How to Kill Someone
Arthur Longworth was awarded First Place in Memoir in the 2017 Prison Writing Contest. Longworth is currently incarcerated at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington.
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 November 28, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading, Breakout: Voices from the Inside. Participants including 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award-winner Lisa Ko and 2010 National Book Award-winner Terrance Hayes will read from the prize-winning manuscripts.
How to Kill Someone
Where I come from isn’t a secret I can keep. It’s an indelible record tucked away in a state file I can’t make not exist. A file that was initiated by an administrator I never met, who wrote, “Arthur first came to our attention when we received calls from Oregon, Idaho, and Mountlake Terrace, Washington, that Arthur had been detained in all these places . . .” Which means that until the age of 11, I scraped out an existence in a lot of places, including for months in a rail yard in Portland, in a hobo camp on the banks of a river in Boise, and on the streets of Seattle where I managed to keep myself from starving by snatching a canvas bank bag from beneath the arm of a portly man in a suit. Police handed me over to a state caseworker in Mountlake Terrace after I woke up in an emergency room, my head bashed in and the money from the bank bag stolen, if it’s fair to say something I stole could be stolen from me.
During my conscription into the state system, a kindly psychologist speaking in soothing, even tones let it drop that my younger sister had been placed in a foster home two years earlier. She watched my reaction, then scratched a note in the file. Years later, I found what she wrote. “Arthur would like to live in the same foster home . . .” Caseworkers shunted me off into the receiving home circuit instead. Receiving homes are private residences contracted by the State to take children for 30 days or less.
The first receiving home I was in belonged to a dour-faced woman with calves the size of hams and hair ironed so straight it would have broken before it bent. I wasn’t allowed inside her house from 6:30am—shortly after I ate the bowl of cereal she’d leave for me on the counter in her kitchen beside the double-deadbolted back door—to 6:00pm, when she’d let me in to eat dinner standing at the same counter. Afterward, I’d go to a room in the basement that I shared with her washer and dryer. Every other part of the house was off-limits. In another home, a pock-faced woman with greasy hair and a penchant for paisley scarves locked her state kids in a closet when they “misbehaved.” She put me in the closet for wandering out of shouting distance of her house. There was no light. But before the woman closed and bolted the door on me, I saw the names of other state kids scratched on the concrete floor. When she let me out, I ran.
In the final receiving home, a pug-nosed man with tattoos had a peculiar hobby. He liked to teach the state kids he took into his house how to “box.” In his basement, he’d fight us against each other as if we were full-grown men. I didn’t stay in that home long, either. Only until the night the man put on gloves and boxed us around himself.
I ran from many receiving homes—every one I felt was untenable—which, in turn, initiated me into another facet of the state system: incarceration. You see, a state kid running from a placement he or she finds unlivable is committing a criminal act. And the consequence of that act—being locked in a cell, isolated, stripped of everything save a ragged juvy suit, without books or anything else to occupy the mind, let out only 20 minutes a day into a penned-in area for exercise, an escorted shower every other evening—is the most injurious aspect of being state-raised. It’s worse than the incessant handing off from one caseload to another that is also part of the immutable experience, the endless encounter of one person after another who identifies him or herself as your caseworker, until you no longer question or even note the change. That constant handing off is merely an institutional failure effectuated through bureaucratic apathy and negligence. Incarceration, on the other hand, is intentional, and your unending exposure to it creates within you an inability to envision any positive or constructive path forward. It feels as though there’s no way to climb out. All you’re able to do is hold on. Or not.
These two conditions that comprise your existence—incarceration and placements—affect you in ways that shape how you perceive the world and push you into particular behavioral traits. You’re a loner. You’ve been moved so often you don’t have anything approaching a steady base of friends or peers—you don’t even know what that is. You don’t trust anyone. It’s a personal tenet you follow for good reason—it’s the golden rule for survival. You lie. More convincingly than you tell the truth. Because it’s an ability necessary for your continued existence. And because you’ve been lied to so many times, you don’t see anything wrong with it. You’re insecure. You expect the worst in any environment you’re placed in because your suspicions too often prove correct. This acquired cynicism empowers your ability to sense ulterior motives—it’s what keeps you safe. These are the traits you develop before you graduate to the next stage of the system—group homes. And it’s fortunate, because it’s in these places you need those traits the most.
A group home is what is sounds like: a facility where the State places kids in a communal living environment—kids that a caseworker has deemed too damaged to put in a foster home. When you enter a group home, you remain quiet and watchful. You lay low until you figure out what the people who run the facility are like and what their game is. Every group home I was in had a game, and being able to assess it quickly is essential. Until you acquire the ability, you’re on tenuous, even dangerous grounds.
J Street Boys’ Home was a five-minute ride from the juvenile detention center in the back seat of a state car driven by a caseworker whose name I didn’t know. A century-old, two-story house atop the hill in Tacoma overlooking downtown, on J Street, of course, with a broken and buckled walkway leading to a front door from which more paint was peeled than remained and a patch of crabgrass worn to the dirt for a yard. I entered with the hope that I could stay, at least for awhile, because I’d heard from other state kids that group homes, unlike receiving homes, hold out the possibility of less fleeting residence, the chance to stay in the same place for a year or more, if you play your cards right. I was worn from the unceasing dislocation of placements, stints in juvy, and on the streets. I yearned for stability, or continuity, in living conditions, a semblance of normalcy, even though I had no idea what that was.
I matched myself to the game at J Street, which the boy in the bunk below mine hipped me to the first night: not to make waves and not to ask for anything or draw undue attention to myself. Because the director, a worried-looking man who rushed everywhere and who rarely spent more than a few minutes at a time at the facility, only cared about clocking easy monthly checks from the State for his residents. Any boy with a problem got moved. Or locked up. So I stayed out of the house as much as I could. I never hung out in the TV room where at least one staff member was always parked on the couch whose upholstery was mended in a dozen places with duct tape. I’d return at night to eat and play cards or dominoes with the boys in the room I was assigned, then climb up onto my bunk until the next day. But lying low didn’t stop staff from discovering that I had a problem.
The problem was that I didn’t go to school. I’d been to so many, transferred from one to another every time I was pushed into a new placement, that I couldn’t bear the thought of stepping through the door of another school, learning to navigate another set of hallways, or starting anew in another classroom of faces I didn’t know, and which I didn’t want to know, because knowing them would only invite questions about where I came from and where I lived. I spent my days downtown instead, panhandling change at the bus station, which I’d learned to do in Portland, and breaking into vending machines, which a Vietnam vet-turned-vagabond taught me in Boise. And I searched for my sister in the face of every girl who looked close to her age. That must sound strange to you, why I’d do that. But I didn’t know if I’d be able to recognize the starving, discarded shell of a child who was hardly able to speak or function above the level of an animal the last time I saw her, two years earlier, before the rough hands of the State tore her away. I knew that, like me, she must look different than she did then. And I knew she was in Tacoma, somewhere, even though no caseworker would tell me where. That’s why I looked. But I didn’t find her before staff reported my problem to the director and he ordered me back to lock-up.
I was 13.
Induction into Kittitas Youth Home began with an interminable van ride that, perhaps by intention, parroted the process of birth. The home’s director, a youngish man named Doug, loaded up three of us from the juvy several hours before daylight and set out toward the mountains. As he drove over the pass, down through a labyrinth of rolling foothills, and across the endless Columbia River basin, Doug intoned in the womb of the van’s unlit interior the game at the home: God as a beneficent provider for wayward youth. The three of us—one boy I knew from receiving homes, the other from J Street—lulled by the lazy droll of the director’s words, retreated into a collective state of semi-sleep. Hours later, the van pulled up to a sprawling, single-story facility laid out in the configuration of a cross, its silhouette alight in the pale yellow pre-flame of a sun not yet pushed above the horizon. I exited the van and breathed deep, then set off to find my place in a new world.
The group home held a dozen of us in remote seclusion, cached away in the sparsely populated agricultural breadbasket of the state, away from the influence of our prior life, so God’s grace might wash over us. And that grace, at least in some respects, felt a bit like heaven. For the first time, I found a peer group in a place other than lock-up, friends, and a stable environment. With the small allowance I earned each week feeding the home’s congregation of chickens, three steers, and a one-eyed dog, I accrued belongings that were unretainable when I was on the receiving home circuit. Things I called mine: a radio, a half dozen posters of bands and sports figures, two extra changes of clothes, a pair of shoes, work boots, and a state coat—the same coat the State issued to its prisoners.
But the flip side of grace is discipline, and that was meted out by two grandparent-aged, scripture-citing staff members named Clayton and Myrtle Johnson. Discipline I invited on myself when I got in a fight with Tony, and again when I beat up Russ. And discipline visited on my in a conjuction with others when Doug discovered how often and how many of us skipped school. When we stole wine and carsickness pills from the store nine miles away. And discipline escalated to wrath when John shot a cow with the pistol I stole from the house at the end of the gravel lane. Discipline delivered in the form of our heads shaved clean of hair. Trenches that took a week to dig, and three days to fill back in. And lunch breaks comprised solely of Myrtle’s infamous hot water and ketchup soup. However, Clayton and Myrtle weren’t all discipline, they did what they could to teach us about life too. Myrtle, through forced church attendance, compulsory etiquette, and her righteous disdain of anyone not white. And Clayton, through his proclivity for taking pictures of young boys without clothes on and paying them a week’s allowance to play with their private parts.
The time I spent in God’s home for youth in Kittitas was the longest stretch unbroken by movement between placements or lock-up I’d experienced up to that point. I learned to make it, maintaining a safe distance from Clayton whose attention centered more on the boys in rooms closest to staff quarters. I deluded myself into believing that my life there could last. Until the day Doug summoned me to his office and snatched away the amenity of that delusion by announcing the group home was closing. He said he’d drive me to Tacoma the next day and hand me over to a caseworker, which, of course, meant that everything about Kittitas was a lie; I was never really reborn, I still was who I was, and the next day I’d again stare at a blank white wall through the narrow window slat of a door in juvy. “Fuck you, Doug.”
I slipped out a window after midnight bed-check, work boots crumping the snow so loudly I was sure I’d be caught. When I made it to the pasture, I ran. I followed railroad tracks for 16 miles and reached town just as the dull gray light of day began to rise behind me. At a truck stop, I crawled under the tarp on a trailer of a departing semi and lay shivering in a bed of alfalfa cubes. The frigid air blew in beneath the tarp and robbed me of the warmth I was able to maintain while jogging on the tracks. The truck stopped at the foot of the pass and I climbed down from the trailer. Snow fell in a thick curtain of oversized flakes. The pass was closed. But I had nowhere to go, so I began to walk. Several hours after nightfall, I realized I wasn’t cold anymore, a comforting warmness suffused my limbs even though I couldn’t feel them and an inexplicable sense of well-being rose inside me. I sat down in a snowbank to rest. And I closed my eyes.
The file: “Arthur ran and was picked up by police at Snoqualmie Pass, nearly frozen to death . . . ”
I was 14.
My first night in Kiwanis Vocational Home the boy in the bunk below me was raped. Do you know what that’s like? No, I don’t suppose you do. And, to be fair, I don’t either. I was only there, too frightened to breathe, my body locked in a knot. The boy called out for me to help him, then I felt the heavy thud of his head against the bunk frame and the muffled screams I still hear. I want to tell you I helped him, that I stopped what was happening to him, and maybe you could have done that if you were there, but I couldn’t fucking move. There were too many of them, they were too big and too much older than us. I stole a knife from the kitchen the next morning because I wasn’t ever going to allow myself to be that helpless again.
Kiwanis was a defunct, turn-of-the-century coal processing facility miles from the nearest town at the end of a scarred and pitted road that led nowhere. A moss-encrusted complex centered around a large main house on 500 acres of steeply forested hills intersected by a creek so laden with toxins it smelled like an open sewer and collected an orange-brown froth in every place it pooled. A hulking barn overlooked the house and innumerable outbuildings extended in every direction: workshops, offices, a dining hall, storage sheds, a row of barracks, and a dorm. The facility housed dozens of residents, most 17 years old and on the precipice of aging out. Some older. The older ones were “crew bosses”—individuals selected by the home’s director to stay on after they turned 18 to oversee work crews and collect a small stipend.
The director of Kiawnis Vocational Home, an undersized and perpetually angry man named Chuck McCarthy, used the crew bosses to run a plantation. That was the game at this home—to exact as much labor and profit from us as possible, legitimating our exploitation beneath the banner of “vocational training.” There was no school at the facility and no pay for the eight to 10 hours a day of work required of each resident. On site I felled and prepped trees for the mill, cut and chopped endless cords of firewood from slash and deadfalls, and fabricated mailbox posts, all of which Chuck sold for a profit. Off-site I salvaged donated appliances and building materials that Chuck resold, worked the county vehicle auction, cleaned parking lots, painted businesses, and tended the grounds of cemeteries, as well as the yards of Chuck’s influential friends. None of which was training that prepared for any real vocation. Physical labor was all that mattered at the facility, and Chuck incentivized competition between his crew bosses in order to wring as much as he could from us. Slackers were beat down by a crew boss, or by fellow crew members under threat of group sanction.
I wasn’t ever dumb enough to be the least hardest worker, so I didn’t expect a crew boss to try to murder me in the slag piles outside a workshop a quarter of a mile behind the complex. Maybe he knew I couldn’t possibly have been asleep on the top bunk that first night at the home. Whatever his problem was, he ran me over with one of the facility’s work vans, gunning the motor and swerving sharply to hit me from behind. The van whipped me around, folded me over the front bumper, then slammed me to the ground. The impact knocked the breath from me. And both the front and rear tire rolled over my legs just below the knee. I gasped to draw in air as the van skidded to a stop a dozen yards away, the driver’s side door already open. Ken got out and hurried toward me. It was an accident. He was there to help. I didn’t expect him to jump on me and lace his fingers around my throat. I bucked trying to free myself from beneath his weight. And I pulled at his hands, but I couldn’t loosen them. My eyes felt as though they might blow from their sockets and I choked. I balled my hand into a fist and swung it upwards, smashing it against the side of Ken’s head. A string of spittle escaped his open mouth and ran down the side of my face. I thought I felt his grip on my neck loosen a hair. So I began to hit harder and managed to roll him over. When I was on top, Ken let go of my neck. I used both fists on his face, until he wrenched me down by my hair and wrestled out from beneath me. He kicked me in the chest with a steel-toed boot and fled. The van peeled off, throwing a cloud of coal dust over where I lay in the slag. I pressed my hands against the spot where Ken kicked me, which hurt worse than where I was struck by the van. Two crew bosses watched from the workshop. Not saying anything. Not moving. Their faces devoid of expression, giving nothing away. I reach down to feel the brokenness of my legs and am puzzled when I’m unable to elicit any pain from them. I turn over onto my knees and struggle to my feet. My legs shake, but they’re not broken. The tread pattern of the van’s tires is imprinted across my pants. In the shadow of a derelict coal-processing plant slowly failing in on itself next to the toxin-laden creek, I gather myself and hobble off in the direction of the barracks.
I was the youngest resident when I arrived at Kiwanis, and I learned what I had to in order to make it there. Nearly every resident arrived at the facility from a juvenile institution. Chuck sent many of them back to lock-up—anyone who bucked his authority, refused to be bullied by his crew bosses, or balked at working without pay. He booted the rest out when they turned 18, which usually wasn’t long after their arrival. A ceaseless tide of bodies flowed through the facility. And within the current of that tide coursed the language of prison, which, if you know anything about it, you know isn’t limited to a mere vernacular but is the preponderance of values, philosophy, and survival strategies particular to individuals habituated to long-term incarceration. Inherent in the language are concepts peculiar to the refinement of a rabid self-reliance because, well, inside an institution where you are worth nothing, ain’t nobody going to save you but yourself. I learned victimhood is a result of weakness. A personal failing. If I were to become a victim, it’d only be because I wasn’t strong enough. It’d be my fault. Remembering the muffled screams of the boy on the bunk below me, and every assault I witnessed after, I refused ever to let that be my fault. I made a pact with Robert and Dennis that we locked in with blood—three left hands cut with the knife I took from the kitchen, pressed together under a single resolve—fuck with one of us, you fuck with us all.
I remained at Kiwanis almost a year, isolated from the outside world, save for the sequestered work details I was assigned off-site. I worked to exhaustion with no discernible picture of a future other than a boot out onto the streets when I reached the age where work could no longer be taken from me for free. And I’d likely have stayed at the home if Robert and I hadn’t found Dennis on the floor of the dorm shower. My vote was that we murder, in accordance with our pact. Robert pointed out that we’d probably get life, which didn’t seem like much of an argument to me. Why should it? How can you worry that life might get worse when it already feels as bad as it can get? Then Robert pointed out that no matter what we did, nothing could un-rape Dennis. So we split instead. After midnight bed-check, Robert boosted me through the window of Chuck’s office and I lifted the key to a truck from a hook on the motor pool board. In the darkness, an unexpected fit of rage rose inside me and with a deafening crash of objects hitting the floor I flipped Chuck’s desk over. “Fuck you, Chuck.”
The file: “Arthur ran from the Kiwanis Home in the company of two other residents, participating in the unauthorized use of one of the facility’s trucks . . .”
None of us had anywhere to go, so we struck out for California. But Dennis wandered off that first night while we slept at a freeway rest stop less than 50 miles from Kiwanis. In the morning we couldn’t find him. Robert got busted shoplifting in Yreka. And I made it to Merced where a police officer drew down on me for breaking into a vending machine.
I was 15.
Central Kitsap Youth Home wasn’t just for boys. I found a sister there—a state-wizened 17 year old named Kate who disregarded the fact that I was a foot taller than her and from the moment I arrived referred to me as “Little Brother.” While the caseworker went inside and handed over my file, Kate and I sat on a bench outside and shared a cigarette. She latched onto me as family because that’s what state girls without a family do—they reach out and create familial connection in any way they can, even if only imagined, in order to feel whole. If you don’t know how it feels not to feel fully whole, that’s because you don’t know what it’s like to lack the most basic element of human existence—a family. I saw in Kate the chance to redeem myself, to fulfill my obligation as a brother to look out for my sister—even as I wondered what group home my birth sister was in, what her experience there was, and who she might be calling “Brother.”
Central was a two-story facsimile of an outsized domestic dwelling, tucked into the side of a hill and alone at the terminus of a single-lane dirt road surrounded by woods. The facility housed live-in staff and 10 residents, and was “Central” only because 20 miles away there was “South” Kitsap Youth Home, and 20 miles in the other direction, interred on an island, was “North.” The three group homes were overseen by a director named Bruce who showed up Wednesday afternoons for staff meetings and rarely on any other occasion. Even if no less isolated than Kiwanis, Central was a world apart. The group home exuded an aura of warmth and refuge, like what I imagined a real home might feel like—as if I would know. That’s what made the game at Central hard to see coming.
Laura Jackson caught me sleeping with a knife. She stood beside the bed and demanded I hand it over. My impulse was to get up and run, to leave the home if I had to, not to cede anything under any circumstance. But the bovine-sized housemother with the pinched, bespectacled face of a librarian sat down on the bed and placed her hand on my chest. “It’s okay.” I feel paralyzed beneath her hand, my body drinking in the warmth and softness of her palm. “This isn’t those other places—you don’t need that here.” I began to relax as she invoked my name, the unbroken line of tension binding my body melting into confused disarray with her touch and supplication of her voice. I let her take the knife. “This isn’t your fault—none of this is your fault. You need a family. A mother.” It’s those last words that push against the weakest point of my selfhood and rob me of any remaining will to resist. Laura’s proximity suddenly feels like a familial bond, the role on either side of which I have no idea how to play.
A week later, Laura took me to a movie. An activity she said I earned as a “reward” for “successful integration.” We climbed into her Ford van and she drove to town. In the darkness of the theater, she pressed her breast to my arm and didn’t move away. I didn’t move either. I couldn’t. The experience felt no different than her hand on my chest. I wasn’t stupid—I knew what she wanted. So I gave it to her on the dirty mattress in the back of the van, the smell of popcorn still on her and a staccato percussion of rain slapping the van’s roof. That was the unspoken deal from that point forward—soft, caring words and her warm touch, the currency she paid me to do what she wanted. Of course, the softness of her words belied the barbed wire of her threats to return me to juvy when I didn’t do what she wanted. How’d she know? How’d she find that unformed gap in my experience?
The file: “Arthur’s central problem being a deep developmental deficiency re nurturance . . .”
That was the game at the home—staff used the information in our files to manipulate us.
Bruce booted Kate out a month before her 18th birthday. He showed up at the facility and ordered her to gather her belongings; it was time. Just like that. No explanation as to why that day versus any other. No preparation for life outside. No job. No place to stay. No chance to finish high school. I saw enough people age out of state care at Kiwanis that this wasn’t a surprise, nor even a process I thought any of us could or should question. It was just the way it was—the way the State raises you. It’s a date every state kid knows is coming. Kate handled it better than many boys I’d seen. She gave away her radio and packed her clothes into a plastic garbage bag with a determined, unafraid expression on her face. But she wanted to cry—I know because I know her. I told her I’d go with her. And I would have. But she shook her head. She told me not to worry, it’d turn out okay. Somehow. I was proud of my sister. Although miserable in my inability to live up to what I believed was my obligation as a brother.
Then there was the night I awoke to Laura’s by then familiar ministration and found myself unable to open my eyes. But something wasn’t right. Not that anything was ever right in that act with her. But something more wasn’t right this time. With a great effort I pried my eyelids open with my fingers and saw a staff member who wasn’t Laura. The bedcover pulled down on me. Shawn Jefferies bolted to his feet when I drew myself away and kicked at him feebly. He muttered an absurd “I’m sorry” and, in a quiet flash of movement, disappeared from the room. I wanted to make myself believe it was merely an unsound dream, but the undeniability of the door left open in his wake stared back at me. The temptation to remain there unmoving was overwhelming. But if I don’t do anything, then what? I’d return—I’m certain. The resolve I cultivated at Kiwanis seared its way to the surface of my consciousness. As well as a deep-seated feeling of shame. This was my fault. I grew angry and cursed myself for ceding the knife to Laura. What do you do when it’s only ever been yourself you can rely on? I’ll tell you. You force yourself up and out of bed. Something was wrong with me—my muscles resisted every movement—my mind worked, but not my body. Shawn opened the door of his quarters as I approached. In the semi-darkness of his room I note the bottle of bourbon and empty glass on the dresser in the same spot I saw them hours before. It was only one drink. And I drank it only to prove I could. Because I thought he was cool—a belief bolstered by the hiking and swimming outings he took us on. Everyone at the home thought he was cool. The motherfucker drugged me.
I don’t think Shawn knew how incapacitated I was as I stood there weighing the emphatic theater of his professed contrition. And the preposterous claim that he thought I’d be okay with what he did. Okay?! What the hell made him believe that? I wondered if I might have a character fault that had somehow invited this trespass against me. I pressed him on that and he confessed partaking in acts with Jeff and Benny that shook me. I don’t want to believe him. But when I asked Jeff the next day, he lit into me with all the outrage of a breached confidence. We fought to an impasse. But not before he skipped a knife off my ribs. I didn’t ask any more questions.
Shawn read our files. I know because the information about Jeff, Benny, Mark, Elaine, Marilyn, and Mary that he continuously confided to me after that night as part of his effort to gain my trust. I learned from Laura that he had a degree in psychology and came to Central after dismissal from a Catholic seminary for an undisclosed reason. But all of that mattered less the longer I acceded to his imploration not to tell anyone what he did, which he must have believed was a choice on my part, but had more to do with the suffocating weight of shame and the fact there simply was no one to tell. He didn’t return to my room after that night—at least not on any occasion I was conscious—and he allowed me to believe, even abetted the belief, that I had the upper hand. The morning Kate called, he brought me the phone, even though it was against the home’s policy for “graduates” to contact residents. Kate said she had a job and a place to stay. She filled me with hope for the future when she gave me her address and invited me to come live with her when I age out.
An inadvertent creation of life precipitated the end of my stay at Central—Marilyn got pregnant. Bruce arrived to deal with the crisis and ordered her upstairs to the office. The memory of the desperate late night clasping of our bodies in the dark on the frigid linoleum of the bathroom floor formed an inexorable knot in my stomach. When Marilyn returned awash in tears, the indignant glare Laura cast in my direction told me all I needed to know about whether or not she knew. Mary Jane said Bruce wanted to see me and Mark. Until that moment, I had no idea about Mark. Marilyn didn’t tell me. However, I did find relief, at least initially, that it wasn’t only me in trouble.
Bruce pronounced my sentence: a return to juvy to await transfer to another facility. I learned Marilyn’s sentence as I cleared out my drawer and packed my belongings into a plastic garbage bag: a compulsory abortion. Before I made it out the window, because I didn’t plan to return to juvy voluntarily, Bruce called me back to the office and informed me that Shawn was leaving employment at the home and offered to take me into foster care. Bruce said, if the State approved the license, he’d give me the choice between lock-up or foster care with Shawn. I opted for foster care. Why shouldn’t I have? I had no reason to believe I wouldn’t still have the upper hand, anything is better than sitting in a cell. The question is, how did state administrators come to the conclusion that this was a good idea?
The file: “Arthur has not had good male role models . . . I recommend counseling with a young male therapist with whom Arthur can identify and relate . . .”
A week before Marilyn’s abortion, I left Central with Shawn.
Again, the file: “Arthur was placed in foster care with one of the former staff members of Kitsap Youth Homes. This was his fourteenth (14) placement in two years.”
I was 16.
The foster home didn’t work out, of course. It was a sham Shawn used to drug me again. And this time I didn’t awaken until later. When his attempt to deny what happened didn’t work, he again resorted to affected contrition. I should have stabbed him. And I would have if doing so could take back what he did. But there’s something wholly disempowering about an experience inside which no possibility of restoration exists. A week after leaving Central, I bailed from foster care.
Ever had nowhere to go? The experience is a discomfiting feeling of being unanchored, of not belonging anywhere, and leaves you scrambling to find a niche into which to fit, or at the very least a direction in which you might point your life. I went to Seattle and re-discovered living on the streets. Although at that point, even street people had it over me because they knew what they were doing. They knew where to get food and where to go when it’s cold. I guess I was out of practice, or had become soft from living so long in receiving homes, juvy, and group homes. I spent those first days idle and starving beneath a bridge. Every night I froze. Until I reached a point of utter desperation and thought about who I could call for help. Laura hung up abruptly when she heard my voice. At least Myrtle clicked off the line quietly after telling me there wasn’t anything she could do. I repeatedly asked Shawn for help, which he at times provided. Maybe because he thought there was a chance I still might tell. But I tend to believe the help he gave speaks more to the complexity of human beings and to the impossibility, or at least injustice, of compartmentalizing anyone within the confines of a single designation such as “pedophile.” Or “murderer.” Then again, I would think that.
I searched out the address Kate gave me and found her living in a studio apartment not big enough for one person, let alone the three others who lived with her. Her space was a corner, partitioned by a sheet, in which she couldn’t lie down without curling up. She was pregnant and, as if to head off the need to explain, she cursed the Navy seaman who promised to give her money for an abortion, but shipped out instead. When I told her my circumstance, she asked if I wasn’t mad at the State. And when I shrugged, she pointed out that they kicked us out with nothing. No money. No education. And no family or other resource to fall back on. “You don’t do that to a person and expect they’ll make it.” The vehemence of her words reflected the flame of her own anger and her belief that the State intended for us not to make it. A contention I couldn’t refute, even if I had wanted. I asked what she would do and it was her turn to shrug. She described the panacea of an indistinct point in the future when she’d return to school and “become somebody.” After a hug and a last endearment of “Little Brother,” I walked out onto the street attuned to anger. And the anger I felt wasn’t simply due to my inability to help Kate, because failing our sisters is just something us state boys do. No, the anger was deeper. It boiled beneath the surface and impelled me forward. This doesn’t make sense, I know. I mean, why be angry? What good does it do? To lay out a coherent account of this anger for anyone not raised by the State doesn’t seem possible. But I owe it to you to try.
The anger you feel as a state-raised young person is beyond your ability to administer, because it doesn’t proceed from a process of logic. It isn’t constructed from the conscious thought. Rather, the anger is the confluence of all you’ve pushed down inside yourself, the memories and unbearable truths you suppress and do all you can not to think about. Like the State itself, this anger is an amorphous entity, a hydra to whom an infinite number of faces, or images, are attributable, yet whose authority issues from a single omnipotent body. The anger is your subconscious reacting to everything you don’t allow yourself to see. And when it’s quiet and you’re alone, like during the times you spent in a cell in juvy or at night beneath the bridge, and one of these images rises in your consciousness like a brick pushing its way up out of the pit of your stomach and lodging sideways in your throat, it shatters you and renders you entirely unable to function, until you force it back down. I wish you could for one second feel what I’m talking about. Not that I wish the experience on anyone, but that you might understand. If you could feel the conflagration of rage born out of powerlessness and the feeling of worthlessness that is cultivated inside a young person raised by the State, you might begin to understand the problem—why raising young people in this way, then throwing them out onto the street makes them incompatible with society—at least incompatible with any society that endeavors to uphold the principle of human dignity. The anger engendered by state care colors your perspective of the world, and, I assure you, it makes it fucking hard to respect the law or authority of a State that not only irreparably harmed you but whose apathy and negligence you interpret as the intent that you not survive.
What do you do when the only future you’re able to see is that you starve and freeze? I can tell you what I did. I came out from beneath the bridge and began to steal, which, don’t get me wrong, wasn’t a new or unfamiliar tack, rather, it was a falling back on the line of comportment I used to survive before the State took over my life. When I was arrested for burglary, the irony of the 24-day sentence I received in juvy escaped the judge who apparently believed that allotted dose of incarceration would straighten me out. But it’s hard to impress a young person who, countless times, has spent longer stretches in a cell simply waiting between placements, and whose only option upon release is to return to the street. I stole a car from the juvy parking lot the day I got out. A week later, I stood on the ledge of a freeway overpass, the wrong side of a guard rail to my back, and contemplated the speeding cars and trucks below. I thought how easy it would be to let myself fall—merely a matter of not thinking, just giving in to the impulse. The image played out in my consciousness: the 60 drop to the pavement, the unending line of vehicles first striking, then passing over my body. But the time I had to think mitigated the impulse to step off the ledge, and in that brief span Kate’s words came back to me. “You don’t do that to a person and expect they’ll make it.” Stepping off would mean I didn’t make it, so I didn’t. I jacked another car instead and totaled it trying to get away from the police. I reached my age out date on the street—that is, the intangible legal demarcation on the north side of your 18th birthday when the State says you irretrievably become an adult, even though science says your brain is not yet fully developed, and a brain affected by trauma much less so. That’s when I robbed John and Mariam Brewin with a gun that didn’t work, but which looked functional enough that John didn’t argue, he just handed me the 300 dollars in his pocket.
Then I met you in front of the restaurant. You had no knowledge of receiving homes, group homes, incarceration, life on the streets, or the State as anything other than a beneficent social structure. I know because you thought I was normal. Like you. Until I demanded money. You didn’t know I had a knife. Or that our argument put my back on the ledge of the overpass. Without time to think. I’d tell you I stepped off. But I did worse. Because it wasn’t me I killed. It was you.