Seeing ‘The Moth’ Through Trauma Colored Glasses

My wife is the one who listens to the ‘The Moth’, so when she got us tickets to the Grand Slam, I didn’t really know what I was in for. On the car ride over I asked, “Is it similar to This American Life? Is it like Ted talks?”

Her friend Jeany, the impetus for hiring a babysitter and hauling our tired parent asses over the bridge on a school night, was on second. Like her predecessor, she launched into her story with no preamble. The opening lines were precise; they dropped us into the scene so viscerally. There seemed to be a formula — part humor, part heart, repetition, a moral at the end.

Jeany’s story was about being a paramedic whose ambulance was in the middle of a drive by shooting. She was shot at, but not hit, but then her ambulance was already at the scene to help.

We were in the Castro theater. A beautiful arching ceiling with gold filigree and painted walls surrounding us. The man in front of us took a picture of the ceiling on his iphone, with it’s halo producing chandelier. The picture of the ceiling was even more ethereal than the ceiling itself.

Another man was standing in the aisle a few rows behind ours. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed he had his back to the speaker. He was looking around, maybe trying to find a friend with a saved seat, or an empty seat that was not in the balcony.

Jeany was talking about the scopes on the shooters’ rifles, and her attempt to describe the shooters to the dispatcher, while hiding under the dashboard.

“Look for the people with the really big guns.” She said. “If they have small guns, it’s not them.”

The audience laughed, me included, but the man in the aisle did not. He was chewing gum, very quickly. His hands were folded in front of him, like a secret service agent might stand. His scanning of the rows was quite methodical. Eyes slowly tracing each person, right to left, looking for something.

I used to be a preschool teacher. It was my first career. One time I was walking by the window of the four’s classroom and saw a car driving down the block very slowly, way too slowly, and a young man leaning out the window holding a rifle. He was looking around, the rifle was on his shoulder, finger on the trigger.

My body sunk into a calm slowness, I think I smiled. One of the benefits of having PTSD is how much you see and know during a true crisis, how comfortable and familiar a space that is. Crisis feels familial, like the living room you grew up in.

We made it a game, all the kids crawling to the back room, locking the door, under the table, away from the windows. We read stories and sang songs and called 911. After several minutes of no information, I scooted out of the room and peeked out the window in the front. It was the moment the cops rolled up, doors left ajar, their guns in two braced hands. In seconds the teenagers were out of the car, hands behind their heads. It was over before I could get back behind a locked door, no shots fired. The police called us ten minutes later to say that some Berkeley High students were playing paint ball and it was safe to come out.

For some reason that moment is more of a visceral, physical memory to me than the time there was a man with an actual bullet filled gun on the roof of the preschool, cornered after allegedly shooting someone down the block, and we were in lockdown for an hour and a half before the police caught him, helicopters with spotlights circling the building.

These two incidents happened at two different preschools in the same year, one I worked at in the mornings in Oakland, and the other in the afternoons in Berkeley. It was over twenty years ago and only one memory has survived with clarity. I find it odd that it isn’t the memory of the true emergency. Maybe because I saw the pointed rifle of the paint gun with my own eyes. The gunman on the roof was only ever an idea.

The man in the aisle reaches my row. Jeany is describing a young man in his early twenties who’s been shot in the neck, and her efforts to get him strapped to a board without injuring him further. He wants to call his mother and she wants to get him to the hospital. She’s worried that the movement of his crying might be dangerous to him. Every eye in the audience is riveted on her, expect for the man in the aisle’s. And mine. His eyes move down my row toward me. Time grinds to a stop. It’s like an audible thump. He looks at me and I look back at him. There is an intensity, a rage in his eyes. But, I read somewhere that faces look sinister in dark lighting, even your own in the mirror. ‘I don’t want to be his target’ I think. I look away. After fifteen seconds or so I look back and he’s moved to the row in front of me. He’s continues walking slowly backwards, in the direction of the stage.

I chastise myself. He probably works for the theater, maybe he does their security. I’m missing Jeany’s story, which is the reason we came. Or rather, I’m hearing her story, but it’s informing my terror, rather than entertaining me. Everything viewed through the lens of fear. Trauma colored glasses.

I’m scared in movie theaters now. Many Americans probably have a moment of fighting the fear culture that terrorism and the media have bred in theaters. But my PTSD, the unrelenting gift of my early formative years, takes it to another level. When I’m waiting for a movie to start, I’m scanning each person who walks in. In my mind, the mind held captive by my body, that experiences things as though they are really happening in a sensate flood of smell and texture and adrenaline surges, in that mind I’ve dived to the sticky floor hundreds of times, head under my arms. I’ve crawled to the lighted exit sign, slithered, low to the ground. I don’t need to be reminded to check where the nearest exits are. When my wife goes to the concession stand for diet coke and peanut m&m’s I’ll think, ‘If it happened right now, our children would still have one parent.’

I force myself to look away from the man in the aisle. Feel the seat behind my back, the floor under my feet. Breathe. Listen to the sound of Jeany’s voice. Breathe. How many things on the stage are the color yellow? White? Breathe. Wipe the sweat off my palms and hold Aimee’s soft solid hand. Look up at that beautiful chandelier with it’s halo. Breathe.

Which is the trauma? The young man who in her story is just arriving at the hospital? Or my own worst fears possibly unfolding right now in the aisle? Which one is a story and which one is the truth?

Jeany is describing the trauma response team at the hospital. The way they surround the patient, close ranks. She says what the paramedics always wait for is to see if most of the team pulls off their paper gowns and throws them in the bin as they head out of the room. She says when it comes to trauma, the less people in the room, the better the prognosis. She says you want disappointed doctors.

The people in the audience around me are breathing in the rhythm of the story, holding their breath then letting out a sigh as Jeany calls the boy’s mother back with the good news. The trauma team had moved on to other, higher priority patients.

We reach the moral. Knowing the boy will be ok, Jeany realized that she wasn’t ok. Even though she wasn’t hit, she was actually her own highest priority patient. She experienced a traumatic event and it pierced her as surely as a bullet. It would also leave a scar.

Her five minutes is over and so is her story. There is clapping, foot stomping, whooping by Jeany’s friends. The noise fills the room, it’s solid, it’s solidifying. Something about the story ending makes it feel like the lights in the room get brighter. Like the doors got opened and the last rays of daylight settled over us. I feel safe again.

Later, during intermission, my wife will ask me what I thought of Jeany’s story.

“I liked it,” I’ll say, “But I was a little distracted, by that man in the aisle.”

“What man?” she’ll ask. She didn’t even notice him.

Her question will cast a nagging doubt on my interpretation of the events that unfolded after Jeany’s story ended. His hands, his chewing, his methodical staring eyes, they tell me one story. But even while the hair on the back of my neck can still feel him, her question will get me wondering, maybe I miss interpreted, maybe he really was part of the security team, maybe they just needed his help with something else?

By the end of intermission, my clarity of conviction was gone. My mind ever unsure what constitutes an actual emergency.

But what happened next did feel like truth in the moment it was happening. As Jeany starts to walk off stage, the Castro Theater’s security team comes running down the aisle. They are wearing headsets, one is holding a clip board. They reach the man in the aisle, and close ranks around him like a trauma team. But unlike the trauma team in Jeany’s story, they don’t then dissipate, leaving him unattended. Instead, hands firmly on his back, surrounding him on all sides, they hastily escort him out of the theater. The theater darkens again as the doors close behind them.

As they exit, I feel a calm slowness descend. It’s deeply familiar. Familial. This is a moment I know how to live in.

My wife laughs next to me. In the moment she is living in, the next story has started.

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