I Don't Want To See A Killer's Face: The Aurora Shooting And How We Cope With Tragedy

I was fifteen years old when two kids opened fire at a Colorado high school and savagely murdered thirteen people. I don’t remember many details about that day, but I haven’t been able to hear or speak the word “Columbine” since without experiencing full-body chills and waves of nausea.

Two and a half years later, I woke up to the news that two hijacked planes obliterated the World Trade Center Twin Towers. Another had hit the Pentagon and yet another intended for the Capitol Building crashed into a Pennsylvania field. An estimated 3,000 people were killed on September 11, and no matter how many years go by, I will always have a visceral reaction to any mention of that day.

The second I woke up and checked my phone this morning, I knew I would be adding one more life-altering calendar date to the growing list of chronological events that have permanently affected how I, and countless others, grieve and get through tragedy.

Like me, many of you probably logged on to Facebook, flipped on the television, or tuned into your morning radio show to discover that a heavily armed gunman killed 12 people at an Aurora, CO midnight movie screening and injured 59 others.

It’s an odd thing when something so horrific and gruesome occurs, yet it has no immediate impact on your everyday reality. I live almost 1,000 miles from Colorado. I’ve never even visited. I don’t have a friend or family member living anywhere near Aurora, and truth be told, I didn’t know a thing about it until today. And yet, I’ve been going about my day feeling as though I’ve been punched in the stomach and all the air has been sucked from my lungs.

We all cope with tragedy in different ways, and there’s no rule book for how to properly process an event so far-removed from our lives, yet so overwhelmingly devastating. Some of us are going to cry about it, and others are going to laugh through it with off-color jokes. Some of us are going to experience consuming rage, and others won’t feel a thing at all.

Personally, I’m still overcoming the shock of today’s news. I know the real work of unpacking the tangle of emotions, thoughts, and feelings hasn’t begun yet. But watching the details unfold through breaking reports, I’ve discovered one consistent component in my grieving process that has remained constant through Columbine, 9/11, and now the Aurora shooting: I don’t want to see a murderer’s face.

I didn’t realize how strong this conviction was until the Aurora shooter’s face flashed on my television screen several hours ago. His eyes mercilessly stared me down, and I cringed at the sight of his unsettling smirk. I had to look away, turn the TV off, and leave the room. But there he was again. All over the news sites, inundating my Facebook feed. His name, his history, the details of his life were all being rehashed and repeated ad nauseum, everywhere.

For some people, this sort of intimate knowledge of a killer helps them cope. They want to understand. They want to get inside the murderer’s head and try to comprehend how in the world a person could commit such an atrocity. They want to look into his eyes and see if they can find a hint of humanity, or any sign of sanity.

I don’t. I can’t. And personally, it’s gut-wrenching to imagine that we’re giving the person responsible for such a horrendous act attention—publicity, even. I don’t want to mention his name, and I don’t want to share and circulate his image or life story.

But this is my personal process. This is how I can bear to deal with today’s news: by tuning parts of it out. How others will cope is entirely up to them. Some people may boycott The Dark Knight Rises in tribute to the moviegoers who lost their lives. Others might make a special effort to see the film in solidarity. Others still will light candles, say prayers, seek out friends and family. Whatever you do, do what feels right for you. Despite the different ways we’re coping, we’re all going through it together.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10051656 Katie Grimmer

    Thank you for this. I can’t get this tragedy out of my head and I have no connections to this either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=548161422 Tiffany Hopper

    Thank you for posting this, I feel the same as you. It has been bothering me all day, and yes the other events that have happened over our lifetime. I’m from Oklahoma City so my first tragic event at age 12..I will never forget and how it made me feel and how scared, etc was the OKC bombing in 1995. The face of a killer blasted everywhere is not something I want to see either, such an unsettling feeling everytime. Horrific events of violence…affect me to no end. My heart is so heavy, thinking and feeling sad and sick. At times, I should really turn off the news for a while. Thanks again for this. Sending love and peace.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000351258368 Lucile Maes

    I don’t wanna see his face either. Senseless tragedy. My heart is with everyone today as we cope. I hate how violent we have become to one another.

    I grew up near that very theater and can’t believe something like this happened. I remember going to the mall and hanging out near the theater. I haven’t seen any coverage of the victims so it’s hard to see if everyone I know is alright.

    Thank you for the post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000155358307 Alicia Chavez

    Such a horrible thing. Who would have thought they’d have to worry about being attacked during a movie?! I sometimes have a hard time looking at pictures of murderers but what I find even worse are 911 calls. If the news plays a call, I change the channel. I can’t handle hearing the fear or panic or pain when someone is calling for help.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=611828388 Gavin Irvine

    why because he is white………its your “own” that’s done it so you cant deal with it

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10051656 Katie Grimmer

      I’m gonna guess that really wasn’t the point — at all — that she was making.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1210650882 Sheila Myers Gropp

      @Gavin- How sad is it that you see “color”?

      For me, and I am certain I speak for most, the race of this horrible killer never once crossed my mind; that is until you mentioned it. Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, _____, …. we are all mourning this tragedy TOGETHER as though it was one of our own. Together because that is how our country stands when faced with adversity. We stand united as brothers and sisters who are blind to color.

      I must say it breaks my heart that you cannot see past your own prejudices during such a sorrowful time.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000156144587 Alise Versella

      “our own” huh? Well I’ll think about your comment the next time I see some black kids died over in BedStuy over coke…their “own” can just deal with it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=590231937 Bárbara Henríquez

    Good article.. It was really shocking… I’m from Chile and I lived in Colorado for 4 months.. I could never imagine that something like this could ever happen there in such a wonderful place… My condolences to all the people from Co. xoxo

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=780797891 Jocelyn Cook

    Thank you for this. I had friends in the theater and was feeling guilty for feeling so sad, because they all made it out alive and unharmed and other people had friends who were not as fortunate. My heart and prayers go out to my fellow Coloradoans in Aurora.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1442241486 Matthew Boetel

    One of the best, most well written pieces I have read in so long. Very touching and saddening, yet uplifting at that same time — in a weird way that is. I must share this beautifully written article with anyone willing to take the time to read it.

    • Michelle Konstantinovsky

      reading that made me cry, seriously. thank you so much.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1442241486 Matthew Boetel

      Awe! Of course, but thank you so much for sharing this with myself and the rest of the world!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1444718209 Elisabeth Miller

    When a senseless tragedy like this (or 9/11 or Columbine) happens, I refuse to watch the news. I will read it but I cannot bear to hear people talking about it and saying videos of it because it I am way too empathic. I will turn into a zombie. People think that it makes me seem like I don’t care about it; it’s not that, it’s that I care about people, All people, too much.

    BTW, Michelle, you are one of my fave writers on this site and this piece was perfect.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=38714373 Christine Faris

    I agree. Giving these people so much publicity is sickening. I moved to Aurora six days ago. And now this. I don’t care what he was thinking. He f*ed up countless people’s lives.

    For that, he deserves to never have his name mentioned again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607509745 Rae Damon

    Its extremely heart wrenching that these families, and movie goers went to be entertained and yet find themselves fighting or losing their lives. I would hope that this will not make people boycott a movie but not live in fear of being able to go out into public and enjoy daily life. I personally will not let this senseless act veer me from doing what I love or feel the need to arm myself. My thoughts and prayers go out to all those families and friends in Aurora.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1312065215 Natasha Hayes-Harhold

    I knew nobody there, either, but I’ve read a bit about some of the victims. My heart is breaking for all of the people out there that have lost someone or that lived through that. And like you, I don’t want to see the murderer’s face. I want to know nothing about him. I don’t care why he did what he did. A horrible, senseless tragedy. I just keep thinking that none of those people did a thing wrong. They went to see a movie. My husband will go see movies on his own sometimes, if it’s something I have no interest in. It never crossed my mind that I might never see him again because of some sick, twisted person. I think that is one of the things really making me sad – they just went to have a good time and see a movie and they were murdered or injured because of it. Truly tragic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=53600471 Laura Mitchell

    I think these tragedies are so scary because they happen to unsuspecting people in every day places: movies, schools, grocery stores. The one that has really stuck with me is the Arizona shooting in which a Congresswoman Giffords was shot in the head and 9 year old girl, among others, were killed. That is another case where the killer’s face was plastered all over the news. His unhinged grin was only slightly creepier than his emotionless eyes; there was no empathy there. Sometimes seeing the face helps, like you said, to try to understand how someone could do this. The face I have never seen, and hopefully never will, is the VA Tech shooter. My cousin was there at the time, and was ok. It is only luck that my family member is alive, but others were not so fortunate. My heart goes out to everyone who has lost someone they loved just because some sick bastard got his hands on a weapon. May they find peace and comfort, though they have a long road of healing ahead of them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000106992969 Sydney Fausset

    I live about 5 minutes away from the Century 16 Theaters in Aurora. I have been in a fog all day and my stomach is in knots for the ones killed and their families. I personally don’t want to even go to the theater to see The Dark Knight Rises. I will wait until I can watch it in the guarded safety of my home. I do not plan on going out much this weekend and I hope there are no “copy-cats” that repeat this. My sister works for UCH where the killer was enrolled. She told me that sections of UCH are closed so that they can investigate him better…such a sad sad event…siiigh

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=554176790 Katy Johnson

      My thoughts go out to you. I have many friends who are in Aurora and I am so glad to hear that none of them were involved in this. I hope that all of the people you hold dear were not involved and that everyone who was injured recovers fully and are able to heal emotionally.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1171466245 Shannon Cobb

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I was sexually assaulted 7 years ago and I fell the same way. I feel like my heart stops everytime I hear the “r-word”, and I have to change the channel whenever an assault is reported on the news. For years, I thought there was something wrong with how I reacted to the situation. But you are so right. Everyone copes with tragedy differently and there is no right or wrong way to deal with such horrible situations. Thank you very much for writing this piece. Hopefully, your article will let others know that they are not alone, like it has for me :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1171324742 T.j. Trujillo

    I completely understand your reaction to this tragedy. It’s unseemly to give so much attention to the perpetrators of such atrocities and comparatively little to the victims. That’s the kind of celebrity-obsessed culture this country has devolved into. Yes, I say ‘celebrity’ because that’s essentially what this guy has done: made himself a celebrity by one heinous act. That really sickens me.

    However, I do want to see his face. I do want it shown by the media. Why? Because it drives home the point that the bad guys are all around us, in every face, behind every set of eyes we look upon. There is no uniform for the perpetrators of evil. They don’t stand out from the crowd. They are us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=554176790 Katy Johnson

    I am not angry at the shooter. I am just sad, disappointed and scared. I am sad so many lives ended, disappointed that he felt the need to take lives, and scared of the human race. I live in Colorado and my little sister works at a movie theater. We go to movies almost every day because she gets us in for free. And her half-sister lives two-blocks away from the Century 16.
    I am so sad that this summer has been one filled with fear because of the fires and the shooting. And I am also so upset that this shooting is bringing up so many painful memories for my friends and family that were personally affected by the Columbine shooting.
    I feel that as a race we should take this a sign that we need to pay more attention to the people around us. So that we can recognize when someone we know is in pain and help them – before they become so desperate that they need to open fire into an innocent crowd of people. Once again, I am not angry, just sad.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002724166931 Karen Taylor

    Like Tiffany, I’m an Oklahoma native and a bit older, so my memory goes back an atrocity or two. It’s sad when you can date yourself by the number of mass murderers you can remember. But for me, the Oklahoma City Bombing will always be the defining moment. That’s the one that took a family friend’s life, and destroyed his family. But I’m only marginally bothered by seeing a killer’s face. For me it is a case of wanting to know why, why did the make the decision to do this? What was their reasoning? How did the deaths of so many innocent people accomplish what ever the goal was? In many instances I “get” what they thought to accomplish. McVey was anti-government, Ted Kozinski had some whack manifesto, the Taliban wanted to bring their Holy Jihad to the American people. I get them but I don’t understand them. But the others I don’t even get. What did the Columbine shooters derive from their act? What does this man derive from his? What is their cost-benefit ratio? I guess I want to make some sense of what is essentially a senseless act. I think if I see the face one more time I’ll have a moment of clarity, some understanding of why this happened, even if it is totally from their POV, not mine. So I keep looking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=33200012 Joanie Olive

    I agree….I don’t want to see the face of a cold calculating murderer everywhere.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=636470453 Lucia Juliao

    Great article. I do, however, want to see the killer’s face & try to make some sense of how & why he could do such a horrible thing. It would be much worse to watch a news broadcast about this and not hear anything about the perpetrator. And I wouldn’t say we are giving him “publicity”. It’s the news, not the red carpet. How can one report on a news story like this without mentioning who is responsible. That being said, I do fully respect & even understand your desire not to see his face. You are correct, we ARE all in this together regardless of how we mourn

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