Years after the shooting, tiny pieces of shrapnel began to migrate to the surface of Clai Lasher-Sommers’ body. Like flecks of black pepper beneath her skin, they crept slowly out of her hand, her side, and her chest, each fragment a fresh reminder of the gunshot she’d survived decades earlier.
Clai was 13 and living with her mother, stepfather, and younger brother in rural New Hampshire. Her stepfather, Crosley Fletcher, was an alcoholic prone to violence. She says sometimes Fletcher would use his rifle to pin her against the wall.
Clai remembers returning home from a friend’s house one cold January evening in 1970 to find both her mother and stepfather drunk. He beat her brother and then got out his gun.
“I remember my mother coming out of her bedroom, looking at me and saying, ‘He’s gonna really shoot you tonight,’” she says. “Then she went and hid in my bedroom closet.”
As Clai tried to shut her bedroom door, Fletcher fired. The bullet tore through the door and exploded into Clai’s back.
It’s been nearly 50 years since that night. Since then, she’s dealt with arthritis, brittle bones, back pain, hip pain, muscle spasms, infections.
And then there’s the damage that isn’t physical.
Nineteen children are shot every day in America, on average. About three die. The rest survive. While national data on the circumstances of child firearm deaths is lacking, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of statistics from 17 states revealed that between 2003 and 2013, a total of 179 children were shot and killed in intimate-partner violence situations, many of which unfolded at home. The figure represents only a fraction of the fatal toll violence exacts on children. We know even less about what happens to the youngest survivors of gun violence once they grow up.
A new podcast, Aftermath, will try to shed light on the experiences of American gunshot survivors. Produced by the Cincinnati Enquirer team that brought you Accused, in partnership with The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom that covers gun violence nationally, the podcast features eight subjects from around the country. All come from different backgrounds and each is at a different point in his or her recovery. What they share — the thing they fight to not let define their lives — are the injuries they managed to survive.
Clai was shot with a hunting rifle intended for killing elk, moose, and bear. But the gunshot was hardly the first time she’d been hurt. She says her mother drank. She remembers the gnawing hunger when there was no food in the house, yet she also remembers trudging with her in the snow on the way to buy beer. Once, she says, her mother tied her to a bed and bit her. She and her brother went to school bruised. She says Fletcher once beat her mother with a piece of firewood.
Exposure to violence in childhood has been linked to physical and mental health problems in adulthood — obesity, cardiovascular disease, substance abuse, and depression, for starters. Clai traces many of her current health problems to the gunshot, and the abuse that preceded it.
“Violent trauma just eats all the good parts of your body,” she says. One of her kidneys was nearly destroyed by the shrapnel, she says, so she can’t drink alcohol. She is susceptible to kidney and urinary tract infections. She wears hearing aids — more damage she attributes to her stepfather’s blows to her head and ears. She figures she’ll be on antidepressants for the rest of her life.
“If you’re a child who lives with parents who abuse you and then shoot you, you don’t learn about trust, you don’t learn about care, you don’t learn basic life lessons,” she says. “So you may get through your life, but that violence leaves a hole that can never be repaired, and that hole makes you afraid of things.”
There are moments, still today, when fear prevails. Going out to eat at a restaurant means she has to sit with her back to the wall so she can keep an eye on the door. Working alone in her greenhouse makes her feel uneasy; she worries someone could drive by and shoot her. Hearing expressions like “screenshot” or “shoot you an email” can send her into a rage. It’s as if she is equipped with an invisible set of extra-sensitive antennae that causes her to sense fully what others would simply brush past.
And yet her fragility coexists with fierceness. Instead of avoiding her trauma, Clai has marched steadily toward it — first working with other survivors of domestic abuse, now advocating for gun law reform in Vermont as executive director of GunSense VT, work that involves exposure to a divisive, often ugly, debate.
About nine years ago, she took perhaps her boldest step. After living in upstate New York for decades, Clai returned to Westmoreland, New Hampshire, the town where she grew up. Now 61, she runs a small farm. Less than 10 miles from the house where she used to go hungry, she now nourishes herself and her neighbors with the vegetables and herbs she grows. Her favorites are the flowers — sunflowers, dahlias, zinnias. On the same land that holds memories of cruelty, where she almost died, Clai now cultivates beauty and life.
Her circling back might not have happened if not for Bill, a childhood friend who knows her entire story. They reconnected after she came back to Westmoreland looking for court documents from her shooting. They now live together in a house he built, right next to the farm. She says Bill taught her to trust, and about love.
She says, “I’ve healed in ways that I could never heal if I hadn’t have come back.”