The Life Before Our Eyes

I read a review of the book The Life Before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke back in 2002.

That was almost 3 years after the April 20, 1999
Littleton, Colorado school shooting. 12 innocent students and one teacher killed, 23 others wounded at Columbine High School.

It was just after the October 28, 2002 Tucson, Arizona incident where a 41 year old student at the nursing school at the University of Arizona, shot and killed three female professors and then himself.

I had spent 25 years teaching in middle and high school classrooms and had moved to a college in 2000. My wife was still teaching in a high school then, but she left a few years later and the shootings were part of the reason.

We didn't teach in tough inner-city schools. But the school shootings seemed to be happening in the suburban settings where that kind of thing wasn't supposed to happen.

When the tragic shootings occurred at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, I was working at NJIT, the tech university of New Jersey. My wife was at home. My oldest son was headed to Norris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus to meet with his senior project advisor, Professor Kevin Granata, to work with his team on their biomimetic walking robot.

My son had received an email at about 9:30 saying that there had been a shooting on campus, but that classes were on. He was waiting for a phone call from his girlfriend who had gone on a job interview. He decided to wait to go to class.

By the time he read that email, two students in a dormitory were already dead, and the shooter had moved to Norris Hall.

When the news picked up the story, he called his mother and they watched CNN together as he saw people he recognized running from the building.

What they couldn't see inside included Professor Kevin Granata bringing 20 students from a nearby classroom into his office on the third floor and telling them to keep the door locked. He went downstairs to investigate and was shot and killed. None of the students locked in his office were injured.

I came home from the college. It was terrible to watch, but we kept watching, until we could watch no more.


Last month, I saw the film version of the novel on my Netflix DVD list. I had added it to the list, but kept pushing it down to the bottom.

In the film, The Life Before Her Eyes, directed by Vadim Perelman, Uma Thurman plays an art professor who was witness to a school shooting in her high school when she was a student there. The film switches back and forth from the adult professor to her teenaged self (played by Evan Rachel Wood).

My wife and I did finally watch it, and I'm glad we did.

Since then I've read reviews of it and some are quite negative. They criticize some of the same things I appreciated in the film - the complex structure, beautiful cinematography, and psychological and imaginative direction. It's a movie you should see with people and talk about afterwards.

The film was released for the Toronto Film Festival in September 2007 and I suspect that the events of that past April made the release seem like the wrong thing to do. It was held back and then given a limited U.S. release in April 2008. That timing also seems wrong.

The strongest performance is by Evan Rachel Wood as the high school senior who witnesses a Columbine-like massacre. She is Diana, the wild side of a pairing with best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri), who is an evangelical Christian.

Diana wants out of her hometown to a place she doesn't even want to imagine yet. Maureen wants a husband, kids and the life that she has already planned for herself. Still, they are best friends.

The script for the film is by Emil Stern who adapted Laura Kasischke's novel and it's good at hinting at things that the novel can develop, but that can only be hinted at in the film by a few words, a shot, a look by the actor.

Diana fifteen years after the school shooting (Uma Thurman) can't seem to let go of what happened to her. Diana's eyes are lifeless, especially as contrasted by her younger self. She has a husband and daughter, but things are not right.

Some viewers are probably put off by the alternating adult/teen stories, but it worked for me. The director, Perelman (who also directed The House of Sand and Fog) uses montage to take us from memory to imagination and slow motion to hold on to moments before her eyes. The past, in the acting, photography and dialogue is more "real" than the present dreamwalking life Diana steps through.

I want to read the book in a few months. Not right now. But I did look up some information on Laura Kasischke who I knew as a poet before I knew she had written the novel.

I found this poem in her collection Gardening in the Dark. (The poem is available online.) I don't know that you'd see it as any companion to the novel or film, but it was the one that caught me after seeing the film and starting this little essay.

Sacred Flower Watching Me

Deep in the ground, in the center
of a bulb, in the scarlet
darkness wrapped in crackling

there is a pinprick
of light. It's hot. It stirs. It's spring—
pitiful and sweet as a small girl spanked.

My love, all of it, a life of it, has been
too little. Nor has my rage ever forced any diamonds
out of the blood through the skin.

How awful
for someone like me will be. The teenage
girls are being dragged

out of the earth by their hair.

Tongues, testicles, plums, and small hearts bloat
sweetly in the trees. And then

a silence like water
poured into honey—

the silence of middle age.

But there are nights I feel a sacred
flower watching me.
Such affection!
Even in my cradle, it was waiting
warmly, its soft

white gaze

steady on my insufficient face.

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