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Uncounted Stories of Gun Violence and Trauma

All Bullets Shatter:

Uncounted Stories of Gun Violence and Trauma

Minneapolis, May 2022
In partnership with: Guns Down. Love Up.; Project Minnesota; The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives;
Institute for Digital Humanity; Second Chance MN; the Urban Educators;
North Suburban Center for the Arts; Ohio State; Portland State; George State; Pittsburgh University Prison Writing Project.

ABS: Narratives

"All Bullets Shatter"
Dr. Aaron McKain & The IAA

On Halloween night this past year, my partner — like a normal person —

celebrated with friends.  I — like most teachers and professionals caught in the

post-COVID grind — worked, like a miserable kid missing their birthday party,

in our home in North Minneapolis.  

 

Then, around 11:15, my life changed forever: A bullet slammed through our living room window, missing my body by four feet before lodging itself — at headshot height — above our couch.  If I had been pacing around, and she hadn't been showering campfire out of her hair, there’s a good chance one of us would be maimed or dead.

 

Three months later, my life is very different.  By MLK Day, I was back at work –  as Executive Director of a bi-partisan and student-run digital ethics think tank (the Institute for Digital Humanity); Creative Director of a Twin Cities arts advocacy collective (The Institute for Aesthetic Advocacy); and Director of the School of English and Communication Arts at North Central University (host site of the George Floyd memorial) – after a six week medical hiatus.  By Christmas Eve, I completed an intensive three week outpatient program to triage my PTSD.  And by Thanksgiving, my four year relationship was over..

 

When people hear this story, they gravitate – unkindly – to a particular plot point: A committed partnership unraveling.  But before you armchair quarterback the psychology of a couple, it is key to remember: Trauma is complex, trauma is hard and –  as the research tells us – relationships contaminated by PTSD almost always have a particularly difficult path.  It’s impossible to say what factor – the bullet, the shattering of my relationship, years of 80-hour work weeks, crippling medical debt, or the rogue’s gallery of ghastly events of my past – finally pushed my already traumatized brain to a long predicted breakdown.  But something did.  And now I’m here: Typing this sentence under the bullet hole that did (or didn’t) change my life forever.
 

All that said, it's hard to care about a near-miss shooting of a white professor in our neighborhood of Webber Camden, a North Minneapolis community that I love dearly.  Between April 30 and May 17 – right down the street – 9-year old Trinity Ottoson-Smith and 6-year-old Aniya Allen were both killed by stray bullets in a city with 92 homicides in 2021 alone.  Privilege is real.  And, after a violent crime, it kicks in fast: I was able to talk to two city council members within days of the shooting.  Trinity didn't.  We were featured in the campaign kickoff event for a candidate for district attorney.  Aniya wasn’t.  And – to no one’s surprise – my near miss got the bullets on our corner to momentarily stop. That pause didn’t happen with the other 20,611 rounds that were fired in Minneapolis between January and September of 2021.

 

Moving to Webber-Camden was not part of some creepy “woke savior” mission.  The house was simply the best one two teachers could afford (or dream of having in the expensive Twin Cities).  But the army of committed students I’m lucky enough to lead – at the Institute for Digital Humanity and the Institute for Aesthetic Advocacy – tried to leverage professional and racial advantages the best they could: Raising $26,000 for an emergency food pantry during the summer of Floyd; working together with ACLU MN to pass a facial recognition ban in Minneapolis; and sponsoring local and international art shows on racism, technology, and mental health after COVID. (The IDH was also working with Indiana University to – ironically – expand reporting of under-recognized stories of gun crime in our neighborhood.)

Trauma is, by definition, an unnarratable event: A plot point in your life so incongruous with  what is “supposed to happen” that your mind can’t process it moving forward or backward. Your lizard brain kicks in and you fight, flee, or freeze.  And reflecting on nearly 100 hours of outpatient hospitalization – listening to my new colleagues recount how trauma has disrupted their lives, families, and jobs --  it’s hard not to be reminded of privilege, even as I mourn what might have been.  Like many others, I packed up a home where the hard-earned seeds of a future with kids and neighbors were planted.  Unlike many others, I had colleagues step up to save my job and – in an it’s a Wonderful Life Christmas miracle – pony up enough cash to keep my employees paid for a few more weeks  (Fundraising for the IDH –  which in three short years has pulled off the politically impossible: Building a multi-faith coalition to fight for sane, just, and equitable post-digital America – was slated to start in November at  www.institutefordigitalhumanity.org/support/).

 

My PTSD is not medically unique, but all stories of trauma have to be.  Otherwise the events – a bullet or a relationship gone south – rob you of even more agency as the world “decides” the story of how you should feel or what you should do.  But if “moving forward” requires working through trauma (and art, as they teach us in group therapy, is a miracle cure for healing) all victims, due to structural economical and social conditions, don’t suffer equally.  Art – as I knew intellectually but am now learning firsthand through painful experience – heals by giving voice to the stories that don’t fit into clean and common narratives of cause and effect.  And it’s why – because, again, privilege matters – some of us are lucky enough to try to heal by helping others to do the same.

So as an effort to give meaning to this tragedy, volunteers have stepped up from across the country for another IAA/IDH juried art show: All Bullets Shatter: Uncounted Stories of Gun Violence and Trauma.  (See our call at instituteforaestheticadvocacy.com).  All trauma stories are unique, and decidedly non-fungible.  We want to elevate the voices of victims – looking beyond statistics and body counts – who may have dodged a fatal bullet (especially in North Minneapolis) but nonetheless struggle to process and narrate the aftermath.   Proceeds from a silent auction will go toward organizations in the Twin Cities providing PTSD relationship counseling to suffering families and couples. 

 

The philosopher Richard Rorty once wrote that a good life means being able to tell yourself a coherent story on your deathbed of how you got there: A narrative you can live with so you can die in peace.  And therein lies the problem: Until my last day, this bullet – this randomly fired piece of twisted metal – will now be a plot point not just in my life, but in the lives of my students, employees, family, neighbors, and friends.  I'll never know if I had just been some magical percentage healthier, whether I could have avoided some final straw trigger or just stayed out of the hospital long enough to get my workers paid this semester. 

But what I do know is this: After 30 years of trying to hold my PTSD together – with half-measures, now discounted therapeutic options, and tyrannical willpower – it all finally came apart.  And as I continue a journey to recovery that will shape the rest of my story on this planet, I only wish one thing: That the bullet had come sooner. It might have saved the life I built in Webber-Camden.

Dr. Aaron McKain is the Executive Director of the Institute for Digital Humanity, the Creative Director of the Institute for Aesthetic Advocacy, and the Director of English and Communication Arts at North Central University.  He is – temporarily – a former resident of North Minneapolis.

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