Why I Choose to Remember My 50th Blood-Bath of a Birthday Instead of Trying to Forget It

1915192_319421360359_7173893_n[1] A group of Juggalos

Why I Choose To Remember My 50th Blood-Bath of a Birthday Instead of Trying to Forget It

Looking back, what is the birthday that stands out most in your mind?

How about someone else’s birthday that is especially memorable?

Are they remembered with love or regret?

Laughter or tears?

Why do you remember these birthdays in particular?

On June 6th I will turn 59. Birthdays always make me think back to the ones before. I’ve had some doozies. Especially my 50th. In a perfect world (according to the media and celebrities and self-help gurus), turning fifty should be some sort of meaningful Zen-like epiphany, where you realize how wise you have become; you should be pleased because you are still in great shape; you have saved enough in a steady job to be looking forward to retirement, and/or those alimony checks are substantial because you weren’t one of those stupid women who signed a pre-nup; and maybe you even have a loving relationship with someone who gives you sizzling-hot sex…. You know, “fifty is the new thirty,” and all of that.

I only fulfilled one of those achievements: I was in pretty good shape. Otherwise, I was nowhere near where I thought I should be at such an advanced age. Instead of lying in bed beside a wonderful lover, or even just a warm body, by midnight of my 50th birthday, I was standing in a dingy apartment, covered in someone else’s blood and wondering what to do about it.

The day started okay. I went to a lovely, exceedingly Zen-like wedding, and a reception that was held in an exclusive gated community in Calabasas with a breathtaking view of the Santa Monica Mountains. I was high above the messy streets and dressed perfectly for the occasion, wearing a little black and white number that hugged my hips and ended discreetly just above my knees, a string of pearls about my neck, a Kate Spade purse and Stuart Weitzman heels, all carefully preserved leftovers from life before the divorce. I looked good on the outside, and I was sure none of these successful people who lived in the clouds would ever suspect how worried I was inside, as a single mother, struggling to raise three children in an apartment down on the flats of the San Fernando Valley. For a few hours, I drank champagne and danced and forgot my troubles.

Then, I went home, close to midnight, and the phone rang.

It was the mother of a friend of my eldest son and she sounded hysterical. There was a young man in her home that had been stabbed and she didn’t know what to do. She’d bandaged him up as best she could but he refused to go to the hospital.

“I can’t have him dying here,” she said. This mother was a recovering heroin addict and the last thing she wanted was the police on her doorstep. I don’t say that as some sort of judgment, I say it to explain why she was so nervous. She was a good person. She loved her son like most mothers do. She wanted to do the right thing, and mostly, she tried her best under challenging circumstances.

So, what did I do? What I always do when I get calls like that. I got in my car and drove over to where she lived in a small apartment complex in Sherman Oaks. Of course, I first changed out of my perfect outfit into workout pants, t-shirt, running shoes and a hoodie, all black as the night. I wish I could say I felt like a superhero donning my fighting clothes, well I did sort of because I have a sense of humor and a good imagination, and I did feel prepared for the fight, however it might present itself.

The mother answered the door, put the leash on her dog and walked out, saying she needed a break. That was the last I saw of her that night.

Okay. The young man was standing in the middle of the living room swaying and delirious, from drugs or loss of blood, probably both. He was shirtless and there were bandages wrapped around him like a mummy. A lot of blood had seeped through. The place looked like a crime scene. My son and a few of his friends were sitting lined up on the sofa, scared and immobilized.

I hated the direction my son was going, hanging out with Juggalos and wanting to be one. If you, Dear Reader, don’t know what a Juggalo is, I won’t bother explaining. Suffice it to say that you don’t want to know, unless you are unlucky enough to have a kid who thinks he or she wants to be one, then you will have no choice but to find out. On the other hand, I do believe that they are misunderstood in a lot of ways and I would like to write more about them. I don’t believe they are a gang so much as a kind of cult, believing in something called the “Dark Carnival” and appealing to the poor and outcasts who really cannot find anywhere else to belong. My son was and is a  talented artist and writer and I understood his fascination with the dark side. I love him and have faith in him and respect his desire to be true to his art. Being an artist myself, I understand how painful is the road of raw self-expression and I admire the brutal courage that it takes to be true to one’s art.

I didn’t like the young man with the stab wounds, although such a reaction to him made me feel guilty. I worked with youth in juvenile hall who were no different from this young man. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, but if I was honest, then I had to acknowledge that it was easy to care about those who were locked up because I could walk away and they did not invade my day to day life. If I really wanted to live what I claimed I believed, then I had to care about those people who smashed into my safe world and threatened to turn it upside down. Or did I–certainly I was allowed to draw the line somewhere? This was a complex question and certainly there were boundaries that needed to be observed, I just wasn’t sure exactly what they were.

This young man, known as Popeye, was a few years older than my son and his friends. As impressionable teenage boys, they thought Popeye was the shit. I don’t know why. Calling yourself Popeye, that right there, should throw up a red flag. He wasn’t especially smart,  and he certainly didn’t have a nice temperament. He was a small-time criminal with a serious drug problem who thought he was some kind of prophet with a special dispensation from God. He enjoyed quoting the Bible, except that he quoted it all wrong. The thing is, he had charisma. In fact, in a way, he reminded me of a stunted Charles Manson. Sometimes, when he came to my house, he would look at me with an intensity that I knew he used on my son and others and was trying to use on me. He was practicing his style, trying to grow into his “calling” as a leader of the lost and downtrodden. But it fell flat with me. I saw through him, as I saw through those in the boardroom who tried to manipulate me in ways that I saw as perversely similar. Popeye reminded me of countless puffed up pastors, entertainment executives, corporate leaders and politicians I had met, except he hadn’t been given the education or even the “luck” that they had. No matter if the domain is the streets or the churches or city hall, those who feed off of power seem to share the same psychological profile, except that the well-heeled are clearly more dangerous due to their access to resources that can cause havoc and destruction on a world scale. Nobody ever stops them, however, because those who are further down the ladder are way too desperate to climb up a few pegs, grasp at a few more crumbs, fool themselves into believing that they can be powerful too, if they just kiss the right person’s ass. And oh, how the powerful use that hunger to their advantage.

I well know these worlds within worlds, and that night, I crossed, as I have done so often, from the world of the elite into the world of the downtrodden; these worlds that seem so very different on the surface, one dirty and dangerous, the other pristine and filled with opportunity. But the underlying horrors are the same. For example, on the one hand you have Juggalos, a despised and ridiculed bunch, and on the other hand you have fraternities and the god-like status of athletes. Might I suggest reading John Krakauer’s Missoula to find out more about that gruesome culture?

But back to the nightmare of Popeye’s life. He had been stabbed seven times while attempting to enter a house to attend a party. Apparently, someone took offense at his Juggalo tattoos and attacked him with a knife. Popeye kept on fighting, not realizing he was being stabbed, until someone pulled him away and pointed it out to him. Somehow, he had made his way to this apartment.

The mother had been correct in saying that Popeye was refusing to go to the hospital. Even though he wasn’t the perpetrator on this occasion, he was on probation and was afraid of being sent back to jail. And he held such sway with these kids that none of them dared to try and make him go, even though he appeared to be dying right in front of their faces.

“So you’d rather die?” I asked Popeye.

He smirked at that, ever the tough guy. He seemed to think he would be just fine if he could have a few minutes to lie down, which he did, except he fainted, his skin turning a scary gray color. That was when I ordered my son and his friends to help me drag him out of the apartment, get him in the car and to the hospital.

As it turns out, one of the knife wounds had pierced his lung and he was bleeding inside. He would have surely died if he hadn’t made it to the hospital in time. Instead, he lived to cause more trouble. Not long after that, I heard that he leapt out of a moving car on the freeway and almost got himself killed… again. Then, he assaulted a woman at an ATM machine, kidnapped her and ended up in prison for a very long time. I have to say I am not sorry that he is off the streets and out of my son’s life. He is a dangerous and unpredictable person who caused a lot of harm. And yet, I had a profound encounter with him that goes beyond the physical and enters the realm of the spiritual. I saved his life. I cannot help but pray that he is receiving the psychological care that he needs but chances are he isn’t.

As much as this memory might be considered horrible, it happened to me because I am the kind of person that those in need feel they can call on. I don’t say this with any kind of pride. In fact, I often wonder if I am not just a naïve sucker. I can’t help it, though. It is the way I was made, I guess. And going around helping people doesn’t mean that you necessarily get a prize for it or that the result is a happy ending. Nobody would have given me a prize or helping Popeye. He was a person who could well have gone on to kill someone or himself. And indeed, he did something almost as bad.

But we don’t know the future and so we can only do what we think is right in any given moment. And there have been plenty such moments in my life. And even if I had known the outcome ahead of time, it wouldn’t have changed my decision to do what I felt compelled to do.

Which leads me to my memory of someone else’s birthday. Because thinking of my 50th always leads me to think of my friend Silvia’s 18th. It was on that day that she was sentenced to twenty-five years to life for a murder committed by her older, abusive boyfriend. And there I was, in the courtroom, unable to change her fate.

In 1995 I went into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and started teaching creative writing as a volunteer to a group of girls who were facing life sentences for serious crimes. One of those girls was Silvia. I worked with her for three years and attended her trial, taking forty-five pages of notes. I wanted to see a trial for myself, and I picked hers because it was the most extreme and I had become close to her. I had decided that by the end of the trial I would either walk away from this difficult work, or I would make a commitment to it for the long term. After what I saw at Silvia’s trial, I was more determined than ever to do what I could to help these young people make their voices heard. And so, InsideOUT Writers was born, with the help of many incredible people.

At Silvia’s trial it was never determined that she knew a murder was going to occur. But she was there when it happened, on Dockweiller Beach, planes screaming overhead as they took off and landed at LAX. Silvia had walked away, angry at her boyfriend because he asked her to flirt with the victim so he could steal the guy’s car stereo. The others were down by the water and Silvis headed back towards the car. She turned around to see the victim falling and not getting up again. Afterwards, her boyfriend threatened that he would harm her brother, Cesar, who was mentally ill, if she didn’t keep silent. Having been abused for years, she wasn’t about to disobey his orders. I could relate to this since I had been in two abusive marriages, was still in the middle of the second one during her trial, and feeling depressed that I hadn’t learned my lesson the first time around. Silvia’s writing spoke to me in a powerful way. Mostly, she wrote about how she had allowed herself to get into abusive relationships and what she needed to do to get out of them. She went on a journey in her writing and I went with her and that journey culminated with her trial. I had entered juvenile hall with the desire to help these girls. Never did I imagine how much they, in turn, would help me to face the truth of my own life.

Seated with me at Silvia’s sentencing was the woman with whom I had started InsideOUT Writers, Sister Janet Harris, and a private investigator who was considered by many to be the foremost authority on the death penalty phase, Casey Cohen. These two extraordinary people were my best friends and mentors. I had contacted Antonio Villaraigosa about Silvia’s case. At that time, he was Speaker of the House of Representatives, before he went on to become mayor. He had put a piece of Silvia’s writing up on the wall in his office and sent a representative to speak on his behalf at her sentencing, a young man named Jimmy Blackman. But it hadn’t mattered.

On Silvia’s eighteenth birthday, despite the lack of evidence, despite the fact that she did not represent any threat to society, Judge JD Smith sentenced her to twenty-five years to life.

“I could have given you life without parole,” he told the girl with the long black hair, fading tattoos and eyes that were now hopeless instead of angry. “You should thank me.”

Silvia said nothing. She didn’t know that he actually, literally, meant that she should thank him. She was in the process of getting the tattoos removed. Besides the tear drops beneath her eye, she had been branded by her boyfriend in many places on her body, and then there was the 213 on her knuckles, the last tattoo Gerardo had made on the night of the murder. I had managed to get a court order from Judge Smith allowing her to stay in juvenile hall until the tattoo removal was completed. She would end up staying there until her twentieth birthday, I believe an all-time record for a juvenile offender.

Judge JD Smith was a big, tough white guy, white hair and a florid complexion that grew redder after lunch. His face was positively crimson after he’d told Silvia to thank him and she hadn’t, perceiving her lack of response as insolence. “I said you should thank me,” he bellowed.

Silvia turned in confusion to her lawyer, who nodded that she should obey.

“Thank you,” she said, her head bowed and in a barely audible voice.

“What?”

“Thank you,” she said louder.

He nodded, satisfied.

And that was the end of Silvia. I had been so angry at the belligerent man but years later I realized that his hands had been tied and how I saw him at the trial represented my own hurt and frustration, because he really had done the only thing he could do to help her. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone in that courtroom wanted to see Silvia in jail for life, not even the prosecutor. But she was no one important in the greater scheme of things and she hadn’t stood up for herself when given the chance. She had refused to take the deal offered by the prosecution out of fear of Gerardo and so there was nothing anyone could do.

Removing the tattoos was a cleansing ritual for Silvia as at each painful session, more and more of the ink was drawn out of her body.

“It burns my skin, it really hurts,” she told to me. “But I can feel the ink going out and it’s like the poison that he infected me with is going out too.”

The State showered Silvia with honors before locking her up forever, choosing her as Valedictorian and then crowning her prom queen at the graduation for her winning essay, “Moving into the21st Century,” written about her plans to attend college, as if she were a free young woman instead of a convicted murderer. At the prom, a picture was taken of her, me and her date, all of us smiling happily. Pictures were taken of each of the youths dressed in their finery, standing in front of a limo that would never drive them anywhere. The party was held in the juvenile hall gym, decorated with balloons and streamers, a band playing. The LA Times even wrote an article about it. A bizarre party where Cinderella’s dress turned back into rags, but with a hopelessness that would never have a happy ending.

Nothing lasts forever. Life comes and then it goes, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, like the ocean tide, big and angry, small and intimate, continually turning from one thing into something else and back again. Silvia left suddenly, before her tattoo removal had been completed and I never understood why. Fifteen years later, visiting her at Chowchilla Women’s prison she told me.

“I was getting too old to be there. The pressure was too much to be the wise old lady, you know?” She shrugged. There was more there, I was sure but it was a world I really could never fully understand.

When it came time to say good-bye, we looked at one another with real, deep love, tinged by sadness. I was always having to leave her and I wished so badly that I could just take her out. Like an angel, like what happened to the Apostle Paul. But that was just a fantasy.

Saying good-bye to Silvia was always painful and the time came when I stopped visiting her because I just couldn’t take it anymore, for various reasons beyond what I can write here. But I will go again. I can’t stay away forever. I will never forget the day of our most momentous good-bye, when Silvia left juvenile hall for the “Big House.” We hugged each other in front of the chapel, the place where I had first met Janet and poured out my heart to her about my dreams to work with incarcerated youth. I couldn’t believe that it was really happening. I’d had such faith in words. I had been raised to believe in their power, by an evangelical father who was a successful writer. “In the beginning was the Word…” That verse had been pounded into my mind from a young age. Yet, my speech, so carefully prepared for Silvia’s sentencing, hadn’t done anything to save her. I had truly thought that if I could find the right words and say them with enough conviction all would be clarified, the judge and the jury would see the light and a miracle would occur. But there was no miracle, only the wheels of fate relentlessly turning with each one of us playing a small part in a bigger story, with my individual actions having absolutely no impact.

“Not on the system,” Casey told me. “But one individual can influence the life of another. Always remember that, Karen. Don’t become obsessed with the political circus and the powerful in society.” He visibly shuddered. “It’s an enticing world but a completely corrupt one, which, perversely, is much of its appeal.”

Casey impacted my life more than anyone else I have ever known. The last time I saw him, we were standing in the parking lot behind “attorney to the stars,” Charlie English’s law offices, above the bluffs of Ocean Avenue. By then, his clothes hung lose on a gaunt frame, cheeks sunken, eyes haunted and avoiding mine. He was dying of cancer. We were about to get in our cars and go our separate ways, just as we had always done, just as people were doing all around us in a normal, everyday manner.

He made his usual joking observation, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this, in parking lots and at crime scenes,” only this time, his words were choking him. “We should be going to a concert together, or shopping, how about shopping? No, what am I talking about? We should be on some small island in the South Pacific, lying on the warm sand, catching and cooking our own fish, drinking rum in some open-air bar on stilts, the ocean lapping beneath us, walking on water, we should be walking on water.”

“Only in dreams,” I murmured.

Yes, only in dreams…. And in remembrances of birthdays.

And now, here I am coming up to 59 and these are my memories, the powerful experiences that I think about in these days leading up to that moment when I magically make it to another number in a long line of numbers. The looking forward can only get shorter and the looking back can only get longer. But the memories don’t change. Not the ones that have been embedded so strongly in the mind. Casey is gone and I miss him every day. Silvia is still here, yet I miss her the same.

I think of Silvia and I think of my own son. Impressionable teenagers, preyed upon by older people who used them to feed their own egos. I understand. I have been there, too. Who hasn’t? And people like Gerardo and Popeye, those who feed upon the weak, what are their stories? What birthdays do they remember? Once they, too, were young and weak, preyed upon by those more powerful than themselves, and so they learned to do the same. The world is a place of eating or being eaten.

I don’t teach in juvenile hall anymore and it is a long story why. But those years left a lasting impression on me. After every class I would take the writing home and type it up, the words of the girls searing me as surely as those tattoos seared Silvia. Opening the folder where I kept the girls’ writing, I always looked first at what Silvia had to say, wanting to hear her voice, contemplating how it applied to me:

Me, Gerardo and Marisol were outside a friend’s house when my friend was talking and Gerardo got mad and was telling her to shut up but she was so dingy, she just kept on talking. So he took a knife and Marisol was sitting on the sidewalk and he threw the knife at her and she screamed so he kept throwing the knife at her. Then he saw me standing by the tree and he threw the knife at me and I got scared but I didn’t say nothing.

There was this lady who sells corn passing by and she asked me what my boyfriend was doing and I told her he was playing. She looked at me like I was crazy. But everyone thought I was. So she was just another person thinking I was crazy to be playing with a man who plays with knives.

Common sense should tell a girl to stay away from a man who uses her as a dartboard. Still, incredible as it may seem, it can happen to anyone if the circumstances are right. It’s easy when you’re on the outside looking in to say that a girl is crazy, that she should just get out. Or that my son should understand to stay away from a delusional criminal who quotes the Bible all wrong. Or, that a mother should be able to keep her son safe from evil.

But when you’re the one in the middle of the maze you can’t imagine the possibility of escape. Once, on the streets of London, my first husband kicked me repeatedly like I was a mangy dog and a man passing by reached out in distress, offering to help me. My husband turned on him in a mad fury and the man retreated. I stood in terror, shaking my head and mouthing no, no at the man, praying that he would just go away. It never occurred to me that I could go away with him. The only result I could imagine from his misplaced kindness was for me to suffer even worse abuse when I got home. Because I would follow my husband home, wouldn’t I? I always meekly walked into my prison and allowed him to lock me in.

If I ever tried to argue with either of my husbands, they would say “Don’t fight me.” The message was clear—you have no right. You are a woman and I am a man. I have power and you do not. That is the way of this world. Don’t upset the balance. But even in those dark days I wondered, why? Why can’t a woman, or anyone who is oppressed for that matter, stand up the way the powerful do? Don’t the oppressed have just as much right to be tough and strong, to speak freely without fear? Yes, they have the right, they just don’t have a way to be heard—and if they do happen to be heard, they must quickly be suppressed or discredited so that no one actually listens.

I went on to free myself as best I could. It took many years and I am still in the process. At the age of thirty I started training in martial arts and learned how to walk tall and without fear. I now teach boxing and kick boxing and self-defense to women and children at a gym called Tarzana Boxing. If anyone would have told me in my first marriage that I would be doing such a thing in my fifties and that I would be in the best shape of my life, I would have said they were insane.

The girls in my writing sessions never stopped wanting fighting lessons and I repeatedly had to remind them that it wasn’t allowed.

“Every girl should be able to do that,” they would say wistfully.

I remember one girl, Elizabeth, slamming the table with a fist and saying to me, “Damn, woman, you’re dangerous—a Dangerous Woman.”

I always hugged each of them good-bye; those condemned young women whose tough facades had been stripped away at the writing table, revealing fearful little girls who passively did what they were told because they never knew they could do otherwise. I understood exactly how they felt.

And that is why, when I got the phone call from that hysterical mother on my 50th birthday, I didn’t hesitate, but went out my door and into the world of suffering and danger in the flatlands of the San Fernando Valley. Honestly, I feel more comfortable in that world than in the shiny one on top of the mountain. At least on the street there is a certain honesty to the crimes, while in the clouds, the hypocrisy is as thick as a London fog.

This birthday, I will be in Ojai, relaxing and writing for a couple of days. That’s the plan, anyway, and maybe it will turn out like that and maybe it won’t. That’s what makes life interesting. I don’t regret those memories. There is sadness, there is pain, but I hold onto them as experiences that have given meaning to my life.

No doubt, there will be more to come.

Istanbul, I love you

10559924_10154442045450360_355461431324110895_n[1]Just returned from five weeks traveling to Lake Bled, Slovenia; Vienna, Austria; Lausanne, Switzerland; and Istanbul, Turkey. I spent two weeks in Istanbul, staying in a penthouse flat near the Galata Tower with a view of the Bosporus from the terrace. I went there to finish writing the last chapter of my book, Letters from Purgatory. Istanbul is where it all begins and where it all ends. I fell in love with Istanbul and want to go back. September 1st an excerpt from Letters, called Death Row Dance, will be published in The Adirondack Review. I can’t wait to share it!

CONFESSIONS OF A ONE-TIME MURDERER

Why do we humans torture and kill? Oh, it’s one thing to kill in a moment of passion or for survival. But to concoct a simple or an elaborate plan, analyzing and calculating with cold-blood precision the best and most efficient ways in which to take the life of a single individual or of a million. Where does that urge come from? Why do we like to watch it endlessly and pretend we are doing it ourselves in games? And then, what makes us turn the idea of killing–the tantalizing fantasy of it in our minds–into reality?  

I have felt that detached curiosity, that heady grip of power over another. I have taken that leap and experimented through actions. I have tortured and murdered. I did it once. And then I stopped. But why did I stop–because some people don’t. Some people keep on going.   

In the two-storied house my family had animals. I was five when we moved there and I hardly remember the house before that one. It had been in the country, near Merced, and there had been a big field in the back with cows. When we moved to the two-storied house in Los Angeles, Dad wanted to bring the country with him. He loved animals. Mom didn’t. Actually, she liked them well enough as long as they were in the wild where they belonged and not in our house. Although, now that I think about it, Mom would have loved to have a lamb if it would have stayed little and cute and never grown up. Or maybe a goat because they eat anything and they might have eaten some of the other animals, which would have made Mom happy.

But we didn’t have a goat or a baby lamb. We had geese and ducks, chickens and roosters, a guinea pig, a cat and a German Shepherd named General. The geese and ducks were ill-tempered and made big splats all over the backyard, which I hated as much as Mom did. They lived in a pen at the way back of the yard but Dad liked to let them out so they could run around and flap their wings. At the end of the day it was nearly impossible to catch them. They were almost as big as me and would bite if I came near. When I waved my arms and stomped my feet, trying to herd them towards the cage, they backed up for a second, but then they’d realize my plan and hiss and spit and come at me worse than ever, like zombies from a horror movie. I always ended up running away, crying.

Dad was the only one with authority over the animals. He’d shake his head at our feeble attempts, give a command and a whistle and somehow or other, amazingly, they obeyed. Much as Janna and I tried to imitate exactly what he did, it never worked for us.

None of the animals belonged to me. I thought when we got the guinea pig that maybe it could be mine but the first time I touched it I found out I was allergic. My sinuses closed up and I couldn’t breathe. My skin became covered in itchy bumps and my eyes swelled shut. It was horrific. After that, I used to stare at the guinea pig in its cage and wonder what it had against me. Whereas before it had looked sweet and cuddly, it now looked sinister and monstrous, beady little eyes staring back at me with malicious intent.

One day, my older sister Janna came home with a mouse. I don’t know how she got so lucky but she did, and I didn’t, which seemed to be the story of my life. The mouse was adorable. It was brown with a twitching nose and whiskers and bright, lively eyes. Janna named it Jasper. She kept it in a cage by the back porch and she loved to take it out and play with it.

I asked if I could, too, but Janna refused.

“Baby!” she said. “If you touch Jasper I’ll kill you!”

I hated being called a baby. I didn’t mind being threatened with death. Of course my sister would never actually kill me.

One afternoon when Janna wasn’t home, I took Jasper out of its cage and went into the family room with it. I sat on a chair and looked at the mouse. It was wriggly and nervous. It wouldn’t stay still. I hadn’t realized how wriggly and nervous a mouse could be and I worried, on no, what if it does get away, Janna really will kill me.

The mouse climbed up my arm and tickled my chin. I put it back on my lap. It climbed up again and I put it back again. It wouldn’t stay still. I held it a little tighter. It wriggled furiously, right out of my grasp and onto the floor, immediately trying to scurry off. I grabbed it and the little creature twisted like a contortionist, back-flipping out of my hands and down to the floor. I quickly grabbed it again.

“Bad Jasper,” I said, squeezing tighter.

It wouldn’t stop wriggling, so I decided to punish the mouse and teach it a lesson. I dropped it on the ground and then picked it up before it could get away.

I continued to do this, dropping the mouse and picking it up again. As I did, I became acutely aware of how delicate the mouse was, how tiny and vulnerable. I marveled at how perfectly it fit inside my hand, which was small because I was small.

But the mouse was much smaller and more vulnerable than me. Before holding the mouse, I’d felt like the most vulnerable person in the world. But here was something much more vulnerable. It had a little heart that beat in such a frantic way, I was sure it would burst right out of the mouse’s chest. It had bones that could crack; teeny, tiny bones thinner than twigs, maybe even as thin as straight pins. It had flesh that could be cut and blood that could flow from the inside out. When I squeezed the mouse, I felt how the little body yielded to my strength and power.

Once again, I dropped the mouse on the ground and watched as it tried to run away. Then I grabbed it, squeezed a little harder… and dropped it again. I kept doing this, watching dispassionately, and after a while the mouse didn’t try to get away so quickly anymore and then, it hardly moved at all, just feebly fell on its side, its legs not working and splayed at odd angles.

Eventually, it didn’t move at all.

At that point, the mouse felt different in my hands. No more twitching whiskers, no more beating heart, no more squirming body, just a limp and lifeless ball of fur. The body now felt terribly heavy, an unnatural heaviness that was out of proportion to its little size. Its eyes darted no more, just stared, empty black holes with the light forever gone.

How was it possible that a few minutes before the mouse had been filled with life, absolutely filled with it, and now, the life was gone? What had happened?

I had a sudden realization. I had done this! I had taken the life away.

In that moment, a sort of evil came to me. I might have only been five, but I understood that I had the power of a god and it was a heady, delightfully sinister feeling, that feeling of power, the power to inflict pain and even death on another.

It wasn’t that I, myself, was evil. It’s impossible to know exactly what evil is. You can’t say, “Here is evil,” in the same way you say, “Here is a cat.”

Evil isn’t a thing. It’s not like you can find evil at a certain location, as if someone could say, “Okay, just drive down this street, up that hill and around the bend and there it will be, you can’t miss it—a cloud of evil by the side of the road.”

You can’t order a cup of evil. You can’t rub it on your body like lotion or eat it like bread.

Evil isn’t a person, either. People think of Satan as evil, and yes, Satan is evil—if you believe in Satan, that is. But, still, Satan isn’t EVIL.

Evil’s a word, just like truth, justice, love, and hate. And who knows exactly what they are, either?

Nobody knows, not really. Nobody knows if any of those words actually exist apart from we who have created them.

So, that afternoon, holding the dead mouse in my hand, I felt surrounded by evil and the desire to let it enter me, fueled by the heady feelings of power and control that killing the mouse had aroused.

At the same time, I felt horror and guilt—not that I’d taken a life, because that reality hadn’t yet sunk in, but that I might be found out by my sister.

And then, the most terrorizing realization of all made my insides churn uncontrollably. My parents would find out!

And this was where the real horror of my actions began to sink in. First, with fear for myself because of the consequences I would surely suffer when my crime was discovered. I hadn’t known it was a crime until I’d realized there were consequences that went with it. Consequences beyond myself, because what I’d done affected not only the mouse (it was undeniably dead and had probably suffered pain) but also my sister, since she would be mad at me and heart-broken to have lost her mouse.

Then, there were my parents who would be disappointed that I’d not only killed the mouse but that I’d hurt my sister. Most importantly, I had disobeyed a command not to take the mouse out of its cage. Because of my disobedience, disaster had fallen upon me and my family.

That was about when I looked at the limp form of the mouse and was hit with a sudden epiphany and I thought, with a whole new understanding, “I killed Jasper!”

The mouse was dead, the life gone, and I could never repair the wrong. Or maybe I could?

I shook the mouse, talked to it, pleaded with it to wake up, come back to life. But it just lay there.

I didn’t actually know why it was so terrible that the mouse was dead. During the act of killing it, I couldn’t deny that I’d felt some kind of pleasure, the pleasure of power.

About ten years ago I founded a creative writing program for incarcerated youth. The kids in the program made all kinds of interesting confessions in the course of their writing. One teenage boy talked about how as a child he’d enjoyed chopping worms with a Swiss Army knife.

When I asked him why, he simply said, “Power.”

He liked the feeling it gave him.

Eventually, though, he stopped doing it. When I asked him why, he couldn’t articulate a reason.

Then I asked him, “What would have happened if you’d decided to keep cutting up worms, maybe moved on to bigger things?”

He grinned knowingly. “Then I’d be a psychopathic killer!”

Most people decide to curb those feelings of pleasure and power that they get from killing. I don’t know if it’s because of that process of thinking—the fear of retribution or of being an outcast, because really you can’t have a society where everyone is going around wantonly killing each other. There have to be rules to the killing game.

Or perhaps it’s because we know, even from a very young age, that this is the path of madness, the path towards the center of evil and once we let evil in so completely, it controls us and we lose control of ourselves.

The thing is, we do kill and it is a part of us. In fact, on this planet, every species kills. Humans think up ways to kill that we can justify. People don’t dare say they’re killing for pleasure. They have to say it’s for necessity.

How twisted it is to commit murderous acts and then justify them to ourselves because we know that what we’ve done is depraved and yet we do it anyway. We can watch death and torture in a movie or act it out in a virtual world and feel the pleasure and the power because it isn’t “real,” it isn’t us doing it, even though we are feeling it and living it vicariously. So we justify these terrible acts to ourselves and get rid of the urge by watching it or by waging wars in far away countries that we can feel righteous in supporting because they are “necessary” and we are on the “right side.”

As soon as I realized I’d killed the mouse, I started rationalizing what I’d done inside my head. I started telling myself I hadn’t known what I was doing. It wasn’t my fault. The mouse had kept trying to get away. I had merely been doing my best to keep it safe. It was the mouse’s own fault for being so disobedient. It hadn’t paid any attention to me. I had tried to warn it by squeezing it just a little bit and telling it not to run away and it had still kept running.

There, in front of me, lay the evidence. Staring at the dead mouse, I thought, “What will I do with the body?”

Could I hide it, say it had run away? If I did, how would I explain that it was out of the cage? No one would ever believe it had escaped on its own without me having taken it out.

Okay, then, I would put it back in the cage and just leave it there. Then, when Janna discovered it she would assume it had died of natural causes. It would be sad, but no one would blame me and no one would ever have to know the truth.

So, I put the mouse back in the cage, relieved that no one had seen me take it out and no one saw me put it back. I was safe.

Janna came home and the first thing she did was go to the cage, eager to take out her new mouse and play with it. Her scream traveled all the way upstairs to our room where I was acting innocent and unconcerned, playing with dolls. I didn’t really like playing with dolls very much, but I was playing industriously that afternoon. The next thing I knew, Janna had burst through the door and was demanding that I tell her what had happened.

I tried to self-righteously deny that I’d had anything to do with the death of the mouse. I lied, putting on my very best lying face and using my very best lying voice. She believed none of it. I began to feel offended. How dare she accuse me in such a mean fashion? In my self-righteous indignation, I almost began to believe my own lie.

But then, Dad came home from work and what was always my greatest fear happened: he looked me in the eyes and told me to tell the truth.

None of us children, when looked in the eyes like that by our dad and told to tell the truth, could ever look back and tell a lie. My cheeks grew red with shame and before I could stop myself, I was crying uncontrollably and blurting it all out and the relief of the confession was like a wave of cool water washing over a fevered body.

I pleaded for Janna to forgive me and my parents insisted that she did. And eventually, when we began to plan the funeral of the mouse and Janna took charge, imagining the drama of the ceremony, she really did forgive me and we became friends again. We made a coffin out of a shoe box and my mom sewed a little blanket for the mouse to lie on. We picked flowers and placed them inside and put the mouse in the center of the box. We invited all the neighborhood children and they arrived with condolences, solemn and sympathetic. We set the coffin up on some bricks, like an altar, in the backyard and everyone viewed the body. We gave speeches about the mouse and how we’d loved it and what a good mouse it had been, noble and well-behaved.

This, I knew, had not been the case since the mouse would still have been alive if it had just obeyed and not tried to run away, however, it wasn’t right to speak ill of the dead and so I agreed that it had, indeed, been an exceptionally well-behaved mouse. Then we cried and wailed and rang our hands. We said a prayer for the mouse, put it into the earth and Janna threw a handful of dirt on the coffin. We filled up the hole, put a cross made of two twigs tied together at the head of the mound and that was it.

I never killed again.

Well, except for bugs. Anytime I see a fly I kill it. And I’ve eaten my fair share of dead animals—cows, chickens, pigs, baby lambs, goats, all the acceptable ones. That is until I realized that our modern society murders animals in far more tortuous ways than what I did to the mouse.

But apparently, it’s not evil to torture and kill animals if it’s done inside government sanctioned facilities.

Because anything that is accepted as normal by the majority of society isn’t evil, it’s good.

Right?

For eight years I was married to a Slovenian “rock star” and lived back and forth between London and a small village in Slovenia (but that’s a whole other story). Life in the village was very different from how I’d grown up in Los Angeles. People kept chickens in their backyards, for eggs and for food. Only no one really liked having to ring the chickens necks. Except for one feisty old lady who lived a few houses down from us. Whenever a neighbor wanted to kill a chicken they called Urska and she did it quite happily, for free. The creepy thing was that years earlier, Urska’s husband had hung himself in the attic. He was the only person in the village that anyone could remember ever committing suicide.

I used to think about that–Urska’s husband hanging by his neck, neck broken, just how Urska liked to break the necks of the chickens. Did she get the irony of the situation? It didn’t seem like it. She wasn’t self conscious at all. She didn’t apologize or act embarrassed. She was proud of her ability. Really enjoyed it.

Had Urska perhaps driven her husband to suicide? Or had she rung his neck herself, and then made it look like suicide? I would never know.

But it was like Urska had found her calling, killing those chickens. I couldn’t have done it. Nobody else in the village wanted to. But they sure were relieved that she did. They found her strange, thought of her as a bit crazy. But they appreciated using her services.

In kindergarten, I encountered kids who loved nothing more than to knock stuff down. I would no sooner finish building a tower out of blocks, carefully and with great pride placing the last block on the tip top, and a kid would come along and smash it, just swing his or her arm with total delight, or kick it down and sometimes even stomp on the blocks to ensure irreparable destruction. I didn’t dare try to stop them. If I did, they would most likely turn from stomping on the blocks to stomping on me. It was always the same kids. The Destroyers.

In this world, there are Builders and Destroyers. What would happen if the Builders just kept on building without anyone ever tearing the towers down? Eventually, the entire universe would be filled with towers of blocks, until we ran out of them. If you look at it that way, then the Destroyers are very necessary. They just need to be polite about it. Say and do it in a manner that is acceptable by society. Destroyers come along and tear things down, bring things back to neutral. They take great satisfaction in doing this, just as much as the Builders take in creating.

What would happen if nobody ever died? As far as I can see, that would be a disaster. The necessity of death and destruction is a terrible lesson for a child to learn. Good and evil relentlessly balancing each other out. I’m not even sure if we choose which way we’re going to go—left or right, up or down; to Build or to Destroy.

That day, I think I made a choice, although it was probably inevitable. I had tasted evil and while I found it intoxicating, I also found it to be terribly wrong. And since acceptance in my family and in society is determined by me making the right choices, I turned away from evil, resolving to follow the path of good.

I even made a sort of restitution as an adult by publishing a series of books about cute little mice titled The Rumpoles and The Barleys, which I wrote and illustrated.

            But I still wonder why I ever did such a thing in the first place. Why do we humans feel pleasure from cruel acts?

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