How American Sniper's Screenwriter Survived His Own Haunting Tragedy – and Helped Chris Kyle's Widow
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jason Hall's own life helped him to counsel Taya Kyle after her husband, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, was killed
Hall, 42, had been working with Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, widely regarded as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, to bring his 2012 bestselling autobiography, American Sniper, to the big screen when Kyle was killed in 2013.
Chris, along with his friend, Chad Littlefield, was fatally shot on a Texas gun range at age 38 while trying to help a veteran allegedly suffering from PTSD.
After her husband’s death, Taya, 40, worked closely with Hall to help him finish the screenplay. But she told him how hard it was for her to express the excruciating pain she felt – or even cry over the loss of her husband. “I used to stuff it, stuff it, stuff it,” she told PEOPLE.
He encouraged her not to suppress her feelings. “He said, ‘We’ve all seen those people who are bitter or poisoned by something and we’ve seen the hard lines in their faces. Go forward with your emotions and let them be what they are and own it,’ ” Taya says.
A Tragic Fire
Hall says he was able to help Taya cope with her heartbreak after he came to terms with surviving a fire that claimed the life of his brother’s former girlfriend. Hall, then 21, his brother, his brother’s ex-girlfriend Desiree, and four others were staying in a friend’s log cabin in Lake Arrowhead, California. His brother and Desiree “had dated in seventh grade and hadn’t seen each other in years,” Hall says. “She was angelic and sweet, with a surprising laugh.”
“We were all in separate rooms going to sleep when the house caught on fire,” he says. “It was a gas fire and it all happened so fast. Suddenly flames were leaping across the window. I opened the door and was swallowed by smoke. I threw a chair out the window, and then the girl I was with. From outside, the whole house was burning. I threw a rock through another window and pulled my sleeping friends out. I was screaming for my brother.”
But his brother was still upstairs with Desiree. “The stairwell was ablaze and they crawled to a window to jump. In that smoke, you have mere moments before you pass out. He tried to get her to jump. She was terrified and clinging to him and wouldn’t jump. He told her he would jump and then catch her. He jumped out. He ran around the side of the house screaming, ‘Desiree!’ ”
But she never jumped.
Not only were they rocked by her death at age 21 – but also by the wave of emotions that followed. “It affected us both profoundly,” he says. “Not only did we lose our friend but in many ways I felt I lost my brother in that fire, too. Our relationship was never the same after that.”
Hall says he had been “coaxed” into a grief recovery workshop after breaking up with a girlfriend a few years before Chris Kyle died. He was asked to talk not just about the breakup – but also all the moments of grief he had ever experienced. At the time, he says, “I didn’t think I had any grief.”
After he told his harrowing story to a woman he’d been paired up with in the group, she gave him a hug and then floored him when she asked: “The girl who died in the fire – was her name Desiree?”
“I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ She told me she had lived with Desiree’s parents after the fire. She was her little sister’s best friend. She said, ‘You need to know that her parents never blamed you or your brother for her death. She was afraid of heights and that’s why she didn t jump. It wasn’t your brother’s fault.’ ”
“I had never heard that before,” he says. “So I got to tell my brother that and it changed our lives. What a miracle. What a coincidence.”
“Two years later, I ended up on the phone with Taya, and I’m thinking, ‘What do you say to someone who just had her husband killed?’ ”
“Then I realized, I know exactly what to say. I learned it in the workshop. I said to her, ‘I have no idea how this must feel. Tell me how you feel.’ ”
“You open it up for this person to be able to talk rather than say, ‘I’m so sorry,’ because that s not an offering to talk.”
He told her about the various stages of grief. “As we were walking through it, I was able to point out signposts along the way and let her know where I thought we were and how it was going. We quickly realized that this journey was about more than the story – it was also allowing Taya to grieve for her husband and process this stuff.”
Taya says she will never forget how much Hall helped her. “We became close during this movie because it was all so fresh,” she says. “I was talking to him within days of Chris being killed. I became very close to him because he would have to take me in whatever form I came in that day. He’s truly wonderful.”