William Anderson was awarded an Honorable Mention in Nonfiction in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.
As I lay dying in my bedroom, I could only imagine a landscape of volcanic fire and suffering. At 16 I lacked the visual language to describe where I’d gone. I had not read Dante, nor had I studied Hieronymus Bosch. The violence and confusion I experienced where I’d gone, they haunt me now from a distance. They were present in the weeks that followed, driving an underlying fear I might never fully recover from the effects of my passing.
I survived the physical trauma of my brush with death. I’d spent months aggressively medicating myself with alcohol, hallucinogens, and vapor from industrial grade solvents. In the end, my body just gave out. At the hospital the doctors told my parents a “significant” percentage of the oxygen in my bloodstream had been replaced by the chemicals I’d been using. I did not suffocate. I asphyxiated over time, gradually poisoning myself. It took days of observation before they ruled out potential organ failure and felt it safe to send me home.
During my convalescence I fought severe outbreaks of scaly rash all over my body, crippling inflammation in my joints, and nerve pain in my teeth. I had soft tissue damage everywhere my blood delivered poison. My mind was in chaos. When I tried to form sentences, only halting and misappropriated speech came out. I was desperate for sleep, but would descend into terrifying nightmares whenever I did. Unable to think, unable to speak, unable to move without agony, I was no longer me. I was a chemical burn. Living in the hollowed out shell of a person.
One morning I woke realizing I’d slept. Brain function and mobility returned. When I went back to school, I knew I had changed. I felt the surreality of walking among kids who had no sense of what I’d experienced. I struggled to hide how far removed I’d become from everyday concerns. I had crossed over. No light. No tunnel filled with loving dead relatives to greet me. Only to come back an alien in my own skin. Lost among my own kind. Singed and unconscious, I went searching for a way to reconstruct myself.
I was raised in a left-leaning Presbyterian Church community. The pastor of my parents’ church had visited me while I was still pretty out of it. The look in his eyes as I struggled to describe the nightmare I was living and my visions of horror when I slept, told me the only person less qualified than me to navigate the darkness was him. Forgiveness didn’t enter into it. I felt damned.
It was during a casual conversation with a kid I’d played football with that I learned there were other versions of Christianity to test myself against. He invited me to the Evangelical Lutheran megachurch where his family were members. The building was more of a campus. I spent my time at the Wednesday night youth group. I learned about faith healing, speaking in tongues, and spiritual warfare. It was the first time I had heard anyone talk about being “born again.” It was Christian, but it might as well have been a whole new religion. And it came with a whole new group of kids from a bunch of different schools whom I had never been around. I began to reinvent myself, becoming a part of a strong faith community, and it was good.
I was never popular in the conventional sense. I was best known for disparate and outsized displays of violence and drug-fueled recklessness. I’d never tried to change the narrative before. People who knew me had their stories to tell, depending on which version of me informed the story being told. After a year of churching up, I was pretty well dug in to the version that had found Christ and turned his life around. Investing in something greater than me replaced the behavior that nearly got me killed in the first place. God and a widening positive social acceptance were my rescue. Music had always been an outlet for me, my voice and my guitar. When they asked, I agreed to lead the worship music for a select group of teenagers on a mission trip to Central America.
Sometimes I reflect on this part of my life and I feel fraudulent. It is difficult for me, because I can sincerely say that I believed what I believed at the time. I can’t parse the difference between the general ignorance of adolescence and an underlying fear that deep down inside I knew there was something hollow in the structure around me. I am at a loss as to whether that instability began inside of me, the leadership of the group that led us down into Central America, or somewhere in the variety of faith to which we had all so fervently committed ourselves. I wonder whether I could have changed things or found doors that would have led me away from what happened.
Months of fundraising and preparation went between my inclusion and the trip itself. I ended up needing help from a worship leader from one of the satellite churches to organize and rehearse the music for the trip. I was in over my head, but only by a little bit. We had weekly meetings to form a deeper bond among the kids who were going and with the adults who led us. This was where I really got to know Tom, the man in charge of the operation. He had a personal relationship with the man who ran the orphanage. He’d run mission trips before. His presence and attitude demanded respect. Somewhere in my DNA there is a genetic resistance to all forms of presumed authority. He may have sensed this. If not, my persistent questioning and challenge of his position let him know.
For those of us born with an affinity for disobedience, youth is a precarious time. We find out who we are by establishing our boundaries against those set by others. Tom, to me, was a living manifestation of boundary. I didn’t think I knew everything, just more than him. I didn’t even think that so much as I expected him to justify his authority. I needed him to prove it. I was constantly fighting to carve out my territory of self. How could I know who to trust without pushing back against whoever stood in charge? In another version, Tom would have understood this. He didn’t know what to do with me. I think that made him angry. For as often as we clashed, I didn’t realize this until the end of the trip. Certainly not for the events as they unfolded after we arrived in Central America.
We were given personal time one morning to meditate, reflect, and pray. We were given very specific instructions to stay on the property of the orphanage. On three acres there was more than enough room to spread out alone undisturbed. Unless you were me.
Beyond the fence behind the acreage was a stream in a shallow ravine. Underneath the jungle canopy, hiking along the running water, it was cool and peaceful. There were no crows or blue jays ranging in the distance. Instead there were calls I couldn’t name, and far too many to place. Chirps and whistles, screeches and caws. I couldn’t see who was leaping through the treetops above me, but the leaves rustled and fanned while the branches cracked beneath the weight of their animals. I had seen natural landscapes of green when I ventured forth back home. I was awed by the entirely new palette verde of the tropical vegetation. I reached out to run my hands through the shafts of sunlight on their way to sparkle in the water trickling around my feet. Deep lungs full of lush air left me feeling lightheaded. It almost erased the memory of what it felt like to die without breath.
If you’ve never climbed an eight foot slope of tropical vegetation, just to pull yourself through the fire ant colony at the top, I do not recommend it. My hands found the firm holds of small trees and moist, root-filled dirt as I scurried up the rise. When I was high enough to see out of the ravine, I shot my arms out to scramble over the ridge. Instead of hard packed ground, the dirt was sandy and chunks crumbled around my fingers. Losing my balance, I dug deeper to keep from falling into the air behind me. I found my grip, but not before pulling handful after handful of fire anthill, and hundreds of fire ants, into my neck and chest and down the front of my shirt. To make matters worse, the ants themselves didn’t start stinging me until I had pulled the rest of my body through the destruction I had made of their home.
For all of the times in my life I have been burned, I have never been on fire. What began as dozens of needles seeming to attack the center of my breastbone quickly broke into waves of white hot punctures over the rest of my torso. I looked down to see red ants crawling out of the sleeves of my t-shirt and down my arms. I’d been fortunate in choosing pants instead of shorts, but the pin pricks gathering around my ankles told me there were still ways of getting in.
The stings themselves would have been enough on their own, but there were so many of them that the poison began to act on another level. My whole body flushed and I felt the tissue in my face and fingers begin to swell. I couldn’t distinguish the stings from the bites and the insect legs crawling over my skin. Everything under my shirt was in flames. I stripped to the waist and rolled around in the dust, trying to sweep the anger of the ants away. My body became an insistent throb, trapped in a fast-ripening berry of skin. I sat up in the dirt to pull off my boots and my socks. I felt a line of saliva fall out of my numbing mouth while I stared at the bright red bumps of the stings on my ankles. I don’t remember anything between that moment and waking up on the concrete patio behind the orphanage. I avoided the hospital because someone had a shot of epinephrine. The stings subsided into angry red splotches on my skin. The swelling went away altogether. By the end of the evening, I felt right as rain.
The next day we all took a charter to a small island off the coast. There was snorkeling, hiking, and a zip line. Along with an inclusive spread of local seafood, fresh cut fruit, and an open bar. We were given the run of the island and left to our own devices. I began by diving from the boat and snorkeling through the clear ocean that only lives along the beaches of tropical zones. I spent most of the day in the water, ignorant of the difference in sun between my home state of Minnesota and the equator. I swam unprotected, long enough to make my back blister before the end of the next day. I came out of the water hungry, and made my way to the tables.
Let me say in advance of the argument that will form in your mind. I have already gone back to these days and questioned the sincerity of my conviction. Not because I was willfully hypocritical. When I look back on this time I forgive myself. My intentions to be a good Christian were never anything but sincere, but I was far from out of the woods. This time was like the part of a horror movie where the heroes have yet to be whittled down to a single survivor and they mistakenly believe the killer has been killed. This time was like an issuance into heaven only to discover that believing you were redeemed was actually part of your torment. I drank. They left an eighteen-year-old with a history of substance abuse alone in paradise with an open bar and I drank. I didn’t get drunk. But I did get angry on the way back.
Corrine was younger than me and went to a different school, so I only ever saw her at church. She was attractive, but not beautiful. She had the dubious fortune of being the most attractive girl in the group. She liked to wield the way girls get boys to do what they want. She was an emotional tease. She promised validation in exchange for fawning, and I was unfamiliar with the meaning of blasphemy.
Between the island and the orphanage, Corrine came to me with an accusation that the guy leading the tourist group had been manning the zip line and felt her up while checking (and re-checking) her harness. At that age I didn’t have the sand to get right up in the face of a grown man to accuse him of molesting my friend, but they did hand out comment cards, so I commented. It didn’t help that I had a thing for Corrine. It didn’t help that I’d spent the day mixing daiquiris in my stomach. I went in on this guy, swinging full force with my words while trying to steady the paper on a bus ride over dilapidated third world roads.
I don’t remember what I wrote but that guy was pissed. He stormed to the back of the bus and demanded to know the author of the words on the crumpled paper in his hand. The kids around me gaped in silence. I was scared, but way too satisfied with myself to feel it. I played it tough and got behind what I’d written. He fumed for a moment before stomping to the front of the bus muttering Spanish curses. Queasy with rum-riddled motion sickness, anger, and jealousy; it never occurred to me she might have made the whole thing up.
Tom did everything but call me a liar. I gave it right back and stood my ground. Why would he take the word of a tour guide over someone from the group? If he was the “authority,” why hadn’t Corrine gone to him with the accusation? When Corrine backed me up I was vindicated. I should not have mistaken this for victory.
The last straw fell quietly that night, a whispered conversation between me and another kid while the others slept. I started in on Tom for doubting me and just kept on going. If Tom was uncertain of my true feelings toward him, the eventual report of my words left no doubt. An eavesdropping adult heard all. He confronted me the next day with Tom in tow. They invoked their authority from God over this place, this trip, and especially over me. They were angry, perhaps rightfully so. I feigned contrition. They saw through me and demanded we bring everything to the group during our evening service that night. We would all pray and decide how we could move forward together in the Spirit of Christ, despite my failings, with an acknowledgement of the spiritual influences at work. I never saw them coming.
Have you ever believed something crazy, but didn’t know how crazy until long after you’d stopped believing? Were you forced to wonder whether you believed in the first place? Religion aside, the religiosity of Tom proved a force unto itself, guiding the actions of the group toward the reprehensible. The apparent sincerity of their belief still gives me pause. When we sat down together, I would have still counted myself among them. The result was insane, regardless of intent. I was just a kid after all.
We gathered on the concrete patio out back at a long wooden table with benches along the sides and a chair at each end. There were around twenty of us, counting the thirteen or fourteen kids, four adults from the church, the couple who ran the orphanage, and at least one of the local women who worked for them. I sat at one end of the table in a high-backed wooden chair. It had flat armrests that kept it from being pulled all the way underneath the table.
Tom addressed the group, delivering the message, again invoking God’s authority. He kept circling around to this idea that my behavior and the surrounding controversy were the result of a spiritual influence within me. I remembered times in the past where he’d used these words where sin reared its head. His mention of it the day before hadn’t seemed any less ordinary given the central theme this belief occupied as part of our larger narrative of faith. Tonight there was something different in his tone.
Maybe it was the fact that he hung that shingle around my neck in front of everyone that made me feel uneasy. Before they began to pray, he gave anyone who felt uncomfortable the option to go back to their rooms. It didn’t occur to me to take that option for myself. One girl stood in the silence and walked back to her room alone. She was the only one.
They began to pray over me. The words moved from one person to the next. Some spoke their prayers from the heart. Some fed the low chatter of nonsense syllables by speaking in tongues, filling the night air, complementing the noise of life in the darkness beyond. The men of the group gathered closely around me to lay their hands on my arms, shoulders, and head. Our prayer often included this kind of physical contact to share in the spiritual connection between the praying and the prayed over. The blistered burn covering my back begged me away from the chair. The hands on my person were having none of that, and pressed their grip ensuring I wouldn’t go anywhere. Today I would remain calm, exhaling my fear in deep, cleansing breaths, allowing my fear to pass through me. In my youth my fears still held me close, I began to struggle.
I wasn’t weak. I wrenched my arm away, but there were too many hands to keep it free. I pulled my body forward but couldn’t get my legs beneath me for leverage. Every time I moved, my back would shift in the chair, burning against hard wood. The scraping pain rung across my skin, sending pins and needles around the edges of my burns. My vision clouded with tears, and the fight in my body began to take on a life of its own. I yanked my right arm toward me, sinking down in the chair, using the armrest to scrape their fingers loose.
I swung my feet around and launched myself into an off-balance captor, pulling free from the men on my left. My head, slick with sweat, slipped away from hands that held it, allowing me to lean forward and launch the chair out from under me and give me room to stumble backward and stand. The women and girls in front of me looked as terrified as I felt. Sensing the men behind me, I broke two strides of a sprint before someone tripped me, sending me chin-first into the table.
They collapsed on me in an instant. They rolled me onto my back and dragged me away from the table. Blisters burst and skin screamed as I was on fire for the second time that week. They sat on my legs, held my feet, and kneeled on my arms to hold me in place. The women held hands in a circle around us. Their lilting voices rose and fell in prayers and song. My delirium blurred their words. The men spoke to me as though to their demons, pounding fists on my chest in command of a spirit that wasn’t there, unless you counted me. I had never been beaten before, and never since. The hollow thud of their blows shook my ribs and traveled up into my skull. They took turns snarling their demands in my face, clutching fistfuls of hair to shake my head before casting it against the concrete where they’d trapped me. I drifted in and out of consciousness during the hours that followed. Somewhere in the darkness of early morning, they grew tired of making physical demands of the spirit they’d imagined. They dragged me to a room in the darkness and left me there alone.
If you ask me about faith I’ll say I don’t believe God thinks about us the way that we think that God thinks about us. I have never really questioned the existence of God, though I doubt the veracity of others’ claims. The distance between my life-experience and the promises made by entry-level-religion keeps me searching for the next ravine, longing to survive another encounter with death, spitting in the face of every Tom along the way.
I understand that I will never be satisfied in this life. There will always be another fresh patch of Earth to uncover, another dark corner of myself just itching to come to light. I am content to live in the uncertainty of my ever-widening gaze. You wouldn’t think that to court disaster, risk madness and immolation, would lead to any sort of happiness. But a different life feels inconceivable to me. What kind of person would you choose to be if you were forced to start from scratch? What kind of man might you build after your second try? Your third?
It has been more than twenty years since I lay in that room without light. Broken. Horrified by my own emptiness. Twenty years to understand I was just getting started. Twenty years to learn that it was only after I had lost everything, that I was truly free to do anything. I won’t deny this can make me a challenge to live with. I am always where I am meant to be, and never where I am meant to stay. In another twenty years I hope to look back and feel as far away from who I am now, as I feel today from that kid teetering on the edge of madness.
I have learned to welcome the fire when it burns away the excess. I am grateful for the loss when it brings value to the things I had. And for the truth that these were things I never really needed in the first place.