Episode One – ‘This Isn’t A Disney Musical’
“I wish my mom didn’t have to live out the rest of her life knowing the instrument of my sister’s death came from under her mattress,” said gun safety activist Amanda Johnson.
“My mom’s never going to recover, ever,” she said. “Aside from her relationship with me and my children and my brother’s kids, she’s just waiting to die. She’s never going to be OK again.”
The Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America volunteer was the first person the young actors from Cry Havoc Theater Company spoke with when they began their months-long journey to create a play about the country’s ongoing argument over guns.
“So the first thing I want to do is give you guys some statistics because they’re pretty shocking,” Johnson said in January 2018.
What followed was a PowerPoint cascade of eye-opening graphs and stats: “Americans are 25 times more likely to be shot and killed with a gun than people in other developed countries,” she said. “Anytime somebody wants to tell me, ‘Oh, it’s violent video games, it’s violent music, it’s mental illness. Guess what? The rest of the world has violent video games, violent music, mental illness.’ We’re the only ones to die 25 times more like this.”
But what moved the students — and what moved Johnson to become an activist — was her sister Leslie’s suicide in 2011. Johnson’s little sister had suffered from depression since she was 13, and she and Johnson had grown up around guns.
“I’ve shot a lot of .22s at Coke cans in my life,” Johnson wrote in her account of Leslie’s death that appeared in Vogue magazine. “Growing up in Nacogdoches, Texas, it was always a natural thing, guns were a part of our country lifestyle. Shooting was a common bond my sister, Leslie, had with my dad.”
A few days before her 24th birthday, Johnson said, Leslie took out the pistol she knew was under her mother’s bed and shot herself.
“No doctor ever said, ‘Lock up your frigging guns.’ It was never put to us in that manner,” said Johnson. “And the fact that it wasn’t an obvious move for us to make is horrendous. Hindsight is 20/20 and you can’t see the forest through the trees, and when you’re really close to someone you just live in a certain level of denial that it’s not that bad. And I honestly feel like had that gun not been there — but I wish I didn’t have to wonder.”
Teen suicides like Leslie’s have become so prevalent, several of the Cry Havoc members had friends and classmates who took their lives with guns — including one suicide that eventually became part of their play, Babel.
The story of that Dallas tragedy even reached the pages of The Daily Mail in London.
In North Texas, Sue Loncar was known as the founder of the Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. She was perhaps best known, though, as the wife of Brian Loncar, the prominent personal injury lawyer — whose oft-seen TV commercials proclaimed he was his clients’ “Strong Arm.”
But the day after Thanksgiving in 2016, all of that changed. Sue’s daughter Grace — a theater sophomore at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts — used one of her father’s hunting rifles to shoot herself.
“It was like the most shocking sight ever, just seeing her laying there on the floor. Your mind can’t even take it in. And you know if just a couple people are saved, because there wasn’t a gun in the house, it’s worth it. I mean, maybe everybody won’t be, but somebody will be.”
Grace had suffered from depression since she was 11, but her mother believes that, as with many adolescent suicides, it was more an impulsive act than something planned. That day, the family had argued over Grace’s marijuana use.
“I think she didn’t think it through. I think she was just really mad. She had gotten into a big argument with her dad that night. And I think she just thought, ‘I’ll show them’– because her dad had said, ‘You can’t threaten suicide to get out of trouble.’ And I think she thought, ‘Oh?’ – because she was very strong-willed. ‘I won’t just threaten it. I’ll do it.’”
A few days after his daughter’s death, Brian Loncar himself died from a cocaine overdose. He’d battled drug and alcohol addictions and had been in a serious car accident a few years before. Only a few days before, Grace’s suicide had garnered media attention. But with the two deaths, one after another — the story hit the spotlight.
Eventually, Sue Loncar would work to frame these personal tragedies into the Grace Loncar Foundation. It helps teens and young adults fight depression through preventative programs in high schools and by working to de-stigmatize mental illness.
To read the full transcript of this episode click here to download.
- Every Gun Death Is Personal
- Youth Suicide Rates Are Higher In States With High Gun Ownership, According To A New Study
- Student Actors Take On The July Shooting of Five Dallas Police Officers
- The CDC Downplays Guns’ Role in Suicide Prevention Messages
- The Crisis in Youth Suicide
- Grace Loncar, Booker T. Student and Contemporary Theatre of Dallas Artist, Dies at 16
- Why Teen Suicide Is So Unpredictable