Listen to this story
If you don’t believe that you are one phone call, or one knock on the door, or even just one text message away from your entire world collapsing in on itself, then you — like a long-departed version of myself — suffer from an acute lack of imagination.
My call came the morning a persistently-bullied high school student entered his former elementary school with his father’s AR-15 and robbed the world not only of everything my seven-year-old daughter was, but everything she would ever be. I understood right away that my life, as I knew it, was over, but the real defeat took a little longer to set in. Despite all the national despair, the expressions of outrage, the thoughts and prayers, and the carefully crafted condemnation from all levels of government, it eventually became clear to us that nothing significant was going to change, and that Taylor’s death — no matter how desperately we tried to attach meaning to it — was entirely for nothing.
But this story is not about the invisible pins and latches that, when tripped, cause the walls around us to fall and unveil the enormous abyss over which we all hang. Rather, it is the story of a letter that I believe might have saved my life.
The fact that it was an actual physical letter turned out to be significant since any other form of communication probably wouldn’t have found me. I wasn’t checking email anymore, and I hadn’t logged into any of my social media accounts in months. My phone, when I could even find it, was seldom charged, and I often went days without opening my laptop. I’d moved out exactly six months after the memorial service and was renting a tiny addition from a nurse outside the city, leaving my wife to handle all the mail — to make sure bills got paid, to respond to the condolences that would not stop coming, to cancel subscriptions to American Girl Magazine and National Geographic Kids, etc. — but something about this particular envelope prompted her to forward it. Maybe it was the fact that it was addressed by hand in a well-honed script one seldom sees anymore. Whatever it was, it managed to find its way through my mail slot and onto my entry hall floor, so once my stores of cheap vodka, sugary mixers, and microwavable sustenance ran out, and I was faced with the daunting prospect of actually having to leave my apartment, there it was.
It was the second time the letter had been forwarded. Originally, it had been sent to the paper, care-of me. Since nobody at the Times knew how to fire someone whose daughter had been murdered, I was technically still employed. I hadn’t written anything since the shooting, but I still held my esteemed post as Senior Staff Writer, though I imagined HR, PR, legal, and my boss all coming together every week around the question of whether or not it was finally safe to let me go. Fortunately, my salary was paltry enough that keeping me around must have been deemed less risky than firing a bereaved alcoholic columnist with close to a quarter of a million Twitter followers. My employee status, therefore, remained “indefinite paid leave,” and the direct deposits kept coming, which meant all that stood between me and imminent self-destruction was that tattered and dingy envelope.
I finally opened it one morning at the kitchen table along with a few strips of microwaved bacon on a soggy paper towel and tall glass of spiked orange juice. As I removed the letter from the envelope, a smaller, folded note slipped out. It was a list of five barely legible, hand-scrawled names, addresses, and dates ranging from about eight to fourteen years ago. I didn’t recognize any of the information, so I set the note aside and unfolded the rest of the letter. It was on clean white paper with letterhead advertising the Columbia Wellness Center (offering Massage Therapy, Hypnotherapy, Reflexology, and Life Coaching). It, too, was handwritten, but in the same graceful and fluid style as the address on the envelope.
Dear Mr. Thorne:
I have very much enjoyed your columns over the years. The stories you tell of people’s lives help connect us in a culture where we are driven further apart every single day by consumerism, individualism, and technology. I was sorry when your work stopped appearing, although under the circumstances, I can understand why. Please know that you and your family have my deepest sympathies.
My late husband was Michael Paul Ledbetter, a name I’m sure you recognize. Before he was incarcerated, Paul taught philosophy across Maryland’s network of community colleges and was consistently one of the best-liked professors everywhere he taught. His introductory course (PHIL 173: Negative Proof) was one of the hardest classes on every campus to get into. As you conduct your research on Paul, as I hope you will, please keep in mind that whoever else he was, and whatever else he did, Paul touched the lives of thousands of young people, instilling a lifelong passion for learning, questioning, and challenging.
There are three things you need to know about Paul that you won’t find online. The first is that he always had multiple reasons for everything he did. When he modified his old Volkswagen Jetta to run on vegetable oil, it wasn’t enough for him just to save money on gas (which was important given what a community college professor makes), but he also wanted to help local ethnic restaurants compete against bigger chains by buying up their drums of used oil. (Paul’s favorite food was “American Chinese” — the greasier the better.)
The second thing you need to know about Paul is that he was a long-term thinker. When we decided to buy our first home, he bought surveying equipment off Craigslist and used it to make sure the house and property were conducive to solar power generation which he predicted would finally become economically viable in ten to fifteen years. He planned to eventually live entirely “off the grid,” and I have no doubt whatsoever that, given the time, he would have succeeded.
The last thing I want to tell you about Paul is that — despite what you probably think you already know about him — he absolutely abhorred violence. Paul grew up outside of Calgary, and although he did finally obtain his American citizenship (while steadfastly retaining his Canadian citizenship, as well), he never understood Americans’ obsession with guns.
When Paul died, I received a box of his possessions from the prison. Inside one of his books was the enclosed list. I won’t presume to tell you what to do with it, but I believe that if anyone can figure it out, it’s you.
Jillian L. Poole (formerly Jillian Ledbetter)
I put the letter down and took a swallow of my morning cocktail. Jillian L. Poole was right: I recognized the name Michael Paul Ledbetter instantly, but I was hoping that I was confused — that I was allowing the state I was in to influence the way my brain associated names and events. I pulled my laptop toward me, lifted the lid, and right after I Googled his name, I felt like I was going to throw up.
A little over two years ago, Michael Paul Ledbetter canceled all of his classes for the day, drove to a local gun shop, and legally purchased a firearm along with two spare magazines and two boxes of ammunition. Three hours later, carrying a My Little Pony backpack, he bluffed his way into an elementary school near his home, found the cafeteria, and indiscriminately shot twenty-three children before being subdued by a custodian while reloading. But Paul did not use the 9mm pistol he’d bought earlier that day. In fact, police believe the gun had never been loaded, or even removed from the thermoplastic case it came in. Instead, Paul used a paintball gun he’d rented the previous week, and before being tackled, had managed to get off somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred blood-red pellets. Paul himself sustained the most serious injury of the entire incident: a mildly dislocated shoulder.
There were hundreds of articles about what had become known as Red Wednesday, and tens of thousands of blog posts and mentions across social media, but I couldn’t find anything other than speculation as to why Paul did what he did. There was also no information about Paul’s death, and certainly no indication of what would have prompted his wife to write me. I went back to the first screen of results and clicked on a YouTube video of one of his famous lectures recorded by a student in the front row. It had over ten million views and about nine thousand comments (most of which appeared to have been spewed by an army of teenagers suffering from Tourette’s syndrome).
Paul was tall and thin with long frizzy hair, and at least two week’s worth of beard that grew abundantly down his neck. His eyes were wild behind his round, wire-rim glasses, and his grin was as mischievous as it was warm. Although snow was visible through the classroom window, he had on baggy cargo shorts, a faded T-shirt with a penguin on it, and a pair of thin rubber flip-flops. His movement back and forth behind the podium looked more like stalking than pacing, and as I watched him lecture entirely from memory without once glancing at a laptop or a set of notes, I was reminded more of a preacher than an underpaid adjunct professor.
The excerpt seemed to be from the first class of the semester, and Paul began by explaining the course title. Negative proof, he told the class, was any argument that took the following approximate structure:
Because there is no absolute proof that x is false, it must therefore follow that x is — or could be — true.
The fallacy of negative proof, he continued, was well illustrated by a kind of axiom known as “Russell’s Teapot” — an analogy coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell in order to demonstrate that the burden of proof lay upon the person making the scientifically unfalsifiable claim as opposed to those who challenged it. Specifically, if one were to claim that a teapot orbited the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, it would be unreasonable to insist that teapot skeptics prove the claim definitively false rather than expecting what Paul called the Teapot Party to provide conclusive evidence of its existence.
The notion that one could not prove a negative was a staple of what was sometimes referred to as “folk logic.” It was an argument liberally evoked by zealots, extremists, and dogmatists, and sometimes even erroneously conceded by scientists. Without inductive reasoning — or the willingness to accept strong evidence as opposed to absolute proof — we would all still be debating basic physical laws rather than applying them toward exploring the cosmos, saving lives, and making information instantly and freely available all over the planet. Over the course of human existence, negative proof had turned out to be the perfect mechanism by which people maintained belief in whatever it was they were emotionally or financially invested in, whether it was Bigfoot, alien abductions, intelligent design, weapons of mass destruction, or trickle-down economics. It allowed people to believe in ghosts, yet deny climate change; to earnestly subscribe to vaccine, moon-landing, and 9/11 conspiracy theories; and to insist that, even with tens of thousands of gun-related incidents every year, the Second Amendment still somehow made the oppressed freer, and the innocent safer.
That’s where I stopped the video.
My security token for logging into the network at work was in the kitchen, and I eventually found it in a drawer beside the refrigerator. I found my phone and charger at the same time, and started it charging beside the coffee pot just in case I needed to make some calls. There was about half a pot left over from yesterday, and since I knew I had a lot of reading ahead of me, I decided to switch from booze to caffeine.
My credentials were accepted (which I assumed meant I still had a job), and as I suspected, there were hundreds of notes, documents, interviews, images, and videos pertaining to Red Wednesday on the Times’ intranet, the huge majority of which were probably never used. I finished what remained of the old coffee and put on a fresh pot, then spent the rest of the day, evening, and most of that night learning everything I could about Michael Paul Ledbetter. The only break I took was to call in an order for lo mein, shrimp fried rice, and a couple of egg rolls which I’d been craving since reading Jillian’s letter. The greasier the better.
It somehow did not surprise me that Paul had chosen to represent himself in court, though the case never actually went to trial. For reasons nobody seemed to be able to fully explain, Paul agreed to a guilty plea in exchange for one simple request: he be allowed to send letters to the families of all the children he had hit that day personally apologizing to each one, and explaining why he did what he did. The petition was initially denied since there was no way the judge was going to release the names and addresses of minors to anyone — least of all, Paul — however the district attorney stepped in and offered to forward Paul’s letters to any family who agreed to accept them. Paul was satisfied with the compromise and subsequently plead guilty to multiple charges of aggravated battery against special victims, and was given a sentence of four years of which he was expected to only end up serving one.
A researcher had somehow obtained a copy of one of the letters, but out of respect for both Paul and the family for which it was written, I’ve decided not to print it here. It’s sufficient to say that Paul conveyed exactly what he promised he would. He offered a lengthy and sincere apology for what he did, and although he admitted that his actions had been irresponsible and misguided, he had in fact been hoping that they would ultimately have a wider positive impact.
Paul’s intention had been to prove how desensitized Americans had become to gun violence by showing that he could generate more media coverage and online conversation by legally acquiring a gun, walking into an elementary school, and actually not killing anyone than he could have generated if he’d committed actual murders.
It was certainly a bizarre brand of logic — a kind of twisted attempt at negative proof, I suppose — but it turned out that he was right. From what I could tell, Red Wednesday had generated far more traditional and social media coverage than all but the most horrific of school shootings before or since. And it continued to be referenced long after the news cycle had left actual tragedies far behind.
Paul’s letter was contrite, heartfelt, and sincere enough that — according to the investigation conducted by the Times — eleven families responded to him, accepting his apology. And of those eleven families, Paul apparently established regular correspondences with five of them. Five families whose children had been terrorized that day not only completely forgave Paul for what he did, but made a commitment to help him get through his sentence by continuing to write to him; five families whose names and addresses Paul kept folded up in one of his books, and which were now beside me on my kitchen table; five families that, in addition to his own, eventually attended his funeral.
Paul’s death was an extraordinary interplay of tragedy and irony. He had never intended to get away with what he did, and understood very clearly what the repercussions of his protest would be. But he made one critical mistake — one simple oversight that, while seemingly insignificant, proved catastrophic. Perhaps it was because he was nervous, or because focusing on one set of details came at the expense of focusing on another, but Paul left the gun he’d bought that morning in the trunk of his Volkswagen. In addition to aggravated battery, therefore, Paul was found guilty of possession of a firearm on school property. According to the judge, that did not affect the length of Paul’s sentence, but it did influence where he would have to serve it. Rather than a local jail, Paul was sent to a state penitentiary to live among some of the country’s most hardened and violent criminals.
As anyone who has watched enough TV knows, there is a hierarchy among inmates in a penitentiary, and those who commit crimes against children are placed at the very bottom. Frequently they are given special protection from other inmates, but in Paul’s highly unusual case — one in which the crime was more of a demonstration than a genuinely violent act, and in which nobody was seriously injured — isolation and additional precautions were not deemed necessary. Unfortunately, it turned out that one particular group of inmates did not appreciate the distinction, and during the mysterious absence of prison officers, in the span of only seventy-two seconds, Paul was beaten to death by six men in the exercise court.
As misplaced as the inmates’ aggression was, and as sickening and tragic as Paul’s death remains, I do take some small comfort in knowing that there are still places in America — forgotten and neglected though they are — where the influence of politics and lobbyists and money cannot infiltrate; where crime and corruption are sometimes in the name of swift perceived justice rather than in the audacious avoidance thereof; where there are still people who unequivocally stand up for the inalienable and fundamental rights of children.
That was the end of the chronology of events leading up to Paul’s death, but it was not the end of the story. As the woman who knew Paul best described him to me, Paul always had multiple reasons for everything he did, and he always thought long-term. I had a hard time believing that all Paul wanted to do was prove what a farce the American media and democratic system had become, and how pathetically resigned we all were to violence and murder — even when it directly affected our children. And I didn’t believe that Paul was looking solely for forgiveness or redemption when he wrote letters to those families. What I think Paul really wanted was data.
It was already easy for Paul — or anyone else, for that matter — to produce ample proof that school shootings, college campus shootings, mall shootings, abortion-clinic and social service center shootings, drive-by shootings, nightclub shootings, movie theater shootings, shootings on live television, and every other kind of shooting you can think of did not significantly affect policy. Tragedy had been shown over and over again to be insufficient motivation, and those who continued to appeal to it were wasting their time and what little political influence they might temporarily wield. As a society, we already knew what it was like to have friends and relatives and children slain in the very places they felt safest, and somehow we had collectively made our peace with it.
But although there were countless opportunities to observe and measure and document loss, it was not possible to measure whatever the opposite of loss was. In other words, it was easy to prove what a murdered child could never grow up to do, but until now, it had never been possible to unequivocally prove what they actually would do. Paul’s “victims” were children who had literally been marked for death, but who had been allowed to live; children who would now grow up to invent, explore, create, love, and eventually have families of their own; children whose personal and contact information I now held in my hands.
I began to realize that the burden of proof had fallen to me. These children’s stories needed to be told. Michael Paul Ledbetter’s story needed to be told. At that moment, I remembered something that the senseless death of my own daughter made me forget: that the world was still so full of stories, and that I was alive to help tell them.