Heather Martin was a senior at Columbine High School in Colorado when a mass shooting there in 1999 left 15 people dead, including both perpetrators, and over 20 others injured. The massacre at Columbine was one of the first school shootings to capture the country’s attention—and, in Martin’s view, the national conversation has changed quite a bit since then. After the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, Martin co-founded The Rebels Project, an organization that offers support for survivors of mass violence. I spoke with Martin about her life and work since the Columbine shooting, and what people misunderstand about the experience of surviving gun violence. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Isabel Fattal: You were a high-school student when you experienced a shooting. What are you thinking as you watch the response of the Parkland high schoolers, who are around the same age as you were then?
Heather Martin: I’m so impressed by them, by their drive. They’re sticking to it. They’re not backing down, and that’s amazing to me, especially considering what they’ve been through. Afterward, at least for me, I definitely went into myself. I did not want to be out where people could see what I was doing and really criticize what I was doing, because that's what happened a lot after Columbine. We were criticized for so much afterwards.
Fattal: What were you all criticized for?
Martin: We were [told we were] bullies, that our perpetrators shot up the school because they were bullied. That has since been debunked. There are people that believe that [these shooters] finally stood up for themselves and they did the right thing by lashing out and taking control of the situation. It’s not something that I can understand. They’re idolized.
Fattal: When did you start thinking about what would become The Rebels Project?
Martin: I turned 18 two days after the [Columbine] shooting. But I didn't identify necessarily as a survivor at that point. I'm not going to say that that term is new, but I think it takes a while for people to own that label. After getting shut down so many times, of people saying “why are you still feeling this way, or not adjusting?” For example, the things that we were talking about or studying in college, it was like, “Oh, well, sorry, that sucks. You have to do this or you're going to fail the class.” I did fail the class. I failed English class twice.
Fattal: Because you were studying issues related to gun violence?
Martin: One was a research paper on school violence or gun violence. I did go up to my professor afterward and said “Hey, I can't write this, I went to Columbine.” And it was like, well, “This is the paper and you have to write it or you're going to fail.” So I did.
Fattal: Do you think conversations around survivors’ trauma have changed since then?
Martin: Yes and no. My work with The Rebels Project started after the Aurora theater shooting, where me and other survivors got to the point where we were just so sick of feeling re-victimized, and really helpless to help people who are just embarking on this journey that doesn’t end. We are a nonprofit, so we raise funds to help survivors, and [we have to] to convince people that this is needed. It’s a struggle. For us, I would wager it started after three months—that pressure to get over it, and just move on.
At the beginning you’re putting that pressure on yourself, because you do just want to move on, at least from my perspective. I can't speak for all survivors, but I did just want to move on and get back to normal. But you can’t. These are things that will impact you for the rest of your life and will affect you.
Fattal: Is it frustrating for you or the survivors you work with to think about the shootings that were forgotten or haven’t received quite as much national attention as the Parkland shooting?
Martin: I have had several conversations [with the survivors I work with] surrounding the forgotten shootings, in the wake of Florida. I know it’s frustrating for me, so I can only imagine being sort of fresh in that. [Parkland] put Columbine in the highlight again because of the similarities. But the Heath High School shooting, for example, was in 1997, and Columbine was in 1999, so Columbine overshadowed them, and then I remember hearing about Virginia Tech. I was worried that Columbine wouldn’t be remembered anymore. It was still a big part of me.
Fattal: Now that the Columbine shooting is back in the national conversation, do you see changes in how it’s being talked about today?
Martin: I see a little bit of difference from where I stand, because The Rebels Project is a support network. The fact that there are Columbine survivors there to support the Parkland students is being talked about, and I like that. I think it’s being talked about a little bit more as a blessing, if you will, that there are people out there who have been through this, and we are resilient, and you can overcome and recover as much as you can. I really think of it as more of an adjustment to this new life. You just learn coping skills. You learn them on your own. You unfortunately learn them trial by fire.
Fattal: Your organization is founded on the idea that it’s only survivors who can understand the experience of surviving mass violence. Are there aspects of that experience that you think most people misunderstand?
Martin: I think overall, people seem to misunderstand how long it takes. And also, sometimes you feel like talking about it and sometimes you don’t. I can understand from the outside perspective of people [wondering], “Do I ask about it or do I not ask about it?” Survivors start to learn, as they go along, what they’re comfortable with and when they’re comfortable with it. I think people in general want to understand, and they want to help and be helpful, but there’s no one way, because each survivor is so different.
What’s so helpful is being able to get advice from another survivor, like, “Hey, my job is asking about this. What have you said in the past?” Or, “I’m entering into a relationship. When do I tell my significant other about my experience?”
Fattal: What was it about survivor support that drew you in as your way to make change?
Martin: I think what it boils down to for me is expertise. The only thing I had is, I’m a survivor. I’m a huge proponent of therapy and counseling, but for some people, that can only take you so far. I’ve heard countless stories of people looking for a therapist. The therapist cries when you tell your story, or they try to help you and just can’t. At the schools that I work at, the students are exposed to a lot of violence on a day-to-day basis. I’m using my platform as a mass trauma survivor to try and shine light on the traumas that aren’t in the news.
Fattal: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Martin: Something that’s been really big for me are those survivor connections, specifically survivors that for whatever reason in our heads we think have suffered more than us. Sometimes it’s really hard for me to connect with people who lost loved ones, because I keep thinking, “I’m the living reminder.” I don’t want to be that living reminder of their loss. I’ve met some amazing people who have given me strength and inspiration because they’re so willing to connect with me. That means a lot to me and helps me come to terms with my own grief.