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Entries in abuse (3)


American Gods: Shadow in Prison

Unfolding the Map

My decision to start blogging and mapping American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, is sort of an experiment.  It is my first foray into mapping a novel, and there will be places that the characters go that I'm not going to be able to follow on a map.  However, this novel is about a man's journey, and like most journeys he not only travels on physical plane but also on the emotional and spiritual plane as well.  In this case, the spiritual plane truly lives.  I have started the map, the single point you see, at a state prison in Arkansas, and I'm going to be doing some guessing at a couple of places that Gaiman makes up, like Eagle Point, Indiana.  So it goes.  I'm journeying with Shadow, and I hope you enjoy the journey too.

Book Quote

The best thing - in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing - about being in prison was a feeling of relief.  The feeling that he'd plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom.  He didn't worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him.  He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.

American Gods: Chapter 1

Shadow in Prison, Part 1

Every so often I have moaned and bewailed my life.  Why can't things go my way?  Why wasn't my childhood perfect?  Why does everything seem to go against me?  Sometimes I had these little outbursts against the universe even though my own choices had brought me to that low point.  During my little pity parties, I had forgotten that at least I had the opportunity to keep struggling against life, and that I still had the freedom to make those little mistakes that seemed to make my life so difficult.

It wasn't until my wife and I started mentoring women newly released from prison that I learned that my little troubles didn't mean anything compared to others.  The women I helped mentor had come from worse backgrounds than I did.  By "worse" I mean that they were victims of terrible physical and sexual abuse.  Their crimes were usually related to drug abuse and alcohol.  They also often were mothers, further complicating issues when we tried to help reintegrate them into normal life.  One woman we mentored had an ex-husband who had tried to have her killed, and was still trying to track her down.

I've only visited prisons, and fortunately have never had to live in one.  Prison is its own society.  Some convicted criminals find prison an opportunity for power, and prison gangs provide the vehicle for them to become powerbrokers in an enclosed system.  Some find religion, and prison provides a way to explore their lives and give themselves in their brokenness over to a higher power.  Some find it a respite from the streets, and if they have been there long enough or enough times, they have learned the system and how to integrate into it.  Prisoners also face many of the same problems that they might face outside, but concentrated because it's a closed system.  Addictions, predators, abusers (in the form of fellow prisoners but also in the form of sadistic prison officials).  Life is hell for them, whether it is on the outside or the inside, and if a prisoner is going to make the most of the scraps of opportunity they have, they must have a lot of inner strength and be able to selectively use a host of personal skills to navigate this unforgiving world.

Musical Interlude

I found this song by Joan Baez for our musical interlude, which tells three different stories of three people in prison.


Shadow in prison, Part 2

In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Shadow is in prison at the beginning of the book.  He is determined to do his time, limit his contact with anyone, and get released.  His only friend is a fellow convict named Low-Key, who gives him a contraband coin that Shadow uses to practice tricks and illusions.  We'll learn more about Low-Key later.  We don't know much, if anything, about the offense that landed Shadow in prison, nor do we know his real name.  Like his chosen moniker, he wants to remain quiet and unobtrusive.  He plans then to go home to his wife, Laura, get a job and never do anything that would risk a return to prison.

Most people who are in prison, except for the most hardened criminals and those who are there for the rest of their lives, have similar dreams.  They plan to get out and stay out, and live a normal life.  Unfortunately, there are traps all over.  My wife and I, once a month, join a small group of people and bring dinner down to a halfway house in Albuquerque where we live.  The men in the halfway house are all transitioning out of prison.  They live in the house, try to find jobs, and try to get themselves on the right track.  Unfortunately, the whiff of prison never leaves them, and makes getting back to normal difficult if not impossible.  They must always disclose their offenses when applying for jobs and applying for rental housing, which severely limits what's available to them.  They may have lost all of their identification, and therefore must spend hours filling out tedious forms and working their way through the bureaucracy.  They must report to a parole or probation officer regularly, and that officer has full discretion to determine that they are in violation and send them back to prison on a moment's notice.

The jobs they are able to get are often minimum wage jobs, even if they happen to have more advanced training.  The housing that they are able to get is often located in the worst neighborhoods.  Of course, this puts them right back into the very environments that they have been trying to escape.  Or perhaps they are released back into dysfunctional support systems.  It takes one turn of fate, such as a tragedy or accident, or a series of bad days filled with job rejections and hours of tedium in faceless and uncompromising bureaucratic rule, regulations and red tape, or a troublesome character from that bad former life coming back into contact, to send them back on a spiral into the habits and actions that got them into prison in the first place.

We'll see the same thing happen to Shadow.  An unexpected tragedy occurs, and his plans to return to normalcy are dashed.  This tragedy, the death of his wife just days before he is to be released from prison, means his life will never be the same.  Will this tragedy bring him on a circle that leads him back around to prison?

As I mentioned above, sometimes people find themselves in prison.  For Shadow, this tragedy is the opening act of a sort of passion play that will challenge everything he knows about himself.  It will be a journey that not only takes him all ove the map, but to places beyond the map.  Like Odysseus of Greek legend, he will come face-to-face with himself, despite the pulls of mythology old and new.  Shadow will also redefine himself in the process.

If you want to know more about the US prison system and the challenges for ex-convicts

Atlantic Monthly: When They Get Out
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Human Rights Watch World Report 2013: US and prisons
New York Times: After Prison, a Bill to be Paid
Wikipedia: Incarceration in the United States

Next up: Little Rock, Arkansas



Blue Highways: Merrill, Wisconsin

Unfolding the Map

We turn southeast again at Merrill.  I will once again, and for the last time perhaps, address the daughter that I will never have.  This time, I will reflect on children that are unwantedand seen as the cause of their parents' problems.  I hope that some of them make it over the rainbow.  Thank you, all visiting Littourati, for putting up with my need to get all of this off my mind.  Where's Merrill?  Let the map be your guide

Book Quote

"Looking for the land again, I turned east at Merrill....

"'Nana says Angus never forgave us kids for changing his life.  We kept him from becoming a famous writer.  But Nana says it's because he was too scared to really do it on his own...It's all bullshit.  The only way he's big is pushing little people around.'

"'He must have treated you fairly sometimes.'

"'Yeah?  Like he calls us 'hundred-thousand-dollar jerks' because he read that's what it costs to raise a kid.  Or he calls us 'unfeathered, two-legged arguments for abortion....'"

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 12

Downtown Merrill, Wisconsin. Photo by royalbroil and hosted at Wikipedia. Click on photo to go to host site.

Merrill, Wisconsin

This post will be the last in my series of the letter to the daughter I will never have.  Go here to see Part 1 and Part 2.

Letter to
the Daughter
I Will Never Have
(Part 3)

"Thousand dollar jerks."  "Two-legged arguments for abortion."  How people who bring life in the world can so discount their own offspring, so minimize them, so utterly demean them, is infuriating to me.

What makes me angry is that there are so many children that need love and affection, and I am continually left with the question why?  Why are children born into homes that don't want them?  Why do people with attitudes like the father's above even bother to procreate?  It is not only a huge act of irresponsibility to get someone pregnant when you don't even want children, but an even bigger act of irresponsibility to demean them and abuse them once they've been brought into the world.

As a semi-practicing Catholic, the Church tells me that I should believe that abortion is evil.  This is echoed by evangelicals around the U.S.  But what kind of world is a child coming into if he or she is born into a family that doesn't want a child, and who views a child as a cause of problems?  Wouldn't it be better to simply not allow that child to be born?

On the other hand, what kind of world would it be if people can simply abort children when they want to correct their own irresponsibilities?

I try to steer away from that debate, but it seems to me that the answer to the question is to be responsible.  Don't have children if you don't want them.  Use a condom or birth control (another method my Church doesn't condone, but I really don't care).  If you are responsible, and still a pregnancy results, then all parties should consider all options instead of just taking a seemingly easy way out.

What bothers me about the rhetoric that flies around about the abortion debate is the assumptions that are made.  There are assumptions made that if children are not aborted, that the families will want them, or that there are people out there just waiting to adopt.  Maybe, but it's not guaranteed.  Again, I ask, what kind of life is a child consigned to if there are no safety nets to catch newborn babies?  There are also assumptions made that it's just easy for a woman to have sex, get pregnant, and then go and get an abortion.  I know that is not true.  A person would have to be an unfeeling, complete sociopath to not have any emotion about having that procedure.

Yet, it's easy for me to extemporize.  It's easy for me because, in a sense, I've been irresponsible.  In my case, I put off my own wants and desires for children and it has cost me ever conceiving you, or conceiving of you, getting to know you, caring for you, raising you, and loving you.  But at least I am not putting you into harm's way.  Someone else will have you, someone else will raise you, someone else will love you.  At least that is my hope.

I just hope that the persons who raise you want you.  I hope that they don't see you as an impediment to their dreams, but as a dream come true.  I hope that they don't see lost opportunities in your existence, but find the incredible opportunities that arrive and await them because you exist.  I was talking to a coworker who is raising a teenage daughter and he was remarking on the amazing amount of dystopian literature aimed at teenage girls.  It makes sense, because the world is a scary place for girls in the teen years, when they are so vulnerable and still have to be so strong.  The world is dystopian enough for teenage kids.  Why do we have to reinforce that frightening view?  We should be shattering it.

I hope that if I cannot be your father, that wherever you are out there I'll meet you.  I hope that I'll meet you in the park with your mom and dad and that I get to play with you a moment.  I hope that I meet you when, as I hope, I volunteer with an organization like Big Brothers or some other non-profit that matches needy kids with someone who will pay attention to them and provide companionship or mentorship to them. 

Perhaps I've already met you in the myriads of kids with which I've gotten on the ground or floor, suspended my worldly worries, and just gone into their world.  Maybe you've already touched my emotions or for a few moments relieved my sorrow about not having a child, a daughter, of my own.  Maybe I've still yet to meet you.

Yet I know you're out there, and if you aren't to be my child, I can still be a special person to other children.  I can still be someone to which they can become close and get support and friendship.  They just have to find me.  I have a feeling that it will happen.  And when they do, regardless of the reason, they'll know that they are special.  Maybe, in this way, I'll be able to honor you, the daughter I will never have.


Michael Hess
Your Father that Might Have Been

Musical Interlude

Life always throws one curve balls.  I've had a few hit me in the face.  When I get down and melancholy, this particular song, Over the Rainbow, has always given me a reason to keep going.  I remember it touching me when I was young and when I hear it now, I often get tears in my eyes, especially if the singer puts some real emotion into it.  Judy Garland made it her own, then Jane Monheit claimed it, and most recently Israel Kamakawiwo'ole nailed it.  I've loved them all, and I can imagine that a lot of kids in difficult situations wish they, too, could fly over the rainbow.  Pick your favorite, or listen to them all.

If you want to know more about Merrill

Merrill Chamber of Commerce
Merrill Courier (newspaper)
Wikipedia: Merrill

Next up: Green Bay, Wisconsin


Blue Highways: Fifield, Wisconsin

Unfolding the Map

This post will be my second personal "letter to the daughter I will never have" in this series involving William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and a teenage runaway hitchhiker traveling with him to Green Bay.  I'll touch on issues of abuse, based on the quote from Blue Highways.  The ribbons at right represent awareness of child abuse (blue) and sexual abuse (teal).  Fifield can be found by a quick trip to the map.

Book Quote

"At Fifield we went east toward Minocqua...'Can you tell me why you took off?'

"'Angus lost his ass in a taco franchise and things got really bad at home  I mean, you know.  The business got worse, and me and Kevin started catching hell worse.'

"'Who's Angus and Keven?'

"'Black Angus is my dad.  Kevin's my brother.  Anyway, like Angus was losing it.  I mean, he'd always find an excuse to beat up on us like maybe a low grade or using a buttertub lid for a Frisbee in the house, so he'd punch us because he was losing his ass...Anyway, the night his partners and him gave up the franchise, Black Angus's face started twitching like it does when he's tense.  Mom told us to look like we were studying even if we weren't.  God.  Two days later he was trying to parallel park, and Kevin didn't tell him he was getting close to a pole, and Angus dented the fender.  Right there in the shopping center, he starts yelling and slapping Kevin.  Kevin didn't say anything then, but he ran off that night.  He's in New York now, but I'm the only one that knows where.  He's into Hare Krishna."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 12

Fifield, Wisconsin. Photo by Billertl and hosted at Wikipedia. Click on photo to go to host page.

Fifield, Wisconsin

This post will be a continuance of a letter that I am composing to the daughter I wanted to have but, because of life's circumstances and my own inaction, will not.  The catalyst is LHM's rider in Part 7 of Blue Highways, a young girl named Stacie who is running away from home.  If you want to see the first part of my letter, please see my Blue Highways: West of Minong post

Letter to the Daughter
I Will Never Have
(Part 2)

You may wonder why before I made reference to things in my life that I didn't explain more clearly.  Well, it's because I had a hard childhood.  Had you existed, I would have done everything in my power to protect you from any sort of harm so that you could grow up with an unmarred, positive, strong and secure sense of self.  That sense is what I, even at my age, am still trying to develop.

There are lots of broken people in the world.  I am one of them, and it is that brokenness that has also possibly been a reason I was never able to get my act together so that you exist in my life.  The thing I've learned about brokenness is that it hardly ever just spontaneously materializes.  Of course, there are some people who have troubles that get the best of them without any prior exposure.  However, most of the people who are broken were harmed or marred by someone, who was probably harmed or marred by someone before that.  Much of the brokenness can be traced in a remarkably tight and strong chain back through generations.

My story is no different.  Born as the result of an affair, given up for adoption at birth, put into a happy home only to be taken from it when another child was born, put into another home where I was raised and where my adoptive father was an alcoholic and a pedophile.  He taught me many lessons, including that adults did bad things too.  When an adult, the person who says he's your father, tells you that you can't tell your mother what he is doing to you, you know that there is something wrong even if you are only 5 years old.  When you can't tell anyone what is happening to you, and you have a deep, dark secret that can't be shared, you reside in your own special kind of hell.

It's not worth dwelling upon except for the fact that it, and the other family dynamics that swirled like a horrible emotional maelstrom, shaped much of the rest of my life.  I became the fixer, the mediator.  I became very dependent on displays of affection directed at me.  Inside, I felt like I was the worst person in the world.  I felt undeserving of love.  Outside, I lapped up displays of affection whether they were real or not, even though inside I waited for the eventual disappointment and the loneliness.

Thankfully, I didn't get involved in bodily harmful addictions, such as drinking or drugs, to ease my pain.  I didn't become a malicious person, though I've done my share of manipulating.  I did develop a "rescuer" mentality, which meant that I tried to fix other broken people's lives.  It never worked.  Broken people cannot be fixed unless they are willing to be fixed and I was like any other of those people.  I understood what being broken was, but I was unwilling to let people rescue me just as others were unwilling to let me rescue them.

I have gotten into trouble time and time again because of this.  There are broken people who have become malicious, abusive emotional bullies who prey upon broken people who are rescuer types.  They give rescuers false affection, play to their needs, and when the rescuers are hooked into their stories or emotionally invested, the abusers begin to belittle, manipulate and play emotional games in efforts to control them.  Abuse happens to both children and adults, and it takes the same form.  It starts with candy, and ends with bile.

You'd think that adults are better able to guard themselves, but we can't, because often situations or relationships take us back to our childhood desires and fears, and we play out harmful situations over and over again.  I've been there...even recently.  The key to breaking the pattern and therefore breaking the unbroken chains that seem unbreakable is knowing oneself, knowing how one responds to those "triggers," and ultimately being kind and gentle to oneself.  That is what I'm learning to do.

I don't know whether having a child would have helped me earlier in life.  Perhaps I would have discovered what I needed earlier and gotten helpful guidance.  Maybe being childless was something that needed to happen so that I could work on mending myself.

Regardless, I know that if I'd had you, I would have protected you.  You would have never had reason to fear from me.  There would have been no emotional mind-games played upon you.  I would not have manipulated you, or gotten disappointed if you didn't meet some kind of "ideal" that I would have expected of you.  Ultimately, I would have hoped that you would have someday been proud of me and what I came through, and how well I parented you.  I would have reveled in the knowledge that you knew you could talk to me about anything - that there would have been no deep, dark secrets eating away at us and our relationship.  Above all, I would have felt accomplishment in raising a balanced and happy child into adulthood.

Musical Interlude

For a long while, I have been in love with the waifish voice and lovely simple poetry of Suzanne Vega.  I especially resonated with this song, Luka, about an abused child.

If you want to know more about Fifield

Price County: Town of Fifield
Town of Fifield
Wikipedia: Fifield

Next up: Minocqua, Wisconsin