Terry Tempest Williams is an extraordinary writer. She recently published a memoir inspired by boxes of journals her mother bequeathed to her – all of them blank. There was not a single word on those fresh, white pages. They were, as Williams wrote, “paper tombstones.”
That’s what I visualize — paper tombstones — as I invoke the dead and the wounded for this column. They are the victims of the wave of hate and terrorism of the past couple of weeks. The youngest victim at the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, where a madman opened fire on an unarmed audience, was six years-old. All she did to tempt death was sit next to her mother at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises — the latest Batman movie. Her fate was intertwined with 11 other people, some of whom died shielding their loved ones.
Here we are again, reading names. Piecing together life stories from the snapshots and accompanying biographical summaries. Here we are again in another “there but for the Grace of God Go I” moment.
And there are more names to remember. A suicide bomber attacked a tour bus of Israelis vacationing in Bulgaria. Five were flown home for burial and 33 more were wounded. Geopolitics boils over and once again Jews are targeted.
It’s a brutal time.
God has come up a lot in discussions with my kids over the Aurora tragedy. I dare say at this point Spiderman and Batman are more divine to them than a seemingly absent God. It’s not surprising. A movie featuring either of these two superheroes is not just a blockbuster; it’s what the industry calls “a movie event.” It’s a phenomenon. Think about Gotham City, Batman’s stomping grounds. It’s a deeply dark place with psychopaths at the ready behind every building.
A masked gunman armed to the teeth. The bewitching hour of midnight. Sex and violence on the screen. I don’t think for a moment that The Dark Knight Rises short circuited the killer’s brain. But the movie provided a horrifying backdrop. Reading the bewildering amount of commentary about the Aurora massacre, I remembered that President Reagan’s would be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., was obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver. Loner to loner. Was it a deadly case of transference? Were Hinckley and the Aurora gunman seeking fame, attention, intensely negative admiration? Notice that I won’t name the gunman in Colorado. In this post-Internet age, I won’t make him easier to find on a search engine.
But in the aftermath of this tragedy, how do continue to live with any kind of normalcy? Thanks to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s deceptively simple, brilliant insight we know — we accept to some degree — that bad things happen to good people. Rabbi Kushner wrote his best-selling book from the rubble of his own heartache — his son, Aaron, died in his mother’s arms two days after his fourteenth birthday from a rare genetic disease. It’s no wonder that Rabbi Kushner’s title has a permanent place in our lexicon; he has put a name to a phenomenon so perplexing, so universal. People cling to the notion that tragedy is not deserved. God is far too complicated to want a tit for a tat. God is rarely in those details, I tell my kids.
I’m not wise or worthy enough to understand why God does the things that God does. I do know that when tragedy strikes as it did last week in Aurora and Bulgaria, I don’t believe God is vengeful or sadistic or masochistic. I try to convince Adam, in particular, that God has His reasons for stepping back to observe what human beings, purposefully created in God’s image, have wrought. I don’t know what those reasons might be. I only know that it’s a crazy, twisted, scary, beautiful world out there. Maybe God needs to see what we do next. We are, after all, in a relationship with the Almighty. Pass that along to the children, but don’t forget to talk through the anxiety and fear generated by the Aurora shootings. Don’t plaster this experience with “paper tombstones.”
In Terry Tempest Williams’ Mormon community she notes that the women keep journals and bear children. Her mother’s blank pages are an act of rebellion. “How do you know your mother didn’t write her entries in invisible ink?” a woman asked Williams at a bookstore reading.
Williams said she wasn’t keen to find out if her mother had pulled a stunt like that. “My mother’s journals are words wafting above the page,” Williams writes in her memoir. Just like the spirits of the innocents that were violently murdered last week in Colorado and Bulgaria.