The kids are in their late 30s now, the second-graders who survived when a young woman burst into their classroom in Winnetka, Ill., in May 1988 and opened fire, killing one student and wounding five others.
It wasn’t the first school shooting in America, but at the time it was the most disturbing — a nightmare visited upon a wealthy suburban enclave that dominated the national news for several days.
A disturbed daughter of privilege, Laurie Dann, 30, first went on a rampage through the North Shore, leaving poisoned traps and setting a fire. Then she targeted Hubbard Woods Elementary School apparently at random before taking her own life during a standoff with police.
Those living here at the time generally remember Dann, as well as Nick Corwin, the lone fatality, for whom a Winnetka park is named. But as the years have passed and the Hubbard Woods shooting has been eclipsed by so many other school shootings with so many more fatalities, the others involved have been largely forgotten.
Peter Munro has given them a voice.
Munro, now 38 and a licensed clinical social worker at Rush University Medical Center, recently posted a nearly 15,400-word autobiographical essay at his website, livingaftertrauma.com. It describes not only his recovery from gunshot wounds to the stomach and hand, but also his subsequent struggles with depression, anxiety, fear, shame and alcohol abuse related to the attack.
He doesn’t remember the moment Dann opened fire after she failed to persuade a substitute teacher to gather the children together — “just a feeling of disorganization, intensity and terror” — but his memories of blood pulsing from his wounds as he crawled for the exit remain vivid, along with the frustrations and pain associated with the five weeks he spent in the hospital that summer.
“I was not going to tell anyone how much it affected me,” he wrote. “I was going to move on. I saw no other choice. To me it felt like that is what everyone needed.
“Dealing with shame and anger has been a big part of my recovery,” he wrote. “I felt ashamed for causing pain to people when I told my story. I felt shame that I survived and my friend (Nick Corwin) didn’t. I felt ashamed for being different. I felt ashamed for the idea that people in the community would ask my siblings, ‘How’s Peter doing? No, how is he really doing?’ like I should be messed up. It made me angry that I was expected to have problems because of what someone did to me.”
But he did have problems. During his freshman year at the University of Southern California, a mock kidnapping staged as an initiation ritual by his fraternity brothers provoked such panic in him that he rushed to a second-story balcony and jumped off. He later suffered severe abdominal blockage likely related to intestinal scarring from his bullet wounds, and he found great difficulty sustaining intimate relationships. One of the therapists he saw intermittently persuaded him at last, more than 15 years after the shooting, that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
As we rage at the perpetrators and mourn the dead, we tend to forget the survivors.
Munro reached out to me last year because I co-authored a book about the tragedy, “Murder of Innocence,” published in 1990. The title referenced the painful end of certain illusions of safety and tranquility, but Munro’s essay — at his request I critiqued an early draft — was a reminder of how lingering and deep such pain can be for those who can’t simply gradually put it behind them.
“What you did changed my life forever and I hate you for it,” he wrote in a searing passage directed at his deceased assailant. “Now I have to tell a disturbing story all the time and it’s all because of you. I don’t want to disturb people. … I resent that I’m lucky to be alive. I just want to be alive.”
But in the end there is uplift. He’s now married and the father of a 17-month-old daughter. And he’s come to see his reckoning as something potentially useful to those who have endured all sorts of trauma, not just the depressingly large number of those who have lived through school shootings.
“I can own that something terrible happened to me, but that it has also made me a person who feels deeply and has strong empathy,” he wrote. “I have become closer with those I love after accepting and being able to communicate how much I have been affected by getting shot.”
In a closing passage titled “A note of encouragement,” Munro addresses other survivors, including his former classmates with whom he is not in touch:
“Your feelings will not destroy you, avoiding them will. Moving forward is not forgetting the past. What happened to you made this hard to do, but do it anyway. Try to tell your story. Try to understand how what happened to you affected you.”
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