Megan Stielstra with Nicole Piasecki | Longreads | April 2018 | 18 minutes (4,936 words)
This is the third in a three-part series on gun violence.
In part one, long after the shooting at her old high school, Megan Stielstra worries about her father’s heart.
In part two, Nicole Piasecki writes a letter to the wife of the shooter who killed her father.
In part three, Megan and Nicole talk about the shooting that changed their lives, who owns the story, and what to do with fear.
* * *
On December 16th, 1993 there was a shooting at my high school in Chelsea, Michigan. A sleepy little town west of Ann Arbor, the reporter called it. I was a freshman in college. I watched it unfold on the national news from a thousand miles away. This was years before Twitter, before we all had cell phones in our pockets. I couldn’t get through to anyone at home. I couldn’t find out what had happened. One fatality, said the reporter. A local school administrator.
My father was a local school administrator.
Hours later, I heard his voice on the phone. Anyone who has been through such waiting knows that planet of relief. But here’s the brutal truth: as I learned that my dad was alive, another girl learned that hers was not. Our superintendent and friend, Joe Piasecki, was killed that day. He had a daughter a year younger than me. Her name was Nicole.
I’ve thought about writing to her at least a hundred times.
“Here,” I would say. “Here is my heart.”
A few years ago I started working on an essay about my relationship with my dad. He lives on an island now in the Gulf of Alaska. He had heart problems while hunting in the mountains, and, after surgery, went right back up. I was angry at the risks I thought he was taking with his health. I was scared I would lose him and I didn’t know what to do with that fear, but I learned something in the writing about the choices we make to keep living. He’d quit his job and moved to Alaska not long after the shooting. He needed those miles. He needed that mountain. I get that now.
After I finished a draft, I looked Nicole up online. She’s a writer now, and a writing teacher, same as me. How do you start with someone you haven’t spoken with in 20 years? I wrote. I sent her the essay, asking if she wanted me to change anything, cut anything, leave it in a drawer. I’d never given anyone that kind of power over my work but in in this case it felt vital. It didn’t matter who I was as a writer. It mattered who I was as a person.
She wrote me the most wonderful response. I’m not much of a crier, but shit.
Last summer, Nicole published an essay in Hippocampus Magazine called “Maybe We Can Make a Circle.” Real talk: I’ve been doing this work for decades and never have I had such a visceral reaction to a piece of writing. I kept putting the pages down. I kept reminding myself to breathe. My small son brought me Kleenex. It’s true that I have a personal connection to the material — my town, my teacher, my fear — but it’s also true that the writing is stunning, 20 years of grief laid bare and hopeful.
It gave me a reason to keep fighting.
It also gave me a friend.
Nicole and I had breakfast last month in Tampa, both of us in town for a writer’s conference. It was the first time we’d seen each other since we were 18. We talked about that day in 1993 and how we carry trauma. We talked about the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the young people of color here in Chicago who have been fighting for years against gun violence. We talked about our kids, how the world should be better, how art has a place in that.
We continued that conversation over the phone this week for Longreads.
* * *
Megan Stielstra: Your essay is framed as a letter to Alice Leith, the high school English teacher who taught us both to love words. She was also the wife of Stephen Leith, the man who killed your father. “I’ve started to write this letter at least 20 times in as many years,” you begin. “Just imagine me sitting alone in my office surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper.” I’m wondering about the tension between writing a letter — something meant just for her — and writing this as an essay for all of us.
Nicole Piasecki: I first tried to write about what had happened when I was in college. I had an amazing teacher my freshman year named Dick Koch and he encouraged me to write it even though it would probably be… just really bad. I was so close to it. I knew so little about writing. I was 18 and loaded with grief. I began the piece as a linear narrative, just here’s what happened, with Alice as a small sidebar. Several years later I took a National Writing Project workshop and I worked on it again, still as a linear narrative. It felt too hot to write that way. It felt overly sentimental. I couldn’t capture all the nuances and complexities. Then I took a class here in Denver at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and I had another great teacher, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, a lyric memoirist. He introduced me to the segmented, fragmented narrative. I’m thinking he gave us an in-class assignment to try the essay as a letter.
The moment I did it, I knew.
Alice had continued to haunt me. The letter was a device to get into the material that I couldn’t get into otherwise, but when I reflect on it — I wanted her to see me. To hear me, to know me.
MS: The essay covers 20 years, so those earlier drafts wouldn’t have had the understanding that you have now as an adult; a writer, an educator. A part that really gutted me is you not being able to separate your memories of Alice from Hamlet, stream-of-consciousness writing, prefixes and suffixes and all these things she taught you that you now love and work with every day.
NP: There are certain people that we have to take with us, even when we don’t want to, regardless of how wonderful or awful they were. In a way, Alice gave me the greatest gift: she brought me to the table as a writer. Part of writing the essay was grappling with this idea that you have to accept that there are going to be people who are awful to you, but they can still be loveable somehow, can still impact you in a positive way. I thought I needed to decide whether I loved Alice or hated her. I didn’t have the perspective to realize that I could hold these two competing emotions at once. I think the essay helped me realize that.
There are certain people that we have to take with us, even when we don’t want to.
MS: There’s a piece by Ashley Ford called “When the Monster Saves You.” She’s in high school talking to a counselor about sexuality and this person made space for her that she really needed. Later, this same person was arrested for sexual misconduct with another student. It’s that same question: what do I do with both the good and the awful? It feels so relevant right now: #MeToo, for example.
NP: How do you resist boiling a person down to one essential detail? As a queer person, that’s something I think about all the time. It was the biggest challenge for me in coming out: I was afraid people would stop seeing me for all that I am. I think of that with all kinds of scenarios.
MS: Thinking of this journey that you’ve taken to try and truly see Alice in these very complex and empathetic ways — it doesn’t feel like that’s part of our current cultural dialogue. It makes an essay like yours even more important.
NP: Don’t you think it’s interesting that we’re both finally putting words into the world about this? At this time?
MS: For years, I didn’t think I could write about the shooting because I didn’t think the story belonged to me. That’s the question, right? Or at least it should be: Whose story is this? I’m a year older than you, which means nothing now but in high school it meant everything. The shooting happened during your senior year — you were there — and my freshman year in college. I watched the story unfold in the national media from my dorm in Boston.
Whenever I thought about writing about it, I would think about you. There have been so many times that I wanted to reach out to you, to show up on your doorstep. And then you started following me on Twitter — everything comes back to Twitter! — and I did what we always do when we find long-lost people on social media: I stalked you; looked at all your pictures and postings, and there were all these connections. We both wrote creative nonfiction. We both taught creative nonfiction. We both worked in faculty development. We both had small sons. Our lives ran parallel in so many ways.
NP: I don’t think that any story belongs to one person anymore. For a long time, I did. I was so isolated. Nobody else in the whole world has ever had the exact experience I had. Sure, of course, violence happens every day, but when you bring in Alice, when you bring in Steve Leith, when you bring other teachers who I don’t care to mention who were not so kind to our family after the fact — I just shut down. This is mine. Nobody can understand. I didn’t even try to explain.
But since my essay was first published, I’ve gotten hundreds of emails from people, many of whom I barely knew, telling me their stories. Stories about Alice. Stories about where they were on that day. Stories of what my dad meant to them. I just got a message yesterday from a woman who said he was the reason she went to college. He encouraged her, helped her see her worth when she was a student. He “belonged” to so many people.
Publishing the piece helped me realize that it’s not only mine. Reading yours did that, too. It was like, wait a minute, this is Megan’s story, too, and if it’s hers, it’s everyone’s in our town, and if it’s everyone’s in our town, it’s everyone’s who even watched it on the news, and on and on.
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MS: When I first sat down to write “Here is My Heart,” I didn’t think the shooting was going to be a part of it. The question I was chasing was, What do I do with my fear? I was talking about the fear of losing my dad, but I couldn’t get into that without Alaska, and the mountains, and I couldn’t do that without hunting, which comes back to Chelsea, and school, and growing up with guns, and all of that comes back to the shooting.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that he dropped everything and moved to Alaska because of it, but it wouldn’t be true to leave it out.
It changed things. It changed me.
NP: When tragedies happen, we re-evaluate everything. I can never know the extent of how people’s lives changed, however slightly or drastically. It’s a domino effect. You can’t know how far it reaches. Your essay helped me understand that.
MS: I want to fly through the phone and pass you my flask.
MS: As we’re talking, I’m sitting in my office at the university where I teach. A couple of weeks ago we were on lockdown because of an active shooter. I did what you’re supposed to do: turned the lights off, locked the door, hid under my desk. I watched my students share information and fear on social media; I memorized the carpet, the bookshelves; I tried to breath. I don’t do well with shootings. I don’t think anyone should do well with shootings, I don’t think we should be desensitized, and to be having this conversation, now, still, nearly 25 years later — I want to rip down the sky.
I’m thinking about the two decades of memories in your essay and how clearly each place was described. The gym when you first heard about the shooting. The hallway when you went to confront Alice. The courtroom where you watched her testify. The college basketball court when you found out she had died. Sitting here now in this office, the carpet and bookshelves that I’ll never forget — this should be a place where I’m helping young people learn.
NP: Fear is everywhere.
I want to march against gun violence. I can’t. I can’t physically get myself to a large group of people marching through the streets. I’m too scared. That is something I wish I could change. And it’s anywhere — at schools, yes, but anywhere, everywhere. When you lived through — god, all of these events that have been happening over the past 20 years, and having experienced it close up, you realize: there’s no place that’s safe.
It’s a time to be really afraid. And maybe every time has been.
MS: I’m thinking about what it means to protest. To fight. There are young people across this country — in Parkland, here in Chicago — fighting to live their lives without the fear of gun violence while, at the same time, trying to heal from this impossible trauma that just happened. But it’s been happening, as we know, for decades, and in many places it happens every day. What would you like to say these young people? What would you have wanted someone to say to you?
I don’t do well with shootings. I don’t think anyone should do well with shootings, I don’t think we should be desensitized, and to be having this conversation, now, still, nearly twenty-five years later — I want to rip down the sky.
NP: When I look at the students in Parkland, it’s hard not to compare myself to them. They’re so brave and admirable and they’re not shut down by people threatening them. I feel for them: they’re the victims, yet they’re being attacked. In a very small way, our family felt similarly, and now I see these 16, 17, 18-year-olds and their poise and intelligence and it doesn’t make sense to me. Because I was such a mess. And I wasn’t even at the school when it happened. I didn’t have the actual trauma of seeing it, of feeling that fear in the moment, but yet — loss is loss.
I don’t know what to say other than, You’re brilliant. You’re beautiful. I haven’t reached out to any of these young people but I want to say that I admire them. I look up to them. I think they’re brave.
MS: You’re brave. Sharing your story like this is brave. To watch you through the essay, trying to keep going and living and… the word healing is so puny in the face of such a loss.
NP: Evolving, maybe?
MS: Yes. And part of that evolution is the empathy for Alice.
NP: I think that, in some ways, empathy is a side-effect of wrestling with our ideas. I don’t know if, when I sit down to write, I’m hoping to generate empathy. Maybe it is — I mean, I preach empathy all the time — but when I’m writing, I’m not thinking okay, how can I make Alice into a person someone can relate to? I was just trying to understand her. And then, after her death, it was grappling with the mystery of who a person is when you can’t ever know. That grappling on the page is why I’m so drawn to the form.
You don’t have to know. But you have to be willing to ask.
MS: There’s a scene from your essay that I can’t shake. You’re in college, and you go back to Chelsea, to our high school — which is a whole storytelling genre in and of itself: going back to high school as an adult and walking through the halls, which for us was particularly weird because we had an outdoor California-like campus in the middle of these Michigan winters so we had to put our coats and hats back on before we went to our next class —
NP: That is so hard to explain to people!
MS: So you’re back in our high school, walking through the halls, and you stopped outside Alice’s door. You watched her teach. And she saw you, and came out into the hall, and the two of you just stood there. You stared at each other. Obviously there was something you wanted to say to her which you didn’t know then, and the essay is a way of saying it now, but I wonder, if she hadn’t have passed away, do you think you would have tried to reach out again more directly?
NP: The essay would have been different if she was still alive. Some of these questions may have — maybe — been more answerable.
I do imagine that had she not died so quickly afterwards, I would have tried to reconnect. Over the years I have wondered if her “making a circle” statement meant that we would somehow find a way to reconnect with each other in the future — when all the trials were over, when we could both speak freely without the same consequences or risks.
MS: Your essay allows us to follow these questions into the future. The story of tragedy so often stops with the news cycle, the headlines.
In the wake of the Parkland shooting, I read that it was the deadliest shooting to take place at an American high school, “even beating out Columbine.” I read that it was tied with the University of Texas for the third deadliest shooting at an American school, “just behind Virginia Tech and Sandyhook.” I read it was the eighth deadliest mass shooting in our country’s history, “trailing Las Vegas and Orlando,” and this is where we’re at: ranking death, numbers that change nothing and on to the next.
Writing shows us the human beings. I was at a talk recently by the Chicago poet Parneshia Jones. She read an incredible piece called “Bikini Care Instructions,” about the 2015 pool party in McKinney, Texas where a white police officer was video-taped shoving a 15-year-old black girl wearing a bikini to the ground, restraining her there and drawing his gun. The poem considered what the girl was going through, how she’d carry this moment throughout her life, how we carry these traumas in our bodies. Parneshia talked about poetry as a way to freeze history; slow it down, examine it, remember it.
Art stops time. It shows us what we didn’t see. What we didn’t want to see.
NP: These news cycles can lead to such helplessness. In the essay I mentioned the one-month anniversary of the shooting. Everyone was moving on, the news wasn’t really talking about it anymore, and there I was sitting in Spanish class with Señora Crowley, trying to figure out how can this be? How can the world be continuing to do what it does? How can I be here? It didn’t make any sense. And a lot of that it because of the news. Everything is blowing up, you have news trucks sitting outside of your house, reporters stalking you, knocking on your door. You have people bringing you food, trying to care for you, and a month goes by and everything stops. You’re left going, Holy fuck. This is my life. What am I supposed to do?
Maybe this is part of why I felt so compelled to write the essay. To say: it continues. It continues and continues and continues.
I wonder sometimes how different it would have been had we lived in a time where social media was available. Who gives you a voicebox? There was no way to connect with other people who had similar experiences. My mom’s best friend is a woman whose husband was killed the year before my dad. He was a physician, and he was shot at the University of Michigan. They connected at the trial of Stephen Leith and they became so close immediately because they had something — in this case, tragedy — in common. I didn’t have that. I didn’t feel connected to anything, and I’m interested in how social media has propelled the possibility of connection for people experiencing trauma like this.
Art stops time. It shows us what we didn’t see. What we didn’t want to see.
After everything happened, I went silent. People could fill in their own blanks of what it might have been like to be — not just me, but in my family’s situation. Writing the essay was me finally letting people know me. To know my version of the story, which they’d probably been trying to guess at for a really long time. It was like a collective sigh of relief. It hit me that people had been waiting, in some ways, to hear what I had to say. That had never occurred to me until it was published and I started getting emails.
MS: You’re going to get a lot more of them.
NP: [laughs] I know.
MS: People need to hear it. I know I did.
NP: I’m always trying to figure out how to use my voice in in a way that is useful. Like, without copping out. A few weekends ago, my partner Cindy went to the March for Our Lives with my mom and I stayed with our son. Like I said before, there’s no way I can go. But I will support her going. I will take care of our child, I will make sure he is safe, and that we have a good day. I will follow the news. I will stay informed. I will write. I will do what I can. We do what we can.
After the Parkland shooting, I changed the whole plan for my class. I’m teaching core composition, a sophomore-level introductory writing course where they’re doing a ton of research. I thought, okay, here’s something I can do: I can ask them to think about what matters. Not to research any old thing but to consider what is truly important to them. What do they want to see in the world? What movements are happening right now in our country that they’d like to be a part of? Join one. Study it, learn about it, understand it, document it. I’m not telling them what to think or what to believe; I’m asking them to look closely and decide for themselves.
Maybe that’s my advocacy.
MS: A dear friend taught me, years ago, that privilege is responsibility. That responsibility looks different for everyone. Where are the places in our day-to-day where we can effect change? Your reading, your job, your vote, your listening, your donations, your time. First things first for you and I: parenting. We are raising white men. Next: working with young people. Writers, artists, communicators.
NP: We play this small part in helping people tell their stories. That’s what brought me to teaching, and that’s what keeps me here, despite the fact that my social anxiety sometimes tells me I should be doing something else.
It keeps coming back to this: I had teachers who helped me realize that my voice matters. Alice. Dick Koch. Harrison Candalaria Fletcher, and a number of others who I keep contact with. They remind me to put my voice out there. I remind the young writers I’m working with now.
MS: I’m thinking of the writers who may be reading this and how so many of them — of us — have lived stories that seem impossible to put into language, stories they’ve been carrying for years, that they’ve stopped and started twenty times. I’m imagining them: sitting alone, crumpled pieces of paper. What might you say to them about the work that lies ahead?
NP: There’s a loneliness when you’re not able to tell your story. It’s painful. But to keep trying is an act of hope.
I’m working on something else right now. I’ve been working on for at least the past five years and I can’t fucking finish it.
MS: Can you say what it’s about?
NP: This really close friendship that I had in college before I came out. I was questioning but I couldn’t tell anyone because, well, you know where we lived. And there was this woman who I believed I was in love with, and I believe she was in love with me, but we couldn’t go there, so we had this obscenely close relationship and then she essentially dumped me, broke my heart, didn’t explain why we couldn’t be friends anymore. And then a couple of years ago she called me out of the blue —
MS: OH MY GOD.
NP: I know. And we talked for a while, and at the very end of the conversation she mentioned her partner. I didn’t know she was gay. I didn’t know anything about her life. I’d never Googled her, never looked her up, even though I’d thought about her so many times over the years, trying to figure out what had happened between us and my own internalized homophobia. I even read Judith Butler. I read Eve Sedgwick on the homosexual panic.
We have to get these stories out of our bodies. Others can help us carry them.
You can finish and publish and cross-off that essay that you’ve been carrying with you for years, and then here comes another one that seems impossible. But I’m not giving up. I know it needs to be written. I don’t know how to write it. Not yet. I’ve tried and tried and tried and I will keep trying. I am compelled. I need to remove it from my body. I need to be done.
MS: You said that in the very beginning of “Maybe We Can Make a Circle.” I need to find a way to finally be done with this.
NP: Maybe that’s what writing is. To understand something enough to let it go.
MS: [quiet for a really long time because that last line is so good her brain caught on fire]
NP: Can I ask you a writing question? Did you have that same feeling, even after all these years, even after writing books which is something I haven’t done yet —
MS: Emphasis on the yet.
NP: Do you still feel like you don’t know how to write?
MS: Oh my god. I have no idea what the fuck I am doing.
That said, I know I can figure it out. I trust the work.
I had a teacher in grad school, Randy Albers, who taught me to attack my bookshelf. Try it the way Didion did it. Try it the way Kafka did it. The way Morrison did it. Dorothy Allison, Hubert Selby, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are an infinite number of solutions and somewhere in all that trying is one that works. It’s frustrating as hell — and hopefully fun, because if not then why are we doing it? — but that feeling when you find it is like nothing else in the world. Like when you knew your essay needed to be a letter to Alice.
Something that’s helpful for me is not being alone with the work. Example: not two minutes ago, you told me the whole story of that woman in college who you were in love with and I’m sitting here listening like oh my god I know a woman like that. Also I may have been that woman. I can see her from both sides. And then you’re like, She just called me out of the blue, and I remembered that Carrie Fisher line: “Nothing is over really over. Just over there.”
NP: I love that!
MS: I hope that you can hear the excitement in my voice. I hope you can tell how much I want to read this. I hope you know that it’s already important, before it’s finished and published and crossed off. The writer Kiese Laymon talks about inviting people into your practice, and for me, that’s been everything.
Maybe that’s what we can say to all the writers reading this right now, the ones who have stopped and started an essay twenty times and are sitting alone with crumpled pieces of paper: go tell the story to somebody, if you can. A friend, a colleague, the person you’re sleeping with. If you’re sleeping with someone, it’s their job to listen to your stuff! And in telling it to someone else, you get to hear it, too. Language, voice, structure, without the pressure of the blank page.
We have to get these stories out of our bodies. Others can help us carry them.
NP: Writing “Maybe We Can Make a Circle” was a lonely process for such a long time, and it got so much easier after I started connecting with people; teachers, other writers at Lighthouse, my one close writing friend who kept telling me, Nicole, this is good, you need to send it out. Nicole, it’s good. It’s good. Send it, it’s good.
MS: Will you tell that friend that we say thank you?
NP: I’m indebted to so many people. I’m indebted to you. How you and I have reconnected — that gives me hope.
You told me once about meeting Cheryl Strayed after she chose your work for the Best American Essays. You were trying to thank her and she said something like, “Just help other writers.” I think about that almost every day. I try to help my students of course, but beyond that, as well. What can I do for someone else? How can I help them see themselves as a writer? How can I help them in the ways you’ve helped me?
MS: Maybe that’s the circle Alice was talking about.
Maybe we’re the circle.
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Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections, most recently The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. Her work appears in Best American Essays, New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and on National Public Radio.
Nicole Piasecki teaches undergraduate writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. Her creative writing has been featured in Hippocampus, Motherwell, Brevity Blog, Word Riot, and Gertrude Pressand is forthcoming in Literary Mama.
Editor: Dana Snitzky