The Lessons of Cinematic Violence - Dan's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" Review

BRAD PITT AND LEONARDO DICAPRIO IN “ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD”

BRAD PITT AND LEONARDO DICAPRIO IN “ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD”

“I’ve been expanding on this one idea in my head. Alright, dig it…we all grew up watching TV, y’know what I mean? And if you grew up watching TV, THAT means you grew up watching murder. And EVERY show on TV that wasn’t ‘I Love Lucy’ was about murder. So…my idea is…we kill the people who taught us to kill.”

To me, this is the most important line of dialogue from Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. It was spoken by Tarantino’s interpretation of a Manson cult member of the ‘60s, who participated in a deadly home-invasion on the night of August 8th, 1969. 

Tarantino uses some pretty ingenious subtext in his movie to suggest that the motive for this madness is somewhat irrelevant in the end. and he depicts the wide-eyed hippies on the 1960s “Manson farm” (i.e. “Spahn Ranch”) as women who would likely be trolling Reddit or the dark web if they were alive today. It all has a deeply-sad sort of irrelevance, and possibly even a jaded one, but it does ring true to my mind. With the quote I cited above, Tarantino takes an opportunity to position a highly-strategic “screw you” to his most aggressive anti-violence critics…considering his vehement rejection of the association between film violence and actual real-life violence. There is a video on YouTube of Tarantino vehemently debating people who believe this, and Tarantino once delivered this observation in an interview:

“I have a little joke, but it actually is kind of true, that kids who watch violent movies -- again, who like them, not that you force them -- but if the kids will respond to that naturally, it won't make them a violent human being when they grow up, but it could very well make them violent filmmakers when they grow up.”

This quote is arguably trying to point out the absurdity of someone citing violence in the media as the ONE thing that ultimately made them a monster. As if to say “Nope, it’s not Charles Manson’s brainwashing influence, the lifestyle this murderer lives in, her abusive parents, her complicated genetics, or the environment she grew up in, it’s just TV, dummy!” Although, to be fair, a real-life Manson follower named Nancy Pitman is actually quoted as having once said the following:

"We are what you have made us, we were brought up on your TV. We were brought up watching ‘Gunsmoke’ [and] ‘Have Gun Will Travel’.”

I imagine Tarantino is a very firm believer in stripping out all the loaded political weight of a statement like this (especially in our ultra-divisive context of today), and instead exploring more intimate human truths…which, in this case, is that movies and TV really can (and do) help to shape us in all kinds of ways. I’ve had some distaste for Tarantino always working very, very hard to craft a “pastiche plot” or “sampler story” in a great many of his movies…which, in my opinion, is solely designed to accommodate as much of Tarantino’s quirks, dark humor, and iconoclastic worldview as humanly possible (even if such a plot or story isn’t necessarily the best thing for his characters, effectively bloating them with so much excess). Be all that as it may, for the first time since “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino actually shifts all his resources towards building a WORLD, top to bottom; a world that most people have never known, and, in a certain respect, does not fully exist anymore. But, for me, it is a world with aspects that I not only know, but I also actively live within, even all the way over here in sleepy Storrs, CT. This, to my mind, is the foundation of any great film.

The 1969 incarnation of Hollywood, as Tarantino chooses to narrow it all down, is a world where greatness (specifically, the greatness of publicly-celebrated manhood) is a mirage that feels more real than any other mirage on the planet. But, whenever anyone in Hollywood tries to dive headlong into that mirage, they end up face-down on the floor (and not just metaphorically speaking, as many of the film’s characters actually do wind up there at one point or another). They then begrudgingly pick themselves back up, while licking their wounded egos in private, and painfully learning that their own mirage of greatness may never be real. They carefully craft their lifestyles to SEEM like they own their lives 100%, and are in full control of whatever they say and do…but, as you learn more about our hero character, Rick Dalton (a fictional over-the-hill TV western actor), you realize that he’s ALWAYS beholden to the people who have the power to hire him, and he has next to NO control over what he says (mostly pre-written lines), or how he says it (mostly because of a notable stutter he has, which I can obviously relate to). Little wonder, then, that Rick is always in a state of paralyzing fear about the possible downhill slope of his life and career just around the corner, even though no one will ever confirm this for him, or explain why it’s happening. Because, let’s face it, this is Hollywood…where everyone implies the word “no”, but nobody actually says it. 

(Been there! Still doing that...)

The only person in Rick’s life who will loyally, earnestly, and regularly say “yes” to him is his loyal longtime stuntman and personal assistant, Cliff Booth, who is also Rick’s best friend. Cliff has pretty much all the character traits Rick doesn’t; he’s confident, decisive, self-accepting, and 125% allergic to interpersonal bullcrap. In fact, violent confrontations involving Cliff seem to be pretty commonplace, but they never are initiated by Cliff. Instead, they’re initiated by other annoying people who dare to serve up fresh bullcrap…which Cliff, of course, will not tolerate from anyone, from disgruntled hippies to Bruce Lee in the flesh. Perhaps another filmmaker would be far more judgmental of Cliff because of this; after all, Cliff is someone who lives in a ramshackle trailer with a bulldog, and has links to several Hollywood scandals, very few friends, and no steady career. Tarantino, however, is absolutely and unequivocally reverent of Cliff, and presents him as a social and emotional titan…after all, he is the only character who has rubbed shoulders with every social strata in Hollywood.

This is why, in a characteristic twist of real-life history, Tarantino selects the fictional character of Cliff to murder the murderous Manson-ite hippies on the night of August 8th, 1969…thus sparing the lives of Sharon and her friends in this fascinating alternate reality. And, yes, Tarantino does show every gory detail in a fetishistic display of violence, which is absolutely riveting, as well as roundly disturbing. This use of violence does admittedly pose a moral quandry: Tarantino has just implied that his brand of ultraviolence just solved a series of unsolvable problems in this fictional universe. It is also implied that the murder of these hippies brought manhood back to Rick and Cliff (and their roles in the Hollywood community)…at the minimum, it restored their friendship, which was about to come to an end before all of the violence commenced.

It is indisputably true in the non-cinematic world that violence rarely solves problems in a sustainable way. Tarantino himself acknowledges this, with this quote he once espoused in an interview:

“If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It's one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.”

This may be a maddeningly-inarticulate statement in itself, but the sentiment behind it is something I tend to agree with on an artistic level. Tarantino once said there are two types of violence in film: “traumatic violence” and “cathartic violence”. Traumatic violence obviously needs no definition (as almost all violence on the planet can be classified as that for most people), but this is how Tarantino defines “cathartic violence”:

“I feel like a conductor and the audience's feelings are my instruments. I will be like, 'Laugh, laugh, now be horrified'. When someone does that to me, I've had a good time at the movies.”

I admit that men may be more predisposed more than women to have this “good time” with cathartic on-screen violence, but I have also known a good amount of women who consider themselves Tarantino fans. Furthermore, Tarantino kept violence out of the vast majority of the film (just as he did with “Jackie Brown” in 1997), and rather skillfully made his 4.5 minutes of violence (in a 160-minute movie) count for FAR more heft than many American movies. It is also undeniably true that most violence in Tarantino movies (including this one) does involve women, who are commonly on the receiving end of it. This is where I think people have to work as hard as they can to exit the “political persecution” mode of thinking, and move toward the “speculatively-empathetic” mode of thinking…because, when all is said and done, Tarantino is an extremely-empathic filmmaker, and I’ll proudly debate anyone who claims otherwise. 

I’ll leave most of the speculative empathy to Patty’s blog about the film, who likes to opine that Tarantino is someone who likely had a rough childhood, was bullied a lot in grade school, and has serious issues relating to women. I must admit that there is evidence towards all three of these conclusions, based on the fact that Tarantino was born to a 16-year-old mother and an absentee father, with a hair-trigger way of thinking and emoting that has frightened many (even those who revere him), and he did not get married until age 55. I absolutely can empathize with Tarantino’s proclivities, celebrations, and weaknesses, which he proudly and skillfully exhibits on the silver screen…just as I can 125% empathize with both Rick and Cliff, which primarily explains the four stars I’m giving this film. 

As I have experience in talking about spectrums, I’d say I’m right in the middle of the “Rick and Cliff personality spectrum”. I myself have profound angst, alienation, and feelings of uselessness at times, and I am also thoroughly intolerant of bullcrap…I just choose not to drink myself to an everyday stupor to cope with it all, nor do I get into hostile/violent confrontations (or associate with hitchhikers, however comely), which cannot be said of either Rick or Cliff. 

But, hey, if there is one ultimate point to this rumination of mine (and I certainly hope there is at least one, hehe), it’s this: live and let live. This is something I have a VERY hard time remembering now and then (as I know most of us do, and in this polarized age, now more than ever)…but, it can be a lot easier to understand this sentiment if you appreciate good films and television, and allow them to help you connect with the larger world. This is something that certain people (such as the followers of Charles Manson) will likely never understand…and, if not, please don’t blame it on Tarantino.

The Lessons of Cinematic Violence - Patty's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" Review

I confess, I have not be able to stomach every Tarantino movie that comes down the pike…I was born in the relatively-peaceful fifties, and will never have the ability to face on-screen violence without leaping out of my seat. This has caused Dan a few moments of embarrassment upon hearing my horrified gasps, which are way beyond my control to squelch...because of this, I really hated “Kill Bill”, as the violence there somehow became horrific and boring at the same time. This is probably the ultimate indicator as to when movie violence has gone way too far.

I did love “Pulp Fiction”, however…I loved how all the characters diversely (and amusingly) coped with all the wild situations Tarantino threw them in, as well as how their conversations ran the gamut from God to French quarter-pounders-with-cheese. Even if I don't enjoy violence in films, I'm certainly not against the ungratuitous kind…the kind that does not involve the harm of animals, while still moving the plot along. Yes, we can all hurt each other if we so desire, but what OTHER interesting things can people do together?

This is why I went to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” with a bit of trepidation (and sat in the upper rows of a fairly-unpopulated showing, so no one could glare at me); I am happy to join Dan in giving this remarkable film four stars, with a crowning achievement and a caveat.

The crowning achievement is to have the main character (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) have a stutter, without any mention of it in the entire film by any character. It's just a quality that Rick has, as if it were a large nose or straight white teeth, with no value judgments given…save for what we ourselves bestow. This surprised me greatly, because I was bracing to have this character be insulted by others for his disfluency, or to protest and complain about it, or “overcome it” in a way that zips the film right to the Oscars…but it ends up being just a part of Rick, and I found this cinematic achievement very refreshing.

Now, for the caveat…although Tarantino certainly restrains himself remarkably for the majority of this film by keeping the potential violence to a minimum (and the fight scenes as lighthearted as any I've ever seen), the character of Cliff “falls off the peace train” in an ultraviolent finale that I take a bit of issue with. This occurred to me as one of the clueless Manson-ites was flailing in Rick’s pool, mortally-injured, and about to be burned to a crisp by Cliff's flamethrower. She made horrendous noises throughout this ordeal, and it made me wonder about just how much our reactions were being “choreographed” by Tarantino. I do understand his decades-long penchant for doing this, and I get that this woman would have continued to do horrendous things if she hadn't been stopped by Cliff and Rick…but I do think a single well-aimed bullet may have done the trick, just like with Marvin in “Pulp Fiction”.

Sure, this may not have been as much fun (and I believe this fun comes from the relief that we are vicariously “back in charge” of Tarantino’s world)…and, on our watch, no lovely pregnant woman is going to die a gruesome death. Phew. I do get that…but, I also remember thinking (earlier in the film) as a teenage Manson-ite girl hitchhiked her way into Cliff's car, that these girls (who are based on actual girls) were highly-disturbed for justifiable reasons. Violence begets violence, rather than solving it, and movies should not aspire to be 100% entertainment…they should inform, challenge, and inspire.

And just what is "speculative empathy," which Dan believes I can wax intelligently upon? I had no idea, so I Googled it…and although I didn't find it officially listed, I did bump into a term called "Narrative Empathy," which was in an 28-page essay by Suzanne Keen, in a scholarly journal called The Muse.  

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/423020

I found this quite relevant to the discussion I’m having with myself...it is a bit of a heavy read, but I'll try to condense it here. This article essentially states that technology can now identify "Mirror Neurons" in our brains which help us to read other people's minds, to emotionally relate to them, and perhaps kick up a bit of empathy ("I feel your pain”) or sympathy ("I can see you are in pain"). This is certainly intriguing, because I already knew about Mirror Neurons from my work as a psychologist in working with children with autism, as well as through my experiences of raising Dan. "Mindblindness" is a term that refers to the inability to incorporate other people's points of view over our own, and this term can certainly apply to anyone (on the spectrum or off). It is a concept that those on the spectrum are vulnerable to, and it may have a biological base involving their Mirror Neurons, or lack thereof.

"Neuroscientists have already declared that people scoring high on empathy tests have especially busy mirror neuron systems in their brains. Fiction writers are likely to be among these high empathy individuals. For the first time we might investigate whether human differences in mirror neuron activity can be altered by exposure to art, to teaching, to literature."

In my mind, this is an important point for all of us to absorb…and I can back it up from personal experience, I’m proud to say. At age 32, Dan continues to be one of the most empathetic people I know. Theoretically, this is because I read to Dan for many of his formative years (primarily ages 2-5), but I don’t desire any accolades for this decision. After all, I was merely a terrified English major who raised a precocious son in autism's dark ages; I used to lug home grocery bags full of children's books, in just the way other women lugged grocery bags.

Another point Keen makes about empathy is that it can lead to sympathy for another's plight…or, it can lead to personal distress, which actually tends to shut down altruism. This thought clarifies some unresolved feelings I've had about Trump (our supposed leader and role model), and how I tend to turn away from every national provocation he attempts.

"Personal distress, an aversive emotional response also characterized by apprehension of another’s emotion, differs from empathy in that it focuses on the self and leads not to sympathy but to avoidance. The distinction between empathy and personal distress matters because empathy is associated with the moral emotion sympathy (also called empathic concern) and thus with prosocial or altruistic action. Empathy that leads to sympathy is by definition other-directed, whereas an over-aroused empathic response that creates personal distress (self-oriented and aversive) causes a turning-away from the provocative condition of the other."

I am always an eternal optimist at heart, and this is why I believe Tarantino will continue to develop as a filmmaker (as well as human being), which may ultimately expand his ability to empathize with all of his characters…and perhaps we will be ready to take that leap of empathy on our end, too. I think we are all gradually leaving behind the morally-unambiguous era I grew up in, which was full of obvious villains and heroes.

Regarding the four stars I'm still giving this film (despite its gruesome finale), I do fundamentally agree with Dan. Tarantino did a good job of creating a world I understood, and I enjoyed spending time in it. His characters were endearing and great fun to watch (for the most part), and the juxtaposition of people in various places was clever. Also, despite the violence of the film’s ending, I did embrace the fundamental uniqueness and originality of how it played around with history. Take that, all of you tired sequels…especially “Kill Bill Vol. 2”!

I think Dan was right on the money when he opined that Tarantino is a genius in creating an understandable and relatable cinematic world…even if it is wildly different than our own. There is a huge overlap between our individual experiences in this world, and the surrounding cultures that supposedly separate us. Despite those factors, I do believe most of us occupy the same psychological framework. 

Movies are the ultimate tool that can help us understand all this, and enable us to soar into the larger concerns of the universe…while having a good time doing it.

Together.

For, you see, all of us are ultimately connected; I felt this acknowledgment from Tarantino at the movie's ending, when Sharon’s security gate opened, and Cliff was invited inside by the potential victims he just unwittingly saved. How often do we help each other out, sometimes without even knowing it? Imagine what we could do together if we were more aware...

And, for the record, although I am a pacifist, I’m certainly no saint; I do wish that someone really had killed Manson's followers before they killed those five innocent denizens of the Hollywood Hills. I just wish it wasn't with a flamethrower...

A Movement of Mayhem and Bullets - Dan's POV

It seems like it occurs every year, and always spurred by another preventable tragedy: the emotional debate about gun control, and why so many shootings are happening in our homeland. Sometimes I find myself at a complete loss to understand why this cycle continues… because, as a guy on the autism spectrum, understanding social motivations isn’t always my forte.

I recently asked Patty why she thinks we have so many mass shootings, always followed by such sound and fury that ends up signifying nothing, and she had an answer that opened my mind as to its clarity and degree of thought (which Patty will expound upon in her own opinion piece that follows this one). For my own answer, I will simply attempt to ruminate on America’s unique fixation on violence, not as a weapon of war or survival, but, rather, as an unvarnished statement.

I think most of these macabre statements aren’t intended to be countered with rebuttals written in further bloodshed (even though they are often inevitable), but a subject like this certainly begs the question: What could these people possibly be trying to say!? For all of my life, I’ve been trained to intellectually analyze as much real-world communication as I can (admittedly for my own benefit), just as I have spent countless hours ruminating on the plots of movies, TV and books. Mass shootings are permanently located in that vast void between real-life and surrealistic storytelling…it is small wonder that such a thing is always so hard to process.

A partial answer to this conundrum could lie in the concerns that our most troubled youth may never be fully honest with their loved ones about. For most of us millennials, one of the foremost things we all wish we could hold one person accountable for (but will never be able to) is how big of a gulf exists between the entitlements we were promised as we grew up, and the things we actually received later in life. Most people would associate the concept of power with either the earning of said power, or being born with it; I believe that a whole new generation is coming to believe that power should be handed to each and every of us, by one submissive power-provider at a time.

Perhaps the most primitively-invaluable and wired-in-nature thing some men want handed to them can be traced back to a brief story I still remember from my middle school days. If my memory is to be trusted, I was coasting through that time of my life with occasional flurries of social activity…which were periodically interrupted by the sensory and emotional overload of monthly fire alarms, gym class, withdrawals from my constant computer use, and the travails of puberty. On one unremarkable morning, I was getting ready for the day, and I came downstairs so Patty could drive me to school; I was wearing a black sweatshirt and dark-green sweatpants at the time. As I guess most sensical women would do (but most men probably wouldn’t care much about), my mom instantly urged me to change my clothes into something less “geeky”. I asked her rather indignantly why it mattered so much to her, and what the point was of me changing my clothes. She took a vulnerable pause, and her voice trembled and trailed off when she said, “You just never know when you’re going to meet that special girl…”

And now, some twenty-odd years later, that one mythic “special girl” (as somewhat-vaguely defined back then) still has yet to walk into my life, despite my not wearing those “geeky green pants” ever again after that day. If it sounds like there’s some anger in that statement or story, I certainly don’t intend for there to be. While I do sometimes grapple with the needling frustrations and bleakness of dating (as I imagine we all do), I am often able to ignore them when I think about the large quantity of special women I’ve typed with and talked with in my life. It very, very rarely has eclipsed verbal/written back-and-forth, that is true…but this component is the heart, soul, and lifeblood of all enduring relationships that enrich and complete us. Even handicapped people without the ability to see, hear, speak, and/or type are capable of finding love, and many of them have done so…which is the very kind of thought that drives a certain portion of millennial/Gen-X America absolutely insane. This is an Americana demographic called “the incels” (i.e. “involuntary celibates”).

The unofficial creator and figurehead of the “incel movement” is a young man named Elliot Rodger…who once killed six people and injured fourteen others in the UCSB area of Isla Vista, California in 2014, before turning the gun on himself. What truly set him apart from other mass murderers in the minds of many was the elaborate video manifesto (along with an extensive body of writing) he left behind before the killings, with deeply-disturbing lucidity of every inch of his angst and his actions-to-be. His unquestionable primary reason for doing what he did was to deliver retribution against women in general for their rejection of him, and against specific men he knew who seemed successful with women through his eyes. Speaking as a filmmaker, what most grabbed my attention about the video manifesto was how he filmed it in his car right at “magic hour” (i.e. the “golden hour” before the sun sets), which, compounded by the fact that his father is a film/commercial director, made sense as to his desire for maximum visual appeal for the baring of his deeply-disturbed soul. I’m always struck by how high the modern standards are for aesthetic sheen and palpable emotion in written, visual, or sonic outreach…and I find it quite surreal to think that this also applies to mass murderers now.

I do unfortunately believe that any of us are theoretically capable of murder if we fall into precisely-wrong circumstances, with precisely-wrong people, at the precisely-wrong time. I do not condone murder or physical harm of any kind, of course, but I’m never stunned to the point of speechlessness if someone I know finds himself entangled in such a nightmare. In fact, one of my forever-lasting memories in high school was when I became a highly-unconventional “prank victim” (at the machination of one of my best friends at the time), when this friend successfully convinced me over AOL Instant Messenger that he had killed someone in a drunken bar brawl the previous night, and needed advice as to what to do next. I believed it hook, line and sinker, and did my best to offer him deeply-serious and sensitive counsel as to how I would turn myself in and beg for the Lord’s forgiveness…considering he came from a devout Catholic family.

Shortly after this exchange, I found out he was just “messing with me”, when I saw him laughing with a cluster of other high-school kids about it in the lobby; he did look slightly-apologetic as he admitted it. After an hour of being privately-angry, humiliated, and sad about what I’d allowed myself to believe, I decided to just “roll with it”, and I posted the full transcript of the prank on my AIM profile for all my classmates to see (because I knew my friend was a highly-public type of prankster on numerous occasions). Even though none of my peers actually said this to me in the midst of their laughter, I could tell a lot of them were surprised as to the depth of such a seemingly-evil confession I’d allowed myself to instantly, unquestionably believe, and by the depth of caring my words had while being pranked. I could see where they were coming from, of course…but I was inversely surprised at the implication that, if anyone they knew ever privately confessed an awful thing they once did, they would just respond with something like “Hahaha, good joke, man.”

Perhaps one could make an argument that I was a bit “ahead of the sociological curve” in this instance…because I’m aware as to how horribly-different of a world high school is now, compared to how it was when I was there. Facebook and YouTube were in their earliest infancy back when I graduated high school in 2005, and now these two services (combined with many, many other forms of social media) rule every inch of young kids’ lives both inside and outside of the schoolyard, which has given rise to whole new types of cyber-bullying as a result. I think it’s no coincidence that now, as far as I know, almost every American school district has regular “active shooter drills”. Back when I was in school, all I ever had were fire drills, and I could barely even handle THOSE for autism-related sensory reasons.

You can easily imagine how utterly-powerless this kind of constant, hovering fear made me feel…especially when special-ed aides had to bring me out of the school in advance of every fire drill, which I admittedly did need for a while. It was this kind of thing which led the special-ed department to think I was more enfeebled than I actually was back then…which is why I was dismissed from school 2-3 hours earlier than everyone else for a solid year (without anybody consulting with me first), and, on the very rare occasions I had to give a speech to a crowd of fellow students, I had “moral support guides” assigned to be onstage with me (which I never asked for, and did not actually need). These experiences of mine made me wonder as to just how many ways Elliot Rodger had to endure this kind of well-intentioned indignity. Perhaps it was a motivation for THIS particular excerpt from his manifesto: "After I picked up [a] handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who's the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who've looked down on me in the past."

I take comfort in knowing I do NOT want power for the sake of power, and I was never raised to want that, or brainwashed into needing to want that. This is not to suggest that Elliot Rodger’s central issue is the way he was raised; I have read many things that suggest that Elliot Rodger was raised by very fine parents, doing their best with a deeply-troubled child who was in therapy at the age of eight, and flirted with many would-be diagnoses until a doctor unofficially labeled him as PDD (a form of autism) when he was 17. He refused all medications he was ever prescribed for most of his life, and he rejected all other therapies suggested to him after his PDD diagnosis. He was bullied here and there throughout middle school, and then bullied every day with full force in high school.

As it turned out, the only place he could truly find refuge was in the “World of Warcraft”, an immensely-popular video game amongst American men. This is not to suggest that “World of Warcraft” caused or prompted Elliot Rodger to act on his darkest desires, but it is things like this that make me feel justified in my distaste for video games in general. In this sense, I think the sudden rise of socially-lawless cyber-landscapes for American youth has brought about a rise of individual power dynamics amongst young men and women, in the vain hopes of finally distilling their intense social and emotional inadequacies. Available weaponry, unspeakable vulnerability, and the casual onset of a relentlessly-bullying culture have all unfortunately set a stage that cannot easily be unset.

To best prevent bullying in a way that actually educates bullies (rather than just marginalizing them or retailiating against them), I think all Americans should make a vow to allow and encourage the deepest and most honest of communication as the ultimate method of problem-solving and conflict prevention. We must ALL take on the duty of identifying people at their boiling points (or soon about to be), with their self-esteem crumbling like sand…and then attempt to provide them with the communicative outlet they may have never have had for their entire lives. At the very minimum, we have to treat mental and emotional vulnerability with compassion wherever we find it. These are all ways I think we can work together toward peace…which I’m well aware, in such an immensely complex world, is far easier said than done.

A Movement of Mayhem and Bullets - Patty's POV

As weary as we are of discussing the Newtown, Columbine, and Parkland tragedies, while factoring in growing list of other shootings such as El Paso and Dayton, the silent witnessing of these horrific acts alone will not inspire peace across the land. How do I know this? Because sales for assault rifles skyrocketed on the days following the Sandy Hook shooting…along with magazine clips designed to increase the speed of any assault.

We are slowly making progress in our fight against the NRA, however, for us to further scratch beneath the surface of the usual gun-control debates, we need to identify many other issues that can only be addressed in unity. I think it will take much cooperative effort to effect true change that can make a lasting difference…and not just for our children, but our grandchildren as well. We all must try to understand how Adam (and many other mass shooters) somehow failed to become a part of us as caring members of their communities, and drifting so far beyond our grasp that not only couldn’t we help them, but we couldn’t even defend ourselves, or our children, from them.

Keeping guns out of the wrong hands seems to be the only idea that all civilized people in our nation can agree upon…so, perhaps this can serve as a starting point for our national dialogue, which has become painfully polarized, clichéd, and clouded with confusion; it is crystal clear that the time is now for us to come together and create a safer society, especially for the most vulnerable among us. I believe we do know how to do it, but we still can’t get the powers that be to implement assault rifle bans, expanded background checks, closed loopholes and a buy-back weapons and other such concepts, although I know we will keep trying.

Mental health is the card the NRA plays when they feel we are gaining ground here with them beginning to lose in the court of public opinion; blame it all on the mentally ill and focus on finding ways to ferret them out and fix them in time to prevent all potential tragedies. Trump weighed in just yesterday to say it’s time we began to build those institutions we used to have, the ones we left behind decades ago. This shortsighted view of menta health is dangerous, and rather than yellow stars, I can envision our Trumponian world’s next step as a calculated attempt to dehumanize those deemed “mentally ill” before we detain them, perhaps indefinitely, the way we used to, or kill them, the way the Nazis did not that long ago. In fact, a whole ward full of children, the first children ever diagnosed with Asperger’s by the man himself, were exterminated as the Holocaust was just beginning to pick up steam; please don’t think we this won’t happen again because we are above this level of thought because we seem to be sinking lower every day in our national dialogue.

We all know of certain parents who are a bit askew: the neglectful parents who drank too much, the mothers who weren’t enough of a presence for their children or were way too much of one, and not in a good way. There were also the absentee parents, whose crimes were more neglect than abuse, but whose absence created a painful vacuum rather than full bellies and a hug at bedtime. Certainly not all the children of these wayward parents will end up mass murderers…but many of them will, in fact, end their own lives, with suicide being homicide’s quiet and sneaky cousin, or grow up to face prison time or a lingering depression or domestic abuse.

It would seem that society should create a better safety net for all of these children before the damage has been done; perhaps creating a support system that would allow children to counterbalance the homelife, school life, or social life that is destroying them can make a real difference. If school could expand their goals for students they are supposed to serve far past simple test scores (i.e. their “holy grails of achievement”) to focus more on the social and emotional growth of all of our children, this would definitely help. Yes, it will cost money to do this…but can we really afford for any more children to grow up as alienated as Elliot, or Adam, or the vast majority of mass shooters? If so, can we also continue to allow for such easy access to assault rifles, as well as to the extreme violence available on so many film and television screens?

These questions weren’t on my mind back when I was raising Danny. I did not yet know the deepest of implications behind the struggles he was facing as he tried so hard to conform to social and behavior norms inside his mainstreamed kindergarten classroom. However, Danny did know the name of every one of his classmates, despite the lack of social acknowledgments he offered them; he had also memorized the entire text and musical rendition of the story of Peter and the Wolf. On the second week of school, before he had spoken a pragmatic word to anyone, he surprised his teacher by raising his hand and answering all of her questions about the correlations between the various characters in the story and the haunting melodies of the music itself.

Madison, who was Dan's assistance dog at the time, proceeded to break some social ice for him, year after calendar year. He was a frequent visitor to all of Danny’s classrooms, and he helped tremendously to form and sustain friendships upon our relocation to Mansfield. Here, in this town that exists in the shadow of UConn, they actually cared about Danny’s education, and they did not view our relationship as adversarial. Danny truly began to thrive there, thanks in large part to several great kids who befriended him…and special thanks goes to one extraordinary boy in particular. His name was Brendan, and he served as Danny’s personal angel unaware.

BRENDAN (LEFT) AND DAN (RIGHT)

BRENDAN (LEFT) AND DAN (RIGHT)

Brendan was one of eight Kissane boys who would accompany their mom, Debbie for visits to our home. She was usually in some stage of pregnancy back then; I’d bring a blanket and cold drink out for Debbie so she could lay quietly in the sun, along with a giant box of popsicles for the boys, and they, in turn, gave us every inch of the sense of community we were craving. They taught Danny to play the neighborhood games I was at a loss to teach him; they knew the “rules of the streets” along with my own, but they also knew when it was important to break or bend them. I think, in retrospect, the Kissane boys knew how needed they were by the Gross clan, and they decided to rise to my unspoken challenge. In my gratitude, I treated them with more adult-driven respect than they were usually afforded, which dovetailed with all those popsicles quite nicely. We had several extremely-fun summers, to their everlasting Gaelic credit and considerable charm. 

As the wheels of time turned, we were all slowly, inevitably ushered out of our nirvana. The Kissane boys began to need more from me than just cold popsicles and an above-ground pool to keep them down on my farm, and their loss created a vacuum. Dan was in danger of being gradually left behind, like a door quietly closing on a sleeping baby. I barely noticed this, truth be told, until reality slapped me awake one day; Dan was a junior in high school, and I had to swing by to bring him a book he had forgotten at home. The office directed me to the lunchroom, and that’s where I found him…within a packed cafeteria, Dan was at the only largely-empty table, surrounded by empty chairs, literally boxed out by empty space. 

So, was Dan officially “integrated” in high school? Well, not really, despite the fact that he has been mainstreamed since preschool. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Dan’s destiny in being a newborn with autism in 1986 was to avoid institutionalization and electric shocks, and to stay above the fray of segregation and even more severe bullying than he endured. The best he could do was to grow up mainstreamed, well-educated, perhaps even respected, but still roundly-ignored. It was only through Dan’s calculated and persistent efforts (along with his native showmanship) that others began to take note of him.

In Dan’s sophomore year he created a video about his high school class trip to Washington DC (featured above) that was broadcast on the monitors of all the homerooms, which gave Dan a bit of notoriety and a real boost to his confidence. At the beginning of Dan’s junior year, he announced that he would no longer take my advice in “dancing quietly around the edges” of popular cliques; he would now truly begin sharing who he was. It was a disconcerting conversation for me, for although I knew Dan to be a kind and funny person, I was fairly sure that not everyone at E.O. Smith shared my value system. 

This was where I had to again put my trust in the Kissane boys, and their brand of “protection” I’d bought with all those popsicles…particularly Brendan, who was the first Kissane to have befriended him. With Brendan, it wasn’t ever about the bribery…the last time I saw him was over a decade ago, bumping into him in his Mom’s driveway as I was leaving from a visit, in our first-ever private moment as adults. I leaned in to connect with the soft blue of his eyes as I tried to properly thank him for all he had given Dan, who by this time was a junior at UConn with an eye toward film school.

Brendan seemed to think I was just being silly and endearing, as his own lovely Mom could be; he was a loved-up boy and always fundamentally respectful…even when in trouble with the Principal for selling candy at his locker, or literally crawling into a ventilation system and falling through the ceiling of an English classroom, where the students likely needed a bit of waking up. There was a note of chide in his voice when he informed me that no thanks were necessary; I realized then it was his pure authenticity that connected him to Dan for so long, as well as in the first place.

And, for the record, it was Brendan who had pulled the “I-killed-someone prank” Dan spoke of in his column. I watched it all unfold in his junior year, the very aforementioned year when Dan decided to be himself, consequences be damned. As their conversation wore on, I could see how Brendan’s questions became more serious and probing after the prank was well-established; Brendan was a Catholic boy, after all, and I could see that Dan’s references to the morality of redemption was striking a chord with him. It seemed as if he was fostering a cocktail of admiration and amusement that Dan’s heart could be this pure and innocent.

I didn’t inform Dan at the time that he was being pranked; I merely warned him of this possibility, and this was because of how much I trusted Brendan. I also trusted Dan’s decision to put the whole private discussion online, despite my belief that Brendan’s would have kept it a more private prank. I deeply admire the courage Dan must have had to allow others onto the bottom floor of this joke, and his generosity to share not just the giggles, but the thought that if anything outrageously-bad ever happened to a friend of Dan’s, he would be there, ready to help, no questions asked, with no doubts to cloud his empathy, and no cynicism to help him slink away.

It was on a cold February morning when Dan called me from the dorms at UConn and said there was something he needed to tell me in person. A full decade later, I am amazed that Dan waited until he was in the warm back seat of my car before sharing his heart-shattering piece of news with me. In a gentle voice, he informed me that Brendan had died in a car accident on the previous night…he put his hand gently on my shoulder, clearly thinking of my feelings over his own.

Thanks to Brendan, as well as Dan’s ever-widening circle of family, friends, and brothers-in-arms on the filmmaking circuit, I no longer consider Dan disabled. He isn’t cured, because autism isn’t a disease, and he hasn’t secured a traditionally-procured long-term job just yet, but word-of-mouth artists continue to find him. His friends are astonishingly diverse and loyal and his family is solidly behind him. He has built an incredibly safe and stable world for himself, and he is successful by any measure of this word; he accepts his differences and stays modest about his talent, always happy to share his gifts, as well as himself, with others.

I think that to truly stop mass shootings in this country, we need to do more than just change a law, incarcerate more people, have more discussions on political channels or more cleverly composed tweets. We have to actually care about the children we raise…not just mine or yours or theirs, but all of our children.