Ava decided to write to Tyshaun when she saw her mother cry after reading Cox’s story about him in The Post. Cox follows the children’s relationship as they FaceTime, bombarding each other with heart emojis, sending gifts (including stress toys), and commiserating and comforting each other as they open up about their “bad weeks.”
“The thing that people tend to not appreciate is that when there’s a single intense, overwhelming event, particularly if it involves unexpected traumatic death, that’s not really one event,” Bruce D. Perry, a psychiatrist who worked with families after the shootings at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School, tells Cox. “What happens is your brain revisits that thousands of times and so it becomes thousands of little events, all of which are able to activate your stress response.”
The other element for which there can be no accounting in this engaging book is trust. Nonfiction of this kind cannot be crafted from a few phone calls and fleeting visits. It comes through an investment, both human and professional, that grants the writer a glimpse into the lives of people at their most vulnerable; they open up only if they feel confident the writer will do their stories justice. Earning their confidence takes time.
We see Cox’s investment pay off when he witnesses one of Ava’s tantrums, sparked by her mother asking her not to stand on the couch. Over the next 34 minutes he sees her spit water at both parents, say she’s “nobody,” swear, head-butt her mother, tell her father she hates him and scream “You don’t understand,” as her parents struggle to restrain her. “Her eyes appeared dilated, and her voice, now laced with a high-pitched rage, sounded unrecognizable, as though it had been digitally altered and sped up,” Cox writes.
Starting with Ava’s and Tyshaun’s psychological wounds and childish idiosyncrasies, Cox broadens his gaze to trace the impact first on their families (Ava’s brother escapes the drama by spending more time with his grandparents; Tyshaun’s 2-year-old brother, AJ, starts lashing out at preschool), then on their communities (anticipating that their daughter would need a lifetime of therapeutic care, Ava’s parents joined a lawsuit against the school district) and finally on the broader polity (excavating the legislative graveyard, Cox unearths the euthanized policies that could make a difference).
With the exception of a jarring passage in the epilogue where Cox explicitly calls for universal background checks, more education for gun owners and more research (all of which are implied more effectively elsewhere), this is a show rather than tell book. The National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment are not ignored, but neither do they dominate. Opting to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, he draws a painful, critical picture of what a society with virtually unfettered access to lethal weapons looks like through children’s eyes instead of lecturing the reader on politics and policy.
That lecture has become not so much overdue as overwrought and consistently undermined by the vested interests of the gun lobby. The debate around guns, if one can dignify it as such, has been conducted in such bad faith, and produced so little in the way of substantial legislative progress, that a mood of learned hopelessness has dampened urgent calls for change. As Cox asks, “How many children have to die or witness a killing or watch a family member be lowered into the earth before we say, enough?”
It’s an essential question. There is nothing inevitable about this; but there is nothing to suggest it will change anytime soon either. In the meantime, this book demonstrates that the most effective riposte to those who fetishize bearing arms is to bear witness.