An Interview with John Buffalo Mailer: School Shootings and Stress

Jun 17, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1. John, first of all thank you for agreeing to this interview. Could you start by telling our readers a bit about yourself?

I was born in 1978, which is important because it places me within the realm of what I like to call The Bridge Generation, the ones who began to come of age just before we were all overwhelmed with the Technological Revolution. I find that most people from the Bridge Generation feel an unspoken responsibility to embrace the possibilities of the day and age we find ourselves living in, while doing our best to hold onto and pass on to the next generation the joys and values we experienced as children, when VCRs were a revelation and everyone did not have a smart phone strapped to their sides at all times.

I was also born into a family of artists (my parents were Norris and Norman Mailer). From my earliest memories I have understood the world as a place that we are here to explore on every level and grow from having done so. My eight brothers and sisters and I were always encouraged to find creative ways of expressing our take on the world.

I graduated from Wesleyan University in 2000, founded a theater company in New York that would go on to develop In The Heights, as well as my play about High-School violence, Hello Herman.

Over the next ten years I found myself working in several different fields of entertainment (play writing, screenwriting, journalism, acting, magazine editing, and producing). People told me I was insane to do that because in five years anyone who had focused on one of those fields would have five times the resume I would. How could I compete? But at the timer, I had the suspicion that the advances in our technology were creating a market place in which multitaskers would actually be more sought after than those who had experience solely in one field. To date, after producing a feature documentary, several socially conscious PSAs, publishing a couple of plays, dozens of articles, a book here and there, editing three national magazines, and getting to act for Oliver Stone, I cannot pretend that I do not still stick by my theory.

Of course, having the advantage of the recognition that comes with the last name “Mailer” made it easier to draw attention to whatever project I happened to be working on. At the same time, the expectations and pre-judgments that come along with it tend to feel like a great equalizer in terms of the balance between pros and cons that come with being born with a public voice. At the end of the day, because my parents were extraordinary and really took the time and interest in helping me develop into the man I am today, I would not trade places with anyone in the world.

The reason I am here doing this interview now, is because a play I wrote back in 2000 in response to the Columbine Massacre, Hello Herman, has recently been released as a feature film directed by Michelle Danner and starring Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead, and up and coming leading man Garrett Backstrom. It is available on all VOD, Netflix, iTunes, etc. You can find it most easily at www.hellohermanthemovie.com

In addition to the movie, we have recently launched a nation-wide high-school, college, and community theater contest called The Hello Herman Project www.thehellohermanproject.com The idea is for schools to do a production of the play, using the educator’s guide (put together by the extraordinary Colleen Corroll) to lead the students on an exploration of what it is about today that is leading so many of their peers to feel as though they have no other choice but to commit acts of violence just to be heard. At the same time, we encourage each production to partner with a local anti-bullying organization and raise funds and awareness for the organization with their production.

2. Now, tell us about “Hello Herman” – where did you get the idea from?

I was in college when Columbine happened. Like the rest of the country, I was shocked by the heartlessness we saw in those two killers. But I also felt let down by how the media was covering the massacre. They seemed to be looking for easy, singular answers as to why these kids had committed such a heinous act. I also couldn’t help but feel they were compromised in the sense that the more they played it up and made these kids famous, the more they were giving other kids who had contemplated such unspeakable acts the sense that they too would become famous if they actually did it.

I was sensing a dangerous allure to celebrity in our culture in 2000. This was around the time that reality TV was really starting to prove itself as a viable form of entertainment. Having grown up in a celebrity family, I had experienced the downside of fame before ever understanding the fun that comes along with it. When I would be having a heart to heart with my father in a restaurant, the person next to us would order a coffee after their dinner was finished and nurse it for hours, just so they could listen in to what Norman Mailer had to say to his son. So the fact that celebrity as an end in and of itself was starting to become a signature pillar of our society was disturbing.

My father enjoyed the privileges and suffered the plights that comes along with celebrity because he had an artistic opinion of the world that sparked incredible discussion and debate as to where we had come as a society, and more importantly, where we wanted to go. That was the point of being a celebrity in our household, to lend your voice to the collective conversation of how we make this world the place we want to leave to our children.

But with the wild success of Reality TV, suddenly people were selling their private struggles for the chance to be famous for fifteen minutes, even if twelve of those fifteen minutes were at the expense of their dignity. Andy Warhol was right about the future. Today everyone is famous for fifteen minutes.

So, at the time of Columbine, I was looking to put something out there that would explore trying to understand the mind of the teenage murder, rather than condemn him and point to one reason or the other for blame, such as violent video games or Marilyn Manson, as some were doing then. It seemed to me that we had unwittingly created a perfect storm of factors that would lead to the desensitization of a generation, making it easier for them to see other human beings as expendable. That’s how “Hello Herman” began.

3) While Newtown is still on the minds of many, I suspect Columbine will also remain. Why do you feel it important to continue to discuss these events?

When we no longer pick up the paper and see a cover filled with mass murder at the hands of a high-school or college student, then I think we should stop discussing it. Until then, I think we have a responsibility to explore all of the factors that are causing these tragedies in as many ways as we can. The hope is that through more communication about the issue, we will figure out what we can actually do to prevent these shootings in the future.

When a real tragedy takes place, there is a sensitivity that is needed with respect to the fact that people have lost loved ones senselessly and they will never be the same as a result. It is impossible for me to be scientific and objective about these matters when discussing the real tragedies that have taken place, as I always try to take a tone that I could stand behind when talking to the survivors or family members of such tragic events. My hope with Hello Herman was to give a tool to teachers, students and parents to discuss what’s going on in their world and give each a better understanding of what it is like for them to be alive today. Art is our safe place to question the issues of the day.

4. Obviously, those children in Newtown were innocent victims- the teachers also were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why should we analyze and dissect these events?

The only reason to dive into such dark terrain is because we all agree that we want this violence to stop. To do that, we have to figure out what we can do to prevent them, how to see the signs, and how in general to encourage people to be more compassionate with each other, particularly in adolescence when our hormones are raging out of control and it is impossible to see the future beyond the walls of your local high-school.

As the movie starts off with, “If we hope to heal the pain, we must first discover the cause.”

5. The Aurora Colorado movie theatre shooting was obviously the work of a truly disturbed individual. But my question is – How do the schools allow these individuals to pass, from grade to grade, from teacher to teacher without any intervention?

It’s a fine line teachers are asked to walk these days. When do you flag a student down who may potentially commit a heinous act of violence, and when do you acknowledge that kids are kids and part of the growing process is making mistakes and overcoming social challenges, etc. ? I don’t have any easy answers for this question, but it comes back to my belief that it is through open discussions between teachers and students, parents and children, that we will begin to scratch beneath the surface and come to some conclusions as to what we need to do to move forward.

6. Many students in the schools are already diagnosed as being ” seriously emotionally disturbed “. Are there more kids with psychiatric and psychological problems than we are aware of ?

There’s an old saying, “Give it a name.” I think we have always had individuals with chemical imbalances and psychological disturbances. At certain points in our history we called them such things demons possessing the soul, or a colorful personality depending on who you asked. I think we are an insanely overmedicated society today. Particularly with children, I feel that doctors in general are too liberal with prescribing stimulants and anti-depressants to patients as young as five years old. Some kids are hyper-active when they’re young. That doesn’t mean we need to put them on Speed. At the same time, some kids do benefit from being on prescriptions and live a balanced life where without the pills they would be a wreck. Like everything in life, I believe the answer lies in balance. It is a very personal decision whether or not to put your kids on a prescription that will alter their behavior and should not be judged nor legislated from the state or public. Let the parents decide what is best for their kids.

7. I can hear school board members now saying ” the school is not a psychiatric facility “. How would you respond to them?

Schools are where we trust our kids to be safe and to have the opportunity to grow and learn when we are away from them. I think that inherently gives schools a responsibility to create an environment in which parents feel they’re kids are being looked out for, and keeping an eye on any psychological disorder that might be going on with a student should be part of that. But, just as with medicating a kid, I don’t think it is the schools responsibility to make the decision on what is best for the child in terms of care. They just need to make sure the parent is aware of what they have observed of the student and let them take it from there. Of course this changes when a student is threatening or hurting another student.

8. I often discuss the Holocaust and ponder how this could have occurred. I have actually traveled to Dachau and Auschwitz to talk to individuals there in Germany as to how this could have occurred. I have been told that they had suspicious, but no proof or evidence. Your thoughts as to how this relates to Newtown and Columbine?

It is always hard to look at atrocities. We want to pretend that they are not there, and so we convince ourselves of what we need to believe. This is never more true than with tragedies we feel unable to effect. This is why “Hello Herman” is not for everyone.

Some people actually get angry when they watch it, angry for the fact that we asked them to ponder these issues without giving them a solution to the problem outright. But that’s not the point of the film. No one can give a universal solution to this problem beyond “we need to find more compassion for each other, and fast.” This film is there to invite a conversation about all the factors that go into this, with the hope that through discussion, people will find their own ways to address the problem in their homes, high-schools, and communities. If we figure out how to address this problem on the local level, it will create ripples throughout the country and make it easier for other schools and communities to do the same.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

I think your questions were very good and you obviously care about the younger generation coming up. I guess I would just like to say that you asking me to do this interview and forward the conversation, makes the 14 years I have spent working on “Hello Herman” feel like it was time well spent. The fact that it created enough of a stir to warrant you taking enough of an interest to get in touch with me and allow me the privilege of speaking to the people who trust you to steer them to conversations worth having, is exactly what I hoped the film would do once it was out in the world. So thank you very much for this opportunity.

10. Do you have a web site that describes your endeavors and work ?

I actually don’t do any social media. However I am publishing a book through a year’s worth of issues of Inked Magazine starting in July, which is wild, as no other mainstream magazine is doing anything as crazy as that. And for those who are Matthew Barney fans, I am acting in his new project River Of Fundament, which will be revealed in February.

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