Apr/May 2005 Nonfiction

Another Incarnation

by Valentine Michael Smith

In January 1961, I was placed in a semi-private institution for children with emotional problems for the attempted murder of seven schoolmates at my junior high school in Michigan. This started almost six years of incarceration, with an interlude of release after high school graduation in 1965 and a semester of college at Western Michigan University, until I was reinstitutionalized at my mother's request that November and spent another year locked up until I escaped in November, 1966.

I think when a soul goes through the fires of emotional and physical trauma and abuse, the rest of one's life is at the least tinged by that experience, and at the most, if one allows it to be, controlled to the point of self-destruction. These kinds of events in a person's existence, I would contend, resonate all through one's life, however obliquely. Twice in 1962, I tried to kill myself with massive drug overdoses because I hated who I was so much. That same year, five of us attempted to kill our attendants and escape, a plot revealed by a snitch, which got us all beaten up for days because we scared the would-be victims so badly. So, I had good reason to be quite screwed up for life, had I allowed myself to let that violence remain "in charge" of me.

However, that did not happen. Despite eight years of verbal and physical abuse at home (my father beat me often, every week from age five to age thirteen, and my mother verbally ripped me to shreds on a seemingly daily basis), and another six years of physical abuse including rape and severe beatings in institutions, along with medical and emotional abuse in the form of medicines and solitary confinement that created a guardedness that continues to this very day. I survived, and with "most" of my brain intact (who knows what one loses to a six-year regimen of Thorazine cocktails and almost twenty years of being beaten and fighting constantly?). I consider myself exceptionally fortunate that I did not "fall," nor did I succumb to even more years of institutions or therapy or drug maintenance. I had a temper, a very bad temper, which caused me to fight (and usually lose) almost daily the ten months I was at Hawthorn Center, and likewise the first three years I spent in Northville State Hospital.

But, hardly a week doesn't go by that I reflect on how it is that I got to here, 38 years after institutions and the abandonment of violence, without being a total emotional cripple. I'm probably screwed up (I contend everybody's "crazy," it's how well we function despite it that marks the truly functional from the non-functional), but somehow even though that is probably true, I think that the child and the teen still live, if only in memory, and affect how I view people and how I handle the issue of trust.

Inauguration Day always brings back those memories, as it was on that day in 1961 when I was incarcerated. On that day I saw JFK take his oath of office. I recall that it was quite cold in Washington, that Robert Frost could not read a poem he had written especially for the occasion and instead recited one from memory, and that here I was, facing a totally unknown future, locked up in an insitution for the emotionally disturbed for an indefinite sentence. I was scared silly, and I don't think that fear ever went away over the next five years plus.

Yet, somehow I escaped, both literally and figuratively, being caught in the "institutional mindset." I hated it in both Hawthorn Center and the State Hospital after that, and fought back, getting most of the bones in my upper body broken in the course of it (skull fractures, fingers, ribs and arms all broken, numerous sprains and bruises) much to the disgust and irritation of my keepers. But, I also accept (now) the responsibility I had in extending that period much longer than it probably should have been, usually by inappropriately timed moments of "acting out," usually violently, often just when the folks in charge had decided I was "recovering." Later I was to learn I had blown at least three opportunities to be transferred into halfway programs and eventually out of the hospital by wreaking great harm on some fellow inmate, usually for something said that offended me to the point of reacting. I was a sucker for verbal baiting and fought constantly in reaction to that behavior.

A chunk of that anger revolved around being raped just before I was fifteen by seven thugs on my ward as an attempt to control me (as I one of the smallest inmates there). The vengeance I then exacted over the next six months involved stabbing one, almost killing three others in surprise attacks, and injuring the other three via solid drubbings at moments when I caught them off guard. I never told my keepers what happened to inspire this violence out of me; the institutional "snitch code" made that impossible, so I gained "justice" on my own in a series of exceptionally cruel incidents.

But, when that was done, I became enormously passive, and was generally left alone until my last year at NSH, as those acts of retribution made it clear to everyone that I had a long memory, enormous patience, a tendency to attack in berserker fashion and by surprise assaults, and that I would do anything to punish those who hurt me regardless of the punishment I invariably got for doing it. At seventeen, I also slowly understood that I would be kept under lock and key until I stopped bashing other people physically for things they said or did. Save for one horrendous act of violence during my last few months there, attacking a fellow inmate in his sleep and breaking his nose and cheekbones in a savage and one-sided brawl (which all the attendants saw as "karma" for the victim, a 240 pound fireplug of a bully) for knocking me down in front of the only girlfriend I ever had in the institutional days, I kept clear of most violent acts, and stayed that way after I got out.

That kernel of beingness stays within, locked up in a little corner of my mind, while I have spent the last 44 years remaking myself into a totally different person. Working as a mediator for the KC Human Relations Department helped hone the ability to avoid violence, as did just growing older and enjoying not being in pain. Only twice as an adult have I engaged in a violent act—once in 1974 to stop a man from abusing a child on a public street—one blow—and again in 1979 when I fought back against a drunken friend who was determined to pick a fight (he followed me from a bar to a restaurant and then took a swing at me that never connected, for which he garnered a broken jaw and me a broken wrist—sixteen months later he was murdered by still another friend when he picked another fight while drunk). From that day to this, now 26 years later, no violence.

Had I not had that turnaround at 17, and had I not encountered Quakers at 19 (a life-saving experience in more ways than one—they engaged me in public service, helping old folks fix up their places), I might have turned out a stone killer (which is why I was locked away in the first place, going after seven kids with a gun after they had beaten me daily for months in more often than not successful attempts to extort money from me). I think that despite the fact that I succeeded in conquering my worst demon—my temper—and becoming a reasonably amiable soul with no intention of ever being violent again, that fear of being hurt always lurks in that locked room in my mind, and the knowingness that I could be as violent as I once was tempers every transaction I have with people exhibiting the potential to engage that buried part of myself.

Even though what happened in Oak Park, Michigan, in January of 1961 is very long ago, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about that incident, and how fortunate I am to still have a brain, that I am still being a (mostly) functional member of society, and that I'm not locked up or destroyed. My friend Padre Sharp says it best in saying that I'm "blessed" for having survived almost intact, and I am eternally grateful that I did. Most of my fellow inmates did not. So, on Inauguration Day this year, this occasion of 44 years past was much on my mind. But, you know what? It was a wonderful day, and I relished being alive, teaching a class on American history, and while I regret deeply what happened to that "other person I used to be," I'm not that person today. Only the memories and the fear are still there, and all these years, I've been in charge, not the fear, and after age 31 (when I finally decided I wasn't an "evil" person), not the memory. As the Jews say about the Shoah, however, I "never forget" who I used to be, and am thankful daily for who I've become.


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