I was in jail at fourteen, in 1970, for being an incorrigible runaway. It was St. Louis, in a “lost cause” facility where boys from 8 to 17 were waiting for sentencing, almost always to infamous Boonville (the former long-term director blithely described to a reporter (see below) how boys were raped in hallways and in the cafeteria, and there was nothing he could do with such animals).
With the help of corrupt guards I was made to take my turn in a cell with three older boys, who raped, tortured and humiliated me for five days and nights.
It has taken me over forty years to be able to speak of this. All the things ignorant teen boys, themselves brutalized, can do to pretty, younger boys when guards permit unfettered control, day and night, in a locked cell. I required corrective surgery later for what they did to me, including an anusectomy.
I was “lucky” because the judge decided to let my mother take me home at my hearing. But every day is still that day, that cell, those faces and hands.
Being brutally raped changed everything about my life. I re-entered the world of ordinary suburban 9th grade, at a time when America could not face the truths about girls and women being raped, much less boys and men (we still blame the victim, and excuse the rapist). For years, I invented layers of “self” to seem ordinary, to “get over it” all on my own. I had a nervous breakdown in college that I “walked off.”
I became a single parent at 20, and I devoted myself to my daughter. This was spectacularly good for her, and in some ways tragic for me, because I lived within an inauthentic, self-denying heroic bubble for decades, convincing myself I had nullified everything by being a good dad.
One cannot escape severe trauma though. After my daughters went on to successful lives I fell apart. I had no more purpose if I wasn’t heroic dad, and all that I thought I had resolved came crashing back into my life. I found myself bitter, resenting the good life my children had, that everyone seems to have. I began to obsess about hunting down those guards.
A founder of the Bristlecone Project, who had interviewed me, has located a man who apparently was also assaulted in my facility in 1969. He is currently serving a life sentence in California. We are trying to arrange communication, and (I hope) a visit. I am mortally afraid of going into any kind of facility but I want to embrace him. He is a murderer but I want to tell him: it wasn’t his fault, back then—at the beginning of us—what they did to him, to us.
It will be terribly sad for both of us. But I hope that where there is one there will be many, and if any of that staff is above ground, a reckoning is coming. A goddamn reckoning.
I was fourteen. That truth resonates like a bell, over and over, and destroys me. I cry every day now.
I recently answered this question on Quora.com: what was the most awful thing I saw in prison? It was the look on the nine-year-old boy’s face who took his turn after me in that cell. I did nothing to help him. I could do nothing, I know that now, but I will spend the rest of my life believing I should have died trying.