Don’t Look Away: On Emma Gonzalez, Tragedy, and Hope Born of Trauma

Never Again © Zach Stern/flickr

Editor's Note:

Jenny Torres Sanchez ( is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She is the author of The Fall of Innocence; Because of the Sun; Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia; and The Downside of Being Charlie. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children.

The world seemed to be falling apart around me while I wrote this book. Politically and socially, our country seemed headed in a continuous downward spiral. On a personal note, a close friend of mine who desperately wanted to live passed away. Many things were not working out the way I had hoped. I know a lot of that has seeped into this book.

The Fall of Innocence is the story of Emilia, a sixteen-year-old girl trying to get over a childhood trauma. Emilia’s circumstances seem to get worse the more she tries to find beauty in a cold world. Her story deals with pain, and there were times I wanted to turn away from those difficult moments in this book. There were times I did turn away, and then I had to go back and look at them directly and honestly.

As I wrote, I found myself thinking about the realities of the world, about how to be honest about the human experience, tragedy, and trauma, and how to balance that with hope. I did not want to write a hopeless story. But I also did not want to offer a glossy, rose-tinted idea of hope that felt like a lie.

So I wrote what I felt was true. I finished the book. And since then, the world has gotten worse. Most recently in my own backyard, with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas  High School shooting three hours south of me in Parkland, Florida.

As I watched these teens on television passionately calling for change—for action— I saw not only their pain and trauma, but also hope. They reminded me why, as a former teacher, I loved teaching teens. And why I now write for them. They reminded me of former students, unwavering in their knowledge of what is right, equipped with an innate sense of detecting inauthenticity and refusing to turn away from the truth.

This generation of teens has had, as the backdrop of their childhood: Newtown, active shooter drills, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Pulse. They saw our country elect Donald Trump to office after the historic presidency of Barack Obama. They watched as women came forward and told accounts of being sexually assaulted by this new president and saw those women dismissed. They have seen Black lives taken and Black teens before them rise up and demand change, also only to be ignored. They have seen immigrants villainized.

These teens have seen a lot of unfiltered truth in the world.

And now they are demanding we all look. Really look.

Emma Gonzalez, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student, said in regards to the videos posted by students during the shooting, “I know that it’s hard to watch those videos and some people are saying ‘how dare they post something like that.’ No, if we had to live through it, you should have to live through it too.”

Her words immediately made me picture the adults of this country having to see the gruesome reality these children have seen, and how so many would turn away from the images. And then I imagine these teens, nudging them back. No, look. Look what you’ve done.

The teens are right.

We cannot turn away from ugly realities and tragedies, no matter how difficult it may be to look at them. That’s why I wrote this book—why I wrote it the way I did.

Like Emilia, the trauma these students have endured has deeply affected them. The losses Emma Gonzalez and her classmates have suffered have spurred them, and many others, into action. And those losses remind all of us, in the most painful and tragic of ways, that change needs to happen.

Hope is often born from tragedy, from pain and injustice. It was born that day with these students. I hope their bravery moves the masses and many more voices join in. But I also hope we are not afraid to honestly face the tragedy from which this hope rises. And while these brave teens are leading where we could not lead, I hope we remember they are children. They will carry scars from this trauma their whole lives, both physical and emotional. And those scars will be a haunting reminder of something that cannot be undone, unfelt, or forgotten. As it was for Emilia.

When I finished this book, I wondered if people would find hope in it. It’s there, born from pain, but also from honesty. Because the truth is, there is consequence. There is trauma. There is tragedy. There is danger in too much turning away.

These teens know that.

They’re demanding we face these truths, too. No matter how difficult.

So I will continue to do so, for those calling for change and those for whom it did not come quickly enough. I will continue making calls, protesting, speaking up, donating. And I will especially continue picking up my pen and writing the stories that reveal difficult truths, the stories that make us want to turn away.

Because I don’t intend to let them down.