The Power of One: comments on "True Notebooks" by Mark Salzman
True Notebooks by Pulitzer-prize nominee Mark Salzman is a powerful and delightful work that I devoured in one sitting. At the beginning, the author is struggling with writer's block while trying to finish writing "a bad novel" about a nun and a juvenile delinquent. A friend, Duane, who teaches writing to a group of juvenile delinquents, persuades Mark to speak to his students and Mark finally agrees after much soul-searching;
"What if Duane's students asked if I thought writing was worth the effort? If they were as cunning as their reputations suggested, they might sense how lost I felt as a writer and realize that I had nothing to offer them. Then I imagined, they would beat me up."
[True Notebooks, Mark Salzman, p. 13]
After much cajoling by Sister Janet, the nun who is the force of nature who started this volunteer program, Mark reluctantly starts his own writing class at this detention center and the story develops from there. This book details Mark's ongoing adventures as a volunteer writing teacher for his group of teenaged boys locked up in a juvenile detention center in southern California, awaiting sentencing for violent crimes, usually murder. The prose is graceful, elegant and witty, and the book includes generous samples of individual boys' writing, which is stark and often brilliant in its honesty. Particularly moving to me was one boy's account about one of his teachers taking him to visit the Museum of Science and Industry shortly after his parents died. He ends his essay by saying;
"... I know it wasn't a spectacular day, but I cherish that day because that was the only person that took time out of their life to help me make it through the death of my parents."
[quoted in True Notebooks, Mark Salzman, p. 44]
True Notebooks reminded me of my own troubled childhood, growing up in a small conservative farming community where I did not have access to anything wonderful like museums. Yet, even as a young child, I somehow knew I wanted to go to university to get my education, I knew I wanted to get my doctorate, and I knew I wanted to be a scientist and a writer. But I was surrounded by people who expected me to fail, demanded that I fail, in fact. They taunted me, ridiculed me and, when I refused to give up my dreams, they isolated me. Eventually, I fell silent and retreated completely to books and to my writing. Even though I gave up on my family and community, I never gave up on myself. Much of my childhood was spent wandering alone on foot or horseback through sweet-smelling fields, studying nature and animals like a book.
Even though I never found anything remarkable like a dinosaur bone, I loved dinosaurs and read about them often. But I never thought -- not even in my wildest imaginings -- that I would ever visit a world-famous natural history museum but today, I work here. Daily, I walk past one of the world's three complete Tyranosaurus rex skeletons on my way to my lab and office where I research the evolution of birds, and daily I handle meticulously prepared study skins of birds that are 100 or more years old and I clone DNA from them. I have watched my fellow scientists chipping the fossilized skeletons of long-dead baby triceratops from solid rock using dental tools and microscopes. I helped a colleague move the world's only (nearly) complete Dodo skeleton to a locked vault when its display case was repaired. Oddly, working among the shadows cast by bones and skins of the long (and not-so-long) dead fills me with a sense of childlike wonder and hope for the future and an intense longing for that childhood I never had.
As a child, I was a "throw away": After yet another argument with my parents when I was 15 years old, my verbally and physically abusive father told me, "GET OUT! If I ever see your ugly face again, I'll kill you!" In view of my life experiences with both parents, I knew this was a credible threat so ... I left. But this wasn't the first time I had been thrown out of the house. In fact, I was first locked out of the house one summer night before I even started kindergarten. Not knowing what to do, I slept in a horse's stall that night. When I was older, I usually traded sleep-overs with horses for sleep-overs with a nearby friend, while I waited until my parents permitted me return to the house.
But unfortunately for me, my parents reported me as a runaway this time, so a few days later, the sheriff arrested me at my friend's house, despite her mother's pleadings to allow me to stay. A couple days after that, I sat in a courtroom in front of a judge who decided my fate while refusing to listen to anything I had to say on the matter. In a final act of supreme cruelty, my parents used the court system to declare me a hopeless "incorrigible" and I was made a ward of the state court system. As a hopeless incorrigible, I was not permitted into the foster care system, so a week or so later, I was locked up with girls who had committed all sorts of crimes, including murder. I was informed that unless something changed dramatically, I would remain locked up until my 18th birthday.
Hopelessness and helplessness, despair, loneliness, fear, anger, betrayal; I felt it all. Like a fly immobilized on fly paper, there was nothing I could do to save myself, no one to whom I could appeal, to beg for mercy. I was isolated. But unlike the boys in Mark's book, I never had a writing teacher who cared about me when I was locked up, even for several hours per week. But like the author's boys, writing did save me, in a way. After I was behind bars, I daily poured my agonized soul out onto paper, transforming my sorrow and anger into hundreds of writings and drawings even while I remained remote and unreachable, protecting my shattered self from everyone, convinced that no one cared.
But one person did care. Throughout this ordeal, there was one person who somehow managed -- I still don't know how -- to visit me in my caged hell. This one remarkable person was my saviour, my Guardian Angel. When I was weak, he was strong: he protected and cherished my almost forgotten dream that I would attend university one day, he nurtured and encouraged my dwindling artistic voice as if cultivating a dying plant, he would not let me forget my dream when the despair of my small corner of the universe threatened to overwhelm me. Because my Guardian Angel was a tiny but compellingly bright flame in an otherwise darkened world, he reminded me of that priceless gift that everyone sought to steal from me: Hope. Without my Guardian Angel, I certainly would have died.
After surviving months of this hell, I would like to report that my parents finally came to their senses, or that the state finally came to its senses, and that I was released after a rational discussion about the extravagant silliness of the entire situation, but this was not the case. Instead, I was called out of class one day, much to everyone's surprise, and escorted to the reform school's social worker's office. The state social worker was a perverted and twisted little man named Fabian Napolsky, whose idea of "therapy" was to read each girl's physical exam reports aloud to them while they nervously counted the minutes remaining until their escape from his office. Needless to say, he was universally despised and feared by the girls. The reason I name him here is because I want him to know that I will not keep his secrets safe and I want the world to know that he was the one person who committed the unforgivable sin of introducing me to true hate, that fierce steely knife edge that alternately lacerates and freezes your soul, and it was he who taught me to embrace the power of hatred, at least momentarily.
On this particular day, he wanted to talk to me because a few days prior to this, he had intercepted the only letter I had written and sent to my Guardian Angel from reform school. He of course, read my soul-searching and despair and he of course, had plenty to say about it. I was horrified beyond all words, the whispers of that new-found hatred in my soul rose to a crescendo. Feeling absolutely violated, I was unable to speak. He then ended our little chat by "regretfully" informing me that the recidivism rate was very high for particular teen aged girls and according to everything he knew, he was certain I would spend most or all of my adult life behind bars.
"For being a 'throw away'??" I suddenly found my tongue. I don't recall his precise response but it was certainly negative because shortly after I was returned to my unit, I sought permission to call my Guardian Angel but was denied. In despair, I somehow managed to obtain permission to make a 5 minute call to my parents. I apologized repeatedly to them for being a terrible daughter and begged them to reclaim me. They refused.
"You made your bed, now you lie in it," my mother said before the phone receiver was yanked away from me by the staff counselor. In that moment, a part of me shattered and died inside, that part of me that belonged to my parents and my family. Broken, I wept, truly wept, for the first time in my life. Beyond the reach of my Guardian Angel, even hope abandoned me. I would rather die than languish behind bars for the rest of my days.
I stole a secret, forbidden bottle of Midol that I knew was hidden in another girl's underwear drawer. I choked down every last pill, all 42 of them. I almost barfed but I was determined that I would not fail at this one thing, spurred on by pure hatred and outrage at my predicted fate, I was determined this would be the one thing I would do right and it would be the one right thing that I had ever done in my short but miserable life.
I remember opening my eyes while I flew, as if on a magic carpet, under bright lights, blazing like a thousand suns. "This doesn't look like heaven," I remember saying in disappointment.
I saw a man's lovely dark eyes looking closely into mine. He was sitting on my chest. Get off, what's your problem anyway?
I saw resplendent quetzals, glimmering metallic green flashing blood-red against a soft velvet green rainforest.
I almost died. According to the emergency room staff and doctors who visited me after I had regained consciousness a day later, if I had arrived ten minutes later or had taken two more pills, I would not have survived. I suppose I should have felt lucky or scared, but I didn't. I was furious. Outraged. Everyone was meddling and interfering, first to keep me from realizing my dream and then to keep me from fixing this mess by extricating myself from a worthless and miserable existence. Who in the HELL do all these arrogant freaks think they are?
As soon as I was conscious, my Guardian Angel was there. He was my first and only visitor. He was pale and rumpled and looked as though he hadn't slept in a couple nights. In fact, he looked like hell. Again, I wanted to die, but for different reasons entirely. As soon as I saw him, my outrage evaporated and was replaced with shame. For the first time in my life, I had truly hurt someone: I had deeply hurt my precious Guardian Angel, I could see it in his face, in his eyes. My Guardian Angel was the only one who cared, who took time out of HIS busy life and HIS busy schedule to provide comfort to someone else's unwanted kid, he even managed to visit me when no one else could, and I repaid him by stupidly believing the poisonous lies uttered by one evil person and allowed this false belief to undo all the good that he was trying to do. How could I? How could I so easily lose my faith in all that is good and right and true? How could I have been so weak? This was my unpleasant introduction to having and (mis)using personal power.
Surprisingly, things did eventually work out. I was placed in a mental hospital while I recovered. While there, I met many wonderful people, both staff and patients (and I will probably tell their stories later) and then, I returned for awhile to reform school but was released -- not long before my 17th birthday. This decision was made by a reasonable judge who understood how ludicrous and capricious it was to lock up a "throw away" in a state reform school, particularly because I had never committed any violent or criminal behaviors.
Sadly, I have not spoken to my Guardian Angel since shortly after I started college. I was told he changed careers and relocated to Seattle. We lost touch. But even years later, I think of him and wonder how he is doing and wish that I could somehow let him know that I am alright, that I have succeeded beyond even my wildest dreams. I know he would be surprised and proud of what I have achieved so far in my life, even though every step on my path was incredibly difficult. If there was one wish I could have granted right now, it would be to see my Guardian Angel again, to take him on a tour through my museum, to show him my research birds, so he would know how precious he was and still is to me.
Are you out there, John S.? I know you are not famous, you are not rich and you are not beautiful but you are all these things to me and, oh, so much more. Can you hear my thoughts whispering to you as you sleep? I hope that you know that you are the one who mattered when I needed someone the most. I owe you my life and because I love my life, I love you, sweet Guardian Angel.
tags: domestic-violence, child-abuse, suicide
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