Stand your ground, be assertive, treat others as you would want to be treated, and be gracious ~ Carli R., Secular Woman

For Carli, it was a night she'll never forget: July 20, 2012. That night an armed gunman, dressed in tactical clothing, set off tear gas in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater before shooting and killing 12 and injuring 58. Carli was one of those survivors. She credits her survival to quick thinking, her Navy training and especially the talented medical personnel on duty that night.

In the days after the incident Carli wrote about her experience from a secular point of view — only to find her words taken out of context and pictures used without her permission all over the Internet. Secular Woman (SW) wanted to give Carli the opportunity to set the record straight. This interview was conducted via email and is unedited aside from one bracketed word. What you are about to read is Carli, in her own words and in context:

SW: Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Carli: I was born and raised in northeastern Ohio, and was raised by my mother and father. Though they sent me to catholic school for most of my primary school years, they always encouraged me to be the unique person that I was, and helped me the best they could as I dabbled in modeling and music. The city I lived in did not seem to have much going on when I graduated from a public high school, so I joined the military right after graduation. I served in the US Navy until October 2011. Soon after, I came to Denver, Colorado, to pursue music, modeling, and attend college, with my boyfriend, Chris. Right now, I'm finding work as an "alternative model" and playing with my new band, where I play bass guitar and sing lead vocals. It's all been pretty amazing until the incident at the theater. It seems it's really turned my life upside-down, at least for the time being.

SW: Tell us your most vivid memories of the night you were shot in Aurora. 

Since the full text of the article will be printed here, I won't go too far into detail about that night. I feel that the need to write about it was triggered by a few things. Firstly, a lot of people were asking me questions about it. I felt the need to sort of give an account of what happened, so that I could refer people to it instead of having to relive the event over and over again. However, writing about it was amazingly therapeutic for me. I kind of needed to do it to sort of sort through everything and really face it, in my mind. It definitely helped a lot, in that aspect.

The main thing that got me out of harm's way was the immediate rush of adrenaline that I felt, upon recognizing the smell of tear gas, which had landed at my feet. I learned in Navy boot camp to recognize the unique, acrid smell, and that it is not something you want to stay around for a long period of time. What saved me, after that, was my boyfriend's ability to handle a tough situation, and the medical staff who took care of me. Though my upbringing was religious- my parents sent me to catholic school for all of my elementary school years- my mother and father both worked in the medical field, and they have always seemed to be very fond of both faith and science.

I almost gave thought to praying in the ambulance that night, because that was when the real seriousness of the situation hit me- however, the medical staff whose care I was placed under took such good care of me. I was under the care of such competent, caring beings, that there was no need to do such a thing. I remember being in so much pain and shock that I was delirious, but at some point I was thanking them profusely. It wasn't a higher power that got me out of my seat- it was the smell of the tear gas that landed at my feet. It was my boyfriend, Chris, who got me to the police officer who flagged down an ambulance for me. And it was the amazing medical staff who took care of me to ensure that I left the hospital in the best possible condition. I don't want to put down the power of positivity, and that's what I feel prayer is- positive vibes being sent your way- but I do like to give credit where it is due, and express my extreme gratitude towards all of these people, and also to my parents for bringing me up "right".

SW: Why did you choose write about your experience? 

Carli: Well, since the main reason for writing my account of what happened was because I knew it would be therapeutic for me, I didn't really anticipate that it would attract any attention. I was still in shock (and I still am, to a degree), and I wanted to just "sort everything out" in my head. Getting it onto a screen or into a notebook really helps. Also, a lot of my loved ones were asking me "what happened?" and I hoped that my account of what happened would clear it up so that I would not have to relive it every single time someone asked. Who wants to relive something like that? So I suppose that being able to just refer them to the article was a positive outcome of writing said article.

Anyhow, a friend of mine was just so moved by the story that she wanted to post it on her blog. Apparently it became a hot topic. Last time I checked, it had over 150,000 hits in the United States alone. That was about a week ago. Being able to publicly thank those who helped me through that awful time was a big positive for me- I want people to know that, yes, it is kind of offensive and putting certain people down to tell me that the only reason I survived was because "someone was watching over [me]" that night. I've even had doctors, whom I've never met or heard of before in my entire life, message me on facebook to thank me for thanking them. They said that they went to school for eight to ten years to help people and it really bums them out when they make a very difficult diagnoses or something to save a life and the person they helped immediately thanks their higher power for the hard work that they did.

I can only imagine what that's like, and now I am getting a taste of it, firsthand. The positive outcommes outweigh the negatives so greatly that I'll only mention one more, which was the generosity of others. A woman who I met through a friend, on facebook, was also so moved by the story, set up a fundraiser for my boyfriend and I. I had told her how he and I were college students, how I was already struggling with debt and living paycheck to paycheck, and how I didn't know how I would pay the medical bills- or any other bills for that matter- while I'm out of work. We exceeded the set goal of $2,000.00 (she suggested a much higher amount, but I have never had to ask for such a thing before so I decided upon a much more modest amount), and I'm able to get the care I need- for now.

The negative is that, if I do need to get pellets removed from my body, I'll be out of work for even longer. I have a feeling people aren't going to be so generous after some of the attention I have gotten from dirty media lately. Though I thought it was very nice that many secularists were messaging me on facebook and the like to tell me how strong and smart I seemed in the article, this also triggered a lot of backlash from non-secularists, who think it is perfectly logical that their god would let two "non-believers" escape the theater while a 6-year-old girl died. These are the same people who have been messaging me because there was an internet meme made of me where I am quoted, saying "I wasn't touched by an angel. I wasn't blessed. I had a good head on my shoulders and I used it".

Apparently some people took this as an attack on some of the less fortunate victims of the shooting that night. I've been accused of being "cocky" and feeling that the others must have "deserved it" or something. This is odd, because I have never said anything of the sort, and I can't find any justification for triviliazing what ANY of us went through that night, so what would possibly compell a person to think that I would say or think such a thing, especially about those who weren't as fortunate as I? What kind of a person would think such a thing? Furthermore, what kind of person would think that I could think such a thing? Apparently they missed the part where I also said that "…no matter how they reacted to it, the event itself was nobody’s fault but that of the criminal who did this."

However, that is only one of the many instances where the media or public have tried to demonize one of the victims of the shooting, but I felt it to be a good example of the cruelty and ridiculousness in which some of us have been portrayed/treated. I think (and this is just a generalization) that people will typically believe what they want to hear- and today's society seems, to me, to only want to hear gorey, dark, destructive things.  Therefore, I should not be surprised, but I sincerely feel that anyone who would treat a survivor of such a heinous, traumatic experience that way, is just about a cowardly as the person who did it. And "person" is almost a compliment for our attacker.

However, though the "crazies" and the "media whores" have made it a point to demonize me, I have found myself with at least a dozen kind, compassionate souls, giving me their support, for every one bad egg. Most importantly, though, I'm recovering. Slowly, but surely, I'm recovering, and I have the best support system that anyone could possibly ask for. My family, and that includes my boyfriend and my "therapy dog", are my rock when I need them. They give me hope for humankind and they make every day amazing. I love and appreciate them in a way that no words could possible explain.

Am I rambling?

As I said before, when I originally wrote my account of what happened that night, I had only written it for myself and my loved ones. I did not say anything with the intent of stirring up controversy. I did not expect such an overwhelming amount of supportive responses either. I wrote exactly what was in my head, because it needed to get out- I wrote what I was feeling, truthfully, because it is all I know how to do. I am far too socially inept to sugar-coat things or manipulate people into an angry frenzy, and I was in far too much shock and pain (both physical and mental/emotional) to have any alterior motives.

This is probably why I was so surprised when the article not only got so much attention, but why a good chunk of it was negative attention directed toward me. It wasn't just hurtful- it was incredibly confusing. It still confuses and shocks me, to this day, that someone could do something as horrible as the shooter did that night (I avoid saying his name, because at this point, it's just one of those "ugly words" I don't like to use), and furthermore that someone could attack me for writing my feelings on it. We are all human beings, we are all special and unique, and part of what makes us special and unique is that we have all kinds of different thoughts and feelings. However, if one of your emotions is "blind rage", I would think that perhaps one should seek help from a professional rather than attacking someone who was recently victimized in such a terrible way. I guess I'll never understand such people, and I'm okay with that.

I feel fortunate that, though I've been through very traumatic and horrific experiences in my life (from childhood to now), I haven't experienced enough anguish to pick on someone while they're down. I have had to make my facebook private and immediately delete all messages and comments on my website just to avoid the headache of dealing with some of these people. The amount of positive responses have been just as overwhelming, in their own way. Though I sincerely appreciate the kindness of strangers and have always preached that the kindness of strangers is just wonderful and gives me so much hope for this world and for society in general, there have been so many of them that I have not been able to keep up with responding to all of them. I hope that anyone who has tried to send me their kind words has not felt unappreciated or offended that I have had to make my private life, well, private, due to the multitude of responses I've received.

As I've probably mentioned before, I had a lot on my plate before this even happened; I am a passionate musician, a part time model, a college student, and I work a mediocre job as a sales associate at a department store. I also have my own psychiatric problems to deal with, and I was (well, still am) working very hard to make my life the best it could be. After this happened, I've been overwhelmed with trying to get physically and mentally healthy again, therefore it has been difficult to respond to everyone and some will not be able to even reach out to me because of the privacy settings I have had to implicate. I do hope that none of the positive, supportive, people are offended by this and that they understand that, due to the things I've previously mentioned, it is just something that had to be done. Then again, I supposed I shouldn't care much for what others think of me if I'm a tattooed model and a lead singer in a rock band, right?

SW: Do you think you'll approach your recovery in a different way than a religious woman might? If so, how?

Carli: I feel that most people, religious or not, understand the importance of modern medical science, and that they understand these basic things are very important and that utilizing them can lead to our recovery, both mentally and physically. For instance, my mother, who wanted me to go to a private school and sometimes took me to church as a child, is a nurse. I have no doubt in my mind that she prayed for me the night of the incident, however, since she is a nurse, she has been monitoring my recovery closely and helped me out to ensure that I get the best possible medical care for myself. She fully supported me thanking the people who needed to be thanked, and is aware that I respect her beliefs as she respects mine (or lack of). I think that any person with common sense, whether they worship a deity or not, would handle the situation in the same way. The only difference is, I'm not praying.

Don't get me wrong, I have already acknowledged that someone can also act if they are praying (but just wait until someone makes another meme), however, I have supplemented my actions with positive thoughts rather than praying to a higher power and expecting them to intervene. Perhaps I am naive to think this, but I don't think our actions are that much different, a religious person and I. Obviously if someone is shot with buckshot from a shotgun and receives twenty-two holes in their body, as well as the other injuries that I mentioned earlier, and they just go home and pray about it (and I was in far too much pain to just go home, as you know if you read the story), it's not because they're religious- it's because they're batshit crazy, in my opinion. To me, it is just common sense that a bullet hole needs medical treatment. The kind of craziness that would let someone ignore such an obvious fact is the same kind of craziness that, I think, accompanies someone walking into an enclosed space with guns and teargas and shooting dozens of people like fish in a barrel- it's just absolutely crazy and beyond my comprehension. There aren't people who do stuff like that, are there?

SW: What would you say to women without religious belief who are having trouble coming out? 

Carli: Well, firstly, I think it is extremely sad that we live in such a society that somebody would have to "come out" about being who they truly are, especially if it's not hurting anyone. But I could rant about that all day. I'm not even sure of what advice I could possibly give you, except that while you should not be constantly defensive or expecting people to give you trouble, you should be prepared for it. I went to catholic school during my K-6th years, and in that time, I did a lot of searching. I didn't feel that the way I was treated at school was right, and furthermore it really hurt me that if I questioned anything, I was treated with no respect, as if I was there to be seen and not heard. I explored every religion I could find, in fact, I even got into trouble once because I brought some book about Wicca to school because I was genuinely curious and wanted to learn more about it. "There has to be something out there," I thought. But I couldn't force myself to believe in a higher power, no matter how much I prayed and no matter how much I studied every religion and denomination that I could get my hands on. Eventually, as an adult, I had enough knowledge of science, history, and literature, to know that my feelings were justified, and that feelings are justified anyhow because, well, you can't help the way you feel.

I am not the kind of person who typically goes around looking for conflict ("tween" years excluded, because I don't even want to think about how scary it is when a girl goes through puberty, and kudos to my parents for being so tough), however, religion is sometimes an unavoidable topic of discussion. Eventually, I became sick of the sadistic people who only wanted to belittle me and then not listen to a word I had to say otherwise, because I am an adult, I am a woman, and I am a very respectable human being.

I got a scarlet "A" tattoo on my left arm to signify that I "wasn't going to take shit from anyone, anymore". Of course, society hasn't really evolved as much as I had hoped for, so people do ask about my tattoos often. I had no idea that I got my tattoos for other people rather than myself, nor did I know that someone with Borderline Personality Disorder should be forced into indulging in ridiculous social pleasantries with ignorant people, willful or not, but I have been dragged into some pretty ridiculous conversations as soon as someone asks about that specific tattoo. As soon as they ask what it means, I simply say "I'm an atheist", and brace for a eruption on the other end. Honestly, most people either won't think much of it, or they'll act as if you just stabbed their messiah in the throat with a javelin. Seriously, the ridiculousness of the response will be at that level.

In such negative cases, there is not much you can do, though I almost want to dare you to "try to talk some sense into them". They want to convert you just as much as you want them to leave you the hell alone so you can go about your day, so the only thing to do at this point is to diffuse the situation and walk away. Sometimes it's more complicated than that, but you can usually express the point that you respect their beliefs and that you'd appreciate it if they respected yours as well, or that you feel such beliefs are a private thing and are very taboo to be discussing in such a situation (i.e. a work situation, a group outing) and that perhaps we should talk about something more important than having a pissing match over something that both parties are never going to see eye-to-eye about.

Other than that, well, be proud of who you are. Self respect is something that has been a very important part of my own personal growth and development, as well as overcoming many big obstacles (that's quite an understatement for some things) in my life. Stand your ground, be assertive, treat others as you would want to be treated, and be gracious. Obviously, the one who is raving like a lunatic isn't going to be the one to be taken seriously in such an instance. Don't let them "get to you" and do not look down upon them either- some people are delusional, as if anyone needed me to tell them that, considering the circumstances under which I am undergoing this interview.

(If, however, physical violence is threatened against you, I seriously suggest calling the local authorities right away. There is no bible, that I've read, that says your personal safety and well-being should be threatened just because you don't follow another person's religion).

SW: What would you most like to say to people reading this interview? To other secular women specifically?

Carli: I suppose that when I'm thinking too hard about it, it's hard to think of a message that I'd very much like to convey here. So I'll just speak from the heart, I guess, just say how I'm feeling about all of this. I firstly want to thank everyone who has been gracious, kind, and supportive, in this time of need for me. I am typically not good at accepting sympathy and though I can take a compliment, some of your words have been kind beyond my comprehension. So thank you. I'm still in shock from that night at the theater and please forgive me if it is hard to process the overwhelming amount of not only responses, but of support, at the same time. This is going to be a long, complicated, emotional rollercoaster of a journey towards recovery for me, but I appreciate all of the support in this time.

To any secularist women who may be reading this, and seeking some food for thought, all I can offer is the following; As I've said before, it is nobody's fault but that of the attacker that people were murdered, injured, and traumatized- however, it is a fact that I did not sit idely by and let this monster take my life. I ran for my life, and though my physical injuries and mental trauma are taking their toll on my life, I'm not going to let them ruin my life- I am fighting it, even as I type this. I'm going to face them in the same fashion which I will face my attacker in court. When life knocks you down, sometimes this is easier said than done, but get back up and tell life that "you hit like a bitch". Do not let other monsters in your life take any part of your life, ever. Stand your ground. Be gracious, be kind, pick your battles, but always stand up for yourself.

Furthermore, at any opportunity you might have, I urge you to stand up for those who may not be able to stand up for themselves, because they appreciate it more than you know. I know I certainly do appreciate it that, despite the media blitz, there are still people standing up for me. Thank you,, for giving me a vessel with which to explain my true thoughts, not taken out of context and made into an internet meme or made into a poorly-written article about what a villain I am. Everyone I've met in representation of the [organization] seems to be logically-thinking beings who know a real villian when they see one, and thank you for supporting me- the survivor. Not the villian. Not the helpless victim who takes abuse, either- but the wounded survivor, with a long journey ahead of her, who needs a little support every now and then because whatever label you give her, she is human.


Secular Woman wants to again thank Carli for taking the time out to speak to us and other secular women about her experience. She didn't want any fanfare and when we referred to her as "an inspiration", she shrugged it off humbly. Few victims of tragedy will express such overwhelming gratitude for the real life people that helped them pull through, rather than crediting an imaginary being. Carli's reflections espouse one of Secular Woman's core values: the embrace of human-centered ethics informed by reason and science and the rejection of dogma and superstition. Carli's courage and goodwill shine through loud and clear — we couldn't be more honored to welcome her into the Secular Woman community. 

Bridget Gaudette, VP of Outreach
Mary Ellen Sikes, VP of Operations
Secular Woman

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