“It is dangerous and illegal to walk on the highway.”
—Quote from the Michigan driver’s ed manual 
I grew up in Detroit, Motor City, and so my delight in carless transportation has always seemed a bit perverse. But anybody who is a writer knows the feeling. What we do might not be dangerous or illegal, but it can sometimes look a little crazy from the outside.

The Retrospective Voice: Why Memoir Matters in an Age of Shootings

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Yesterday—yet again—a lone man opened fire on a school and killed people just because they were there. My Facebook feed filled with pleas to DO something about this epidemic. I sat at my computer and prepared a lecture for my next memoir class, wondering if there’s anything we writers CAN do.

Memoirists are sometimes accused of being solipsistic. Why write about your own life, instead of big, important topics—like war and poverty and climate change? Why not write about something that could change the world for the better? You know, life or death stuff.

I leafed through Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life to find an excerpt to illustrate to my students the concept of retrospective voice—the voice of the “I” who is writing the book and who knows more than the other “I,” the younger self who is the character on the page.

The passage I found is chilling. The scene takes place half a century ago, but it couldn’t be more relevant to the events that just unfolded.

Twelve-year-old Toby has convinced his mother, against her good judgment, to allow him to keep the rifle her boyfriend gave him. Toby promised to never take the gun out except in the presence of an adult. For a week or so, he kept that promise. Then, after school one day, alone in the apartment, the temptation is too great. This passage shows what can happen to a well-intentioned but suggestible kid, when he gets hold of a gun:

I decided that there couldn’t be any harm in taking the rifle out to clean it. Only to clean it, nothing more. I was sure it would be enough just to break it down, oil it, rub linseed into the stock, polish the octagonal barrel and then hold it up to the light to confirm the perfection of the bore. But it wasn’t enough. From cleaning the rifle I went to marching around in the apartment with it and then to striking brave poses in front of the mirror. Roy had saved one of his army uniforms and I sometimes dressed up in this, together with martial-looking articles of hunting gear: fur trooper’s hat, camouflage coat, boots that reached nearly to my knees.

The camouflage coat made me feel like a sniper, and before long I began to act like one. I set up a nest on the couch by the front window. I drew the shades to darken the apartment, and took up my position. Nudging the shade aside with the rifle barrel, I followed people in my sights as they walked or drove along the street. At first I made shooting sounds—kyoo! kyoo! Then I started cocking the hammer and letting it snap down.

Roy stored his ammunition in a metal box he kept hidden in the closet. As with everything else hidden in the apartment, I knew exactly where to find it. There was a layer of loose .22 founds on the bottom of the box under shells of bigger caliber, dropped there by the handful the way men drop pennies on their dressers at night. I took some and put them in a hiding place of my own. With these I started loading up the rifle. Hammer cocked, a round in the chamber, finger resting lightly on the trigger, I drew a bead on whoever walked by—women pushing strollers, children, garbage collectors laughing and calling to each other, anyone—and as they passed under my window I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in the ecstasy of my power over them, and at their absurd and innocent belief that they were safe.

But over time the innocence I laughed at began to irritate me. It was a peculiar kind of irritation. I saw it years later in men I served with, and felt it myself, when unarmed Vietnamese civilians talked back to us while we were herding them around. Power can be enjoyed only when it is recognized and feared. Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.
One afternoon I pulled the trigger.

Toby didn’t mean to shoot. He was a mixed up and maladjusted adolescent boy, but who isn’t at that age? What he wanted more than anything was to be a good citizen. But look at the way the gun transformed him, its seductive power almost sexual, its effect like the strongest drug. The gun gave him the feeling of power, and that feeling inevitably lead to a spiral of actions that turned him into a killer. (He ended up only killing a squirrel, but he had been aiming at an elderly couple.)

So, how can writing memoir save lives? Perhaps someone will read the passage above and become convinced that keeping a gun in the house is dangerous, that no matter what benign intentions we have for our guns, sometimes the guns control us, not vice versa. Perhaps one more parent will say no when her maladjusted son wants a rifle. Perhaps one policymaker will understand the way guns can prey on young or suggestible minds.

Part of the power of the excerpt is the way Wolff uses the retrospective voice: “I saw it years later in men I served with, and felt it myself.” If we only stayed in the voice of the young boy, we would not have understood the lesson Wolff learned about what made him go crazy that afternoon, when he laughed with ecstasy over strangers’ “absurd and innocent belief that they were safe.”

I shiver when I read that quote. Yes, I like to believe I’m safe. Though lately, that belief does seem absurd.

Reading memoir has allowed me to get inside the head of a gunman. That doesn’t feel solipsistic or navel gazing at all. What could be more important right now?

What makes this passage so effective is the self-awareness. Wolff doesn’t just tell us what happened, he examines the events from his vantage point many years later. He looks at past behavior and tries to learn from it. Isn’t that what we should do, as individuals and as a country? There’s much we can learn, whether we’re writers or not, from the retrospective voice.

6 Responses to “The Retrospective Voice: Why Memoir Matters in an Age of Shootings”

  1. Guns need a lock that can’t be opened if the shooter has a Y-Chromosome.

    Thank you for a heartbreaking look into the mind of a shooter.

  2. Lisa Ellison says:

    Thank you for writing about how memoir can help us develop empathy for those who make terrible decisions and for how it instructs us regarding the dangers of guns.

  3. Helen Dunn says:

    I always tell my students to think about how literature can help them live better lives. This is a great example.

  4. Tricia Harrigan says:

    I almost didn’t dare to read the passage, in fear that something awful was going to be told. Weapon equals power is a frightening and seductive equation.

  5. Liz Harrigan says:

    This is a brilliant piece. Captures exactly what I feel about guns and gun owners (sorry all you law abiding ones, but this includes you)–its not that “guns kill people” its that guns dive gun owners mad, and then the previously sane person kills. And no, it is not that people with preexisting mental health issues who for some reason have guns kill because of their mental illness. It’s that people–mentally ill or not–who would never dream of killing are driven mad by the gun in their hand or pocket or closet and then they do dream of it. And then they do it. Over and over again.

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