You'll Shoot Your Eye Out
Reading Time: 6.5 minutes
"You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" originally appeared in Issue 18 of Tahoma Literary Review.
When I first read Paul Crenshaw's essay, I stopped at the first sentence. Wait, I thought, Red Ryder BB guns are real? I loved A Christmas Story when I saw it as a kid. I literally fell out of my chair laughing. I still love it now as an adult. What Crenshaw does in invoking this classic, nostalgic film is smart, sharp, a poke in the eye, and a punch in the gut. By reflecting upon his childhood anger, fear, and other-blaming, he exposes not only his own emotional triggers but those of society around us. When, as an adult, he asks questions of himself -- "men like me" -- he's effectively focusing a much wider lens. The issue goes beyond the "you'll shoot your eye out" refrain. The issue goes beyond comedy into the realm of tragedy.
For Christmas in 1982 my mother bought me a Red Ryder BB gun. A year later, in the movie A Christmas Story, little Ralphie’s mother said that guns were dangerous—she did not want Ralphie shooting his eye out. Despite giving me the gift, my mother shared the movie’s concern. She did not approve of me owning a gun. Like the mother in A Christmas Story, she did not want me shooting any animals, or birds. Perhaps she was also afraid I would shoot my eye out, but I think now she was more afraid of what I would do to others. We lived at the time on the grounds of an institute for the developmentally disabled where she worked, and I was angry at the divorce that had led us there. I was afraid of the gray buildings on the hill above us, and I was afraid of the residents of the institute, with their Tay-Sachs disease and Down syndrome, words I didn’t even know the meaning of, but could see on their bodies in the way they walked, the involuntary tics they carried around with them. Jamie Vanderburg had Tourrete syndrome—she cursed like Ralphie beating up the bully. Derrick Stegan swallowed constantly, his big Adam’s apple working, and his head moved in little circles, like a bobble doll, or Ralphie’s little brother eating mashed potatoes with only his mouth. Big Jim Brantley grunted. I’m sure the grunts meant something to him, but to me, at age eleven, they sounded like they were made by a monster from a scary movie, or the furnace Ralphie’s father fights.
Every time I saw one of the residents I wanted away: from them and the institute and the circumstances of our lives. I wanted to live in our old house, for my father to still be there, for the world to stay on the same course that had kept me comfortable, unexposed to the residents of the institute and the disabilities they wore. It’s taken me almost forty years to admit, but I blamed the residents for us living there, for the simple reason I could not blame my mother or father. I was angry at them both for the divorce they had dropped on my brother and me, but I could not hate them. Instead, I stayed angry at the small house we lived in, and that my brother and I had to walk across the grounds of the institute to catch the bus in the morning, crossing in front of the dorms where the weird residents stood smoking in the cold. Some days Derrick followed us, trying to talk. Big Jim Brantley grunted our names. Jamie Vanderburg said she loved us little fuckers, and all of them were easier to blame than my parents, who only wanted, they said, the best for us both.
That Christmas afternoon, only an hour after unwrapping the gun, I shot a cardinal where it sat on a power line that ran behind our house. I tell myself now I did not mean to hit it, but that my bullet flew at just the wrong trajectory, and it dropped from the line to land beside the frozen creek, body soft as the still-falling snow. A few drops of bright blood stained the snow, and I knelt there beside it, wishing it back into the air. Later, as the dark set in over the gray buildings of the institute, I buried it across the road, among the graves of goldfish and cats hit by cars.
After the burial I swore I would never shoot another living thing, but that promise only lasted until our father called and said he had moved out of state. It might be months before we saw him again. Walking through the woods I took aim at sparrows flitting through the trees and squirrels searching for the nuts they had buried. I fired at the small fish in the creek and at the skate bugs that danced across the surface of the water. I shot the neighbor’s cat from my front porch and heard it yowl as it disappeared in a flash of fur. I shot my dog in the ribs and heard it howl, then turned the gun on myself in my remorse and shot my leg to see how it felt. All afternoon, as the bruise grew bigger, I wondered what made me the way I was, how I could harbor so much hate.
I would also wonder, years later, why I turned my anger onto others. When I wasn’t killing small woodland creatures with it, I kept the gun propped against the wall beside my bed. Some evenings, angry that my father hadn’t called or that one of the residents had tried to touch me as I made my way toward the school bus, where the bigger kids would thump me on the back of the head with their class rings, I aimed my rifle out the window. I could see dark figures in the windows of the dorms, faces brightened when they drew on their cigarettes, and I squinted like I was looking through a high-powered scope. I pantomimed pulling the trigger.
Boom, I said. Boom. Boom.
When Big Jim Brantley walked to his classes in the morning, I aimed at his face. I aimed at Derrick Stegan’s bobbing head, at Jamie Vanderburg cursing a world she couldn’t quite understand. At Dalton Whent, who always talked of home, as if he had a chance of returning. At Kyle Jennings and his crash helmet, which might have protected him from a bullet in the same way it saved him from smashing his skull when he had a seizure. At Ray Ray Stone, smile so wide it might have been a target for me to take aim toward.
I did not know then the kindnesses that ran through the residents. Because I could not see them as normal, I ignored the small offerings they had to give. Big Jim, who stood well over six feet and weighed 300 pounds, once rescued a stray kitten and carried it around with him on his shoulder, occasionally reaching up a big hand to pet its tiny body. He cried when he came across squirrels killed by cars, and years later I would wonder what he might have felt had he seen the graves of all the cats in the woods beyond the state highway. Derrick Stegan constantly wanted to shake hands, which my mother said was for the physical contact—he needed to be touched. Dalton Whent said the word “home” so often I wondered if he wanted to go, like Max in my favorite childhood book, where someone loved him best of all.
I would only remember all this years later, when the rage of white men began gathering in our schools, leaving children dead and sightless under fluorescent lights while men with the same shade of skin began pointing fingers at the mentally ill. We could argue that any man who walks into a school and opens fire is mentally ill, but that is not what they meant. In an effort to shift blame away from the guns we grew up with and the entitlement that exists inside us, many white males would try to blame mental illness. They would “other” those whose minds worked in a different way, claiming that only men like Derrick or Big Jim were a threat, even though they were scared of their own shadows because of all the ways they had been treated by men like me. I also would remember being a child with a BB gun, sitting at a window and imagining how easy it would be to erase everyone around me simply because I didn’t understand my own emotions, nor have the empathy to understand the emotions of others.
This anger, and the othering that accompanies it, is something I’ve seen all my life. For most of my middle school years we othered the Soviets, afraid as we were of their missiles, never asking where ours were aimed. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait we othered the Iraqis before carpet-bombing the desert. A month after the Twin Towers fell we othered Afghanistan, and two years later we othered Iraq again. In recent years I have seen the othering of Black men in Missouri and Mississippi, in New York City and Minneapolis, in an attempt to explain their deaths at the hands of white police officers. I see now the othering of Hispanic immigrants at the Texas border. Sikh and Muslim and Hindu men kneeling for peaceful morning prayer. Black women pulled over for failure to signal a lane change.
But when white men walk into schools carrying assault rifles and blow holes in our ideas of what we can allow, much of the white community others them with mental illness instead of accepting what I’ve known since I raised an air rifle at the residents of the institute. We excuse white enmity with an empathy we can only carry for those like us, even while we claim they are not like us. Even while more and more men begin assembling their machine guns, and more and more schools shiver in fear of what might walk out of the woods. More and more we hear the message that others are committing all the atrocities we see every day, told to us by men like me, men who would shoot out all the eyes in the world, until no one can see what’s happening right in front of them.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Crenshaw had this to say about his essay:
“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” is an excerpt from my memoir about growing up on the grounds of an old tuberculosis sanatorium that was converted in the early seventies to a home for the developmentally disabled. The origins of the essay came from thinking of how often my anger at my parents’ divorce and the strange place we ended up afterward overcame me. Writing the essay also forced me to consider all the ways we fail those less fortunate, and how often we blame them for our own failings.
Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, from Mad Creek Books, and This We’ll Defend, from The University of North Carolina Press. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCrenstorm.