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.