Because a mentally ill young man fired into a crowd
of students near my hometown —
A friend and heroine of mine, Bert Kruger Smith,
after the death of her first son, age six, said,
“I had a choice. I could either take action
to help other people, or I could
— quietly and alone — go mad.”
She founded the Hogg Foundation in Texas
which has supported research and funding
for mental health issues for 5 decades.
Violence in America is not random
and it’s not unlikely even
in the perfect, insulated heartland
communities where I grew up.
Some of it comes from mental illness.
There is mental health crisis in America.
Ask anyone who has ever tried to
get help for a loved one.
And guns are commonplace.
Anyone can buy a gun, hide it under a loose
coat, baggy shirt, in a book bag.
The corporations who profit from gun sales
on the street are the same ones who profit from war.
The Carlisle Group, invested in heavily by the
Bush family, is one of the largest arms manufacturers
on the planet.
We want to fault the family when a person
goes off the deep end, a mother who prepared
the wrong supper, a father who drank too much,
everyone was at work, no discipline in the family,
no church, broken community —
but mental illness is real and usually manifests a
chemical imbalance in the brain.
We blame the family but we don’t create
avenues for them to get help for their
mentally ill loved ones and we don’t keep
guns off the street.
What does this have to do with grief,
with comforting the families and friends
of the victims?
When the family members of James Byrd
came together to heal, to make sense of the
horrific death of their beloved son, grandson,
brother, cousin, they chose to oppose the
death penalty for the young men who dragged
their loved one behind a truck until he was dead.
They began to organize to oppose the
death penalty in general, because they said
there had been enough death —
that healing begins with trying to combat
the sources of violence in our culture.
They created a foundation for racial justice,
to teach, to offer alternatives to racism
and violence which can turn anyone
into a victim.
They did this because it is a sane
response to grief.
They did this instead of
—quietly and alone — going mad —
when our beautiful, innocent, gentle
and complex children fall victim
to a violent culture
it is in our power to heal,
and maybe that is the gift in
this horrible, tear stained instant —
a tearful awakening of the will
to make a better world.
© Susan Bright, 2008
Susan Bright is the author of nineteen books of poetry. She is the editor of Plain View Press which since 1975 has published two-hundred-and-fifty books. Her work as a poet, publisher, activist and educator has taken her all over the United States and abroad. Her most recent book, The Layers of Our Seeing, is a collection of poetry, photographs and essays about peace done in collaboration with photographer Alan Pogue and Middle Eastern journalist, Muna Hamzeh. She grew up in Waukegan, Illinois.
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