A bullet went through my nephew’s chest and out his side without much medical fuss. Two stitches on either end and he left the hospital with a bottle of Vicodin. His heart was just missed, and the family was thankful for the randomness of certain trajectories.
Triston Salladay, the 14-year-old son of my brother, was injured at Santana High School in San Diego County last March. In a country of 281 million people, our family was chosen to take a hit for the strange subculture of stressed-out teenagers, reporters, guns and the reassuring narcotic of TV sociobabble.
Within minutes of the shooting, the country moved into position. It had been practiced, done before. I took my place as well, as a reporter, family member, and media confessor for a day.
At about noon on March 5, my stepmother phoned the Sacramento bureau of The San Francisco Chronicle. She informed me that what I’d been watching on CNN all morning had meaning. Triston had been shot and might be dead. I went to San Diego and spent the next day with Triston. When I returned that night, my editor gingerly asked me to write about the experience.
Nothing I have ever written has produced as much response from readers, in part because the Chronicle took the unusual step of printing a critique of itself and other newspapers on the front page. The headline read, “A Reporter Sees Tragedy From the Other Side.” Any given story will prompt five or six e-mails. My first-person article for the Chronicle, which was reprinted in several newspapers and online news sites, produced 250 responses. I’ve saved most of them on a computer disk for Triston.
Many of the messages offered prayers for Triston, or personal stories of being subject to media scrutiny. In nearly every instance, family members and victims said they felt betrayed and preyed upon, particularly by TV reporters, who promised them insightful, compassionate coverage and then produced cliché-ridden stories. Former reporters wrote to say they left the business because they felt guilty for embracing these victims for a single day, then moving on to another story.
I told a friend, an editor for the San Jose Mercury News, about the response. He replied in a half-joking way: “Congratulations. This shooting has been really good for you.” He was right. I felt guilty for so publicly revealing the inner workings of our family at the same time I contemplated the intrusiveness of the media. Had I been using Triston’s shooting to advance my career, to make a point at his expense? I wrote the story for several reasons. I wanted to make a point about the media and had the opportunity to get very close to a national story. I knew that I could get details nobody else could get. But the decision to write the story came after I returned from San Diego, after it was clear Triston would be okay.
I found it easy to stop being a journalist during the week after the shooting. On the day after the shooting, the four or five smokers in Triston’s thoroughly disjointed family gathered outside the hospital. There was some silence in our circle. We hadn’t seen each other in years. I barely recognized many of them.
A local TV cameraman quickly walked by with his gear. He didn’t stop, but blurted out: “You guys family?” Triston’s 24-year-old half brother soundly said, “No,” even before the man was finished speaking.
The cameraman whirled around and said, “Hey, we’re not the enemy. We’re not the enemy, man.” He’s upset at us.
It’s a nice little package, effortless in its efficiency. Roles are taken. Defenses are offered.
Triston’s other half brother, who is 19, received 41 phone calls from the media on his answering machine the day of the shooting. A producer from one national morning show said he must call them back or they will show up at his doorstep and stick a camera in his face.
Even the threats seemed clichéd. The New York Times called my brother in the hospital. He handed the phone to me, the media expert. Embarrassed that other family members might hear me, I nevertheless told some of the story as Triston had related it to me. A student had comforted Triston while he pressed a sweater down on his chest to hold the wound closed.
That’s what she probably wanted, stories like that. But somehow only platitudes and story fragments came out of my mouth. I even knew that a teacher or some school employee had brusquely discounted Triston’s claim that he had been shot after he ran up screaming amid the chaos. She retreated into a classroom, leaving Triston outside. I didn’t say anything about it, nor my brother’s seemingly natural wish that the shooter should be killed.
Newspapers rarely get it exactly right, because people act like I did that day. The reporter asked three times for the name of this Good Samaritan who held down Triston’s wound. She explained how Triston might want to get some recognition for this young man who might have saved his life.
All I could think was: “You’re trying that ploy on me? I know that tactic. I’ve used it. Think of some benevolent reason for this person to give up the name. Then move on to another person’s privacy, another anecdote.”
The day reminded me of the final scene in “Six Degrees of Separation,” the play about a wealthy New York art dealer and his wife who shelter a young man found bloody at their door. As every East Side matron hungrily demands details from their incredible tale, Ouisa Kittredge, the wife, stands up at a dinner party to say: “This was not an anecdote! It was an experience.”
If we’re looking for an explanation for the Santana shooting, let’s start with a culture that strips away meaning. Everything must be talked about. Risk factors must be examined. Patterns must be found. The day after the shooting “TalkBack Live” did “When Kids Kill: Who’s to Blame?” Governors and presidents are shocked and saddened. The shooter is labeled a coward. The Chronicle conducts an online poll asking people if the shooter should be executed.
It’s all placed into position, devoid of real feeling and emotion. It takes on a shiny professionalism. I found that what I wrote for the Chronicle, much of which is reprinted here, took on sheen as well. It made me uncomfortable. I later wished it had been hidden somewhere inside the paper; I felt uncomfortable telling my brother that I had written about his son. Triston and I have never talked about the piece.
I don’t know what could have been done differently by the newspapers and TV stations that covered the shooting. Deadlines force trivialization and inexactitude. Perhaps people should look elsewhere for their meaning.
Triston’s mother found the description of her son in the San Diego newspaper to be a little cold. The reporter had found a single friend who described him as “funny.” The story about Triston, the drama, centered on getting his father, Greg, back to California through an East Coast storm.
The little paragraph about the wounded should have, perhaps, read something like this: “Triston Salladay, 14, shot in the chest. Good condition UCSD hospital. Friends and family said Triston is bold with his affection despite erratic and occasionally distant relatives. His family tree looks something like a cross section of a lung. His father married a woman with six children, and he already had three half brothers. Triston has a remarkable, charismatic way of silently piercing you with his gaze after telling you something mundane.
“He has a writer’s way of finding ironies, such as the teachers who banned Harry Potter books, calling them too childish, but read the books themselves. Or the high school associate who constantly teased and harassed him, but called almost in tears after the shooting to say how worried he was. Triston has four major scars from skateboarding and other outside activities. Now he has two scars from a bullet wound and his own story to tell.”
Robert Salladay covers state government and politics for The San Francisco Chronicle. This article updates and expands his original Chronicle article. He has worked for The (San Francisco) Examiner and The Oakland Tribune.