Near the end of my review of The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, I mentioned that I was reluctant to read a fictionalized version of the horrific events that occurred at Columbine High School in 1999. In fact, part of the reason it took me so long to finish the book (and part of the reason it sat on my Kindle, unread, for two years before I added it to my list for the TBR Pile Challenge) was that the subject matter made me uncomfortable. It took some real effort for me to even define what exactly it was that made me uncomfortable. Works of fiction have always been written about historical events. Why was I having such a reaction to this one?
At first I thought it might be the nearness of the event. The shootings at Columbine were painfully recent. But I myself am incorporating an even more recent real-life tragedy, Hurricane Katrina, into my fictitious work-in-progress Jade, and while I want very much to honor the people who were affected by Katrina and their struggles, I don’t feel the same unease about writing about the hurricane as I did about Lamb writing about Columbine. The same is true for novels written about other contemporary events like 9/11 or the Iraq War.
So if it wasn’t how recent the horror had been, then what was it that made me uncomfortable? I thought about it for a long time and I finally decided it was the intimate nature of Columbine. Other real-life events, wars and natural disasters and terrorist attacks, affected thousands of people. Columbine, while it shocked and saddened the entire nation, was a small-scale event that only directly impacted a small number of people. Injecting fictitious characters into such a personal tragedy felt wrong to me, especially seeing as Lamb fictionalized other aspects of his story (the name of his protagonist’s hometown in Connecticut and the name of the women’s prison in that town). I understand why he fictionalized what he did (Lamb volunteers at the real-life women’s prison and has edited two books made up of inmates’ writings from his workshops there), but it made the use of a real world tragedy stand out even more.
My unease was mostly unwarranted, however. I thought the book was almost exclusively about the Columbine tragedy, with some historical fiction thrown in, but it is in fact more concerned with the aftermath of traumatic events in general, not just Columbine. When he does write about Columbine, he does so in a sensitive and responsible way. A lot of popular entertainment, especially movies, focuses on the traumatic event itself because that’s where the outward drama is. A battle or attack is much more spectacular than the aftermath. I’m interested in the effects of the traumatic event on a life, or on several lives, and so is Lamb.
One of the things I found interesting about Lamb’s approach was that even though he uses first-person narration, he doesn’t try to put that narrator directly into the horrific events in Columbine. His narrator, a teacher at the school, is not there that day, but his wife is. He witnesses the gruesome events at a distance, the way most of us did, but with a deeper level of knowledge of the people involved than the rest of us. He sees his wife’s suffering, and the suffering of others in the community, up close, but even as he mourns and strives to understand why this terrible thing happens, he does so more as an observer than a participant. At a public grief counseling session, he can’t go into the inner circle with those who directly witnessed the attacks. He stands outside, with the rest of us, looking in and not knowing what to do to help.
Lamb, it turns out, was also concerned about using the Columbine shootings in his novel. In the afterword, he asks the question himself: why did he use the real event instead f fictionalizing it? His answer:
First, I felt it was my responsibility to name the Columbine victims—the dead and the living—rather than blur their identities. To name the injured who survived is to acknowledge both their suffering and their brave steps past that terrible day into meaningful lives. To name the dead is to confront the meaning of their lives and their deaths, and to acknowledge, as well, the strength and suffering of the loved ones they had to leave behind. Second, having spent half of my life in high school—four years as a student and 25 as a teacher—I could and did transport myself, psychically if not physically, to Littleton, Colorado. Could I have acted as courageously as teacher Dave Sanders, who sacrificed his life in the act of shepherding students to safety? Would I have had the strength to attend those memorials and funerals to which I sent my protagonist? Could I have comforted Columbine’s “collaterally damaged” victims, as Caelum struggles to comfort his traumatized wife? The depth and scope of Harris and Klebold’s rage, and the twisted logic by which they convinced themselves that their slaughter of the innocent was justified, both frightened and confounded me. I felt it necessary to confront the “two-headed monster” itself, rather than concoct Harris- and Klebold-like characters.
Having read the book, which also touches on the second Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina and even the Civil War, I’ve come to terms with Lamb’s use of Columbine. I think he feels it is better to call these things by their true name rather than obscure them with a thin veil of fiction. If he fabricated a school shooting, we would all compare it to Columbine anyway. This way he can use the deep resonance of the real event to strengthen our connection to the characters. If art is supposed to help us make sense of the world, then art should be allowed to incorporate as much of the world as it needs to.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever felt uncomfortable about a real-life event being used in a work of fiction?