenting!” I might say as he lay in a fetal position on the ground. I’m off topic, but this is living in Utah, people.)
Okay. I have to get through this part fast:
Brian’s wife came home from work. She found the younger child bleeding out from a gunshot wound. She called out for Brian and her older son but there was no response. Aware that there was very little time, she rushed her 8-year-old to the hospital where he died of his wound shortly thereafter. The police were sent to the house and they found the bodies of Brian, who shot himself after shooting the boys, and the older son in the basement.
It’s been two months and I still cannot believe this happened. It was so violent and so permanent. It is profoundly fucked up and it is never going to be okay.
Four days after the murder/suicide, we celebrated Ethan’s birthday. (I never told him what happened. He only met the boys at a couple of parties and I don’t expect he will ever ask about them. I would rather he not know that something like this is even possible, for now.) We were so concerned about giving him a good birthday this year. Ethan, an only child, hadn’t interacted with another kid in months and of course we couldn’t have any kind of in person party. We didn’t want him to remember this birthday as yet another disappointment in this disappointing year. His mom and stepdad set something up where he could play a game with kids online, which was great because he had friends and family from three states join.
I’m off topic again. Here is what I’m getting to… Brian’s youngest was 8. Ethan turned 8 that same week. Brian’s youngest was a bookworm who was learning the violin. Ethan is a bookworm who is learning the violin. There was no real connection but it felt so connected, somehow. My mind was churning terrible thoughts and images and memories of the old days and I couldn’t make it stop, even for an hour. I would look at Ethan and see his small body being torn apart by a bullet and I just wanted to have my arms around him at all times. I felt a NEED to know how Brian could do that to any child, let along his own. I obsessed about the fact that the kids had braces. How could you put these kids through braces and then end their lives while they are in elementary school? Then I couldn’t stop thinking about that moment… Because he had already decided he was going to do it. But there must have been a moment, after he went to his car or his bag or whatever to get the gun that he brought to this house that he moved out of eight months prior, where he made the choice of which one he would shoot first and which would watch his brother fall to the floor…
I learned that we – all four of Ethan’s parents – would be spending his birthday together at his mother’s and stepfather’s house. This was important, I learned, because the one thing that Ethan had asked to receive for his birthday – the thing he really wanted – was for all of his parents to be able to hug him goodnight, just that one night. Matt told me this and I was undone. I found an excuse to take a second shower so that no one could hear me cry.
We did it; we spent all day and three meals together and were civilized as fuck. We actually had a good time bonding over our mutual hatred of Trump. And we all hugged Ethan goodnight and it was so special and sweet to be able to do that for him. And I got through the entire day without sharing these things that I couldn’t shake from my mind, and I was proud of myself for that.
As I said, that was two months ago. Lately, I’ve been feeling that, due to COVID 19, the entire world is going through a shared midlife crisis. I know I am, and I see the signs everywhere. These things feel connected to me. The stress and the strain of the pandemic and economic instability crushing down on people who were already trying to hold it together; the universe itself feels ruthless.
This is not me giving Brian a pass. I can’t even be as generous as Vin, who said on the phone the same night this tragedy took place, “He died from his mental illness. They all did.” Vin stayed friends with Brian and his family all these years. Their kids were as close as cousins. Closer, maybe. They were launching rockets in a field a little more than a week before this happened.
But I can’t go there. I can’t be that compassionate. Yes, he was ill and he was suffering, but I know many bipolar people who have not become violent, much less committed double filicide. My mind goes back to the sexism that he and I used to argue over and I can’t help but see it through that lens: His wife didn’t have a right to leave him and take his kids away. How dare she? He was going to punish her in the most painful way he possibly could and then she would learn a lesson…
This is based on outdated information from a long defunct friendship and I know it must be more complicated than that. (Dear God, IT MUST BE!) But this is the only way I can make sense of the fact that a man I have known for twenty years could do this. It is the only answer to the question that I have been asking myself for weeks and weeks: How did the man who put puppy Wensley in my arms become the monster that came out of the TV? But so much worse than that – it’s the worst thing I have ever known a person to do. How is this fucking possible?
Sometimes, something happens that makes you re-evaluate things. This time last year, I was commiserating with some fellow writers about agents not returning my emails, not even to say, “fuck off and never write again, you hack.” We drank wine and we laughed and cried and they told me what I wanted to hear. “Don’t give up! Keep trying and it will happen!” I have now accepted that it will not happen, and it seems like the smallest thing in the world to have cared about. I was so obsessed with “leaving my mark” and doing something special with my “one precious life.”
Seriously. Who gives a fuck if anyone remembers my name? I remember being a teen or twenty something and hearing what I thought was old folks (they were probably my age now which is 42) saying that they had learned what really mattered and it wasn’t getting published or getting reviews. And I cynically said to myself, “says the guy who failed to get published MUCH LESS get good reviews, ammaright?”
Now here I am, 42 and wise as fuck, and I’m telling you (as a person who has published one short story and got my last good review on a play I wrote in 1999), it doesn’t matter. What does matter? Your friends and siblings. Your kids and their happiness. Doing everything you can to give someone a wonderful birthday in a pandemic even when you are wretched on the inside. Getting the chance to select the songs for your father’s funeral, because while he was tragically flawed and hard to know in so many ways, but you loved him.
In the past two months I have had so many memories of that “urban tribe” surface. So many basement movie nights. So many car journeys. Hundreds of shared meals. I have never paid attention to how many times flashes of those times pop into my head until now that they hurt my heart to behold. Brian made an indelible mark on my brain, and not just by bringing Wensley into my life. There were things he said and these voices he would do. I would be so angry with him and he could still make me laugh.
I shared this with Vin and he told me, “that Brian has been gone for a long time.” Which feels right to me. The person who did this was someone I didn’t know and never will.
I don’t have a good ending for this post. Maybe it will come to me in time. I have to say, one thing I have been thinking about constantly in addition to (but also combination with) all of this, is the idea of “cancel culture.” I mentioned that I cancelled Brian before that was a thing. At the time I was so satisfied with that decision. It made me feel superior to an unenlightened jerk with stupid ideas. I no longer had to feel ashamed of my association with him.
I needed to get away from Brian and that entire part of my life, and I don’t regret that decision. Sometimes you have to set a bridge on fire to light your future path. But, on some level, I do regret the sense of satisfaction it gave me.
I am not saying that you should keep a relationship no matter how toxic or vacuous it is. There are friendships that need to end, just as romantic relationships need to be left behind. I think what I am saying – I’m still trying to figure out what this complicated sense of regret is truly about – while ending my friendship with Brian felt right to me, I think Vin was more right. Vin decided to keep the friendship with a deeply flawed human being. He was able hear Brian’s misguided opinions without taking it on as a personal burden. He could listen to them and disagree without feeling ashamed of that association. I wasn’t in a place where I could do that, and that is fine. But I would like to think that, someday, I could be Zen enough to sit with a person I might otherwise find irreparably thick and wrong about everything, and share my disagreement, but understand my sitting next to this person is not a reflection on me.
Isn’t that what cancel culture is really about? Showing your values, not through demonstrative action, but by who you decide to exclude? In the future, when I feel compelled to “cancel” someone, I want to remember that. When I am more concerned about how I will be perceived by others if I associate with a deeply flawed human being, instead of “unfriending” them or throwing a drink in their face (I never did that… I just always wanted to), I want to remember that all I really need to do is clearly express my dissent and then be an example of a person that I would admire. All this “cancelling’ leaves people without a dissenting voice to challenge their premises. It just pushes them toward their silos and makes them dig into their established paradigms. Seriously, if Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia could be friends, what is our fucking excuse?
Sorry, I’m off topic again. And I know that this connection I’m making doesn’t really make sense. There is no part of me that believes that if Brian and I were still friends that I could have prevented this. But what I am pondering, is if Brian hadn’t been raised in the tradition of toxic masculinity and felt that it was possible (and not a weakness) to ask for help when he needed it most… Well, my strategy of cancellation left him a vacuum. But he might have called Vin. Obviously, that didn’t happen. But it might have made a difference, and I think Vin can feel good about that.