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She survived a mass shooting — then created a graphic novel to help others

In her debut graphic novel, <em>Numb To This</em>, Kindra Neely shares the mental toll that surviving a mass shooting left her.
Copyright © 2022 by Kindra Neely
In her debut graphic novel, Numb To This, Kindra Neely shares the mental toll that surviving a mass shooting left her.

It took Kindra Neely years to seek help.

Seven years ago, she survived the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where a gunman killed eight students and one professor, and injured eight more. She has now shared her experience in a debut graphic novel, Numb to This: Memoir of a Mass Shooting, hoping that it will help others.

"[This book] was something that I was kind of looking for right after the shooting had happened," Neely said. "I think for me, I really needed to know what was gonna happen to me in a few years. Like, what was expected or what should I look out for."

In the book, she recounts not only what happened that day, but also her journey working through the guilt and mental toll. She says she hopes other survivors of gun violence and trauma will see that moving forward is an uphill battle, but a doable one.

"I think just having the representation of what happens afterward is important for people because without it, you can get kind of stuck in the, 'I don't know what happens next; I don't know what to do,'" she said. "And that can kind of delay your whole life, really."

Trying to move forward, amid constant violence

Neely survived the shooting at Umpqua Community College in 2015, and has struggled when tragedies like it have happened since.
/ Copyright © 2022 by Kindra Neely
/
Copyright © 2022 by Kindra Neely
Neely survived the shooting at Umpqua Community College in 2015, and has struggled when tragedies like it have happened since.

Neely's novel comes as a steady stream of mass shootings and gun violence continues in the United States.

At the beginning of the book, she describes witnessing gun violence in the Texas town she grew up in. Then, several pages of the book show her reacting to shootings that happened after the one she survived: the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the concert in Las Vegas, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

"Eventually, through my own experience learning more about why these things happen and just how complacent society can be with this, I did want to include in there that we can't be compliant with this, because this is happening to people that I care about," Neely said. "This is happening to strangers that I don't know, but I do care about, and, you know, I wouldn't wish this on anyone else."

Neely said the moments in the book where she learns of a new shooting look chaotic and messy because, when they happened, she wasn't dealing with her feelings well – she had not yet found the tools to address them.

She has those tools now, she said, but the repeated trauma still hurts.

"Uvalde especially really felt like the wind got knocked out of me," she said. "It's not always like that with every single one. And I kind of do take precautions now just so that way I'm not overwhelmed by it. But yeah, it really felt like a punch to the gut."

Dealing with the emotional toll

Reminders of what Neely went through would sometimes come unexpectedly.
/ Copyright © 2022 by Kindra Neely
/
Copyright © 2022 by Kindra Neely
Reminders of what Neely went through would sometimes come unexpectedly.

Neely said that, despite lacking the economic means to afford consistent counseling, she felt lucky to find people through free resources who have helped her work through the mental health toll of the shooting.

Throughout the book, she shares episodes where an explosive sound or a crowded room would drive her into a panic attack. But she also shows the incremental impacts of the shooting – her friendships got rockier, she felt angrier, and she developed a constant feeling of helplessness.

Working through that meant letting herself feel the negative emotions, instead of pushing them away.

"It's just about recognizing when I do feel that way and kind of just being like, no, it is OK to feel bad. These are things you should feel bad about," Neely said. "And that helps because then you're processing the emotion and not just holding onto it and letting it fester and get worse."

Feeling "violated" by the media presence

After the shooting at UCC, the media response was overwhelming for Neely.
/ Copyright © 2022 by Kindra Neely
/
Copyright © 2022 by Kindra Neely
After the shooting at UCC, the media response was overwhelming for Neely.

Neely's novel also grapples with experiences with the media after the shooting.

A photo of her and a friend reuniting after the massacre was published without their consent. And during a vigil for the victims, she was overwhelmed by the reporters approaching her and others looking for information.

In the book, she described feeling "violated" when the photo came out. But after reflecting on the experience and talking to journalists who were present that day, her perspective changed.

She realized many of those reporters not only had little experience in the field, but they also had not received any training to approach survivors in a sensitive and caring way. Some training and debriefing after the fact, she said, would help protect both the journalists and the people they talk to.

Finding comfort in art

Neely was asked to help create a campus memorial for the nine victims of the UCC shooting, and in doing so, she connected with her community that hurt.
/ Copyright © 2022 by Kindra Neely
/
Copyright © 2022 by Kindra Neely
Neely was asked to help create a campus memorial for the nine victims of the UCC shooting, and in doing so, she connected with her community that hurt.

Neely's method to share her story – a graphic novel – means the pages of her book are not only filled with her raw emotions but also with bright, descriptive images of her life before and after the shooting.

She said she started drawing as a hobby, but didn't consider it a career option until after college — and after the shooting.

"What I love about drawing is that it can do so many things for you mentally," she said. "When I'm doing things like comics, especially in the early production of them, it's more of a puzzle to solve because you're trying to tell a story the best way and how can you make the characters and background work for you."

It's also meditative for her; an activity that puts her in the moment, especially when drawing nature, and hopefully is one more step on her path to healing.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.