On the Assembly Line of Trauma: Mass Shootings, Hamlet, Hope

by Chris Riseley


On the assembly line at the baby doll factory, baby doll heads are yanked hollow and pliant from roto-molds that have been filled with a rubberized plastic goop, heated, rolled and turned. There is a popping sound when these adorable, hot, little hairless heads are birthed from the hard womb that was their roto-mold. After these heads cool from their birthing process, they are joined with their other cooled limbs and torsos. They are then painted, assembled, dressed, and shipped to human children all over the world who open these packages with excitement, amusement, perhaps wonderment or delight, and hold these rubberized plastic babies to their hearts while smiling with relief, satisfaction, and sometimes sheer joy.

Healthy human children long to love. They want to love their new toys no matter where they come from. Soft plushies, rubber or cloth baby dolls, kittens, and puppies (which I realize are not toys, but please join me on the adventure). Toddlers wander over to strangers in parks and just want to kiss them, hold them, or be held. My own toddler at eighteen months would walk up to anyone entering our home, raise her arms over her head toward their towering height and say, “Hold you!” as if she was what had been missing from their lives this whole time.

“Hold you!”

On so many mornings we wake up to a world once again washed in video of the aftermath of a mass shooting. The victims had been studying, teaching, working, praying, singing, dancing.

“Hold you!”

The next day, friends and relatives stand with candles in the blinding fog of grief weeping in prayer, desperation, misery.

“Hold you!”

Our country, and the world, have seen shootings at synagogues, mosques, churches, schools, post offices, businesses, malls, beer joints, restaurants, dance clubs, playgrounds… there is no use ending that list because, unless we heal the wound in our culture, it will grow beyond our wildest imaginings.  

Since I began writing this essay, who knows how many people have loaded and unloaded their weapons, thinking about going out into the world to enact some Old West style justice for perceived slights, neglect, humiliations, or whatever it is in the minds of these killers that spurs them to such barbarous action.

The media cycle goes from news coverage, to opinion, to business as usual until the next shooting that restarts the cycle with our dismay and grieving.

A community college only one hundred miles from where I teach the Humanities was shot up just three years ago.   Another shooting, more distant than that one, happened to occur on the same day that there was a planned police presentation on my campus, and I pulled into the parking lot listening over the radio to breaking coverage of a shooting happening a thousand miles away while looking at police cars parked on the lawn of my own school. You can imagine I figured that when it rains it pours.

Business as usual.

Convinced that the next mass shooting is literally taking place while I type, or will soon take place somewhere, I’d like to implore us not to trot out the same set of impotent excuses, appeals, and accusations. I’d like to see us start talking about not just the trauma felt at the scene of these events, but the trauma inherent in our culture and society that we all turn away from because it is too painful to look at.

These shootings keep happening because traumatic hate responses are now a built in feature of our culture and society. European genocides in Africa, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere predate Hitler’s atrocities but are just as much a part of our DNA as the Holocaust is.  Please do not mistake my calling out these genocides as “finger pointing.” They are the air we breathe. They are the very ions and electrons activating all of us.

Hamlet’s mother Gertrude’s first line in one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies is, “Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,  and let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.” It’s a long story. You should experience it. Allow me to simply place in context that Denmark here represents not only the human embodiment of trauma that Hamlet experiences, but Denmark is also the system that supports the trauma.  You see, Hamlet’s father, the King, has perished under suspicious circumstances, to say the very least, and Hamlet’s mother, the Queen, has married the King’s brother with breath-taking rapidity. Hamlet’s “nighted colour,” his black clothing, projects his trauma. Though the King be dead, the conversation, for Hamlet, is far from over. In fact, he is about to go on something of a murder spree.

Yeah, now you wish you’d studied Hamlet.

Please. Do not think that I am casting these grotesque, despicable, cowardly mass shooters as Hamlet. I’m not.  I am asking us to keep this conversation open, and by open: to view it not through the usual lenses which we have heard ad nauseam about mass shootings, but to understand that it is the very soil we walk upon that creates these shootings. The problem is not the access to guns (although Australia’s fine example might prove this wrong) or mental health (although that plays an important role), the problem is that we as a culture turn away from the ocean of blood we float upon as our ship of state steams toward progress.

Gertrude wants to shut down the conversation about the suspicious death of her husband because it invites mention of her “o’erhasty marriage” to the dead King’s brother. She may not know exactly what has happened to the dead King (spoiler: his brother killed him), but she has a sense that she is complicit in the trauma that Hamlet experiences and she simply wants him to shut up about it. This is also what the media wants: look anywhere else but the system that creates these murders.  Look at this ugliness over here, look at that ugliness, look, look, look, but do not look at our world and how blood has always been inside the gears of commerce and progress. Slavery and the genocide of indigenous populations are just the tip of the iceberg.

Hamlet asks us to look at our trauma. Hamlet invites us to look at all the trauma. He races off to confront the ghost that terrifies soldiers, and Marcellus speaks one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.”

On the assembly line at the human baby factory which is Earth, babies are being born each and every day. Some of them are, for a time, free from trauma, able to reach up to the adults they are surrounded by and smile, “Hold you!” But there is something rotten somewhere, not just Denmark. It’s everywhere. The trauma is always on its way–the trauma that grows up to believe lies, buy guns, pull triggers.

On the assembly line at the baby doll factory, sometimes the baby doll heads are pulled out of their roto-molds and they don’t quite look as expected. One eye a bit bigger than another. The smile not quite right. There is an expert line-worker in these cases who flies in to help, smooth, reshape, offer kindness and care to address the trauma that the doll heads have experienced. It is profoundly human work.

Perhaps there is something preventing us from being able to honor the humanity in others?  Perhaps if we surface this idea that we have all suffered, just as eons of us have suffered in the past, allowing our traumas to be discussed, we will stop seeing our suffering as unique. For some of us our suffering becomes so unique that it drives us to unspeakable acts of depravity. Perhaps this is an idealistic oversimplification, and I say, even if that is so, it cannot hurt us to honor the humanity in one another each and every moment we can.  Is there a beautiful word like “namaste,” but one that means “I honor the suffering within you?” Can we make such a word?

This time, when the bullets shred the flesh of our loved ones, our fellow human beings, please, keep on your nighted colours! Grieve for the members of the Tree of Life synagogue, the dead of Las Vegas, Orlando, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Hiroshima, the sickened and dead of the Great Plains, Tenochtitlan. Who we are, and how we behave, has always been trauma causing trauma.  Keep talking about the trauma and keep looking into people’s eyes and mean it when you say, “Hold you!”


Chris Riseley published his first short story in Los Angeles’s answer to The New Yorker: BUZZ Magazine. His screenplay White Room Night was optioned to Parallel pictures where thirty rewrites have yielded progress but not a production. Riseley’s novel Dog’s Days reached the hearts of teens but the movie rights have yet to be sold.  A later novel, Coffee Drinkers Preferred, is currently being shopped. He continues to fret over two other finished manuscripts, Stayin’ Alive and Rare Species. Riseley teaches creative writing, composition, and Shakespeare at a Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon.

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