In August we blogged about an article in Esquire that looked into the background of Steven Kazmierczak, the grad student who shot and killed six people (including himself) and wounded 18 others at Northern Illinois University on February 14, 2008. The author of the article, David Vann, debunked the media’s simplistic portrayal of Kazmierczak as “an award-winning sociology student and a leader of a campus criminal justice group” who presented “no red flags.” Vann’s research uncovered something strikingly different—a young man with a lengthy and disturbing history of mental illness and volatile behavior.
Vann’s latest work, Legend of a Suicide, is a collection of stories and a novella that explores a more personal topic—the death of his father. Vann’s semi-autobiographical account—which incorporates both metaphor and allegory—is being published this month and has already garnered substantial praise. The book received the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler commented, “This is one of the most striking fictional debuts in recent memory.” Legend of a Suicide can be purchased through theUniversity of Massachusetts Press website.
The young character at the center of Legend, “Roy,” shares a passion for firearms with his father. Vann confirms that this is based on truth: “I grew up in a hunting and fishing family in Alaska and rural northern California, so I was shooting guns at an early age. I was given a pump pellet gun at age 7, a 20-gauge shotgun at age 8, and a Winchester .30-.30 rifle—like in the westerns—at age 9. When I was 11 years old, I killed my first two deer with that Winchester. California law said I had to wait until I was 13 to legally kill a buck, but family law said 11, and killing my first buck included eating the heart and liver.”
Recalling his Esquire article about Steven Kazmierczak, Vann drew parallels between himself and the troubled student: Kazmierczak was trained by the U.S. Army not to have any emotional or psychological response to killing a human being. In the shooting at Northern Illinois University, he killed without any sign of emotion at all…and I do think that hunting trained me in a similar way. We killed everything that moved in Alaska or California, hundreds of animals. The second deer I shot, at age 11, was paralyzed, hit in the spine. My father made me walk up behind it and put the .30-.30 rifle to the back of its head to finish it off, execution style. I still find that tremendously upsetting.”
Vann also remembers his father owning a .300 magnum rifle (for hunting bears) and a .44 magnum pistol. The .44 was kept under the seat of his father’s car for personal protection. Tragically, instead of being used for self-defense, Vann’s father used the handgun to take his own life. “I saw that guns are simply too powerful, too easily misused,” Vann recalls. “My father’s .44 magnum pistol had a hair trigger. I had fired it once, and it went off before I expected it to, with just a faint touch.” Vann is also cognizant of research that shows that many gun suicides are attempted in the heat of the moment, without significant premeditation: “When I think of my father sitting at his kitchen table in Fairbanks, Alaska, alone, with the gun to his head, it bothers me that he only had to want suicide for an instant. It’s just too fast and too easy, and there’s no turning back.”
Nor was this his family’s only tragic experience with gun violence: My stepmother lost her parents to a murder/suicide. Her mother killed her father with a shotgun and then killed herself with a pistol. They were a wealthy couple with a large house on a hill overlooking an entire valley in California. Their lives should have been considered good, but in a moment of anger, guns made killing very easy and quick.”
Ironically, Vann would inherit his father’s gun collection after his suicide. Instead of using these firearms solely to hunt, however, he capitalized on the opportunity to blow off steam and avoid dealing with complicated emotions like shame and rage. “I learned to break the .300 magnum rifle into several parts and stuff them down the back of my jacket,” he remembers. “I’d ride my bicycle into the hills above my suburban Californian neighborhood and shoot out streetlights from hundreds of yards away. That rifle sounded like artillery, but I was never caught.” More ominously, Vann notes: “I also sighted in on our neighbors in the afternoons and evenings, right from my bedroom. I had a shell in the chamber and the safety off, and I’d be looking at someone’s face through the crosshairs as they stood in front of a living room window. I was a straight-A student, would become valedictorian, was in student government, sports, band, etc. No one would have guessed I was living a double life.”
But Vann says that his fascination with firearms is now a thing of the past: “It’s extremely rare that anyone is able to defend their life or the lives of their loved ones with a firearm. If you don’t do drugs or engage in crime, you’re unlikely to ever confront a gun. The only way you’re really put into an increased level of danger is if you own a gun. I don’t keep a gun in my house, because I value my life.”
Vann also has some important advice for families dealing with issues of depression: “One of the most critical steps is to ask for outside help. Right before his suicide, my father convinced our family that he was fine. He sounded reasonable and clear-headed. Professional help, from a therapist or psychiatrist, is necessary.”
It’s been 28 years since Vann’s father’s suicide, so he’s had the time and distance to transform family tragedy into art. The stories in Legend of a Suicide are simply beautiful, reinventing a terrible past and making sense out of chaos.