Traumatic Detour

Nonfiction

Sometimes, during a lull between murders, I realize we’re due for another. Often, within a day or two of me realizing this, something dreadful occurs: a mass shooting; a bombing; a knifing rampage; a truck accelerating along the sidewalk. When this happens, I feel instantaneous remorse, as if I should have tweeted a warning: “Don’t go to school/ride the subway/attend the concert! Stay home tomorrow!” Then I send my editors an email: “Available to work murders.”

Nonfiction by Susan Katz Keating

By the time I left New England, the murders and the Army had formed a coalition inside me. I was too busy to realize it, though, let alone examine the ways they lingered and caroused unseen within my soul. I was six months into Operation Hobo, my ongoing road trip through itinerant adventurism. The Chechens of Boston behind me, I headed south, planning to board an aircraft carrier at sea. I hobo’d on, as if the murders and the Army had no impact individually, let alone as a bloc.

I crossed into Connecticut. I held my Jeep below the speed limit, so I could admire the pastoral vistas without stopping off at an overlook. I wanted to move forward and not pause, not even for splendor.

Then the road sign. I have a picture of it still on my cell phone, a snap I shouldn’t have risked while driving, but felt obliged to record. “Exit 10; 6 West.” It was the turnoff to Newtown/Sandy Hook.

I had a past with this town, from 2012, when a deranged Adam Lanza opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, slaughtering students and teachers before turning his weapon on himself. For years, I’d tucked this episode away, just as I’d suppressed the whole Army debacle. And now the road sign. Seeing it brought instantaneous impulse; an urge to make amends. I stepped on the gas. I whipped the wheel to the right.

x

I am a journalist. I write about war and terrorism and security, such as: what happened to Americans missing in action in Vietnam; or, how do weapons disappear from military stockpiles. I also write about crime, for PEOPLE magazine. I don’t do bank robberies, embezzlements, nor spectacular heists. I do murder. If the crime is gruesome enough, I may do interpersonal homicide. My crime specialty, though, is big box, headline-dominating, horrific mass carnage.

Sometimes, during a lull between murders, I realize we’re due for another. Often, within a day or two of me realizing this, something dreadful occurs: a mass shooting; a bombing; a knifing rampage; a truck accelerating along the sidewalk. When this happens, I feel instantaneous remorse, as if I should have tweeted a warning: “Don’t go to school/ride the subway/attend the concert! Stay home tomorrow!” Then I send my editors an email: “Available to work murders.”

Since 10:53 a.m. on April 16, 2007, not counting war, I’ve covered more than 65 intentional killings. My tally is precise. I keep a list. I make each entry by hand, in ultra- fine point black ink, inside an orange leather-bound journal my friend Pia gave me one year for Christmas. To an outsider who might read the journal uninformed, the list would seem haphazard. I didn’t anticipate how much it would grow, and I didn’t start out writing small enough, so I had to spill over onto other pages. The timeline is not chronological, because sometimes I wake up at night and realize I left a murder off the list, and I reach for the journal to scribble another entry by the light of my iPhone. I’m caught up now, I think. I’ve got Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas; Devin P. Kelley near San Antonio; and on and on and on.

I started the tally by fluke. One day, shortly after Pia gave me the journal, I held it in my hands and thought about things I wanted to think about. I made page headings. On consecutive leaves, I wrote “War;” “Fitness;” “Books;” and more. One of the headings was “Murder.” It merely was a thought, a place holder for when I figure out what all these killings mean to me, and what I want to say about them.

I did not at first start a page for the Army, although if I had, it may have helped clarify things for me sooner. But it was there, waiting to be created.

x

When I was very young, I decided to become an eyewitness to history. The best way to do this, I realized, was to observe war, which eventually as always would erupt. American wars now take place overseas. Unlike when I lived in Ireland during the Troubles, where you could ride a bus or hitchhike into urban combat, I would have to travel abroad to attend a war. I decided to go as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Even if barred from combat, as women were then, I could go to a combat zone. I could go as an Army journalist, or as a nurse.

I prefer writing to health care, but nursing had one powerful advantage: it would allow me to save the lives of soldiers like the ones I saw every night on television, fighting in Vietnam. I imagined myself wearing my fatigues bearing the Army Medical Corps insignia, ducking beneath the rotor wash of a just-landed medevac, grabbing the gurney, and running the gravely wounded soldier into surgery.

Night after night in bed, I replayed the scenario. Mostly, I saved the soldier. Sometimes, I couldn’t. Even then, I helped him. “It’s going to be fine,” I fantasy-said to the fantasy-soldier, giving coded assurance that his pain would disappear along with his last breath, that his family would love him forever. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

I made my Army-job decision. Journalism would wait until I became a civilian. I enlisted to be a nurse. My specialty: big box, hard core trauma.

x

My first Murder entry in the Pia journal was my introductory massacre.

On that April 16 morning, at 10:53 a.m., PEOPLE magazine’s crime editor called me in Virginia from New York. “Heyyy,” he said in his laid-back speech that always meant something intense was in the works. “There’s this strange… shooting situation… at Virginia Tech. Can you check it out?”

x

When wholesale slaughter unfolds, PEOPLE enacts its mass murder quick-response system. The Crime Team swarms to produce a lasting, respectful tribute to the people who died. The magazine usually publishes a yearbook-style layout of victim headshots, accompanied by loving comments from friends and family. The stories are heartbreaking. They chronicle how each person – each treasured individual who told hilarious jokes, or baked incredible casseroles – died while about to embark on a dream cruise, or within minutes of getting engaged, or while cheering on a loved one running a marathon. The entire Crime Team knows that the magazine will be read and re-read by families and friends, and tucked inside memory boxes for generations to come. We want to give them something worth saving.

My non-journalist friends often remark that the work must be difficult. They are surprised when I respond: My part is easy. While my colleagues pursue the grueling, gut wrenching work of finding and gently approaching the victims’ grief stricken loved ones, and respectfully asking for stories, memories and photos, I delve into the killer.

The killer is interesting work. It has an intellectual component; a puzzle. What prompted the killer to commit this deed? How did the killer create and execute a plan? Why here; why now?

I immersed myself answering these questions about the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. I went to his home, a typical Northern Virginia neighborhood of brick façade townhouses, where people who lived across the parking lot could peek through their blinds and stalk the family whose teenaged son creeped them out. I spoke to people who knew Cho from childhood. I formed a measure of sense about my first mass murderer.

Still, the Crime Team had a mystery.

x

Hours into the Virginia Tech reporting, we in the media knew only that students and professors and their killer were dead. Other than Cho, we didn’t have names. In purely practical terms, our ground-team needed backup.

My editors asked me to help look for victims. Because Northern Virginia feeds heavily into Virginia Tech, I knew many parents whose children attended the school. After carefully verifying that my friends’ children were okay, I reached out to various moms. Someone mentioned a student by name. My source said the student was shot, and was recuperating in a Blacksburg hospital.

I pursued finding this only-named shooting victim. I found him being discussed on a Facebook page. I called my Crime Team leader. We game-planned how to approach the wounded student, and how to tell his survival story as unobtrusively as possible. While having this conversation on the phone, I watched as more comments appeared on the Facebook thread.

“Oh man,” read one.

“I don’t believe this,” read another.

My gut tightened. Faster came the comments, expressing grief and shocked disbelief.

“God bless you.”

“Not you, dear God, not you.”

And then: “RIP.”

I felt the catch in my voice. To my team leader I said: “He’s dead.”

We hung there in silence on the phone. After a moment, I heard her breathe. Quietly she said, “Okay.”

x

I woke up pounding the mattress. I sat up, panting. I looked around in confusion. I was home in my bed, the Cho notes on the nightstand beside me. A moment earlier I’d been wearing fatigues. I’d been halfway across the country, slugging a person I’d spent decades forgetting.

x

The murder beat can be a killer. We journalists make that joke among ourselves, allowing the corny phrase to release the pressure valve, just a little, from deep-diving repeatedly into the heart of darkness. Our employers don’t offer post-murder decompression chambers. For the most part, we handle the effects on our own, to nuanced result.

My workmate Andrea Billups co-wrote Murder in the Suburbs, about Tara Grant, a Michigan woman whose husband killed and dismembered her. The work was a turning point for the author. “I’m not going to write another murder book,” said Billups. “You have to put on that battle armor every time you go to write one of these things. It requires an emotional investment that I feel like I don’t have.”

Another colleague, Alexa Fleming, reported on Jessica Chambers, a Mississippi teenager whose assailant set her on fire while she was alive. Alexa visited Jessica’s house, and sat on the dead girl’s bed while talking to her grief-stricken family. “It’s not about me, and it’s their loss, but of course you’re imagining your own kid,” Alexa said. “We’re talking as reporters to those other people, and we’re forced to think, what’s different about them? The answer is, nothing. If something terrible happened to this lovely family, then nobody is safe.”

Including from crimes other than murder.

x

When I was in the Army, another soldier assaulted me. Worse, in my view, was that when I tried to report the attack, a superior shut me out. Soon afterwards, my assailant threatened me: “I told you to keep your mouth shut. Try that again, and I will ruin you.” It was my first real-world encounter with coverup and intimidation. Today, as a journalist, I would marshal and press harder. Back then, as a powerless teenager, I succumbed to the tactics.

On the outside, I remained calm. Inside, I felt unfettered, murderous rage. I imagined the country at war, and me tossing a grenade to frag my assailant. I imagined my platoon at the range, and my M16 rifle misfiring directly into my assailant’s chest. I never considered enacting my fantasies. Just having them was enough. Besides, I had redeeming power, in the form of my voice.

I speak in soft, low decibels in keeping with my size. I also have a reserve set of loud, theatrical pipes. The first time I offered to use the big voice to call cadence for the platoon, my sergeant looked at me as if to say, “You’re too puny.” One day, the sergeant had a sore throat. Like the understudy who gets thrust into the limelight when the ingenue literally breaks a leg, I was on.

I called cadence as if I were born to march troops. It became my steady gig. I used all the standards, like “The Chicken in the Army” and “Bo Diddly.” I wrote new stanzas. I augmented “I Wanna Be an Airborne Ranger.” I expanded “A Little Bird With a Yellow Bill.”

At night, when raging about my assailant, I calmed myself by conjuring thoughts of how powerful I was when I called cadence.

“I’m going to be fine,” I told myself. “I’m fine. It’s fine. It’s all just perfectly fine.”

 x

I recognize that in addition to creating personal tragedy, the mass killings play a role in society at large. They open debate and self-reflection. The most obvious is that they feed the national conversation about gun laws. Depending on point of view, the murders prove that fewer people should own guns, or that more people should carry weapons in order to stop the killers in their tracks. The impact reaches overseas. I have a cousin in Australia who, following every incident, posts blistering condemnations of America on social media. The merits of his commentary notwithstanding, I often suspect that the killings offer him and other foreigners a satisfying reason to hurl figurative tomatoes at the world’s dominant power.

For me, working the killings has brought unique side effects. In one instance, it helped me assuage a family member’s fears. During the Pulse Nightclub massacre, my daughter Erin could not reach a coworker who frequented the club. Erin knew I’d be on the story, and asked if I’d heard anything about her coworker. I told her his name was not on the victims’ list. Also during Pulse, my friend Pia told me one of the victims was her favorite UPS man. She contributed a comment for his tribute.

In more fundamental terms, the beat showed me my boundaries, my strengths, and my limits.

x

After Virginia Tech, I fine-tuned my work for the Crime Team. I focused on perps. I covered Nicholas Browning, who murdered his entire family after his parents wouldn’t let him drive his birthday gift car until he turned 16. I covered George Huguely, who beat to death his fellow University of Virginia lacrosse player, Yeardley Love, after she tried to break up with him. I covered horrorcore rapper Richard Samuel McCloskey, who hacked his girlfriend and three other people to death and remained for days with their bodies inside a blood-spattered house.

On and on went the killers, and me along with them, doing the easy job amid unspeakable savagery. I got the story. I uncovered pertinent facts. Removed from victims, I slept well. I did not dream about being in the Army and pummeling my assailant.

x

Army medic school was heady stuff. This was prelude, the first step before nursing school. My classmates were slated for war as actual participants, or already had been there. Several wore distinctive color-coded berets to show that they were elite forces. Others wore the revered Combat Infantryman Badge, meaning that they had engaged in direct combat.

The Special Ops guys were my besties, my heroes, my boys. As we attended class or played pool after duty hours, I ruminated on those CIBs and how they were earned. I became fixated on a question.

I knew I could save a life. I’d figured out that much. But could I take one? Given the right circumstance, could I kill?

x

In waking life, the only time the circumstance presented itself was when I was in the Army.

One day, when my buddies were elsewhere on a training exercise, I exited the porta-potties on a break between classes in the field. A soldier from another unit – a truck driver – appeared in my path. I stepped to one side. He blocked me. I stepped to the other side. He blocked me again. The latrines were clustered in rows. No one could see us.

“Hey medic,” he said. “Time to play doctor.” He moved in so close I could smell the smoke on his breath.

“Get the hell away from me,” I said. I’d been assaulted once, and was determined it wouldn’t happen again.

“You know you want it,” the man said. He pinned me against a latrine. He reached beneath my jacket, casting about for my waistband, fumbling for the side buttons we had on the women’s fatigue pants. “Why don’t you just relax -“

My hands sprang fast around his throat. “Why don’t I just kill you,” I said. I pushed my thumbs deep into the hollow beneath his Adam’s apple.

x

Are murderers unilaterally evil? Is murder based in genetics? Are killers destined to commit homicide? I discussed these questions with a Canadian sociologist, Professor Ken Westhues, who studies murder.

“As I see it, all of us humans have homicidal tendencies,” Westhues told me.

By his definition, that would include small, soft spoken, intermittently bigmouthed teenage women.

x

“You motherfucking piece of shit,” I said, squeezing ever harder.

The truck driver’s eyes bulged with terror. His face went white, and then purple. I don’t know what color suffused my own face, only that it burned hot.

I became aware that the man no longer touched me. His hands flailed. I pushed him sharply back. I glared at him with contempt. “Fuck you,” I said. I left him doubled over, coughing against a port-a-potty.

x

I secretly moved off post. I found a cheap studio apartment outside the gates. I got up daily at 0400 in order to make it in time to morning formation.

I could not shake the rages. They arrived unbidden in my dreams. One night I fought so violently in my sleep, I collapsed into exhaustion, and slept through my alarm. I woke up in a panic. I pulled on my fatigues, jumped inside my old Buick, and raced for the gate. A police officer pulled me over for speeding. He let me off without a ticket, but I was late to formation.

The platoon sergeant called me aside. He stared meaningfully at my neck. “Did you forget something?”

I looked down to see that instead of my regulation white t-shirt, a bright yellow pajama top peeked out from the v-neck of my fatigues. I looked up. My eyes met the sergeant’s. These goddamn night rages, I thought. These motherfucking predators. The CIB-Green-Beret-Ranger dudes notwithstanding, I wasn’t going to escape the dirtbags. I wasn’t afraid of them. I was afraid of myself. Next time, I might actually kill someone.

“Sarge,” I said. My voice was shaking. “I want out.”

 x

From time to time as the years went by, raising my family and pursuing my career, I thought about that day by the latrines. Was I capable of murder? Do I, like Professor Westheus posited, have homicidal tendencies?

Each new murder reinforced the conclusion that no, I do not. Like any other person in dire circumstance, I can experience rage; but in the heat of the moment, when faced with opportunity, I had not crossed the line into murder. Overall, I was in excellent mental health, I assessed.

I preserved my equilibrium by maintaining the firewall against victims. I didn’t have any more night rages. I established a second bulwark, against the topic of Military Sexual Trauma. I didn’t write about it. Even when writing extensively about war and the military, I didn’t think about my own days in the Army. All told, everything was fine. It all was perfectly fine.

Then came Sandy Hook.

 x

It began like all the others, with the team assembling on the fly in response to an evolving situation at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My colleagues and the rest of the world’s media streamed into Newtown, Connecticut.

As per always, I was on the killer. So as not to waste time traveling from Virginia, I worked from my desk at home, grinding the phone and the ‘net for whatever I could learn about the killer and the investigation.

At some point during the barrage, an editor asked me to pitch in on the managerial end. She tasked me with assigning reporters to victims. I tried to go as easy as possible on my colleagues in the field. I tried to balance out their rosters to include both adults and children, hoping to evenly apportion the psychic pain. I didn’t want any one reporter to take on too much.

As I doled out assignments, the victim roster continued to grow. We did not have enough reporters. The research team in New York cranked out contact lists and neighbors’ names at top speed, but they were pedaling uphill. The drill for reporters is never to cold-call a grieving family, but to ask a friend, neighbor, or relative to act as go-between, to request a photo and a few memories to include in a tribute. Most people willingly comply. They want to speak their loved ones’ names. They want to see them honored. But given our production time frame, the reporters could not reach out to all their go-betweens, and gather all their tributes by deadline. We needed an extra victim-reporter. One person was available. Me.

I am not proud of what I did next. I rationalized it as best I could. I told myself that for tributes to the children, it was more respectful if someone approached the go-betweens in person. In truth, I personally could not fathom calling anyone to talk about a murdered child, even for a tribute that would be stored for generations inside a family treasure box. No matter how noble the task, how well-intended the work, I could not do it. I assigned myself to gather tributes only for adults. I am ashamed to report that I left my steadfast colleagues the agonizing charge of compiling tributes for children.

As the numbers increased, the assignments were uneven. Some reporters were absorbing the bulk. I reconfigured the list. I gave myself a child.

I walked the line between hoping I couldn’t reach anyone and laser-focusing my efforts on making sure my child had a beautiful, touching tribute. I reached a contact quickly. The person was grateful for the chance to contribute. The voice on the other end of the phone spoke lovingly about a bright little spirit, a joyful presence in everyone’s lives. The voice also told me about Christmas gifts recently purchased, sitting under the tree, never to be unwrapped.

x

A few days after the magazine went to press, I randomly thought about the Army. I fleetingly wondered about other women who unwittingly served alongside the person I never reported. Then I shook the thought from my mind, and went to the grocery store.

On the stands, I saw it: the PEOPLE magazine featuring Sandy Hook. There on the cover, amid the yearbook-style gallery, was the sweetly smiling face of “my” child.

The world went grey. I sank to my knees. There in the checkout lane, in full view of clerks and shoppers, I dropped my face into my hands, and I sobbed.

x

The VA tells me the average wait time to report Military Sexual Trauma is 30 years after the event. The veterans report the assaults when their children leave home, or when the veterans retire, and have time to reflect on their younger lives. The reports don’t magically emerge at the 30-year marks, a therapist told me. Something usually serves as a trigger.

In my case, the trigger occurred in 2015 in Boston. I was digging into the life of Katherine Tsarnaev, whose brother-in-law Dzhokar was on trial for his part in bombing the Boston Marathon. While delving into the story, I sub-leased an apartment in New Hampshire from a buddy who’d moved in with his girlfriend.

I hung out at the bombers’ old neighborhood. I mingled among the locals. People knew who I was, and what I was doing. One day, some of them punked me. They surrounded me, glowering. They pressed a tight circle, leaving me no escape. Then they backed away laughing. I showed no reaction in the moment, but that night, I beat up my wall in my sleep.

The next day, after reassuring me that I hadn’t broken anything, a VA doctor asked pertinent questions, connected the dots, and sent me to the sexual assault coordinator. I didn’t want to talk about my long-ago Army days, but after some coaxing, I wrote out a brief statement. I omitted the part about living with the knowledge that I’d left other women to serve alongside a predator.

Back at the apartment, I started a new page in the Pia notebook. The heading read: ARMY.

x

The weeks trundled on. Dzhokar Tsarnaev was convicted. I wrote about that, and about his sister-in-law, Katherine. People in Baltimore rioted after police were acquitted in the death of Freddie Grey. I wrote about that, too.

My apartment buddy turned up at my door. He couldn’t stand his girlfriend, he said. He wanted to move back into his place. The timing was excellent. I’d arranged to go to sea aboard a Navy aircraft carrier. As soon as the snow cleared, I headed south to Virginia, to catch my embark.

x

Memory is a complex thing, surfacing at its own rhythm – especially when it comes to trauma. Alexa Fleming has a predictable rhythm regarding Jessica Chambers: “I think about her all time.”

With me, the Army business resurfaced when – amid nonstop revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Larry Nassar, and their protectors – my rages returned to the point that I ran out of ways to control them on my own. I went into a VA residential treatment program for PTSD. By that time, the Pia journal was crowded. The entries for Murder spilled over onto the page for Army. While in the PTSD program, I experienced a flash of adrenalin. After seeing a breaking news bulletin, I wanted to email my editors to say, “Available to work Parkland murders,” to carry my share of the load. I suppressed the urge. I couldn’t work the story. I was otherwise occupied.

Before I ducked out on Parkland, though, and before I entered the PTSD program, I encountered the Connecticut road sign.

When I saw the sign, everything surged. The shootings. The deaths. My efforts to avoid doing victims; and then, not only doing victims, but God help me, a child. Sinking to the floor in the grocery story, knowing that my sorrow was nothing compared to the families’ unending grief; and a blip compared to what my colleagues must have felt when they saw their own multiple children’s faces on the cover.

This was my truth. I didn’t save any wounded warriors. I didn’t report the assault. I didn’t remove a predator from the ranks. I didn’t take on enough children.

I wanted to make amends. In homage to my frontline colleagues – women in the Army, the soldier medics, and reporters like Alexa and Andrea – I had to visit Sandy Hook.

x

I hadn’t realized I was speeding toward the offramp to Exit 10; 6 West. The red and blue lights in my rearview mirror informed me I was.

While I parked on the shoulder, the police officer assessed me carefully. He surely noted my out of state plates; third-state license; concealed carry permit; the Jeep packed with camping gear; and oh yes, an AK-47 sticker on the window, and a Blackwater license plate frame, from when I trained there for a story.

The officer watched my hands. “What brings you to Newtown?” he asked.

The officer seemed nice. He had kind eyes. I sensed that he’d experienced pain, and would understand. In a rush, I blurted the answer. “I’m a journalist,” I said. “I covered the massacre. Only, I didn’t do enough. I didn’t take on my share. My colleagues…they came here. They came here in person, and -“

“Hey.” The officer cut me off. “I worked that case, myself.” He turned away, toward the bucolic panorama and restful vistas. We both followed his gaze upon what really could be an animate Constable painting, or the model for one. Sheep grazed. Clouds floated. Grass greened and sky blued.

The officer’s voice went muted. “You don’t need to pay more dues,” he said. He turned back to me, his eyes now covered by blackout sunglasses. “You’re paying enough right now.” He returned my license without running it. “Fire up that Jeep, young lady. Go on back to your travels.” He thumped the door. “And watch your pace.”

I did as the officer advised. I pressed the clutch to the floor. I cranked up the engine. I found my opening. I worked the choreography of foot pedals, accelerating forward into the flow of traffic. I yanked my wheel to the left. I swung too hard, over-corrected, and settled back on course.

I’m going to be fine, I told myself. I’m fine. It’s fine. It’s all just perfectly fine.

Susan Katz Keating is an award winning writer specializing in war, terrorism, and international security. She is the author of Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America (Random House), and books for young readers. Her work has appeared in Readers Digest, the New York Times, Soldier of Fortune, and other publications. She is secretary of the board of Military Reporters & Editors. She served in the U.S. Army, where she earned her Expert rating on the M-16 rifle. She covers major crime for PEOPLE magazine. She lives on the road, following stories wherever they take her.

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