Return to Transcripts main page


17 Dead After Gunman Targets Florida School; James Rhodes And The Healing Power Of Music. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 15, 2018 - 14:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Tonight, after the deadliest US school shooting in six years, a father who lost his own son in the Colorado

movie theater tells me that change is on the way. And the former US surgeon general on treating gun crime as a public health menace.

Also ahead, help and healing. The renowned concert pianist James Rhodes on how he used music to cope with his own trauma that he suffered when he was

sexually abused as a child.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London. The Bible warns us not to worship false gods. And

yet, it does seem that much of America is indeed worshiping at the altar of the gun gods, hiding behind the Second Amendment, even fear mongering with

false claims that those who want sensible, safe gun control are just trying to take their guns away.

As another 17 innocents are mowed down, this time in Florida, we watch aghast here abroad, knowing that there are solutions and knowing that it is

not rocket science.

Here in Britain, for instance, the worst ever gun massacre killed 16 young children in Dunblane, Scotland. It was 1996. The country then tightened

up its gun laws. No mass shooting since.

That same year in Australia, a man massacred 35 people. The conservative government then enacted a hugely successful gun buyback program and

tightened up its laws. No more mass shootings.

The unbearable ordeal in Florida leads to the predictable handwringing, mass media attentions, thoughts and prayer and tweets. And each time, the

question, will this be the one that changes the way we are.

Joining me now Tom Sullivan, the father of Alex Sullivan who was killed when a shooter ended 12 lives in the Aurora movie theater, Colorado, 2012.

Tom is in Denver today working to oppose a series of gun rights bills.

And we're also joined by Vivek Murthy. He's the former US surgeon general who believes that gun violence is a public health issue which should be no

different to how we handle car crashes or alcoholism.

Gentlemen, welcome both to the program on this truly horrendous day. And I want to start by asking you, Mr. Sullivan, the inevitable question, what

are those people, the victims, their families, going through in Florida today? What are they thinking after all these years of all this violence?

TOM SULLIVAN, FATHER OF MASS SHOOTING VICTIM: I can tell you from personal experience that initially there's shock and - this is a really important

time. I always said, the decisions and the things we did in the first 24 to 48 hours helped us on our recovery five years later.

Right now, you're just trying to get a hold of family members. You might have to go over to the coroner's office and identify your child. You need

to begin contacting the funeral home and start to get that.

In our case, I didn't have to call anybody to let them know that Alex had been murdered because it was on TV. We were one of the first fatalities

that was identified afterwards. It might be a little bit different for them, but people are going to start coming and you need to embrace your

friends and family that come towards you.

AMANPOUR: Tom, how do you feel - how have you coped all these years later? And I indicated that you are really on the front lines of the battle to try

to get sensible bills through, to try to make your world safer when it comes to guns.

SULLIVAN: As I said, the first day - I mean, in our case, July 20 is Alex's birthday. And that's the day that he was murdered. And I remember

saying to my wife and to all of his friends that were there with us that day that we would celebrate this day, like we had the 26 prior to that, and

there would always be time for grieving later on.

[14:05:03] And then, you had to continue to move ahead. At the cemetery, after we had - they were getting ready to put Alex into the ground, the

director came over - we stood there next to it and he came over to us and said, Mr. Sullivan, he says, you can come back he said, but, right now, he

said, nobody is going to move until you do.

And I know he just meant that for that particular time, but I've used that on onward because people are looking to us to see what it is we're going to

do and I've taken that as a challenge to do something.

AMANPOUR: Well, I'm going to come back in a second to explore the challenge and whether you're hopeful, but I want to first ask Vivek Murthy

as the former top doctor, the former surgeon general of the United States. You had a heck of a time trying to convince people that actually gun crime,

gun deaths were as significant a public health issue as alcoholism, as all the other terrible public health issues that we live with. Why is that?

VIVEK MURTHY, FORMER SURGEON GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, Christiane, it's absolutely the case that gun violence is a public health

issue. Whenever you have large numbers of people who are dying for clearly preventable reasons, that constitutes a public health issue, and that's

what we have when it comes to gun violence.

The sad truth is that the majority of the public in the United States understands that. It is unfortunately many of our elected leaders who have

chosen to either not recognize that or to put that aside and not treat gun violence with the priority and urgency that it requires, and that is truly

unfortunate because, while there are a number of actions we need to take to address gun violence in America, legislators have an essential role to play

in passing laws that can help us stem the tide of violence in our country.

AMANPOUR: Doesn't it just make you wring your hands in frustration and hopelessness when you think, A, your confirmation was held up because of

this very issue and because of the way you thought about this issue, held up by NRA lobbying, but also we keep hearing the same sentiments after

these terrible crimes.

We keep hearing the same sentiments from those elected officials. And yet, so far, nothing much has changed.

MURTHY: Well, it is heartbreaking and it is frustrating. And I can understand why so many people are angered about this as well because this

is not the first time we have had a mass shooting - and sadly, it may not be the last time.

But there does not seem to be any meaningful action that our legislators have taken at a federal level to ensure that this does not happen again.

This school that we are talking about today in the news, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is the school that I grew up not too far from in South

Florida. It's a school that I've visited for academic meets when I was growing up there.

And I carry with me a bracelet that was given to me by the parent of Anna, a young girl who was killed at the Newtown shooting, sadly, several years

ago. It's this bracelet right here that I carry in my wrist.

And I carry it with me as a reminder that despite the frustration and anger and disappointment that I may feel at the lack of action that our

legislators are taking that it's important to move on because children like Anna, children like this 17 who gave up their lives today, children like

Mr. Sullivan's son and so many others have lost their lives - children have the right to live full lives, who wanted nothing more than to be

fulfilled, to go to school and learn and they are paying their price for our inaction as a country. That is unconscionable.

And that's why I think it is so important that we do what Mr. Sullivan and so many others are doing, which is to use our voices to push for the change

that we need, to use our votes, to support people who will actually back those changes and ensure that they happen, so that we won't have to suffer

more and more tragedies after the one that we're hearing about.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask then, Mr. Sullivan, because you said that you confronted it, you moved on in a way to fight this scourge and you even

stood for election. But you are lobbying there right now.

First of all, what is the bill you're lobbying for? And do you have hope that actually things will change? What are you seeing on the local level?

SULLIVAN: Well, here in Colorado, following the theater shooting, they brought up seven different, what they call, gun bills. Five of them

passed, including things such as background checks, limiting high-capacity magazines. Those are the bullets that will be fed in there.

And we have gone each year and defended those. Like yesterday, they're trying to bring up a law to allow people to concealed carry without getting

a permit. That would mean all you had to do was buy it off the shelf and put it underneath of your jacket and you were good to go as opposed to

getting some type of training to show that you're proficient in it.

[14:10:11] And we have made progress here. When we limited the high- capacity magazines, we had another shooting shortly after that in November, December of 2013, a high school shooting. And that student was only able

to buy a nine-round magazine to go into his shotgun.

And as tragic as it was that he killed one student and then killed himself, he wasn't able to buy a 33 or 100-round drum like the shooter in the

theater did.

So, the things we've done here in Colorado are working, but more needs to be done.

AMANPOUR: It's incredibly hopeful to hear you say that.

I want to pay for both of you what President Trump said today about the situation and he spoke directly to the children. Just listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to speak now directly to America's children, especially those who feel lost, alone, confused or

even scared. I want you to know that you are never alone and you never will be.

You have people who care about you, who love you and who will do anything at all to protect you.


AMANPOUR: So, obviously, a heartfelt appeal to people, trying to comfort them. But the anything-at-all-to-protect-you needs a little bit of

dissecting because, last February, President Trump eliminated a regulation that keeps guns out of the hands of people who either receive disability

benefits because of mental health.

And he started by saying this was all about mental health. So, how do you again square that circle? What do you think of what President Trump just


MURTHY: Well, I appreciate the sentiment, to try to bring comfort to children. I appreciate him addressing the country and speaking directly to


This is a time where what ultimately is going to matter is what we do beyond words. It's our actions that are going to speak volumes and they're

going to make a difference in the lives of people.

And what we've unfortunately seen time after time again is that politicians will say words that are comforting, but not back them up with action.

So, what I'm most interested in is what is President Trump going to do. And if he needs some suggestions, I can give him a few.

Number one, he can reinstitute funding for studying the causes and solutions to gun violence, funding that has been choked off by Congress for

decades now.

The other thing that he can do is to support the expansion of high-quality mental health services, but I say this with a caveat. While that is a

necessary part of the solution, it is not entirely sufficient. To pin gun violence as a whole on people who are mentally ill is actually incorrect.

It risks stigmatizing people with mental illness and it actually leads us away from some of the fundamental drivers of gun violence.

We also need to focus - increase focus on gun safety and we need to ask the deeper question, which is why is this happening in the first place, what is

happening with our level of emotional well-being in America.

The truth is we have an emotional well-being crisis in our country. It's one that we are not talking about or discussing. It's one that I saw

clearly as surgeon general as I travel to communities across America and I think addressing emotional well-being is going to be an essential part in

addressing violence in America.

AMANPOUR: Indeed. And we're going to dig into that in our next segment. But for the moment, former surgeon general Vivek Murthy, thank you for

joining us.

And, of course, Tom Sullivan, we applaud your struggle to keep this country safer and we remember your son on this evening as well. Thanks for joining


As I said, our first thoughts for healing are with the victims in Florida, but much is being made of the trauma and the mental health condition of the


So, why is it that some take the most violent option and others who face even worse physical and emotional trauma take exactly the opposite track.

My next guest is the internationally renowned British pianist and author James Rhodes. For years, as a child, he was horrendously sexually abused

by one of his schoolteachers. Later, he descended into drug addiction, depression and despair.

But as he was hitting his emotional rock bottom, Rhodes heard a piece of music by Bach that would change his life forever.

His new book, "Fire on All Sides", follows his continuing battle with trauma and the acute anxiety he feels while he's touring and performing.

And I went to the Steinway Piano Showroom here in London to meet him and listen to his story of healing and redemption.

James Rhodes, welcome the program.

JAMES RHODES, PIANIST: Nice to be here.

AMANPOUR: And we are here in what to me looks like a palace of Steinway. It's the Steinway Showroom. How do you feel?

[14:15:00] RHODES: It's amazing. It's incredible. These are my heroes, my childhood heroes. I was a weird kid. I mean, this, for me, it's like a

geek heaven.

AMANPOUR: So, you say you're a weird kid.


AMANPOUR: And you did have an exceptionally, almost unbelievably devastating childhood. I want to know how music saved your life.

RHODES: Sounds very melodramatic, doesn't it? Say music saved your life. Like you said, there were difficult, challenging things happening. And it

felt like everything was hostile and everything was bad.

And then, when I was seven, I heard a piece of music by Bach and literally everything changed.

It was like, for the first time in my life, two things happened. Firstly, I had a way of expressing things that I couldn't find the words to express

because that's what music does. It goes underneath words.

And secondly, I realized if something that beautiful exists in the world, it can't be 100 percent awful.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you about the awful before I ask you for the beautiful antidote. From 6 to 10, you were relentlessly sexually abused.

RHODES: Yes. Well, we soften our word, don't we? We use words like abuse or molested or - raped, I think, is the appropriate word. But, again, it's

necessary to or even possible or helpful to quantify trauma.

We all undergo trauma. Pets die. Parents get divorced. We live in poverty. We deal with disease. We witness domestic abuse. We get bullied

at school. We suffer from, yes, sexual abuse and rape and other crimes.

AMANPOUR: But we don't all, James.

RHODES: Yes. I think we do. I think we do. I cannot think of a single person I have met who has not gone through some level of trauma.

AMANPOUR: You were six when this started. What happened?

RHODES: It was a gym teacher at the school I was in. Looking back now, it's so crystal clear that there was grooming involved, all the things that

we know about now, but this was 1981. We didn't know so much about it then.

Which, again, I find it quite difficult to get my head around because there were times when I was found by other teachers with blood coming out my legs

and hysterical and just sobbing and yet nothing happened, like nothing happened. It was allowed to continue and continue and continue to the

point where it literally broke my back.

AMANPOUR: Literally?

RHODES: Yes. I had to have three operations to repair the - it shattered the base of my spine. And I now have titanium rods. So, I feel a little

bit like a bionic man.

But, again, it's just more - it's like it's always part of me. It's one of the things that's quite hard to deal with. It's still there.

AMANPOUR: So, play the piece of music that at least started to make you feel normal again.

RHODES: I'll play a bit of it because - it's written by Bach and it starts very - he wrote in memory of his wife who died. She was the love of his

life. And so, it starts really and quite - almost like funereal.

(MUSIC PLAYS) RHODES: And it carries on like that. But like a set of variations, there are moments of absolute peace , for example -


RHODES: I mean, so beautiful. Right the way through to the heroic -


RHODES: And on and on. And then the virtuosic -


RHODES: The whole thing, it's just a massive adventure. It's a love letter. If you knew someone you loved was dying and you were lucky enough

to get to say goodbye to them, this is what you would say.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you about your emotions when you first heard it because, as you say, it's every emotion. I want to say that perhaps you

were dying, at least inside -

RHODES: No question. I mean, I was dead. There was nothing. It was just - now, we know all the terms. Like, I was dissociated. I had PTSD,

dissociative identity disorder. I would disappear for hours. Lose track of time these days. I didn't know what was happening. Everything was just

shades of gray.

[14:20:07] AMANPOUR: Along with the music, how did you get yourself back into a place where you could feel normal again? I mean, you write very


RHODES: I didn't. I'm not there. I don't have a normal way. I am on an airplane 300 hours a year. I walk out on stage alone in front of 1,000 or

2,000 people. I've had car crash relationships. I have no idea in most social situations how to act.

And I think a lot of us feel like life is messy.

Over in America, you guys have this weird idea of the pursuit of happiness, like it's something that we have - it's not. That's distraction. The new

life and the next Tinder date, whatever it is. Actually, what's wrong with feeling sad. What's wrong with feeling a bit messy and having kind of

pretty awful Instagram selfies.

I mean, we have this idea that everyone else's life's is perfect and, God forbid, we feel a bit fragile or a bit down. You can lose yourself in

music or in painting or in writing and it's an antidote to the world in which we live today.

AMANPOUR: And so many people are looking for that antidote, and not enough attention, even in our Western rich democracies, is paid to people's mental


RHODES: Isn't that sad? I mean, that, to me, is the saddest thing.

AMANPOUR: Your first wife, the mother of your child is American. And you had an extraordinary situation. You wrote a memoir called "Instrumental"

about what happened to you as a kid.


AMANPOUR: Pick up the story. Your wife wanted it not to be published.

RHODES: Not just not to be published. I mean, it's a book about music. It's a love letter to my son. It's a love letter to music. But because

it's a memoir, of course, it talks about what happened to me - it would be so weird just to have talked about the good things and not the tricky


And then, what was so extraordinary is that there were no issues with libel, there were no issues with privacy, but it ended up taking 18 months

under Supreme Court and $2 million in legal fees to publish it.

And the idea was that - she said that I was intent on deliberately inflicting catastrophic psychological harm on my son by publishing this


And the really scary thing was it wasn't just the book that they wanted banned. It was a gagging order that would stop me from speaking or writing

in any medium anywhere in the world about almost any aspect of my past.

AMANPOUR: How old is your son?

RHODES: He's just turned 15.

AMANPOUR: And when that was coming out?

RHODES: Thirteen, fourteen. But, again, he even acknowledged that he wasn't going to read the book.

AMANPOUR: Did you want him to read it?

RHODES: No. Of course, not. I mean, it's like - take a movie director who makes a very violent movie with rape scenes. They are not going to

show their 12-year-old, 13-year-old kid, but should they be forced to not make this kind of movies on the off chance that kid might see excerpts of

it on the Internet at some unknown point in the future. No. Of course, not.

What I did with my son was I sat him down and I said, look, we're best friends. When I was a kid, those things you learn about at school, about

the dangers of the Internet, about why we don't go off with strangers, about being groomed and sexual abuse, that happened to me and I didn't talk

about it for a long time. I thought it was my fault. And as an adult, I got very sick because of it. And I went to hospital and I started to talk

about it. And slowly, but surely, I got better. And now, I have this wonderful life and I'm here and I see you all the time.

And that to me is a much more important valuable message to a child than don't ask, we're not going to talk about this, it never happened, we must

pretend that everything is fine.

AMANPOUR: Do you feel somewhat liberated - maybe the wrong word - but the idea that the #MeToo movement is now so front and center -


AMANPOUR: There is no more shame about talking about these things?

RHODES: That's not true at all. There will always be shame. The #MeToo movement is even more powerful because, despite the shame, people are

talking. It is not easy to talk about this.

I feel permanent shame talking about it. Even though, rationally, I know it wasn't my fault, I still, in my mind, included it. And that's why we

feel ashamed.

AMANPOUR: Where are you? Where is James Rhodes today mentally, in terms of your health - your physical health, your emotional health?

RHODES: I don't know how to answer that question really because it's changeable. And I think we're all changeable. And I just wish more of us

were slightly more transparent about how challenging we find life because then we don't feel so alone.

AMANPOUR: Did you ever imagine that, out of all that pain, you would end up giving so much joy to the world, to people?

RHODES: That's a lovely thing to say. I would argue that, look, Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Chopin (INAUDIBLE) there is a lot of - look, there's

a lot of joy out there. And sometimes we need to know and beat slowly, gently nudged into the right direction where that joy is. It's about

noticing those little things and focusing on that, I guess.

[14:25:13] AMANPOUR: Play us our James Rhodes.

RHODES: Maybe a little bit of Gluck. This is a lovely piece of music.


AMANPOUR: Profound beauty and even peace on a day such as this.

That is it for our program tonight. And remember, you can always listen to our podcast, see us online at and follow me on Facebook and


See you again tomorrow night when the legendary film director Ridley Scott joins us and we'll also have a conversation on love in our digital age.

Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.