It is no exaggeration to say that I sometimes feel blessed in that I can see the humor in just about anything. In times of great sadness and loss, this trait has often enabled me to remain standing when it seemed as though the whole of the world was arrayed against me. There are few events in my life–some sad, and a great many more happy–that I can’t to some degree view through a humorous lens. However, the story that follows is from that dark bag of memory from which there can come no laughter. It is not intended to be funny.
Warning: This Post Contains Scenes Of A Graphic Nature, And May Contain Themes Upsetting To Some Readers
Friends, this is the first–and I hope only–Promethean Times piece to come with a warning to readers about potentially disturbing content. Those of you who frequent this site are most likely already aware that we think nothing of from time to time exposing our readers to salty or risqué language and suggestive themes, and that we have been known to blithely utter staggeringly irresponsible and patently false statements
The following story is one which I’ve seldom told, and typically only to good friends. I recently put this unsettling memory “to paper” for the first time about a month ago in an email. I found myself moved once again in the retelling of this story. In so many ways it is the symbolic representation of a period in my life in which I was more terrified than I ever hope to be again, but a time in my history which I have come to discover served as the anvil upon which was forged the man I would later become. It sometimes seems like a fading photograph of someone else’s life. I’m not the frightened, bewildered young man who witnessed this terrible scene; I haven’t been him in a long time.
I can’t say precisely why it’s important for me to tell you this story or what it is exactly that I expect you to draw from it. To the former I can only say that I’m no closer to understanding my reaction to this long ago event than I was in the numb shock of its aftermath, and I suspect I will wrestle with this question just as long as I draw breath.
And to the latter? I leave that to you. Let’s get to it.
When I was seventeen years old, I watched two teen criminals sexually assault an eleven-year-old boy in the shower of a boys’ prison. What I was doing there is a story for another time.
Moving from maximum security to minimum security was supposed to be a good thing–you weren’t confined to a windowless Navajo-white concrete box that stunk of piss and disinfectant, where your combination sink-toilet stood in full view of the tiny, scored plexiglass window in which the eyes of a guard (they had the fucking temerity to call themselves ‘counsellors’) would appear every three minutes to combat the twin dangers of furtive masturbation and the occasional suicide attempt. Minimum security accommodations were like dorms, and the bulk of the inmate’s day was spent in a large multi-purpose room, with pool tables, a basketball half-court, an ailing television (and anything remotely interesting was blocked) and the company of about fifty of your fellows. I initially refused the transfer to minimum security (I had quite a collection of books and magazines, whose necessary loss in a move to minimum security I judged to be heavier than any benefit from association with the other inmates), but relented after it was suggested that my refusal would make me appear anti-social, which could have a detrimental effect on the outcome of my upcoming trial.
The assault took place in the communal showers shortly after my transfer, in the minutes leading up to lights out. Four of us stood around the metal pipe which ran from floor to ceiling, shower heads evenly spaced around it. In addition to myself were two guys, maybe fifteen or sixteen. They knew each other on the outside, I think. I don’t remember what they did to end up in there, if I ever knew. But the other person was an eleven-year-old boy. I don’t remember his name, but I remember that he was there for stealing a car. I guess he probably must’ve, but he had no business being in a facility with so many aggressive–and without exception, larger–boys. The boy had shoulder-length brown hair, and a soft, unmarked face that spoke of an intelligence not at all academic. He was thin and fragile, and his hairless body looked wrong and out-of-place here in a world of aggressive, well-muscled boys.
The kid was quiet as the rest of us talked, the other boys playing a spirited game of grab-ass with one another. It was perfectly normal (you would be amazed at how quickly you adapt to institutional life; you think you won’t, but you will) until that awful, inescapable moment when it wasn’t.
One of the bigger boys blew me a kiss; I blew him a kiss in return. As bizarre as it might sound, such displays were the norm, and even though calamity was less than ten seconds away, there was still not even a hint of the paroxysm of ghastly ferocity which would soon pervade the room. Of the four of us, I think only the boy saw it coming, and he had been feeling it creep up on him for as long as he had been in the place. He was waiting for it, and in his own way, invited it like a hated but inevitable guest.
When the grab-ass kid turned and blew a kiss to the boy, there was wild animal terror in those soft, clear eyes that now looked too big for the boy’s face.
“Don’t do that!” he practically screamed, and then it was on.
The bigger kids were on the boy in less time than it takes to write it. One of them stood behind the boy and wrapped his arms around the boy’s naked waist, lifting him from the ground. The boy began to scream, his bare feet kicking uselessly at the air. The air was thick with his inarticulate pleas.
And what do you suppose I did, readers? Do you imagine that I waded into the knot of naked flesh and pulled the boy free, perhaps throwing a righteous punch or two? Or maybe I shouted at the top of my lungs, “STOP!”? Or if not that, surely I called out for the guards? Right?
Here’s what I did: I put my head under the spray, and with one or two quick, vigorous strokes, splashed the soap from my head and body. I turned off the spigot and threw my towel over my shoulder. For just a moment I made eye contact with one of the attackers, and then I looked away. I didn’t look at the boy at all, and a second later, when I stepped from the tumult and terror of the shower room into the placid and innocuous hallway the boy was eclipsed from me forever. I toweled off as I walked back to my room, moving aside for the guards rushing to the scene.
And at last we’re getting to the thing I wanted to write about, the thing which, to me anyway, makes this something more than just the ugliest thing I ever saw. In reading this story, you probably are asking yourself what you would have done in this situation. You may believe you would have acted differently. Perhaps you would have.
But for you, this question is an academic exercise, and your answer doesn’t have the power to fundamentally change who you are. Although this question is for me now moot, it can never be academic. I don’t have to ask myself this question–daily, it demands an answer from me.
I am a lifetime removed from the young man who experienced this episode, and now, I have three young boys of my own. I’m married to a lovely woman and live in a lovely house in a lovely town. I have a lovely life. These perhaps-undeserved bounties are what I see when I answer the question: Would I have done anything differently?
And this is the thing I expect to be most troubling for anyone who has bothered to stick with me this far: if I were given the chance to do it again, I would change nothing. For the sake of my own children and of my efforts to live as a righteous man, for the sake of the life I have created from the ashes of an old one–I would once again walk out that fucking door and not look back.
I don’t expect you to understand, but I do hope that this was of some value to you. Thanks for reading.
El Guapo said:
If I may, I’d like to ask – what do you get out of telling the story?
And why now, all these years later?
I don’t know, Guap. I really don’t. As far as why now–well, I wrote the story in an email to a friend, and was surprised at how much the telling meant to me. I wanted to tell it here. I really don’t know why, man.
I finished the piece just before I published it, but I spent a good deal of time last night debating whether I wanted to publish it at all. I know that it’s a horrible story. I know that it’s ugly. But realizing that readers could stop reading once they found out what it was about if they so chose, I decided to go ahead with it.
May I ask, to clarify…you *think* you’d react the same again (despite time and hindsight) or you’d consider it safe (knowing what you know now about life) to respond the same way again and so would?
This is such a sad story, for so may reasons. I find your perspective in telling it interesting because I expected you to focus on the question of “who has the fortitude to stand up for others, and/or have you ever been in the same type of situation”, but you threw me a little by simply saying you’d do the same.
Recently I talked with one of my few western patients (a conservative religious Texas type) and she mentioned standing up for her beliefs if confronted by a terrorist. When I told her I’d deny any strong religious beliefs and would instead try to have a discourse with them, because I don’t deserve death for being something I’m not, and they deserve to know we’re not all the same…she looked at me in a bit of shock. She couldnt believe I wouldn’t falsely profess a faith/ideology out of patriotism just because we’re supposed to “not negotiate” and would instead choose self preservation.
In your situation I’d have “told on” the boys and fought to see them punished, but wouldn’t have had the balls to intervene. I’d hope with age, now, I’d break some faces. What would you do NOW? If you saw this at your kids school?
Thanks for your comment, and for the thoughtful question. I can understand why you’re confused by my statement–most normal people (those having never been in this situation) would be.
To clarify (and this will be hard for most people to understand): If I were once again in the same exact situation (17 years old, incarcerated and witnessing an assault among fellow inmates) I would do EXACTLY what I did all those years ago. I’ll try to explain.
It’s important to understand that the rules of institutional life are NOT the same as real life. In real life (such as the example you mentioned about my child at school) if you see something happening, you stop it. To not do so is criminal, or at the very least irresponsible, and being a good citizen means watching out for your neighbor.
Institutional life means watching out for yourself. Even if you have a clique or a set (I didn’t), you’re still on your own. And, most critically, your jailers don’t care who started a fight. If somebody jumps you and beats the shit out of you, you both get in trouble. That’s the way it is. Had I intervened to help it is very likely that I also would have been charged with sexual assault. I got out of there LITERALLY two days before I started my freshman year of college where I was able to build a new life. Two days. Don’t think it isn’t hard for me, because it is, but I know I made the right decision.
Again, even when I wrote this, I knew people would have a hard time understanding. I know I would if it hadn’t happened to me. I can’t control what you think about this, but I appreciate that you have thought about it.
Ya’ know, Smak, I think we all have bad memories from times in the past…I know I do. I, too, always try to find the humor in lifes worst moments – if I can. That was a horrible thing to witness – I think you were brave for sharing it. The only thing I am surprised about – is you say you would still walk out the door and do nothing. Of course, I don’t know you or the circumstances you were in – but, you say you have boys – wouldn’t you want someone to help them if they needed help….not a question to answer…just my first reaction. I swear – I’m not being judgmental – it just surprised me. I don’t think any less of you for being honest.
Thanks, White Lady. As I expected, the point you raised is the hardest thing for people to accept. I knew when I wrote this that I could make myself sound a lot better if I talked about how I’d failed the boy and how, now that I have children, I would try to do better. But I really have tried to make these tales “true,” and if I’m being honest, I wrote this for myself.
But I do think that if readers can try to understand where I’m coming from (I don’t say agree; I don’t expect that from someone who wasn’t there), they will at least get to see life from a different perspective.
Check out my comment to Anastasia for more explanation as to why I’d do again what I did then.
And again, thank you for reading.
Your clarification clarified it all… It was irresponsible for an 11 year old to be in there anyway. That’s THEIR screw up, entirely. You did what someone who’s incarcerated HAS to do to protect themselves…of course! Since you left out that explanation I just assumed you had another reason besides this, so it confused me 🙂
And I didn’t put this in the story, because it seemed hokey, but in a very real way, the life I have now hinged on getting out when I did. You see, I met my wife on the first day of college. Now, don’t worry–I didn’t go and throw away my amateur career like that to turn pro at 18–we were just friends for years, and didn’t start dating until long after college. But had I not met her, well…
I read your reply to Anastasia – and I kinda figured that was why.
“…for the sake of the life I have created from the ashes of an old one…” – some people never learn to move on or try to make a better life. Good for you.
Wow, what an honest post. I imagine that wasn’t an easy push of the “publish” button. It was difficult for me to read on many levels: 1) as a mother of a boy nearly the same age as the victim, 2) as a pediatric provider and my resultant anger that any society would think this is the proper way to rehabilitate youth, 3) as an empathetic reader horrified that a blogger she respects had to endure such an encounter, and 4) as an individual who has often questioned whether she would go back and change things if she could.
But I think it’s unfair to ask yourself whether you would go back and do things differently if you could, because the truth is, you couldn’t. No matter what, you would always be that same 17-year old stuck in the same inhumane system doing the same things he needed to do in order to survive. On the other hand, I suspect if you could go back now, as an adult man with a very different life, you would do things differently. And that’s really the question, in my opinion. Have our life experiences, ugly as they may have been, molded our future actions for the better?
Thanks again for a thought-provoking post. Life is seldom pretty. We need to be reminded of this in order to appreciate what we have. And kudos to you for overcoming such mind-numbing adversity.
Thank you so much–that means a great deal to me.
Yeah, the system was so crazy, because it promoted recidivism. There was no rehabilitation. The schooling they offered was a joke. It was very scary.
However, I had one resource that all the other juvenile offenders in history have lacked: my mother. She was a remarkable woman. Affable, gentle and calm, but terrifying in her protection of me. She fought very hard for me, at great personal and financial expense. She visited me every single day (juveniles could have daily visitors for up to an hour), and was an unflagging wellspring of unconditional love. She made the difference.
This incident notwithstanding, my time in Reymann Hall was one of the best experiences of my life. I don’t mean that it was fun by any means, but it taught me about consequences at the last possible moment when those consequences wouldn’t screw up my adult life (they have followed me in many, many ways however). On those rare occasions when I pass by my old ‘Alma Mater’ (and they are infrequent; I live 1,000 miles away), I always remember to give it the finger.
Oh, good, because some parts of us–like the parts that flip the bird–should never grow up.
Glad to hear you had a supportive mom. I’m sure that made a big difference in the outcome.
I don’t exaggerate when I say it made THE difference. I mentioned that you could have visitors every day–almost nobody did. Many times parents would not show up to their children’s hearings, or if they did show up, would only show up to make sure that the kid was kept locked up and out of their hair. I didn’t belong there (which is not to say I didn’t deserve to be there), and my mom went a long way toward demonstrating that.
Makes you wonder how those other kids turned out.
Badly, I imagine. I never kept up with any of the people I met in the Hall, although I did make friends. I would like to know what has happened to them, but if we talked, I wouldn’t know what to say to them. I might even feel ashamed that, to quote an old Irish folk song “I have risen, and you have not.”
I hear you.
And when I say “I didn’t belong there,” you have to realize that my writing style pretty much represents the way I speak (and always have spoken) in real life (except maybe without all the swears). I can’t NOT talk like this. Mine is a style of language not suited to the insides of institutions, believe me. It’s a real good thing I’m big.
El Guapo said:
Rereading the post, after reading the other comments and your replies to them, yeah, your attitude throughout, and in the last paragraphs makes sense.
Like you say, I’ve never been in that situation. Wouldn’t judge you anyway. And I think what you’ve built out of the ashes trumps anything anyone else might be inclined to say.
Thank you for sharing the story – it was a world I don’t know much about.
And rock on, Smak.
Thanks, Guap–I really appreciate your understanding (and again, I don’t say agreement–in this instance, I could never ask someone to agree with me; I would feel almost complicit in their corruption). I don’t beat myself up about the mistakes I’ve made in the past, but I do carry them with me at all times, for my children, and more importantly for myself, as a reminder to be a better man.
Jen and Tonic said:
Man, I respected you before, but this just took that to another level. I’m quite literally clapping at this post. It takes a huge pair to publish something like this.
I have an incident similar to this in that I think back to it, and the severity of the situation, and wonder if I would have done anything differently. I agree with the person above who said there’s no use thinking it over because there’s no way of going back and changing it. It’s so true.
Beyond that, I’ve realized that we only do the best we can in life given our acuities at the time. Self-preservation is one of our most basic human instincts, and I think you displayed it in this case. I, nor you, should fault you for that.
Bang up post.
Thanks, a lot Jen. I suspect everybody has something like this in their lives, something they see as a barometer for the rest of their lives. It’s always with me.
Again, thanks so much for reading and for doing such an excellent job of trying to understand. I really didn’t know what kind of reaction this story would receive, and it’s been very gratifying that people have taken it in the way it was intended.
Adrienne schmadrienne said:
Wow. I didn’t expect such a heavy subject before I’ve had my morning coffee.
I fucking admire your honesty man. From reading the comments ( I’m going to re-read all of this when I’m not blurry eyed in my hotel bed) I am impressed that you turned this possible extremely negative experience into a positive (i don’t mean the sexual abuse). You became the exception in the sad revolving door that is the criminal justice system.
Thanks, Adrienne–it was pretty heavy on this end, too!
Thank you, though. My response to this time in my life is my proudest accomplishment.
I understand why you would do just that and not think of you as heartless. I had the same experience. Well, sort of. Circumstances does put a lot of weight to otherwise simple situations. And I admire your courage for posting this one, although it’s clear you did this more for yourself than for us. But thanks, anyway. Another confirmation that I’m not alone is always a welcome thing.
Another confirmation that I’m not alone is always a welcome thing.
Sometimes that’s the biggest thing, isn’t it? Thanks HINAD!
I don’t know what to make of the story. I’m totally conflicted. The 11 year old boy was a 5th grader ( I assume ) who was being sexually assaulted , and crying for help. But I understand your decision not to help. I don’t know……..
For some reason, this reminds of a movie I watched not too long ago. A defense attorney managed to set a young boy accused of killing another child acquited, despite his suspicion that the boy was a total psycho. The boy later became a serial killer of dozens of childen.
Your inability to reconcile yourself to this incident means you have a soul. I appreciate you taking the time to consider this, Renxhyoko!
I hope I can forget the image of that boy being assaulted . TT.TT I just want to believe that the world now has a loving husband and father of 3 young children because of it. That’s my only consolation.
Jennifer Worrell said:
This situation is not one that can be reconciled. I spent a couple years working with kids who were one court date away from a detention center. They thought it would be cool to end up there, and they loved breaking the law. I would have read this post to them. They need to know this.
Thanks, Jenn. I really hoped this could have some positive effect for people. Despite how it may sound, I look at it as essentially a positive moment in my development as a person.
Jennifer Worrell said:
I can see that:)
Man. I don’t know. I get “the rules of institutionalized life” VS “the outside life”. What a thing to be put through, as a young kid. As a father, picturing my child in your position, I can easily imagine strongly suggesting to “do whatever you need to make it through”. As a young me in there, it’s a hard one… I’m strong headed. Whatever my life would be, I don’t know if I could live with the consequences of my inactions. But what do I know, I’m talking from the perspective of a 41-yr old man… I’m sorry Smak. My heart goes to you.
Thanks, man. This event continues to be of some significance in my life, but I don’t exactly see it as a trauma. You’ve no doubt heard people say, “Get over it.” You’ve probably said it. I’ve said it.
I try not to, though, because it’s a concept which, in my own life at least, is unhelpful and unrealistic. I live with my past constantly.
Now, I want to explain that statement, because I think for most people, it means holding on to anger or disappointment or some other negative emotion. Although I believe I’ve done a lot more good in my lifetime, I’ve done some hurtful, irresponsible, reckless things. But I can’t hide from those things–I don’t want to hide from those things–they’re me, and they’ll be me until senility takes that from me. I try very hard not to repeat my mistakes, and with some (in some cases fairly spectacular) exceptions, I think I’ve done a good job of that. Remember, scars tell us that life is hard, but they also tell us that time smooths things over.
I don’t know if I could live with the consequences of my inactions.
Regarding my inaction, when I weigh the likely outcome of intervention vs. the life I have now (which, although this may be difficult for people to understand, I very likely WOULD NOT HAVE if I intervened), it’s so clear that I made the correct choice. If you had to choose between a stranger and your own child, what would you do? (and that’s posed for rhetorical purposes because that is very much how I see it, I don’t expect an answer; if I did, that would be a rather cheap debating maneuver, as it’s a loaded question).
So II not only can live with it, but do so pretty happily. I think I could live with having done a lot of things if I’d found my way past them and made what amends I could (as I’ve tried to do). I don’t want to get into hypothetical situations (“could you live with yourself if…?). I could live with a lot, man–life is awesome.
I’m no blissninny–like everybody, I’ve had rough times: I’ve buried loved ones; I’ve been kicked out of school; I’ve been dumped; I’ve been fired; I’ve lost; I’ve been a dick; I’ve recklessly endangered people; I’ve been arrested, tried, convicted and jailed. But those have been dark little islands in a life that, knock on wood, has so far been pretty grand.
When my mom got small-cell cancer that would eventually kill her, she fought like hell for 18 months. Well-meaning friends would express concern about her “unrealistic expectations” or her refusal (until the pain got too bad) to take pain pills (“why do you suffer unnecessarily? Let me tell you what the best way to die is…”) I thought it was beautiful and inspiring. At 58 she was by no means tired of being alive. I’m not either.
Re-reading my sentence, I wouldn’t have written: “inaction” again, as you did make a choice and acted accordingly. Thanks for clarifying.
I Actually Have Read This One, My Friend. And The Fact You Even Posted It Says A Great Deal About The Kind Of Man You Are. And You ARE A Man, Dude. I Appreciate Your Bringing Me Back To This Post. It Does Help, And In More Ways Than One.
Thank You, Dude.
Rutabaga the Mercenary Researcher said:
Thank you for leading me to this link. I can’t even imagine the horrors of living in an institutionalized environment – and I get why intervention was not an option for you. Did you see the 11 year old again? Did he talk to you afterwards? It seems like in a place like that – the best you can do is *not* be part of group of abusers. This is such a sad story on so many levels – for everyone that is in there, for what everyone witnesses in there, for having to live with your past – it is truly remarkable that you’ve turned yourself around.
In life, all decisions are not black and white – and the honesty it takes to open up about them is remarkable.
I have no idea what I’d do in that situation – so how can I judge you about it?