MAYBE I JUST NEEDED TO KILL
I see myself with the gun raised, at a distance. I see him fall. Maybe I just needed to kill.
That was the caption Eileen Myles used on Instagram for a selfie she posted the day Antonin Scalia was found dead on a ranch near Marfa, TX. It felt good to hear someone say it, to express, even as a joke, the bottomless anger so many people felt about his toxic words, his power. My friends and I have adopted the phrase, finding it oddly expedient in our everyday lives. But of course, hypothetical or fictional violence by women has a long history. Clytemnestra. Lady Macbeth. Buffy Summers.
The vision kept coming back to me. I didn’t see myself shoot. I just saw the seconds right before. At first I thought it was bizarre that the image haunted me, the gun in my hand, a recurring waking dream. I’ve never touched a handgun. Then I realized it’s perfectly normal. It’s terrifyingly normal to see a person channel their rage into violence. Around the time of my nightmare, in 2016, there had been a mass shooting every single day of the year in the US, and then, too, I’d been watching a lot of Buffy.
Fifty years to the day after Charles Whitman’s mass shooting from the tower on the UT campus, eight years after a student opened fire on the sixth floor of the library during my first semester as a graduate student, and two months after the largest mass shooting in US history at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Campus Carry went into effect at the University of Texas at Austin. When UT became an officially gun-happy school, I was long gone, not teaching as I had planned to be. I didn’t act on my gun hallucination, though if I’d stayed the new law would have made it extremely easy to execute. Guns are permitted in classrooms, libraries, and in professors’ offices. Three female professors, two from my former department, filed a lawsuit against the legislation. Women. Heroes.
The night I moved out of Texas, I woke at 3:30 a.m. beside my girlfriend from a dream about the professor getting punched in the face. I didn’t punch him, but I saw him punched. I have never punched anyone, I don’t even think I’ve witnessed a real-life punch, but this violent scenario in all its permutations has followed me here. That day I’d driven fourteen hours away from Austin to a casita owned by a woman who in a footnote to a book about Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party calls herself a “radical lesbian separatist.” These days she’s just an ardent feminist French tapestry weaver. When we came to see the house, she told us—because she said she could tell we were feminists—that she was attacked and raped by a man in our apartment several years ago and has since lost her short-term memory due to the drugs she was given to help her cope. How many years? She tells me, frequently, that we make her feel safe. Women do this.
The women lined up outside the professor’s office to ask for funding. I wanted to take the summer to finish my dissertation, but I was told that I had to go to him to ask. He certainly would have given me the summer. Smirking. I decided, though it didn’t feel like I had another option, to finish my dissertation in six weeks and get out rather than stand in that line. Rather than beg funding from administrators in the department, some of whom are women I once admired for their feminist scholarship, who as far as anyone can tell have been knowingly promoting this guy I consider a predator for years, giving him more power and more one-on-one access to students. Maybe they really don’t know.
He first came on to me (after me?) in an email early in the semester I took his required class, telling me, “You write like a dream.” I was 24, in an increasingly hard relationship of seven years with my first love, a woman. I was wondering if—hoping—the dysfunction was due to my failure to be a lesbian, rather than our failure to connect. Graduate school seemed more and more like a sham, and I wondered what I was doing there, what kind of validation I was seeking, and somewhere deep down I just wanted to be writing. Here was my professor, telling me he was “quite smitten” with an assignment I’d written. Here was a compliment I wanted to take to heart. Here was a way out. Here was an avenue to power.
This is an excerpt. The full text of Jenn Shapland's "Maybe I Just Needed to Kill," as well as "Google Your Feelings" can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 3.
Jenn Shapland is a nonfiction writer living in New Mexico. Her work won a 2017 Pushcart Prize and has been published in Tin House, THE Magazine, Pastelegram, The Lifted Brow, and Electric Literature. She teaches in the Creative Writing department at the Institute of American Indian Arts and she designs and makes clothing for Agnes.