Violence, Loss and Healing—Emily Barth Isler’s “Aftermath”

After her brother’s death from a congenital heart defect and a move to new town, twelve-year-old Lucy finds herself in an awkward position; she’s the new kid in a grade full of survivors of a shooting that happened four years ago. Lucy feels isolated and unable to share her family’s own loss, which is profoundly different from the trauma of her peers and she struggles through her days. This is the jumping off point for Emily Barth Isler’s brave and important debut novel Aftermath (Carolrhoda Books, $17.99) which aims to makes the unfathomable understandable to a young and tender audience. Isler talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she came to write the book, the discussions she hopes it will spark, and the way in which it fits into the larger framework of Jewish thought and teaching.

YZM: What drew you to the topic of gun violence and why is it especially relevant now? 

EBI: I grew up very aware of guns, but not in the way many Americans do. My grandfather, Alan Barth, was a very well known activist and his editorials for the Washington Post helped convince President Lynden B. Johnson to sign the Gun Control Act of 1968, which regulates gun ownership, into law. I remember being in his house as a child, seeing mementos like photos of guns and fake guns—all reminders of what our family believed to be true: gun access should be controlled.

YZM: My grandfather died shortly before I was born. We never got to meet. Even more than his gun control legacy, I grew up in the sadness of having lost someone very important to me before I even had the chance to live. It was something that shaped me so deeply. Missing him is still large in my life.

EBI: All these things played into my writing of AfterMath. I have been watching our nation’s struggle with school shootings since I was a teenager, when Columbine happened. And I’ve lived in fear ever since. First, I feared for myself. Now I fear for my children.

YZM: How did you make it appropriate for the young readers you’re hoping to reach? 

EBI: This was a constant balancing act. I believe in not writing down to kids—they are more savvy and aware than we think they are, always! But at the same time, their hearts are tender and their brains still developing. I thought a lot about my experiences with my own kids, and the things we talk about at home, the way I frame things for them when we have hard discussions. 

I also consulted a ton of experts! It was so important to me that I got this right in this book, so I talked to a few therapists, teachers, to people who work for gun violence prevention advocacy organizations, to several pediatricians, to other parents, to anyone who would read the book and give me feedback! And my editor, Amy Fitzgerald, is such an expert at this. She really helped me find that balance between being completely honest and being age-appropriate. I owe her so much.

YZM: Lucy’s mother references the Holocaust, comparing its survivors to those of the shooting in Queensland.  Do you think these two groups can be compared and if so, how and why? 

EBI: I think it’s common for people outside trauma to assume that its victims are “damaged” or “ruined” by it. I’m a trauma survivor myself—not of gun violence, but of physical abuse while I was in high school—and for a long time, I didn’t tell people about it because I didn’t want anyone to think I was “damaged.” Learning more about trauma, going to therapy, and getting to know my husband’s grandparents, Jews who both lived in Germany before the Holocaust and were lucky enough to escape and survive, helped me see that trauma doesn’t have to damage us. In fact, it can make us stronger, give us more perspective, sometimes help us appreciate aspects of life we might not have noticed before, and allow us to have a more nuanced portrait of humanity.

I thought a lot about all the horrors that people saw in concentration camps, the traumas of being separated from their families, from losing loved ones, from losing precious years of their lives while hiding, only for them to find ways to begin again, to move forward, to find joy. I’m not at all saying that the way to get over a traumatic experience is to simply “get happy”—it’s infinitely more complicated than that, of course. But I think it’s good to see that it’s possible to eventually find joy and peace and new chapters. 

I’m also not saying that trauma isn’t a big deal just because there are silver linings, but I know that learning about the horrors of the Holocaust in Hebrew School from a very young age taught me that even those who have overcome horrible circumstances can still find ways to live happy, full lives. And maybe that we can all learn something from them.

I’m just one person, and yet I can give you so many examples of mass shootings that were somehow connected to my life, geographically or personally. But the point is that it doesn’t require these personal connections for a mass shooting to feel devastatingly close and personal to me.

YZM: Jews have recently been targeted in mass shootings, most notably the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. What do you think is the responsibility of Jews in terms of the activism to end such gun violence in America?

EBI: Every minority or underrepresented group in America is probably feeling this stress more than ever in recent years. I think Judaism teaches us that we must always help the oppressed. Sometimes, we’re included in that group, “the oppressed,” and sometimes we’re not, but in this case, yes, Jews have been targeted, and the fear is real. 

There are many examples of Jews in America joining forces with other minority groups struggling, whether it’s supporting the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, amplifying voices of women, speaking up for the Black Lives Matter movement, or speaking out against AAPI hate. Of course, not all Jews do this, and even those of us who already do can, and should, do even more. I think the teachings of Judaism encourage us over and over to help the oppressed, to condemn the oppressor. According to the Torah, we’ve been the underdogs, the enslaved, the out-armed, the stranger in a strange land, and instead of this making our hearts harden, it should serve to make us empathetic towards everyone else suffering, and encourage us to help.

I could tell you that the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting felt personal to me—and it did—because not only was it a Jewish congregation, it was the community where my mother was born and where her cousins became Bar Mitzvot, where my great aunts and uncles were married. But the truth is, every mass shooting feels personal to me. There was also one at the mall in my hometown, and one at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD, somewhat near to where my own dad was a news reporter for his whole career. I’m just one person, and yet I can give you so many examples of mass shootings that were somehow connected to my life, geographically or personally. But the point is that it doesn’t require these personal connections for a mass shooting to feel devastatingly close and personal to me. Every single one does. Every time this happens, if it’s at a school, a mosque, a church, a grocery store…every time, it feels too close, too real, too wrong. 

And so preventable. Other similarly-situated countries do not have this problem. It’s so incredibly American. My ancestors came to this country to seek freedom from violence; my grandfather, Harry Dobkin, came in 1918 from Russia to get away from pogroms. My grandmother, Florence Dobkin, lost all her cousins in the Holocaust because they stayed behind in Hungary whereas her father came to the U.S. My other grandparents’ families and my husband’s grandparents all came here from Germany at various times for the freedom to live safely and in peace.

Ending gun violence is part of that bargain. America took us in when we needed refuge, and now, we all must collectively seek refuge from within it. 

At the Passover Seder, we tell the story of the Jews being enslaved, begging for freedom, and then wandering in the desert, but we tell the entire story as if WE each were there, personally. “When I was a slave in Egypt,” we say. Obviously, none of us alive today, nor even our most distant of relatives, was actually personally enslaved in Egypt, but we pass the values in the story on to our children through empathy and belonging. This transfers to the way I think about “others.” There are no others. We are all part of humanity. If someone is suffering, we are all obligated to help. 

Jewish tradition also tells us that whoever saves one life saves the whole world. It’s so simple when you think of it that way—how can you not want to help protect as many lives as possible with this perspective in mind? It’s not “whoever saves one Jewish life,” it pertains to any life. 

YZM: How is Lucy’s decision to forgive Avery and continue to be friends inherently Jewish? 

EBI: I love showing a roadmap to forgiveness in the book. In a story that shares more than enough examples of how life can be horribly unfair and sad, I want kids to see examples of how things can go well or be done helpfully. How things can go right. Parents can change. Teachers can be really helpful and caring. Friends can forgive after messing up. 

People make mistakes. Everyone reading this book is going to make a mistake in the near future—humans just do. I wanted to show that Lucy learns that it’s okay to forgive someone if you want to.

I definitely learned this from Judaism. Every Yom Kippur we go to temple and collectively take responsibility for our whole community’s mistakes and transgressions. Together, every year, we ask for forgiveness. We ask for the chance to try again, which is what Avery asks Lucy for. And we forgive each other, when it’s healthy and possible to do so (I have to leave space for the times and instances where forgiveness isn’t healthy or productive). 

I also think of the Passover Seder when I think about this. “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” There’s always a space at the table. Technically, in the book, it’s Avery’s table that Lucy sits down at, but in the more practical sense, it’s Lucy who invites Avery to be part of her life. 

I think Lucy’s whole friendship with Avery is very Jewish in that she is offering space at the table to someone who has historically been excluded. She welcomes the stranger, even when she, herself, is also a stranger. Even once she learns why Avery is an outcast, Lucy doesn’t let other kids’ actions change her feelings about being Avery’s friend. She sees that she’s in a unique position to offer friendship to someone who is so desperately lonely, and she does. And later, she forgives Avery’s mistakes and gives her a second chance. I can’t think of anything more inherently Jewish than that!

YZM: Does this statement: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” from Pirkei Avot relate to AfterMath, either in terms of the book’s content or in our responsibility as readers and Jews?

EBI: Absolutely. I thought about that quote from Pirkei Avot many, many times while writing the book. When it got really difficult to revise it because the material was heavy, I’d think of it. When it was hard to sell the book because a lot of people didn’t want to deal with this “tricky topic,” I thought of it. I come from multiple places of privilege, and a strong feeling from my family of journalists—grandfather and my dad—that words are the most powerful things, and telling stories is the best way to reach people. If I was going to have a platform, it had to mean something. 

I think fear is a very useful tool in life. The things we’re scared of tell us what’s important to us. While I happened to be, as I mentioned before, born into a family that valued ending gun violence, that doesn’t mean I am any less scared of someone I love being affected by it. You can work hard for a cause and still have it terrify you. Writing about it, writing about the fear of losing someone I love, is a powerful way to process that fear, and also to do the work from that phrase from Pirkei Avot. I don’t have the solution to the gun violence crisis in America, but I know I’m obligated to try and make the world better—tikkun olam. And I know that writing about it—and reading about it, and talking about it—is a great start.