I Wrote My Memoir for the Same Reasons I Went to the Shooting Range
Lacy Crawford on How People Can Let Themselves Be Silenced
This is before, so I’m double-washing only because I’m about to head into the range where Manny, the ex-SWAT, ex-Navy firearms instructor my friend and I have hired, will have his hands around mine. We’ve been learning on decoys for two hours, and now it’s time to shoot for real. I mean to emerge from the restroom with dripping hands as a courtesy, but it’s a useless reflex. Manny won’t notice. He has no interest in my goodness.
Why I am thinking of Manny, or rather what he thinks of me, instead of this thing I am about to do?
The business card he handed us this morning bears logos for a gun range on one side and a tactical equipment outfit called The Donut Shop on the other. The donut bit humanizes him, but barely. He’s shaped like a door. In the film, he’d escape by speed boat. His hands move over his weapons like a mother’s over her child, fluttering and palming. We first spend an hour on gun safety, during which he disassembles six different pistols to show us their firing mechanisms. A gun is a tight little marvel of engineering, like a clock or a wren, and I can see a certain formal elegance.
“Why are you here?” he asks, and sits back, hog-sized arms crossed over his belly. I don’t tell him that I have a memoir coming out that details my sexual assault by two eighteen-year-old men when I was fifteen, and that I have been told by a detective that one of these men, reached in a follow-up investigation, was furious. I don’t intend to use a gun in self-defense; I doubt I ever could. When I was a child, there were hunting rifles in my best friend’s house, locked in a glass-fronted cabinet in the den, but I had no idea. I imagined a grandfather clock. The case resembled my own grandmother’s clock, and I was too little to look for a face, so I just assumed it was up there. Of the bronzed barrels I made tarnished chimes.
My friend answers Manny’s question: “Maybe for safety when my husband travels?” Like mine, her voice has become small and chirping.
I’m here because of truck bumpers. Glinting in the Pacific light, stickered cruelly: FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS. FUCK OFF WE’RE FULL, printed over the outline of an AR-15. These are the ones I am willing to type. I pull up close, slipstreaming hate on a California freeway. I’ve never known this banner bile, this triumphant spitting dark, and because it frightens me so deeply, I want to understand. The way to do this, I figure, is by trying to acquaint myself with what they love.
“This is a perishable skill,” says Manny, walking around the little training room with a decoy pistol in his hand. Every time he pulls the trigger, a red light appears on the opposite wall. There are two targets pinned there, and Manny lights up the heart or the head. It doesn’t matter what he’s looking at or where he’s standing. E and I see that he’s showing off, but we’re reassured, too. “You have to practice. Otherwise the bad guy?”—Manny reaches out and plucks the decoy from my friend’s carefully outstretched arms—“will just help himself, like this.”“Let the gun do the work,” he shouts. “It is only a tool.”
I had no intention of writing about my assault, which I believed I had long put behind me. It was an ordinary assault. The measures my boarding school took to silence me were fairly ordinary, too. But decades later I’d had the great good luck to learn the particularities of those measures through a state investigation, and then some men moved to quash even those revelations. They’d silenced me once when I was fifteen, and now they were taking another shot at me. So I wrote the book. Was it to get back at them? To set the record straight? In self-defense? As (God forbid) therapy? Why, I’ve been asked, did you want to write this book?
I didn’t want to write this book.
My friend, who is slim and darling with an easy ponytail, asks Manny, “Did you ever discharge your weapon in the line of duty?”
He shifts to look at her. “No.”
“And now I do this,” he adds. “I teach people how to stay safe.” He doesn’t mention the donuts. At one point he tips into unprovoked defense of gun ownership, and when I hear a certain tone creep in I say, firmly, “No one is going to overturn the Second Amendment,” and he drops it.
When I scrape a curl of skin off my finger trying to reload a real pistol, I don’t yelp. I soap the cut carefully in the restroom just before we enter the range. Manny is waiting. He fits us with ear protection and ushers us through one door that must close before the next opens. Inside is silent until it’s not. The first boom moves through my body. A long, low room, like a bowling alley, with comically narrow plexiglass partitions between patrons. This is so the shell casings don’t go pinging around onto other shooters. I figure this out later, once one of them banks off of my t-shirt.
There are two youngish men of Asian heritage; a black couple (he’s firing, she’s bringing him ammo from their box on the counter at the back); and an old white lady with a pink gun and her own set of kit that is, I swear, covered in needlepoint. She shuffles back and forth. BANG BANG BANG.
At any moment, one of these strangers could step back, aim at me, and leave my children motherless. I think I have never been so close to danger as this, and then I realize that Manny is unfazed because he, like the rest of these shooters, walks an earth peopled with hidden guns. They imagine them everywhere.
Millions of Americans will know, as I did not, how the ceiling of a gun range is hung with tracks for paper targets, each about three-quarters the size of a man, which are clipped up and sent away from each shooter to a certain distance—3 yards, 5 yards, 15 yards. Targets whiz out and back in again, paper armies. Each shooter recalls his page to examine the holes, blots that the true marksman will have layered into one. The sheets return like tattered sails.
The assembly of them might be a dystopian art gallery. They are all there is to look at here. Shooting is private, the row of us not unlike the row of women at an airport sink, gathering themselves to be greeted. The targets shudder and blow.
An image comes to me. It’s from a short, extravagantly mythic story of Isak Dinesen’s, “The Blank Page,” which is told in indirect dialogue by an old, black-veiled woman sitting at the ancient city gate. The story is about a Portuguese convent whose sisters alone can grow and harvest the flax used to make royal bedsheets, whose spinning and weaving “is gone through with precision and piety.” On the morning after a royal princess is married, the fresh white bedsheet, with its virtuous new stain, is displayed from the palace balcony to demonstrate that the princess had been a virgin. The sheet is then returned to the convent, where the stain will be framed in gold inscribed with the name of the princess, and hung in a long gallery. Processions of royals and citizens gaze at these sheets, reading in the shapes fortunes or fantasies. “Each separate canvas with its coroneted name-plate has a story to tell,” says the narrator, “and each has been set up in loyalty to the story.” But one of these pages, she says, “differs from the others.” Like the others, the frame of that singular one is gold, with a royal nameplate. But the plate is empty, and there is nothing on the sheet. It’s “snow-white from corner to corner, a blank page.”
I was in college when I first read Dinesen, just a few years past my assault. I delighted in the idea of a girl who refused, or perhaps indulged. I was too young to imagine how Dinesen was describing something different about reading and storytelling altogether—about what can’t be told, rather than what won’t be told. Who is the woman who rises from bed and slips off, unnamed, uncaptured? How does she own herself? That form of silence was hidden from me. But I’ve never forgotten the image of those white sheets on a long hall. Now, shivering in the gun range, here they are.
Manny sets a Sig-Sauer 119 on my narrow shooting ledge. “Load your weapon,” he shouts. I do. My hands are shaking; the gun’s handle is wet, from sweat and from my handwashing. If I drop it, will someone die? “Only if you try to catch it, and grab the trigger, and shoot yourself,” he says, with what I now realize is his customary way of describing horrible misfortune as ordinary process. Writing my memoir, I’ve recently learned to do this, too. “If it slips,” he advises, “let it drop to the floor. Then I will help you.”
I load my weapon. Manny threads up a target and sends it three yards away. “Let the gun do the work,” he shouts. “It is only a tool.” This is what he means: when you pull the trigger, which is not hard to do, the explosion at the end of your hand will make your arm feel it has punched the sun and returned to your shoulder in one one-hundredth of a second. Then you have to work out what to do with that energy. I begin to cry.
E is shaking so hard she wants to stop. Manny can’t believe this. He stands behind me, coaxing, threading a torso target. “When I say fire, I want two to the torso, one to the head. Two to the torso, one to the head. FIRE.”
Two there, one there.
My heart beats in between slams of the weapon. I hate this. I think of nothing else. I’m not worried about being good anymore, about Manny or my hands or even my friend. Shooting is a connection to only the self—a singularity of focus and hold, a clench between breaths. Not rage, I think, but the wanton disregard for anything else, is the heart of violence.
I don’t feel safer. I’ve killed my target a dozen times over. I had thought he’d manifest in my imagination, grow a face, at least a sneer, but he does not. If the gun is a tool—which of course it both is and is not—it strikes me as a limited one, considering. Fire, wheel, lever, blade, hoe, gun. Hands, breasts, kettle, soap. Story.
At the end of “The Blank Page,” the narrator describes the sisters gazing at that blank white stretch of framed linen. It is in front of this page, she says, that “old and young nuns, with the Mother Abbess herself, sink into deepest thought.”
I wrote my memoir for the same reason I came shooting: to understand how people can be forced into silence. I needed to touch the violence we wield over each other. I was trying to strip down and frame a specific form of cruelty: both a girl’s complicity in her own not-telling, and the infrastructure of power, glossed with civility, that makes it impossible for her to be heard. And, yes, I wanted to tell my story exactly as I remembered it, exactly as I wished—not as it might be drawn from me. By writing it, of course, I was reversing the silencing. But my shooting makes no one safer. And my telling doesn’t permit me to escape the frame. This is not a remedy, not for me or for anyone else.
I think I understand Dinesen differently now, in a time when we might finally be straining toward what it would mean to slip the confines of the gallery altogether, to permit silence to speak and let bodies be.
My book might, if I am lucky, be one page on a long hall. But I don’t fool myself that it’s the blank page. That’s the singularity, that’s for each of us to search for. Some people shoot, I suppose. I write.
Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford is available via Little, Brown and Company.