by Valentine Michael Smith
The mind is full of violence cinematically brought to mind, evoking memories of violence past. I watched "Goodfellas" and "Miller's Crossing" in the past day, both fairly violent. "Goodfellas" struck me as being Scorcese's "answer" to Peckinpaugh's Western bloodiness. I thought it so ironical to watch. Like the hero, Henry, I was very attracted to the gangster life when a teenager. I thought I was amoral enough to be a contract killer, which even Henry didn't do, though DeNiro was that kind of a guy in the movie. "Miller's Crossing" was more poignant, with "Tommy" being a lot like the guy I was in my mid-twenties - a wise guy, with all the answers and a healthy mistrust for everyone. I even got beat up a lot, like he did. He killed in the end, a thing I never could do, though I came close more than once.
Killing is very personal though, no matter how far away you are. I used to speculate on being a shooter/killer 'cause I was a dead shot, hated everybody, and would have loved killing politicians 'cause I despised them so much. What turned me around? Two women, neither of whom know today of their influence on me. Maybe I shouldn't mention their names, but I'm too tired to worry about it - and I'm about to praise them, not libel them. Jan Bloom was a student nurse on my ward the year I was readmitted to the hospital (1965, fall) when I felt I was no crazier than the next guy, that I was being punished because I wanted to quit college and go in the Army, and locked back up 'cause my mother had more pull than I did.
Jan was assigned to the admitting ward when I returned to incarceration involuntarily from the environs of Western Michigan University in November, 1965. She spoke to me every day for a month, and I wouldn't answer her back, though I did think she was attractive and had a GREAT voice. She was much more patient than I was angry, and slowly talked me out of my shell to play ping pong, take walks without trying to escape, and have real long talks about where might my life go. She didn't say much about her life, and so shocked hell out of me when she said sometime in spring of '66 that she was getting married and going away. I was crushed. It was then I decided I could be a killer, because I wasn't loved, and dared love no one else, because they always betrayed that love in the end.
So, I escaped that fall, and that idea hung on. What did I have to lose? But, I DID understand how lonely that life would be, and as much of a loner as I was, I wasn't quite ready to turn away from the rest of humanity. My fate as a would-be killer was sealed by Dorothy Eliot, grand-niece of the poet T.S. Eliot, daughter of staunch Quakers, whose friendship I still cherish despite my terrible abuse of it the following spring. Dorothy was one of the homeliest women I've ever known, but her soul and capacity for listening/caring/giving was incredible. As I recall, at that time. she was a student at Carleton College, and had just come back from the Soviet Union.
She kindled in me anew my interest in matters Soviet, and away from violence and hurt. I never touched her, wasn't in love with her, but she made me feel as if I mattered, that I had worth, no matter how submerged and screwed up it was. I've never seen her again after that two week stint in December, 1966, and have made a mish-mash of my life in the quarter century since.
But, whenever I see violence on screen, or hear of it in real life, I say, "there but for the grace of caring people could I have gone!" I am eternally grateful to those two women, and a third, Anna Tomblin (who inspired me to escape from that stinking hospital, and who helped me when I finally did) whose friendship was swallowed also by marriage and a jealous boyfriend. Not a one of them has been a part of my life for twenty-five years, but all three turned me away from a life of crime, and I hereby celebrate my gratitude to them, wherever they may be!
Previous essays in The Salon -- featuring Valentine Michael Smith