Nonfiction by Stephanie E. Dickinson
Join the conversation. Stephanie Dickinson and the Orca staff invite you to share your thoughts and experiences about gun violence after you’ve read this essay. Comments are open and will be moderated by Orca staff. Posted comments do not in any way imply an endorsement by or agreement of Orca staff members.
I will show you my body. I do not mind if your eyes, and only your eyes, are drawn to my left-hand clenched in a permanent fist. The last time the hand opened it had just turned eighteen, and the wrist attached to the forearm has since fused. The flow of time has passed its terrain by. I will let you come close, but only you, to trace the scar that cuts through and dents my cheek, the scar that once reaching the neck zigzags and runs in many directions like exploded pottery. I trust you. You understand the shyness I feel about this part of my being, especially my fingers. Medically it is called a claw hand. A harsh phrase. Damage to the ulnar nerve that travels from the neck causes the condition. You understand me, we who learn the terminology of what the gunshot has done inside of us. The brachial plexus, the spine’s connection to the left arm and hand, blown apart.
I honor you. You for yourself, you as a witness to the death of others, you who have gone to the edge and returned. For years you’ve run across the breaking news timeline of laptop monitors.. Anniversaries come and go. Sometimes the injured are not mentioned, sometimes they call us the non-lethals as if whoever is keeping score wants the kill shots. It is miraculous to survive, and it is difficult. On the day you crossed the gunman’s path you picked the medium-size Coke and the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, you chose the soft seat at an outdoor café in Paris and ordered a latte, you were bonding at a teen retreat in Norway, a Christmas Party in San Bernadino, sitting in a classroom in Parkland and Uvalde, dancing to club music in Orlando. In El Paso it was a quick trip to Walmart. In Highland Park, a parade, and in Syracuse, a grocery shopping trip to the Tops supermarket. The feel of a breeze in the hardwoods along the path to your Virginia Tech class. Light streamed through the red maples and sycamores; everything was taking the sun. You were amid coming and going, in the whirl of friends and plans, you were living your everyday with the future before you like an orange grove.
I was a teenager the night a disturbed nineteen-year-old shot me with a 12-gauge in the neck and face, paralyzing my left arm. It was Thanksgiving night. There is drama in the shooting itself, a blood jet glamour, the aftermath deeper, more menial, requiring patience and medical interventions, learning to live in the new body, the new mind, to navigate. How can I still be here having once sat a few feet from a shotgun’s double barrels? A handgun creates one small hole, high velocity ammunition travels at three times the speed of sound and creates a giant hole, and a shotgun cartridge contains pellets which scatter upon discharge. For some of you the injury is a soft tissue injury, for others damage to the nerves, the spine, the head, and the organs, and many experience burning neurological pain. I am a pain veteran. For all of us the psychological trauma is profound.
When I recount my Ur-story about the shooting, I tell it straight, flat, as if the story by virtue of retelling has been drained of color and emotion. The shootings lie outside chronological time and have an ongoingness. You’ve come to Las Vegas for the Route 91 Harvest Festival in your cutoffs and Western boots, long hair and Stetsons, in your tangled beauty. Almost 80 degrees at 10:05 p.m. when the window on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Hotel shatters. White smoke rises and firecrackers pop in rapid succession, and you are running. Around you a sea of plastic bottles and cups, a menagerie of broken glass. Automatic weapon fire, ten minutes, 1,100 rounds. Starts, stops, starts again. After the shooting gives way to silence you are lying against a girl in jean shorts, pockets studded with silver crescent moons, her innocent cowboy boots and bare legs streaked with blood. Everywhere a tide of drink cups. She dies reaching for your hand, a stranger, wait, her fingers say, catch me, my head is falling. If I swallow dirt, will I grow into a tree? You’re alive but don’t want her to be left behind and so you stay with her. The smell you can’t forget is of her body struck by shrapnel. Now you walk with a cane.
In my Ur-story the firemen come first, they hold me down, stop me from crawling and bleeding out. My vision has shut down as my brain is trying to protect the core and conserve energy. I am carried out into the night under the trees. I can’t breathe even as I am loaded into an ambulance and given oxygen. The ambulance first ferries me to Raleigh, a regional hospital where they pack my lungs, and then speeds me to Durham. My mother will soon receive a call telling her that her daughter has been shot in North Carolina and the hospital needs her permission to operate. I regain consciousness briefly. I do not know I can’t talk. The tracheotomy has made an opening through my neck and threaded a tube down my windpipe. My broken jaw is wired. There are lights everywhere, a row of sharp lights on either side of me. Hot and blue like the gunman’s moon. A nurse bends over me, her thick bronze hair brushes my bandaged chest. She asks me my name and tells me to write it. They are putting a spiral note pad under my hand and a pen between my fingers. I squeeze Stephanie onto the paper. She asks how old I am. Eighteen. Everything I see of me is bandaged. I am sure he has shot my breasts off. Breasts? “Yes, you have your breasts. You’re in Duke University Medical Center’s Emergency Room.” But I’m not. I am swirling in my mind, sinking farther away. I’m sliding into the muck, the cool bottom oozing between my toes.
In the Marjory Stoneman Douglas midafternoon classroom, you drift like the red heart-shaped balloons that hover near the ceiling. You tell your friends you hardly slept; northern mockingbirds sang all night outside your window mimicking car alarms. February’s their mating month and today their Valentine’s Day too. On your desk a card, a bird in flight—Love’s in the Air. Then high-caliber rounds fire through the classroom door. The gunman’s bullets pinging from walls and floors. The laptops struck; the screens go blank. You stagger into the haze outside the classroom. Shrapnel hits you in the back and legs and then the hallway goes dark and you’re in the cypress wetlands among the floating leaves. Four times shot, each shot drops you deeper into stems and roots. The gunman moves on, opens fire through another classroom window, and you, hiding in your waist length hair among the scattered Valentine cards, are shot in your right hand, right arm, right ribs, and abdomen. You can’t find your face or feet; you’re lost inside your body. On the grounds outside the school a classmate recognizes the gunman, but not knowing what is happening says “Hi” and he says “Hi” back. She has known him since middle school and asks where he’s going to college next year. “Somewhere in Florida,” he answers and then is gone. Mockingbirds again, this time mimicking gunfire.
Every week there are more of us—gunshot survivors but few see how we exist. The grit required. When a high velocity bullet enters the body, it creates a wave and a blast. Seventeen surgeries, five surgeries, thirteen surgeries, four surgeries to rebuild, to ameliorate. The recovery, the expense of living in the new body and mind, that is why I’m writing, I am an old hand. I google images of shotgun injuries and the gore shocks me. In the comments someone asks if anyone knows what it feels like being shot by a 12-guage. No one has experienced it. One person writes: “Pistols put holes in people, rifles put holes through people, and shotguns, at the right range with the right load will physically remove a chunk of meat off your opponent and throw that on the floor.”
At a party in a Cary, North Carolina suburban home I smell the backyard crab apple trees holding their tang. Our 19-year-old host, his parents in France, loads his father’s 12-gauge shotgun. I will always be walking into the bathroom to comb my hair, my boyfriend following. I must sit on the toilet lid, not peeing, listening to my boyfriend warn of danger, telling me we must leave. I am never far from the shower curtain with seahorses riding black waves The nineteen-year-old host is holding the shotgun, the barrel nudging the door open. The hall light shines, the sconce lamp making a halo around his head. He laughs, and the gun discharges, blue fire snorting from the barrels. The blue fire hits my face, a skillet of hot grease, and I am lifted up, rising into the air, and then dropped into dark interstellar spare. Don’t die, my boyfriend is screaming. Between life and death, falling and crawling, my lungs flooded with blood.
And so goes part of my jaw, my face, and many teeth flying…
I am coming back from darkness. I am climbing a rope. I am above the lofts in my grandmother’s barn and the rope, not slung over a beam, is hanging in air.
You too may wake to the respirator taking its machine breath inside you, forcing you to inhale and exhale, your chest expanding and collapsing. Or you may wake to chest tubes being implanted between your ribs and phlegm and blood from your lungs draining into a bedpan. You too may wake in a white tent, the doctor’s face close, his glasses closer. “I’m going to unveil you,” he jokes. “I don’t think this will hurt. I’m debriding the wound of dead tissue. I’ll be careful not to jostle all your IVs.” He takes off his glasses, his breath in your hair. He cuts away the thick bandage. “You’ll feel some pricks.” He uses surgical scissors to cut flesh and sees what you never have or will, the hole in your face.
I am dreaming of gunmen shootings starlings out of a tree.
I pick the pieces up—wings, heads. I hold whole birds and feel them fold.
I walk through the grass and the silence. Why isn’t the sky doing something?
Lift us up, make us birds. Make us into us again.
“The percussive effect of the ballistics and transfer of energy,” says a trauma doctor, “make gunshot injuries worse than they appear.” They call us gunshot victims. Survivor feels more real a label, active and passionate; after all we have triumphed over to return, victim seems passive, dull, too small. But aren’t AR-15s, 40 Caliber Glocks, AK-17s, 12-Gauge Remingtons and bump stocks more titillating than a catheter, a bone flap, a nerve reattachment, or a leg brace? Either you are shelved victim or treated as if you own it. Your asymmetry is somehow your fault and wholly yours. I own my teeter-totter body, gravity pulling my left side down year by year, I own “can’t you straighten yourself?”
The gunman enters from an exit door wearing a bulletproof vest, bulletproof leggings, and a gas mask. Like a red giant star, he has dyed his hair orange, his eyes too, the color of dying stars. He ignites smoke bombs, then begins shooting. You shield your friend and take shots in the leg. Shrapnel drowning faraway sounds. Many anniversaries pass until your left leg requires amputation. In another row, another you, seated beside your wife and son, feels the first sting then more in the neck and face and back. Now paralyzed and in a wheelchair your wife says, “People treat him like he is slow because his speech is impaired.” Anniversaries? “We live this every day.” The cushions will stay powder blue and on the floor a snow of popcorn will have just fallen. The hills beyond the city are home to the antelope and coyote. Beautiful men and women send photos to the gunman in prison, and he tapes their pictures to the wall above his bunk. They write letters too. I like your hair, and what kind of movies do you like? and I hope you stay well.
In the beginning I do not know what I own, that part of my new real estate will be this burning limb, this wild neurological pain. When you hear the term phantom pain, you think of Lord Byron and Mary Shelley telling ghost stories in a rain-drenched villa near Lake Geneva. A ghost, a specter. Illusion. Phantom pain in an amputated limb or body part no longer there manifests as tingling, itching, cramping, pressure. It is real. The nerve connections remain. A gunshot injury to the brachial plexus’s nerve network can cause neuropathy—sensations of severe burning and electric shock. Since age eighteen I have lived on the Red Planet. The Fire Planet. This is the world-without-end of a gunshot injury.
I would like to hear of your journey into the pain vortex. On the Red Planet nights are the worst, nights because you must lie down and are captive to bed covers weighted like radiators. I’m restless, my hand clenches with burning, the involuntary tendons contract. It is the beginning of my new body and I do not yet know how to placate the electric shocks. I am searching for an underwater city. My teeth are wired, and I take liquid Demerol for pain and liquid Thorazine for sleep, though I do not sleep. I toss and turn, and the arm becomes hot, hotter, and I picture my hand in a French fryer basket being lowered into boiling grease. If only I can part my fingers and straighten them. I concentrate, I flex them with my right hand hoping I might release the fire. The burning goes on. In the bathroom sink I yank the cold faucet on all the way and let the water rush full force over my hand. It cools.
This is my new body’s learning about itself. My convalescence when I stay with my aunt and uncle and grandmother in winter Iowa. Late January. My uncle, a dentist, and my aunt, his assistant, leave when the sun is coming up and return after sundown. I am alone with my grandmother. The house is on the edge of a golf course where the frozen cattails and rushes stick up, and the crows and starlings, the ones that stay for the winter, circle the miniature slough hunting for seeds. I press myself against the icy patio window and look out at the untrampled snow. I want to sleep on a snow bed. I enter my grandmother’s quiet. A farm widow, she bends over the stove island and makes chicken broth with her homemade noodles cut so fine I’ll be able to suck them between my teeth. Her hands are cold, and she doesn’t mind that I take them into my lap and trace the veins that rise like tree roots through the skin, blue almost black.
You live in the digital age and may contemplate your before self and your after self on social media sites, on Facebook, Instagram, and now TikTok. I sit at my aunt’s vanity staring into the distant galaxy of her mirrors, comparing the left and right sides of my face, the left with its dent and the scar trench. I touch my chin; the left half is numb from nerve damage.
As I type these words, I can feel the sun in the January windows and my grandmother’s presence. She in her brown stockings and work dress and apron, out of place as I am in this well-appointed suburban house. And so, in the night when I pace and moan and the Demerol and Thorazine seethe through me in waves, when my haywire nerves like split ends send electrical surges and lightning bolts, my grandmother gets up from her light sleep and enters the room. The hair that she braids and neatly coils around her head during the day has been brushed loose for sleep, her unraveling hair that has never been cut, falls past her buttocks, a raiment of white twined with black. Her body is cold like her hands; she hugs me, and I cling to the snow she is becoming. You will have your own stories, your discoveries about your new body, and someday if we meet, we will talk about them. You will have transcendent moments like this during your furlough from the world. So, in the hardest year, the first year of my new body, my grandmother becomes my friend, the first friend of the me the shotgun has made.
It is worth the pain to live.
It will always be 86 degrees and twenty minutes into the parade when the gunman who looks like an elf, tiny with a narrow mouse face and large dark eyes, his head filled with the debris of a nihilistic subculture, begins his climb up the ladder onto the roof of a cosmetics factory. He carries a long gun, the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 semi-automatic that appears taller and stronger than him. You 8 years old, there with your parents and your twin brother, feel the bee stings, the burning, and everything goes dark and hard to breathe. You too are floating out of yourself, your face buried in the soft bee fur, levitating above the scattered bicycles, the strollers, and folding chairs above the impish gunman in makeup and women’s clothes as he melts into the crowd. I thank you—paralyzed from the waist down and returning to school in a wheelchair, the wide smile of pure light on your face, while your twin walks beside you.
The long gun. It sounds ancient like the Iliad. When I read the description about the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 semi-automatic rifle, I hear the swank advertising voice with phrases like “superior design makeup” and “tailored to specific shooting configurations.” As if this firearm was like any other saleable commodity. The long gun needs no beautiful person holding it; the weapon itself is sex.
You leave the hospital in clothes that don’t fit because of the weight you’ve lost. They belong to someone who once claimed to be you. Your footing unsure, reentering your life, terrifies. The before you and the after you exist simultaneously in the eyes of those who knew you before. It is sometimes easier to go somewhere new, where only the after you is known. I take my first steps outside the hospital, and these are steps you’ve taken or soon will. I breathe the chill January air of North Carolina. The dogwood trees are without leaves or blossoms, yet I smell bloom. I keep inhaling; I am digesting the air. We will say goodbye soon—the dark eyed boy with me when I was shot and with me now. “I’m not ashamed of you,” he says. I let go of his arm and walk on my own through the parking lot. The sky is overcast and the sun cool and not much brighter than a fluorescent bulb. I turn for a last look at Duke University Medical Center. The old towers of the main entrance shine. Goodbye.
Inside the terminal everything is heightened, the plastic waiting room chairs, my shriveled brown boots, the heels bending to the side, the same boots I left Iowa in bringing me home. “Boarding pass please, miss,” the flight attendant asks. Her black eyes with lavender lids widen as they gaze at the surgical scissors on a string around my neck. They take in my car coat with the chipped pearl button that hangs loosely from my shoulders. It belongs to the dark eyed boy’s mother. I will always be handing her my boarding pass and telling her my mouth is wired and if something should happen, if I should throw up, she must cut the wires with the scissors. She nods. Her thick black hair reaches to the small of her back. She is so beautiful it hurts me to look at her. Noises run together, voices from the cockpit, the undercurrent of luggage being thrust into overhead compartments. Hours later the Fasten Seat Belt sign goes on. We are beginning our descent into the Cedar Rapids airport that is surrounded by cornfields. First snow hits the wings, wind blowing in from the north.
The day I leave Duke University Medical Center and fly from North Carolina to Iowa is another of those ongoing days. I arrive and will always be standing in the ladies’ room in front of the mirror looking at my new self. My jutting pelvic bones are in line with the sink, proof I’ve eaten nothing but gruel for a month and a half—through a feeding tube. Three missing molars, two pre-molars, and re-sectioned mandible. My asymmetrical eyes widen, the left, a pinpointed pupil, the dilated right, an antelope’s moonless night. The huge eye has seen directly into the gun and now can stare at any eclipsed sun. I grip the edge of the sink. My left arm hangs silent, a lunar appendage. They tell me I am one of the lucky ones. You will hear this too about luck. Pure dumb luck.
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Image by Sascha Luehr from Pixabay
Having just finished reading “To the Newly Wounded by Gunshot,” by Stephanie Dickinson, I am left stunned. The sinking into a hell and the re-emergence, draped in the embers of that hell. But without self-pity, or even the raw anger that in a lesser consciousness would be so natural, is otherworldly… Or perhaps, just Midwestern tough… The skill it takes to absorb that pain, and live with it, create from it, causes the word transcendent to leap to mind, and for once, not flippantly. The prose is breathtakingly cool, controlled, efficient, and yet somehow lush and beautiful. About halfway through the essay, I found myself taking notes. The “mockingbirds.” “Bedcovers weighted like radiators.” The brilliant application of the pronoun, “you.” Floating in and out of the imagined lives of other gun-shot victims we all recognize from the news feeds, and offering them her voice, though not in a self-aggrandizing way, just offering. The pitch-perfect description of one of the shooters receiving conciliatory letters in his jail cell from other “heads filled with the debris of a nihilistic subculture,” which is the phrase she used to describe that shooter, but could easily describe the shooter’s misled and sickened social nurses and fans. Here the shooter is not elevated in the typical Hollywoodish, nightly news, fascination, but is instead presented for what he is: An elf. Not some marauding, misunderstood rebel, but a tiny costumed imp. Perhaps not so difficult to understand after all, considering our culture’s toxic involvement with violence and all its mindless toys. There are so many places in the essay where I stop and marvel. The bedside caretaking “grandmother as first friend of the new me the shotgun made.” The relationship between the “eye” and the “sun” at the end. To quote anymore would be pointless. Better to just read it. The courage, and power of Stephanie Dickinson’s prose – one of this country’s greatest writers, today, right now – comes from somewhere on the other side of human. Wherever or whatever that place is.
All of Stephanie Dickinson’s work is peerless. Nobody writes the way she does.
Not only can I not imagine this experience of being shot, but I’m at a loss to describe the feelings that rose in me reading the specifics of her own shooting, and others that have haunted this country. That she was able to infuse this horrifying true story with her innate lyricism is further proof of her intense born-gift.
I’ve been reading the Best American Essays anthologies for years (I have over a dozen now). This essay is better than 95% of them and it’s as good as the other 5%. I’ve also been reviewing books professionally for some 3 decades now and have reviewed two of Dickinson’s books. I’ve read her short stories and hybrid works. I have no doubt she is one of our finest contemporary authors and a stylist with few peers. I hope this essay will be nominated for the BAE anthology. I’m tired of seeing to fair to middling Big Five authors win out over more talented small-press writers.
Vincent, we at Orca couldn’t agree more. And we are nominating the essay for BAE.
Remarkable essay. Poignant and Captivating bringing together the author’s survival after her shooting at the young age of 18, and that of so many survivors of gunshots in our country nothwithstanding the hundreds and thousands of deaths. Stephanie’s prose is captivating and poetic and it is one of the best essays I have read of the subject of survivors of gun violence in our country
Your prose leaves me breathless–a too-elegant telling of a most gruesome event. One moment of irresponsible, cruel, inhuman act results in a lifetime of crushing emotional trauma, incessant pain, and debilitating physical injuries.
Thanks for telling us how is life “after.”
Gut wrenching depiction that photos can not capture. The narrative leaves an indelible scar upon my heart. It forever changes how I perceive life and gives me a deeper appreciation of the torment survivors endure.
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This harrowing essay is the best description I’ve ever seen of the life-long non-lethal consequences of being shot. In fact I think this is at least as good as any nonfictional prose essay I’ve ever read. The seamless back-and forth between your experience and those of some of the numerous mass shooting survivors you describe is really masterful. Whether you’re writing about your own experience, the almost scientifically detailed capabilities of different types of guns, or the experiences of those shot in mass-casualty “events,” this is all told in such searing, unforgettable granular detail, but never feels belabored. I know that in response to the unending stream of mass shootings, to say nothing about the horrific war in Ukraine, I’ve been guilty, probably like most people who haven’t been shot, of allowing the death counts to eclipse or reduce the plight of the “merely” wounded to the status of a footnote. Your essay doesn’t allow anyone who reads it to do this.
It’s terrifying and sickening to consider that apart from the ability of assault-style weapons to fire a hundred shots a minute, most people don’t realize that the entry and exit wounds these leave are roughly the diameter of a soda can.
Stunning. Timely. Immersive. Poignant. Captivating.
A moving and harrowing piece of writing, perfect for anyone who worships at the altar of the Red Pill. Your truths will not protect you. No one recovers from a gunshot wound. No one.