Guest Post, Natalie Easton: Culture of Deflection: Gun Violence and Mental Illness

In 2015, the impossible happened: I was accepted to the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference as a

One of the poems I submitted in the manuscript for my application (a piece titled “Laws of Motion”) was about an incident of domestic gun violence my mother and I survived in 2001. It had taken place less than a week before my 19th birthday.

A series of northeast Vermont winter storms had dropped about three feet of snow on the ground in the preceding days and, when my mother and I snuck back onto the property the morning following our ordeal, we had to shovel frantically to get our possessions out of the house. We were racing against the clock before my mother’s ex-boyfriend could make bail; his family had money and it was only a matter of time before he’d be released. The next few weeks were strange. We had moved in with one of my mother’s friends and I had a long commute to and from school. My teachers were sympathetic to my situation, but I could tell my classmates were looking at me oddly. I wasn’t sure what they had heard, but in a town of less than 2,000 people, they surely knew something. I felt self-conscious about what I had just been through, as though I was the one who had something to explain. My lifelong best friend asked me if my bipolar mother wasn’t to blame for what had happened, and our attacker appeared to be spending much of his free time laughing with his buddies about the whole thing. Within a month and a half my mother and I left the state and moved to Illinois. I couldn’t wait to get out. I didn’t care if I ever returned. I hadn’t even been able to face the prospect of confronting our attacker in court; I was too afraid to be in the same room with him. Sadly, this meant that he won the case by default.

My fear wasn’t magically resolved with the simple traversing of state borders, either. For months afterward I holed myself up in my room… and then 9/11 happened. I didn’t feel safe in my home or in my country, and my anxiety level hit the stratosphere. My mother saw all of this, but instead of confronting me to try to talk sense into me—which she knew me well enough to know wouldn’t work—she took an indirect approach and introduced me to the daughter of one of her friends. I became comfortable enough with the girl to apply for a job at the same supermarket where she worked. Though I was still struggling to make emotional connections with others, I was at least able to leave my room on a regular basis.

No matter where I went from then on, it was difficult for me to feel at home. For the next several years I went only where my old friends were: I moved from Illinois to Pittsburgh, then briefly to Massachusetts. By the time I applied to Bread Loaf I was living in Connecticut. My mother had passed away in 2012 after a long, soul-sapping battle with breast cancer, and without any conscious decision on my part I had been exorcising my grief by writing a chapbook about us. It was, specifically, a book chronicling our overlapping experiences fighting mental illness, from my childhood through the time of her death.

I was experiencing something called “complicated grief,” according to my social worker, and I was having a difficult time mourning properly. I had begun to refer to the work in progress as my “box of grief,” and as I sat down to put my application together I thought hard about how to put into words why going to the writer’s conference meant so much to me, and why I believed it might help me establish a feeling of having come full circle.

In the end, it was simple- Vermont was where I was born. It was where the events in the book had taken place. It was where my mother was living, once again, when she lost her battle with cancer. That had been my last experience in Vermont: going to her to see her through the final stages of her disease.

I reflected on the first time I had thought I’d lost my mother: a winter night in March of 2001 when I had run down a snow-filled drive, gunshots ringing out behind me. In the house, where my mother still was.

“I want,” I wrote in my application, “to return by virtue of my own talent to a place which has come to symbolize nothing but fear and defeat.” I went on to say that if my writing could not earn a place for me at the conference, then I would keep pushing myself until it could. I was at work when I got the notice that I had been accepted. I whooped aloud and hugged my bewildered coworker, who had stepped out of his office to blink at me. I then sat back down to turn my attention to the documents attached to the acceptance letter. I found myself hesitating over an advisement to declare prescription medications. I had recently started Wellbutrin for my depression, and the idea of announcing that to perfect strangers made me feel ill-at-ease. (Eventually I would come to champion the use of antidepressants and to shun the idea that anyone should feel strange about taking them, but at the time I was still unable to be so kind to myself.) I was feeling better than I had in years, but I didn’t want to point out anything that might make me “different” in the eyes of the people who I so badly wanted to impress.

When you go to Bread Loaf, your first questions to anyone you meet are invariably about what you are there for (poetry, fiction, or nonfiction) and who you have as a workshop leader. What I wasn’t expecting was that over lunch I’d end up in conversation with the other writers about who among us was on medication. Almost everyone at my table was on something for depression or anxiety, or both. The attitude surrounding prescription medications was suddenly normalized, at least at that table, and I saw that I had been torturing myself for no reason. I finally had a moment where I felt at home.

Though I’ve long since made peace with my mental health issues, the rest of society is not so comfortable. We live in a culture of deflection, where people are conditioned to feel put at ease by the idea of the “odd one out.” This attitude is not always one born out of malice, at least not in the case of those who have nothing to gain from such a stance; much of the time it has to do with defaulting to learned helplessness. In the face of what overwhelms us we tend to fall back on the things we think we understand well (in the case of this blog post, those things are second amendment rights and/or the mentally ill as portrayed by popular culture).

We unfortunately have the opportunity to see this psychology demonstrated regularly. When Devin Kelley walked into a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and opened fire last November 5th, the number of mass shootings in the US in 2017 reached 307 (Gould). President Trump then asserted his opinion, one which arises almost every time gun violence is addressed in the media: “This isn’t a guns situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level.”
A statement like that feels a bit like a shrug and a raise of the eyebrows; it isn’t the guns—it’s all those “crazy people” getting hold of the guns. So let’s restrict who gets hold of the guns, not the availability of the guns themselves. Right?

Yet many of those who worm their way into the national spotlight with these despicable acts (and, sadly, I have little doubt that by the time this blog post goes up we will have seen several more of them occur) have no record of receiving care for any mental health issue. Mass shootings perpetrated by “people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides” (Annas 81). Which means one of two things: either they never had a mental health issue to begin with, or they did but never sought help. Regardless, to lump them in with the mentally ill does everyone a disservice: it promotes ignorance, and it discourages those who are suffering from seeking help for fear of being further stigmatized.

The American Psychological Association has published research findings that indicate there are no “…predictable patterns linking criminal conduct and mental illness symptoms over time” (APA). The study was based on interviews performed with 143 different offenders with diagnoses of mental illness. But this is a scary idea, and it isn’t what most people want to hear. It isn’t comforting or convenient. Again, it’s that culture of deflection deal. I can understand the desire to think everything is so clear-cut, but most things aren’t. It’s time to do away with this harmful cycle of misinformation; that is the whole point. I also want to point out that nothing in this post is meant to imply that all artists are mentally ill, that mental illness helps creativity, or that no one mentally ill is harmful. I am not here to knock down one harmful generalization only to assert others; anyone can be anything and one trait does not preclude someone from possessing another, just as it does not guarantee that they will.

What I can say about my own traumatic experience is this: the man who grabbed a gun and
flipped the circuit breaker to corner my mother and I in a dark house was not mentally ill. He was
an angry man who wanted to dominate everything around him and who couldn’t bear it when he
thought his hold was slipping. Until I became aware of that fact, I trusted him. I overheard him
refer to me as his daughter once when he thought I was out of earshot, and at the time I
assumed it was a sign of affection. Now I believe it was proprietary—merely an extension of that
need to control.

My high school friend’s reaction was to wonder what my mother and I had done to provoke
someone’s anger to the point where they would draw a gun on us. That was back in 2001,
before we were being confronted regularly by reports of inexplicable gun violence in this
country, but despite the passage of time I feel that it’s still quite easy to see how others would
want to believe that we had done something to drive this man to his act. Or, alternately, to
believe that he must be mentally ill. What other options could there be? Surely he couldn’t just
be a violent, dangerous man for no obvious reason: he had friends. He seemed normal in

This is still the prevailing attitude. It makes people feel safe to believe there is some easy way to
identify dangerous individuals and situations: that there will always be some blatant warning
sign to watch for. If that was so, we could be on our way to formulating proper preventative
responses right this very moment. Mental illness is a hot-button subject that is far more tangible
than the concept of a violent person who can act like anyone else in his or her day-to-day
dealings. But mental illness being so tangible has not yet played any role in a solution to the
problem, and that is because it is not the answer.

My Facebook feed is a daily example of mental wellness. It is an onslaught of brilliantly expressed sadness and anger, intelligent debate, and creative expression. Many of these discussions are taking place between those same people I met at Bread Loaf: people who have struggled against both circumstance and biology and emerged stronger, with or without pharmacological help. They are outraged by the backwards movement of our country—or, rather, the atmosphere of validation which has been cultivated for small, hateful minds, therefore raising the volume on those voices and giving them an unpardonable degree of power. In this atmosphere it isn’t just the debate on gun control that suffers, but also issues of race, politics, feminism, sexuality, and disability rights. All of these subjects labor along without progress, stifled. Creativity moves the air in the room, and that knowledge drives my artist friends to set aside whatever internal issues they are facing- if any- and protest.

There is no telling, at this rate, when real discussions on what can be done to better this country and its policies will begin. The one thing we can be certain of is that we cannot start having the right conversations until we stop having the wrong ones, and those would include the ones we’ve been having over and over again without any fresh result.

If we want to know where to start to get these conversations pointed toward true north, I would suggest that there are plenty of insightful writers and artists we could listen to. I know some fine ones to begin with; I met them at a lunch table in the summer of 2015. They come to us with fresh, creative perspectives, empathy their greatest tool.

True empathy is a powerful thing when we live in world of “you vs. me” where the almighty dollar can be counted on to have the last word. To imagine things being any other way feels quite utopian, I’ll grant you that; but if something’s got to give, I think that we as a majority can agree that we would rather it not be the world from underneath our children’s feet.

Where we are standing right now is simply not sustainable.

Guest Post, John Findura: Breaking the Block

John FinduraMy first full-length collection Submerged (forthcoming, ELJ Editions, 2018), came about from a nasty case of writers block and meeting the right reader at the right time. Of course I had the urge to write, I just had nothing to write about. I would sit at my computer and think of nothing. For hours and days. Everyone runs into this, but I didn’t expect my writers block to turn into something publishable, let alone a book, to say nothing of a book about a single, unified idea: the coming water.

At first I came up with a simple exercise: I would just type for as long as I could type. Nonsense or whatever, if it came out of my fingertips it went down on paper. I tried to type at least one full page a day – no breaks, no punctuation, just a block of text. The next day I’d start from where I left off. After a full month of doing this I had 40 pages of block text, most of it incomprehensible. Then I started digging. I went line by line looking for good ideas. I would look for good opening lines and good closing lines, and for any fully-formed ideas. If a line was horrendous I would leave it and just move on to the next for fear of erasing anything, even a bad line, which might find itself useful later on. This actually took a good two months or so, and eventually I began to see certain patterns. Water, for one, popped up everywhere. I had been having dreams of water frequently.

When I was young, my family and I would often vacation at the Jersey shore, staying at a bungalow right on the boardwalk with an uninterrupted view of the ocean. I would have nightmares of the ocean pouring in over the beach and sweeping us all out to sea. It was horrible. But I found those dreams starting to creep into the text. I began to cut away everything that wasn’t water related. The text was beginning to take a more definitive shape, with everything relating to the water and these dreams I had been having about it. Individual poems began to come into a clear focus. And then hurricane Sandy hit.

Like many, I suffered from losing many possessions to the storm, but I survived without any physical harm. The mental harm though, was great. As I worked on this massive chunk of text I began to add to the parts about water with events that happened during Sandy. I didn’t start out to write a series of poems about a hurricane, but it all fit together so well, like a puzzle, that I had to do it. It was almost as if the writing about the water was a kind of premonition.

Eventually I whittled the original hunk of text, along with the additions of the Sandy-related pieces, to stand-alone poems, close to 80 pages worth. Then I re-read them again and finally selected 40 poems that felt coherent and related to each other and retained the feel of what I wanted to do but still could stand on their own. I was quite happy with them, but it wasn’t “book-length” and I was pretty sure I had dried the well while writing it. I put it away in the spring and that summer packed my bags for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

At Bread Loaf I had the good fortune to meet some amazing people, including my workshop leaders Tom Sleigh and Brian Russell. Tom and Brian were the first readers of this new work I had been working on for over a year by this point. I took their suggestions seriously, especially Tom’s idea to include some prose sections, much like William Carlos Williams had done with Paterson. Having been born in Paterson, I thought that this was the greatest idea that ever came to be. I read a slew of books Brian recommended and took Tom’s advice to start writing prose pieces that aligned with the theme of the rest of the poems. It only took a good year and close readings by my friends Anna Guzon and Brian Simoneau to get the whole order and pacing of the manuscript right. But what I ended up with was a full manuscript that looked and felt right to me, and thankfully that sentiment was shared by Ariana D. Den Bleyker and the good people at ELJ Editions, who picked it up during their annual open reading period.

What had started out innocently enough as a little writer’s block breaking experiment is now forthcoming in early 2018 as a book titled Submerged. I hope my next bout of writer’s block works out as well.

Guest Post, David Huddle: My Friend Late at Night

I’m at dinner at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference – 250 writer types in one huge room divided up into tables of four, six, and eight. The voices are pitched high. Alcohol, sleep-deprivation, and all-day-and-all-night book-chat contribute to the general hysteria of neurotic people from all over the country eating together with many strangers – way too many strangers. The young woman beside me (whom I’ve just met) is shy, and so, socially responsible citizen that I am, I try to engage her in conversation, try to “bring her out,” as my mother would put it. Not meeting my eyes, she says that her name is Julie. The other two people at the table (whom I’ve also just met) do their parts to conquer Julie’s shyness – it’s a spontaneous and vaguely humanitarian project that distracts us from the anxiety we feel over the general dining room hubbub.

Julie turns out to be a good sport. She allows herself to be brought out. More accurately, she tries to be polite by answering our questions. She has a surprisingly snappy, street-corner way of speaking. At first she’s reluctant to say much, but as the conversation goes on, she releases information in rapid bursts of sentences punctuated by awkward pauses during which she blushes and stares at her plate. Julie charms us – she’s making such an effort not to be surly toward us and to enter the spirit of her first real writers’ conference conversation. She reveals to us that although she’s from a working-class family in a working-class neighborhood in a working-class city, she’s now a student at Middlebury College. The college offered her a scholarship, and without knowing much about the place, she showed up and enrolled. She reveals to us that she’s doing okay at Middlebury even though it’s about the strangest place she’s ever been, and most of her time on campus she feels like an alien.

Larry BrownOkay, we’re doing fine, we do-gooder bringer-outer dining companions like this biography we’ve elicited from the shy girl. Apparently Julie is a before-version of Eliza Dolittle, and we’re eager to contribute to her education and improvement. We ask her which writers on the Bread Loaf staff she listed as her preferences for a manuscript-reader. Julie shrugs and says that the only one she knows anything about is Larry Brown. She’s never heard of the others.

This conversation occurs somewhere around 1992 or 93, in Larry’s first year on the Bread Loaf faculty – he’s an associate staff member and not nearly as “well known” as Tim O’Brien or Nancy Willard or Ron Hansen or Francine Prose or Nicholas Delbanco or the other members of the fiction-writing staff. We three dinner companions eagerly offer Julie our comments about our favorite writers with whom she might work – if it doesn’t work out with Larry Brown – in the coming days of the conference.  Julie listens politely but finally shrugs and says she hopes she gets assigned to Larry, he’s the only reason she came up here, she really admires his writing.

About this time I glimpse, up at the far end of the dining room, Larry Brown himself standing up and excusing himself from the table where he’s been eating. From the previous year’s conference, when Larry and I became friendly acquaintances, I remember that after dinner he customarily leaves early like this to walk outside and have a cigarette on the porch of the inn.  An irresistibly bright idea flashes into my brain. “Would you like to meet Larry Brown?” I ask.

“Oh God no!” Julie says. She looks as if I’d suggested we go out to the highway to watch a car run over a chipmunk.

My friends, I know I should have respected Julie’s wishes in this matter, I know I did the wrong thing, and my excuse makes me feel even worse than I ordinarily do about my social blunders. I was a victim of that strain of social agitation peculiar to writers’ conferences – low-level celebrity-itis.  Ostensibly I was out to do the right thing, to introduce a fan to a writer and to give the writer the pleasure of meeting someone who has a passion for his work. But really and truly, I know I was just showing off and trying to increase my stature in the eyes of the people with whom I’d eaten dinner by demonstrating that I was pals with Larry Brown.

I stand up and speak to Larry as he makes his way down the dining-room aisle toward the exit. I tell him there is someone here at my table who wants to meet him, and in his affable way, he says, “Okay – sure.” I go ahead and make the introduction.

As I carry out my little mannerly performance, Julie blushes deeper than I would have thought possible. She might be flashing her eyes up toward Larry’s face, but I don’t see it. She might be moving her lips or moaning to herself, but I don’t see or hear that either. I do see her sitting with her head bowed and her shoulders hunched as if she’s in pain.

Larry Brown speaks to Julie. When she doesn’t – or can’t – reply, he finds a way to go on talking to her as if she has replied. A shy person himself, Larry seems to understand Julie’s plight, and with an eloquent social grace, he carries us all through the awkward situation. And of course the others at our table play their parts, too. Except for Julie, we all talk, we make chit-chat, we smile and laugh, and so the introduction reaches its proper conclusion. Larry tells Julie that it was great to meet her and that he looks forward to talking with her again. “And now if you’ll please excuse me,” he says, giving us all a grin and a nod, then making his way toward the dining-room door, the porch, and his well-earned after-dinner cigarette.

For a long moment the four of us sit in silence. Julie’s behavior during the introduction has been mildly shocking – I personally have never seen anyone quite so paralyzed by a social circumstance. The other two do-gooders and I begin awkwardly trying to construct a new conversation, when suddenly Julie interrupts us, “How could you do that?!” Her eyes are blazing at me, and it’s evident that her former shyness has been converted into anger.

I make my explanations, of course, and resort to such social skills as I have, which are adequate for most situations. In fact, I feel that in spite of my questionable motivation, I’ve acted correctly, I’ve made it possible for Julie and Larry to become acquainted in the days that follow, now she can get to know him as a person. And how can that be other than a good thing? I yammer on and on, feeling a hot mix of guilt, self-righteousness, teacherly condescension, and social desperation.

“You don’t understand!” Julie blurts, interrupting me mid-sentence – though it’s a disposable sentence, one that I’m happy enough not to have to finish. Julie has raised her voice enough to make the people at nearby tables shut up and listen to her.

“I used to go to my classes and walk around campus and be around these people all day,” she says, and she looks around the dining hall in a way that suggests that she means us. “And then when I finished my work, which was when everybody in my dorm had pretty much gone to bed, I stayed up late, and I read these stories by Larry Brown, and I thought, all right, thank god, at least there’s somebody somewhere who lives in the same world I do – somebody who knows who I am. Larry Brown was my friend in the early morning hours at Middlebury!”

Julie’s soliloquy ends abruptly. To fill the silence, I ask her in my softest voice, “And you never wanted to meet him?”

She actually shouts, “No!” Her face is both furious and pleading. A pocket of silence surrounds our table – we have the attention of a couple of dozen people. Everybody waits for something violent or grotesque to happen, but both Julie and I have come to the end of what we can say. Then someone finds a way to lighten the mood with a comment, and someone else responds, which helps me to find a way to apologize to Julie, and she manages to nod and let it go, and of course our dinner companions pitch in to help ease the awkwardness.

And that’s really the end of my story. It seems to me a literary parable – or maybe it’s more like what I understand a zen koan to be, a parable that’s paradoxical, mysterious, open to interpretation. Ideally, I’d stop right here and just let you hold in mind the drama of Julie and me and Larry Brown at dinnertime up at Bread Loaf. But I can’t resist making this assertion: To read a book is to choose the company of the author.

With a book (of artistic merit) it’s always the case that the art and the artist are so incorrigibly, undeniably, and inevitably connected that to experience the one is also to experience the other. It’s not by accident that we use such phrasing as “Have you read Faulkner?  What do you think of Jane Austen?” When you read Absalom, Absalom! or Pride & Prejudice, you are in fact experiencing the human beings who created those books.

Now for the writers and artists among you, I want to offer both a caution and a comfort.

The caution is that if you try to write a good book, no matter how artful it may be, you’re out there. You’ve made yourself vulnerable to strangers, you’ve displayed yourself to the public, you’ve walked downtown naked. In fact, I sometimes think of artists as being a high order of prostitutes. And when I’m doing book-signings, sitting by myself at a little table with stacks of my books just sitting there untouched as the customers stream by, I think maybe I’ve got it wrong about the high order – maybe we writers are the absolute lowest order of prostitute.

The comfort is that as a fiction-writer or poet or personal essayist, this is what you’ve got to offer – yourself. So you don’t have to try to be anything or anybody other than yourself.  Pshew! – what a relief that is.  In your art, you can put on many masks and speak in various voices, but ultimately they’re all versions of you – as the people in your dreams are all, finally, you. The self is the basic stuff. The art is directed toward transforming that self into something beautiful made out of words. Quite often that transformational act is an act of discovery – in carrying it out, you come into possession of a self you didn’t really know you had.

My faith – a word I don’t use casually – in art is located right here. In “working” the self as one must work it in order to create art, one may discover that one is a cowardly, duplicitous, greedy, and insensitive weakling. But in coming to terms with all those dreaded negative qualities, one may also suddenly see that one possesses a peculiar integrity, a surprising strength of will, and an astonishing capacity to love. To catch a glimpse of the angel, you’ve first got to have a good hard look at the whore, and they live at the same address.

So that leaves just this one last question before us: Exactly why didn’t Julie want to meet Larry Brown, the author of the books that had kept her company in her lonely late hours at Middlebury College? At the time Julie didn’t explain. She went no further than her fiercely and poignantly shouted “No!” But I don’t mind saying what my own experience has taught me – that the person who lives in a work of art is not the same person who walks around among us on the face of the planet. An obvious and unsettling fact is that we look to great artists to be great human beings, while they demonstrate to us again and again that outside of the practice of their art, they’re ordinary, imperfect people. Often they’re quite unattractive. Sometimes they’re downright despicable, as if they feel they have to compensate negatively for the beauty they’ve produced in their work. I venture to say that artists are always fallible and usually fallible in ways that offend us or hurt us when we find them out. So whatever her reasons were and however emotionally wrought up she might have been, Julie was taking an extremely sensible position. No way was she going to be disappointed by Larry Brown the human being.

My friend Elaine Segal has written an illuminating fable entitled “The Progress of the Soul,” in which she says that “There was no mistaking the soul for the self.” The Soul is perfectly innocent – it lacks memory, understanding, and fear; its single virtue is that it recognizes “the very strangeness [of the world] before it,” whereas the Self is manipulative, vain, greedy, etc. So if I were to apply that fable to what I’m trying to discuss here, I’d say that by working the Self so rigorously to make a book, the author – with a great deal of luck – manages to invest the writing with some of his or her Soul. And this purification is what I’m going to guess that Julie understood with such passion: She’d already become acquainted with the man’s soul – meeting him in person could only be a violation of a relationship she greatly valued. What she managed to convey to me with her “No!” that evening in the chaos and babbling of the Bread Loaf dining room was wisdom. It’s taken me only about thirty years to hear it.


Larry Brown died of a heart attack in November 2004 at the age of 53. Here’s the link to his obituary in The New York Times: