In sitting down to write her first book, Kathryn Barker decided to write about something that really scared her. And as a mother, what scared her more than anything was the phenomenon of mass school shootings.
Her novel In the Skin of a Monster begins three years after a school shooting in a fictional rural Australian town called Collector. The culprit: a fourteen year old girl. The story’s protagonist is the girl’s identical twin Alice, who has to carry the burden of her sister’s monstrous crime.
In real life, female shooters are uncommon. One of the few, and possibly the youngest female, is Brenda Spencer, who was 16 when she shot and killed the principal and a janitor of the elementary school across the street from her house. Brenda no longer remembers giving the reason ‘I don’t like Mondays’ for why she conducted her spree of violence.
That shooting took place in 1979 in San Diego, California. Some years later, Kathryn Barker would spend her senior year of high school 1,200 miles away in a rural area near Olympia, Washington.
‘I lived in a sort of wood cabin-y type place outside of Olympia, which is near where Twilight was set, so there were a lot of rural people,’ Kathryn said. ‘And a lot of people had guns. You could go into a shop and see them hanging on the wall.’
‘I suspect that wouldn’t have been confronting for everybody, but I found it quite confronting.’
When she was living in America, Kathryn was very conscious of the growing phenomenon of school shootings.
‘I think one of the scariest things in relation to school shootings is they’re kind of a thing,’ she said. It’s a reality that people have gotten a bit used to.’
‘You see it on the news and it’s a big deal at that point in time, but there’s not really the follow-up.’
The idea of the follow-up interested Kathryn in writing her novel.
‘Although the premise related to the aftermath of a school shooting, what I really wanted to deal with was the psychological aspects of the fallout and how people were still coming to terms with it,’ she said.
Three years on from her novel’s fictional school shooting, Alice is the town pariah. Guilty by association by dint of having the same face as the killer, even her father struggles to be in her presence. Three years on, the townsfolk have still not gotten over the shock of that day’s horrific events. With a population of around 800 people, every single person lost someone they knew or loved.
The devastation of the shooting was amplified in such a small town. What followed after that day is described by one character, who says, “…everyone in Collector had almost the exact same nightmare. About a girl in a school dress. With a gun”.
The result is a flood of near-identical girl monsters into the parallel realm of Kathryn’s story; a dreamscape turned into a nightmare. And it is this realm which Alice finds herself in, after she encounters her twin on a stretch of the old highway leading out of town.
The parallel nightmare universe of In the Skin of a Monster reads like the response of one teen who had a lucky near miss at his school’s tragedy.
On the morning of 27 February, 2012, students at Chardon High School in Chardon, Ohio, were having breakfast in the school cafeteria. At around 7:30am, one boy stood up and began shooting. Three students died and three sustained injuries.
In a televised interview from that evening, a reporter asked one Chardon student who heard the gunshots how he was coping.
He replied, blinking back tears, ‘I’m not. It’s just a nightmare I’m waiting to wake up from.’
I talked to Kathryn about what it was like for her to write about such a confronting subject matter, and further, how it was to write a work of young adult fiction that centred on something so dark.
‘It’s difficult,’ she said. ‘They’re not pleasant things to write about and it’s not a pleasant space to be in. But I think all types of stories need to get told.’
She added, ‘I think there’s a temptation to assume that when things are dark or involve difficult subject matters, why would we want young adults reading that. And what I would say is that young adults are reading that and far worse on the internet and the news. So having the opportunity to explore it in a safer and perhaps more considered way through a book is sometimes a valuable experience.’
Kathryn was also keen to emphasise during our conversation that the dark events of the book serve as a vehicle for exploring the types of issues that are so often dealt with in young adult literature.
‘The issues that are the substance of the book are about dealing with a sense of self and dealing with the way you’re perceived by others, and how damaging it can be if people are perceiving you in a negative light,’ she said.
‘That particular time of life is just really intense and deeply felt. The YA genre allows for, and indeed invites, stories that can match that level of intensity.’
What Kathryn describes is played out in her book through the character of Alice, who has to contend with these issues several-fold.
Alice has spent three years in a psychiatric facility grappling with the trauma from her twin’s actions. She wonders whether she will develop the same violent tendencies as her sister did. In leaving the facility, Alice has to cope with the town “hanging their grief on her”. And having been returned to normal life after being robbed of a chunk of her adolescence, she now finds herself catching up on more typical, adolescent concerns.
Kathryn said, ‘I started with this rough idea of a voice in my head. […] It started with a girl who lived in a small town. And then I sort of kept digging deeper and deeper and this is where it ended up.’
A word that is often applied to school massacres is ‘senseless’. It is almost unimaginable that there are individuals who could walk onto a crowded playground, or into a classroom, and start shooting. It is beyond belief that there have been hundreds of such incidents since the first recorded school massacre in the United States in 1764. Between 14 December 2012, when a gunman killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and April 2015 alone, there have been 126 school shootings in the United States .
Kathryn wanted to present a positive resolution to her imagined mass school shooting in In the Skin of a Monster. By the novel’s end, we witness both Alice and the town finally beginning to heal. But the one unresolved point is why Alice’s twin did what she did.
In real life, the victims of school shootings, their families, and the community at large aren’t always given the answers they seek. In cases such as the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and Elliot Rodger’s rampage in 2014, manifestos and videos were left behind gave an insight into the gunmen’s motivations. But question marks surround yet other cases like Chardon High School in 2012. In that instance, shooter Thomas Lane refused to divulge his reasons.
It is clear then, that we won’t always be able to understand why such tragedies occur and why their instigators feel compelled to let loose a wrecking ball unto so many people’s lives. In such times, we might heed the words of Bjørn Ihler, a survivor of Norway’s Utøya Island attack in 2014 which left 77 people dead.
Bjørn spoke about accepting and moving on while still recognising the pain; about finding some wisdom that can be taken out of what has happened to ensure that the violence isn’t repeated . And sometimes, that’s all we can do.
In the Skin of a Monster is published by Allen & Unwin.
This article was published in the August 2015 edition of ACTWrite magazine, by the ACT Writers Centre.