359: Life After Death
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David says there are only two ways to see it. Either he succeeded in inviting the devil into a church camp in Wisconsin or he didn't. It was right around this time of year. David was 12. Back home in Sheboygan, he went to a religious school. It was pretty strict, fundamentalist. And one summer night around the campfire he and his friends started talking about all these supernatural things they had heard of.
Not just ghost stories, but have you ever used a Ouija board? Do you believe in that stuff? And then stories of like, my friend-- Whatever it was, like oh, they were using a juice glass for the Ouija board, and it filled with smoke while they were doing it, you know? Just sort of scaring ourselves and--
Right, which is one of the best parts of camp.
Right. And then the next thing I remember is we all went to sleep. And I woke up in the middle of the night. I don't know if I was half in a dream, or what. But I heard what I thought was something flying over the cabin, this sort of like, whoosh. And in my mind-- with all of the conversation that had gone on earlier in the evening-- I thought it was the devil, that all this talk had somehow opened up some door, like if you use a Ouija board you can bring spirits.
And I knew my friend had a crucifix that he had brought with him, this sort of three inch metal crucifix. And I woke him up. And I said, can I have that crucifix?
Somehow-- and I know you'll be shocked to hear this-- they all survived that night safely. And the next morning when they all went to the showers, David told the other guys about the sound that he had heard in the middle of the night. And they all laughed at him. And later that morning, coming back from sailing, he was going to the cabin to change out of his swimsuit right before lunch. And he sees this storm rolling in.
And my mind was still full of these ideas of Ouija boards, and the supernatural, and the devil, and all that stuff. And first of all, I started imagining this storm as coming from the devil, this sort of rumbling off in the distance as coming from the devil. And for whatever reason, my reaction was to sort of challenge the devil, to sort of be like, OK, come on, bring it on. Come and fight me, or fight us, let's see what you got. I'm at a church camp. And I'm with God. And you're not. And all that.
But I also remember saying, six, six, six, over and over again, which is just more like a curiosity thing to see what would happen, just this sort of childhood curiosity.
Right, and taunt him a little.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, taunting him.
Well that seems to do the job, because right away it starts to pour. And not just pour this light summer drizzle. This was a torrential, Old Testament downpour, the kind where your clothes are immediately sopping wet, you're drenched instantaneously. David thought, OK, that worked. And he got back to his cabin, and changed his clothes for lunch. And he saw the guy who he had borrowed the crucifix from the night before, whose name was Joe.
And I said to Joe, do you want me to wait for you to go to lunch? Because we would often walk to lunch together. We were buddies. And he said, no, just go ahead without me.
And then I put my parka on. And I'm rushing to the mess hall. And just as I'm about to get to the mess hall, there is the loudest thunder that I'd ever heard in my entire life, just this humongous crack of thunder. And I didn't see anything. I don't remember seeing a flash or anything like that. But the next thing I know, one of our counselors comes running from behind, just white as a ghost. And he just says, they've been hit. They got hit. And about 50 yards behind me, lightning had struck. And six kids got struck in all.
The six kids included Joe, who had told David not to wait up for him. As the ambulances arrived, David and all the other campers were ushered into the mess hall. And it took a few days before they were told exactly what happened. The chaplain made an announcement at services in front of everybody.
And he gets up there, and sort of takes a deep breath. His hands are folded in front of him. And I think he names off all the names. He says, these six kids were struck by lightning. There was this boy named Rico who was killed instantly. And then he said, Joe survived-- and I just remember this pause. And I was thinking that he was going to say, but he's in a coma. And then he said, Joe survived-- until Friday. And I mean I just collapsed. I just collapsed on the ground. I think it would be impossible not to feel that-- especially at the age of 12-- not to feel that I had done something to make that happen.
David still had the metal crucifix that Joe had given him the night before he had been hit by lightning. David knew what he had secretly asked the devil to do. And so while everybody at camp took the news really hard, he might have taken it the hardest.
I had been told that you don't mess with spirits. You don't mess with that kind of stuff, because it's real. Spirits are real. And ghosts are real. And the devil is real. And I had very directly challenged the devil. And it resulted in somebody I was close to being killed.
So David went to his counselor. And the counselor had him talk to the priest. And all the adults said kind of what you would expect. It wasn't David's fault. He shouldn't blame himself. Don't worry about it. But because this was a church camp, David had expected something very different. It was confusing, this reaction he was getting from the adults.
When the adults told you, don't worry about it. It wasn't the devil. Did you feel like no, no, no. That's not what you taught me.
Yeah, it's kind of like after I talked with the priest, I thought, don't you believe this, dude? I mean it's like here you are, a priest. And I'm telling you this very serious thing happened within the system that you advocate. And then you're just telling me to ignore it. It's almost like oh we'll drop this because it's convenient now. It's like it's more convenient to not believe this. So we'll just not do it right now. Let's just suspend it for this one circumstance.
This one circumstance, the biggest thing that could possibly happen.
Right. This stuff is only real as long as it's not taken really seriously.
For a couple of years right after the lightning strike, David used to tell people what happened so he could see their reactions. He wasn't sure what to think-- if it was the devil at work or not-- and he wanted to gauge what other people thought. But after a while he stopped telling people. It's such an intense story that even with people who didn't believe in the devil, it seemed to contaminate how they saw him. It seemed to raise a question about him.
And slowly, over the next few years, David stopped believing what he'd been taught. He stopped believing the devil exists, and is out there throwing lightning bolts at whoever he wants.
I sort of wonder how much of me not believing that has to do with the fact that when I was a kid something happened that, if I continued to believe that the devil can work that way, would make me sort of a killer. There is no in between. It made it untenable to continue believing the devil is real.
Are you afraid that some people are going to hear you describe this on the radio, and they'll think, well actually you've got it wrong, and in the way they see the world, you actually did call on the devil, and that's what killed your friend?
I'm not afraid that that will happen. I know that that will happen. I know that people will hear this and think that I brought the devil down on my friend.
And what do you want to say to them?
I don't know. I don't know if I have anything to say to them. What can you say to somebody who blames you for a death that you don't think is your fault?
Well today on our show, Life After Death, we have people on the show today in a situation that most of us never imagine we're going to be in. And in fact, the people on the program never thought that they would be in the situation they are in. You can't make a bigger mistake. You can't fix it once somebody is dead. These people are haunted by the role they played in somebody's death.
And even in situations where everyone says they're blameless, where they seem blameless, they have a hard time feeling blameless. Stay with us.
Act One: Guilty As Not Charged
Act One, Guilty As Not Charged. Darin Strauss tells this story. It's a true story, though we've changed everybody's name but Darin's, out of consideration for the family of the girl in this story, who Darin calls Celine Zilke. Here's Darin Strauss.
Half my life ago I killed a girl. It happened in 1988. I had just turned 18. And my friends and I were headed to shoot a few rounds of putt-putt golf. We had a week of high school left before graduation. I was driving. Far ahead, on the right shoulder, a pair of tiny bicyclists bent over their handlebars. It was a four lane highway. And my Oldsmobile was in the left lane, going south. I think I futzed with the radio. A song I liked had come on.
Then one of the riders did something. I remember just that, a glitch up ahead. After a wobble or two, the bicyclist hopped into the road, maybe 30 feet ahead of me. My tires lapped up the distance that separated us. Then suddenly the bicyclist made a crisp turn into the left lane, just 10 feet ahead of my hurrying car.
For a second, her dark blond hair appeared very clearly in my windshield. I remember a kind of mechanical curiosity about why this was happening and what it might mean. The next moment has been, for all my life, a kind of shadowy giant. I'm able-- tick by tick-- to lay out each second. Radio, friends, thoughts of bailing on mini-golf and heading to the beach, distance between car and bicycles closing. Anything could still happen.
And then it's too late. My forearm hooks to protect my eyes. My friends shout. And I picture a cartoon of my foot disappearing under the dash, kicking down for the break, reaching farther than any leg can go. Yet the hood of my car met Celine Zilke at 40 miles an hour. Her head cracked the windshield. I remember the yellow reflector from her spokes flipping past us and over the roof.
The car made it onto the grassy median. I must have done all the normal driverish things, put on the hazards, killed the engine. I must have stepped onto the grass. I just have no memory of how I got there.
Celine Zilke, the girl I killed, was 16. And I knew her. She went to my school. She was an 11th grader. I can see her playing field hockey in blue gym shorts, settled in beside friends on the concrete benches of the court yard, scribbling notes in the public speaking class we took together. Celine had sat by the window.
Now I walked to where Celine lay in the road. I didn't know who I'd hit, or even that we'd had a serious collision. I thought in terms of broken arms and getting in trouble with my parents. Then I reached her and noticed the peculiar stillness of her face, which transformed her. I didn't recognize her. Celine's eyes were open. But her gaze seemed to extend only an inch or so. A small imprinted purple horseshoe of blood was pressed in the space between her eyebrows.
I think maybe she's hurt, my friend Dave said. This might seem an obvious or even a dense statement when you hear it now, but not if you were there. I could feel my breathing rev up, and that's all.
A tragedy's first act is crowded with supporting players, policeman scribbling in pads and making radio calls, witnesses crimping their faces, EMS guys folding equipment. I must have managed to ask about Celine's condition, because at some point the cops told me that she was unconscious but still alive. I remember talk of cardiac arrest, of a medevac helicopter on its way.
I had the strangest feeling that everyone was responding appropriately to what must have been an emergency. But I still didn't have the feeling there was anything to freak out about. This was something that was being fixed.
Police had suspended traffic on both sides of the highway. My friends made cameo appearances as standers, mullers, back rubbers. I thought, how strange that in normal life we touched each other so rarely.
The most embarrassing memory of that day was when two teenage girls materialized from one of the stopped cars nearby. They were pretty and not from my school. I remember they were both in shorts and white sleeveless undershirts. One of them smelled strongly of suntan oil.
Hey, she said, were you in that crash? Her voice was a mix of shyness, concern, and pure nosiness. Yeah, I said, I was. Having acknowledged my own sensuality and drama, and knowing the girls were still watching, I dropped to my knees and covered my head with my hands, fingers between the ears and temples, like a man winning the US Open.
This movieishly emotional reaction acted out for girls I'd never see again is one more stomach-turning fact of that afternoon. Aw, the first girl said, coming over to me. I know it wasn't your fault.
My father arrived. Someone must have called him. This was before cellphones. It was the sight of my dad that day, the sadness on his face, that made it finally real somehow. And when he hugged me I totally lost it, collapsed all at once into tears, as I never had before and haven't since.
I got a call the next day, saying that Celine died in the hospital before her parents-- who had been on vacation-- got the chance to see her.
The police, Celine's biking companion that day, and several cars of eye witnesses all said there was nothing I could have done. No charges were filed.
A police detective, Paul Vitucci, later told the newspaper, quote, "for an unknown reason, her bicycle swerved into the traffic portion of the street. And she was immediately struck by the car. There was no way he"-- meaning me "--could have avoided the accident, no way whatsoever."
I thought, how could that be possible? I saw it all happen. It was hard to believe there was only one way this could have gone. It was hard to believe she had to die. Maybe I'd been distracted. Maybe I could have swerved away somehow. Maybe I hadn't felt the right amount of alarm just before the girl jumped into my lane.
After the story appeared in the local paper, everyone knew. I remember coming down to breakfast and my parents showing me the article. And I remember thinking, that was it. There was no hiding from this. My parents, after offering quiet voiced assurances, encouraged me not to beat myself up about it. You should go to a movie, they said. And so a friend and I drove to Stand and Deliver.
At the multiplex, the weirdness of my having gone out, of not being under house arrest, slowly sunk in. We traveled to another town. I didn't want to be seen trying to enjoy myself. I didn't want people to know that I was capable of having any emotion, but constant remorse. We left before the end of the movie.
I spent the next few days behind a closed door, talking to no one in particular, a parrot in underpants and socks who kept asking, will I get over this? That Monday or Tuesday, I heard there was a school-wide memorial assembly. Celine's teachers, friends, and coaches giving tribute to her, the quote, "girl who's been so cruelly taken from us." I hadn't had the guts to be there that day, or back to school at all.
My friend Eric told me that near the end of that assembly, a teacher I barely knew and didn't very much like stood from the crowd and walked straight to the microphone. This was a surprise. He hadn't been designated to speak. Along with the sadness, he said-- taking the mic from the principal-- I know there's a lot of anger here. This teacher wasn't a hippie. He was given to wearing pullover Baja shirts to social studies class. I had laughed behind his back many times.
Great emotion is justified in tragic events like these, he said. But we should take a second to remember that Darin is a student in the North Shore community too. The reports tell us he wasn't at fault. And I'm sure we can agree, he's a good person.
It was years before I wrote to thank him, this guy I didn't really know, who was decent enough to perform this simple act of kindness for a student he barely knew.
I returned to class about a week after the accident and a few days before the funeral. I hadn't heard what kids were saying about me. But I was met at the school's front door with a dirty look from one Steffi [? Gayheart ?], a friend of Celine's. What high schooler wouldn't glare hard at the driver who had killed her friend?
I expected my day would be filled with these black looks. But in the classrooms and corridors there quickly grew around me a zone of silence and inviability, except when my friends would suddenly mount brief, haphazard campaigns of everything's normal, quoting lines from Fletch and slapping my book bag, and calling me a dick.
My friend Frank assured me that they also-- without my knowing it-- had started in on the high school equivalent of caucusing, push polling, of lobbying for votes. Come on, they'd say to anyone still on the fence, the undecideds. Wasn't it kind of suspicious how she just turned into his car? Did you ever think of that? True friends, they'd say quietly, we have to be there for Darin too. We have to support him too.
Steffi [? Gayheart, ?] at the end of that first day, approached my locker. I'm sorry I, she barely managed to say, I support you. She told it straight to my Keds. At the time, I was sure it was insincere. She'd been peer pressured into saying that. She definitely wasn't sorry. But now, I don't know. Maybe she meant it. It couldn't have been easy for her to talk with me, the kid who killed her friend.
A few days after I'd gone back to school, Celine had her funeral. It was just my dad accompanying me. At the church entrance, I remember taking a breath, grabbing the door handle, then plunging into the crowd. This was and remains the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I couldn't help but be scared.
But I was also kind of relieved to feel tears on my face, tears some part of me knew would look good. And they were real, these tears.
I was afraid someone might stand up and yell at me, here in front of everyone. One old man looked at me like he wanted to kill me with his bare hands. And then I had to face Celine's parents.
Some morticianal functionary shunted me into a back chamber where they were. Her father, a big man, moved toward me with a surprisingly light step. He didn't know what to do with his face. It was soft and jowly. And he wore glasses that gave him a Tom Bosley, Happy Days vibe. In the long moment before he found words, and as he took my hand, he settled on an expression of, I will be friendlier than you have any right to expect me to be.
"You're Darin," he said. My voice and face behaved-- or prevailed upon to behave-- as if this were a regular meeting between cordial strangers. Celine's mother joined us. She attempted a smile, but without much success. Her body clenched as she steeled herself for an odious act. Then she hugged me quickly. And just as quickly, she pulled away.
"I know it was not your fault. They all tell me it was not your fault." She was speaking as kindly as she could. And so her voice was dim. "But I want you to remember something. Whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well." She looked at me with exhausted eyes, "because you are living it for two people now. Can you promise me?"
It didn't feel right. I was going to commit to something I had no control over, or even really understood. I nodded. I'd accepted her request without saying a word, as you would a benediction.
Then I was standing before Celine's open coffin. I don't remember how I got there, who had taken me. I only remember the whispers at my back, the weight of 400 eyes on me. Celine's eyes were now closed. And she looked almost like herself again.
Next I was hurrying from the coffin, past all the people who stared. As I approached the exit, my dad kept buzzing in my ear, keep your head up, just keep your head up.
I hadn't realized I'd been slouching my head. I felt buoyed by a great respect for my father at that moment. And I wondered if I would ever know the things grownups know. And I lifted my head.
About two weeks later, I graduated and left town. I didn't stay for summer break. College offered a sort of witness protection program. Everyone in my high school knew. No one at Tufts did. And while I was there, they never would.
But I did make one important stop in town before I'd left, to Celine Zilke's parents' house. They had invited me to come by whenever at the funeral. So I thought they expected this visit. I went alone. I even imagined a cozy welcome. They would smile, maybe touch my cheek, we'd cry together.
I knocked. My stomach shuttered up into my throat. No one seemed to be home. Leaning an ear to the door, I made out the clumps and risings of voices. After an extra swallow for courage, I knocked again. One man's voice became louder and more distinct, getting closer. The door opened. It was Celine Zilke's father. After seeing me, Mr. Zilke turned back toward the room.
"Look who it is." He still wasn't facing me. "It's Darin." He said this as if he was proud of me for having showed, as if he had that very instant been defending me to someone.
"He's here to say how sorry he is," he told the room, "to apologize." There were a few other people there in the Zilke's den, fellow grievers whom I didn't know, who didn't say a word.
And I wondered, was I there to apologize? The Zilkes said they knew it wasn't my fault, hadn't they? Mr. Zilke gestured me to the couch and offered me an iced tea.
"How are you?" I said stupidly.
"OK," he said. "Yes. OK, you know."
"Good," I said, "good," taking a long sip before I put the glass down. Then that was finished.
The room got quiet. I couldn't believe how quiet, how quickly. So I shouldn't have come. The visit was a check cashed too soon. They didn't want me there. I didn't want to be there.
Before long, Mr. Zilke shepherded me to the door with another, "no matter what, we would never blame you, Darin."
I left there covered in a feeling of globby naivete. There was little chance, I thought, that I'd ever see them again.
A month into my freshman year of college I got an official letter saying that Celine's parents were suing me for $1.5 million. It took five years of depositions and meetings before the case finally went away.
Right before the trial, the Zilke family lawyer advised them to take a small amount of money-- go away money, my insurance company's lawyer called it-- that payment corporations give to a family when they know their client isn't at fault. There was-- they were told-- no case.
At college, I dove into physics and psychology textbooks, where I discovered a weird solace in computation. If you're doing 45, and the girl with the bicycle cuts 10 feet in front of you, impact will take place in something like 700 milliseconds. Human perception time-- not only to see a hazard, but to designate one as such-- is generally accepted to consume some 220 milliseconds.
Next, the purely neural job of stamping your foot on the brake adds roughly another 500 milliseconds. I was exculpated by 20 milliseconds.
I'd be studying in the library, and tell myself I was going to take a bathroom break or something. And then I'd find myself in the stacks, making sure that my reassuring numbers were still there, still reassuring.
In the first semester of my freshman year, I took a class called On Death and Dying, which was a lot of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I thought it would make me feel better.
After I wrote a paper about my accident, the grad students who taught this touchy feely seminar suggested that I do research into Celine's side of things. I thought this was a terrible idea. But I was an obedient student. So I made blundering, unwanted intrusions into the lives of Celine's friends, the other bicyclist that day, a girl she played field hockey with, a lab partner, anyone whose number I could get.
I learned that Celine had remade herself, becoming a born again in the months before her death, even though her family hadn't been particularly religious. And then I discovered something that changed how I felt about her death for years when I talked to her friend from the field hockey team.
"I'm sorry to call like this," I'd said, floundering. "I just am taking this class. I need to find out more about, you know, her, because of the class."
"Wasn't that diary thing weird?" the girl said.
I felt my heart thump. "What diary thing?"
"Oh," the girl said. She obviously felt that she'd overstepped. "I assumed you knew."
It turned out that Celine had written in her journal right before the crash, "today I realized I am going to die." Celine's mother had told this field hockey friend about it.
"Thank you," I'd said as I hung up. I may have even said it again after I put down the phone. "Thank you."
Celine, I decided, had taken her own life. That's why she turned right in front of my car. That was how I got through my twenties and even my early thirties, believing with full certainty that she'd committed suicide, that I was no more responsible for the accident than the bullet that comes out of the gun's chamber.
I wouldn't let myself think what now seems obvious, that when she wrote, "today I realized that I'm going to die," she may have just meant, today I realized I will die someday.
Before the accident, I wasn't so introspective. I'd had nothing to be introspective about. And I never had anything that I hid from the world. But now I did. For years, I told pretty much no one, which seemed the only way to treat a thing I was so uncomfortable with.
I didn't tell any friends. I thought it would taint how they saw me. I thought they wouldn't want to know. Who would want to know? Even I didn't want to.
When I went on dates, I'd be talking-- just getting to know you stuff-- and I'd wonder, when do I tell her? The few times I did tell women, it was only after I had known them a while. Even then, I hated the reaction it got. It made them feel tender. They hugged me. I felt gross for having told them, like I was using the accident to score points.
Though one time-- in my earlyish twenties-- I ended up on a first date at the movie I Know What You Did Last Summer. There is a pivotal scene, where a teenager hits somebody with his car. I just couldn't watch anymore. I told my date, "we have to get out of here." This was like 20 minutes in.
She didn't want to leave. And when we got outside, I told her everything. Her response surprised me. She got angry at me. "It's really selfish of you to feel bad for yourself," she said. "Don't you ever think of her?"
I didn't know what to say. Of course I thought of Celine.
"Yes," she said. "But do you think about her enough? How can you go on living with that?"
I excused myself. And I left for the subway without walking her home. A little later, she called me to apologize. She said she'd often thought of committing suicide in high school by swerving into oncoming cars. All right, I'd said.
Celine's father making up goofy songs just for her when she was a baby. Celine crying after she tripped stealing third base in little league. Celine on crunching roller skates, hurrying away from the neighbor's dog. I try to imagine her before the accident. And sometimes I try to imagine the life she would have gone on to live had it never happened. Maybe this was my way of pretending she hadn't died that day.
As I got into my twenties and thirties, Celine stayed with me. I thought of her, of course, any time I drove by a bicyclist, which happens a lot more often than you'd think. I know that's not something most people even register.
As I got older, she'd show up with me on job interviews. Would the prospective employer find out what I'd done? Was this an ambitious enough job for two lives? Because I'd absorbed Celine's mother's request, I had to live well enough and successfully enough for two. I thought of her at my wedding, and when my wife got pregnant.
Now I'm twice as old as I was when the accident happened. And I don't know when I changed. There was no single moment. But somehow I've grown into a different way of seeing it all. Because I was alive in a certain place, Celine Zilke isn't anymore.
That's all this was, a highway mathematical error. In the US there are over 40,000 traffic deaths a year. But it was me, and it was Celine. She was someone that I happened to, someone who happened to me.
The police told me if I'd swerved the car differently, I might have flipped it. If that had happened-- if I had died and Celine had lived-- I think I'd like her not to remember, not to have at 18, at 23, even at 35 years old to contend with a stranger there at all her intimate moments.
And I'd like her to be spared the feeling she'd traveled for two decades with a ghost. I'd be OK if she forgot me, though I can't forget her.
Darin Strauss. He is the author most recently of the novel More Than It Hurts You.
A reporter for Washingtonian Magazine a few years ago interviewed lots of drivers who had been in accidents and killed people. It wasn't their fault. And this article quotes a psychologist named Ed Hickling, who wrote a book about overcoming the trauma of a car accident. And he says that drivers who have done nothing wrong in an accident are actually at greater risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder about the accident than people who were really at fault for an accident. Quote, "someone who falls asleep at the wheel knows what they can do to prevent future accidents. Innocent drivers," Hickling says, "realize they're at the mercy of the universe."
[MUSIC - "GHOST" BY TERESE TAYLOR]
Coming up, one positive side to being incarcerated, it is a lot easier to sleep at night. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two: Soldier Of Misfortune
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Life After Death. We have stories of people who are unable to stop thinking about things that they have done that may have resulted in somebody else's death. We have arrived at Act Two of our show, Soldier of Misfortune.
You may have heard stories about veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and then committing acts of violence here at home, sometimes against wives and other family members. There was a big New York Times series about this, which found 121 cases of vets who killed someone once they came home from those wars.
But we don't often hear about this from the vet's perspective. Chris Neary talked with an Iraq war vet who has attacked people close to him. This is somebody who did three tours of duty in the Mideast in the build up and early part of the Iraq War. Here's Chris Neary.
I met John in the fall of 2007. I had been hanging around the VA Hospital in Chicago, working on a story about veterans with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. John stood out. He was really well-liked at the hospital, comfortable with the other vets and the staff.
He was interested in me too. He wanted to get a job in radio some day. And so, after talking to him at the hospital, we agreed to meet at his apartment for another interview. I wasn't really sure what I was after. He seemed like the kind of guy who could help me understand something about how war affects you.
I met him at his apartment the day after Thanksgiving. There was an unopened package of dinner rolls and a brand new baking pan and baster that clearly hadn't been used. His apartment smelled stale. There were VA papers everywhere.
He said he'd been waiting all day for me. But when I got there, he suddenly got embarrassed, and started hurriedly cleaning up his apartment. I was surprised how different he seemed from the guy I'd met at the VA. John said I shouldn't be.
We have two faces. There's two faces to everybody that has been in a war. You have a face that wants to get help, an optimistic face. And then you have like the real face. And at the hospital they're like, everybody's doing well. And everybody's cool.
And I'm like you really don't know that Roger can't get on the elevator with anybody. I used to not even go into stores to get food. I would pay drug addicts to go in there and get me food, because I didn't even want to go in the store. That's the stuff that really happens, what people are really acting like. I haven't left the house since like Tuesday.
John and I talked about a lot of things, his family, high school, the service. Iraq, it turned out, was just one of the many traumas John had suffered during his life. He had been abused and molested as a kid, kicked around foster families.
But when he was five he was basically rescued. He got adopted into a big family that was known around the neighborhood as the Huxtables. And he settled into an uneventful and happy childhood and adolescence. He had a girlfriend and a best friend, got good grades. He went to church, and played drums in his high school's marching band. If you knew him then, he says, you would probably have called him a band geek.
We would all meet up in the band room. And basically we would just talk about the dullness that we all had. Most of the time, just we went over the sheet music. I'm trying to think of something, like maybe somebody stuck something in a tuba, or something. But there is really not much.
John's adopted father, sister, and brother joined the military. And after high school, so did John. This was 1999.
He deployed to Kuwait in early 2002. He saw heavy fighting in Iraq. And then when he got out of the military in 2005, he moved to Louisiana. He closed on a house in Gulfport, Mississippi, a month before Hurricane Katrina hit. He lost everything, his car, his home. That was sort of a final blow to his stability.
He made his way back to Chicago with the last of his money. And now here he was, alone on Thanksgiving weekend, afraid to leave his messy apartment, with me. It's a bleak picture. But compared to some of the other vets at the VA with PTSD, he was doing OK. He'd been getting treatment at the VA for five months. And the people who he'd met there were optimistic about his future.
He had a girlfriend. And they had a young daughter. And he'd even been venturing outside occasionally, like when he took a trip with his girlfriend to downtown Chicago.
It was like I'd went to Disney World. And all I did was walk down State Street and down Michigan. Got a couple ice cream cones, piece of pizza. And it was like Disney World, because I hadn't been outside in so long.
And my girl thinks that I think she's ugly or something, because I don't want to go outside. She thinks-- My girl is beautiful. I mean, for real. She could be like a model or something. And if you don't take a girl out-- a pretty girl like that-- she's like, what's going on?
After our conversation, we made plans to talk again. There was more I wanted to find out. And John seemed like he enjoyed the company. We went back and forth, and finally set up a plan to meet at the VA. But when I got there, he stood me up.
A couple weeks later, I got an email from his therapist at the VA, a guy named Dr. John Mundt. There had been a very ugly development, the email read. But Dr. Mundt couldn't tell me any more, because, he said, it was a criminal matter.
That was in January of 2008. It took six months for Dr. Mundt to get the OK from John's lawyer to talk with me about what had happened. But finally he told me what little he knew.
He said that John had been over at his girlfriend's grandmother's house. Things became heated between John and his girlfriend, Dominique.
Dr. John Mundt
They had an argument. And at some point, he brought out this knife that he carried. And I think she asked her grandmother to take the kids out of the room. But the grandmother wanted to intervene, and wanted to stop John from hurting her granddaughter.
So at that point, I think John was cutting Dominique. She was hurt. She was cut pretty badly. And John then went into the kitchen, and lay down on the floor and started crying.
That I distinctly remember her telling me. I mean he had cut her a number of times, and cut the grandmother.
Dominique didn't want to talk with me for this story. But the police crime report runs almost 20 pages, using interviews with Dominique, Dominique's grandmother, two witnesses, and observations of several different arresting officers to reconstruct the events of the night.
According to the report, John, Dominique, and their one and a half year old daughter had been eating dinner with Dominique's three year old son from another father and Dominique's grandmother. They had all been getting along. Then around 7:00 PM, John and Dominique started arguing about bus schedules.
The argument escalated to the point of violence fairly quickly. John ran into the kitchen and grabbed a steak knife, screaming, "I'm going to kill your ass." Dominique's grandmother calmed him down for a while, but then he erupted again. From the police report, quote, "John grabbed Dominique by the hair. John dragged Dominique down to the kitchen floor. John then began slamming her head into the kitchen floor repeatedly."
Later, he threw Dominique's three year old son across the apartment onto a couch. He grabbed Dominique around the neck, and tried to choke her. He slashed the knife down on Dominique's hand, and then grabbed her, and held the knife to her neck.
He then let her go, sat down next to the refrigerator, and begin to cut himself on the chest. That's when the police arrived. He told them, see I don't care. It doesn't hurt. Later he told the police he wished they'd shot him.
It's hard to reconcile the person depicted in this police report with the person I met at the VA. I couldn't imagine this shy, friendly guy hurting anyone, let alone an elderly woman, a three year old, and his own fiancee. And I was very surprised when I'd heard the news that he'd done it. But no one else was, not Dr Mundt, John's therapist, and not John himself.
I know that I was capable of it. In no way was I like, no, not me. Anytime I go outside, especially around people that I like, I try to limit the time. That's most of the time why I'm so paranoid, to keep them safe. And I've got to keep them safe from me.
My producer Alex Blumberg and I visited John in jail outside Chicago. And it turns out he had a less clear idea than Dr. Mundt does about what happened that night. In fact, he says he can't really remember it at all. He's been here for seven months, during which time he hasn't been allowed to talk to Dominique.
He remembers going to Dominique's grandmother's house. He remembers drinking a glass of brandy. He remembers talking to her about cleaning the bathroom. And then--
I remember waking up in here. Still bleeding. I got stitched up some. And I'm like, who cut me? They're like, well you did.
When you learned what happened-- when you woke up and people told you what happened-- do you remember what your first thought was or your first emotion? Was it like--
My first thought was that I killed my daughter. I thought I killed my daughter. That was my first thought.
When I go to sleep at night, I see little pieces coming back. I can see myself cutting myself. I haven't been able to see cutting Dominique. I try to concentrate on it. I don't know if it's because I don't want to remember.
I used to think people would be like, oh man, I can't remember this stuff. What happened? And I'd be like, bull [BLEEP], you remember what happened. And now I know how that feels. But it's scary. To be unsure about what happened. I could have done anything.
Dr. John Mundt
It doesn't surprise me at all to hear that he doesn't remember, because I really believe he dissociated.
John's therapist, Dr. Mundt, says he has seen this happen many times. He's even seen it happen to John. John was sleeping at the VA when another vet startled him. He flew into a rage, threatened the other vet, but suddenly stopped. Mundt says it was like he shook himself awake. He seemed confused and took off running.
Mundt says John and his other patients have experienced intense feelings of war, and that all they need is a taste of those feelings in civilian life to make them believe they are in a life and death situation. This break in perception is what Mundt and other therapists call a disassociative state.
Dr. John Mundt
And unfortunately, situations where really, really strong feelings are involved. Even if all that was happening was that Dominique was maybe yelling at him or that an argument was escalating, where, in other words, she wasn't necessarily threatening him or a risk to him, he could feel it that way. If those emotions take over, it really can kick somebody into this other gear, where they dissociate. And then people can do all kinds of things that they're not going to really recall afterwards.
I talked with John in the psych ward of the county jail for almost three hours. And it became clear to me how much I'd missed the first time I had talked with him, the full extent of what he described as the two faces.
John had started getting violent almost a year before I met him at the VA. And when I visited him at his apartment in November, his habit of flying unprovoked into a rage was well established.
One of my brothers-- my doctor brother-- we were playing Monopoly. And we were playing craps. It was with Monopoly money. Just something to pass the time until everyone got ready to play Monopoly. And he cheated me. But it's Monopoly money.
That's what I say now. But once I was like, man, you cheated me, I got angry. And then I really got angry, trying to hurt my brother over some Monopoly money.
Like what? Like you got into a fight? You were hitting him?
Right, right, right. And most military people or veterans, we don't fight like regular people fight. We don't throw fists. It's not like a boxing match. It's like, eye gouging, putting you down on the ground, make them not be there anymore. So most of the time when I did get into a physical altercation, people thought that I was trying to kill them. And most of the time that's what it was.
John had put his cousin in the hospital. He'd broken his little sister's arm. Friends, people on the street, car salesmen, he overreacted all the time. He got fired at his last job as a hotel security guard for being too aggressive with the guests. Gradually he alienated his friends and family, to the extent that when I finally met him he was almost completely alone in the city where he'd grown up.
You could divide the trauma of war into two categories, the bad things that are done to you-- being shot at, gassed, ambushed-- and the bad things you do to other people. A lot of us, I think, assume that for most veterans, what sticks with them is the first category of trauma. They come back edgier, more skittish, and always afraid for their own safety. And that's true for John.
But the way he's living now is just as driven by that second category of trauma, living with the consequences of what he's done. He feels guilty. And that guilt gets turned into violence. In Iraq, John fired 60 millimeter mortar rounds, which would destroy houses and buildings.
It's not like you see some big Arnold Schwarzenegger built guys out there with rippling muscles, and they're coming at you with all these weapons. You see guys with some Michael Jordan gym shoes on, with the same kind of Calvin Klein shirts you got.
And some of the little kids that are about 10, 11, 12 years old, these kids could be your kids. So I felt sorry. And then you'd see these little kids dead. Why-- people like me-- long distance-- blowing up a house. Then you come and see it's smoldering up. And you've got a pregnant lady there. She is dead, but the baby is still alive. And she's cooking.
At first I thought that I deserved this-- not being in jail, but being tormented at night when I go to sleep. You got to pay for everything. Everything doesn't go unpunished.
It would be simpler, he says, if instead of just leaving him to stew over what he did in the war, someone would just cut off his finger, give him a real punishment. Because of his guilt, John doesn't like to talk about what he did in Iraq, not with me, not with his therapist, and definitely not with strangers who find out he was in combat and ask if he killed anyone over there.
That's the first thing everybody asks. If you're artillery man, what do you think? But if you know anyone that has actually hurt someone, they're not proud. That's not something that you talk about with someone.
I'm not going to go up to a girl that got raped, and be like, you been raped lately? Because it's the same thing. That's how it feels. I've been raped before. That brings on the same kind of feeling.
Was that when you were a kid?
Right, when I was a kid.
It's weird. I think that most people wouldn't make that connection, being raped and killing somebody or hurting somebody as like the same-- How do you think they are related? What's different and what's similar?
The similarities are I regret both. Both were out of my power. I had no control. It's the same thing, because we don't have any control about what we do. We just do what we're told to do. And you can't forget.
I have dreams that repeat over and over. I have a dream where my fiancee is sitting in a chair with her back to me, like one of those little wooden chairs. And she's like in a factory or some room. And there's an Iraqi that cuts her throat. When I go to try to save her, to try to go get him, he disappears.
And I have another dream where I'm mutilating my little baby, taking her by the legs, and just smashing her against the wall, or tables, or stuff. Yep, every night.
Can I ask what you're thinking about now?
Same dreams. They seem real.
Dr. Mundt says John is still a good candidate for rehabilitation, even after all this. The fact that he's so verbal is a big thing. He can describe what happened to him in Iraq, and talk about his guilty feelings, which means he's treatable. And he still wants the life he was heading towards back in high school, the life he would have had if he hadn't gone to war.
John's lawyer is working to reach a pre-trial agreement, where John would be released from jail and put into a program that is sort of like an intense probation, where he would have to stay on his medication and stay away from alcohol. But John is nervous about that. When he was on the outside, he was paranoid. Every stranger he saw on the street, every sound he heard at night was a potential threat, someone coming to get him. He would notice people on the street and start running.
I haven't slept this good since I came home, being in here. I know it sounds strange. But I can sleep. I'm locked in a room by myself, and nobody can get in. I don't feel threatened. I don't have to hear the water dripping in the faucet, or the toilet running, or the birds outside on the trees, and people outside, cars and all that. I just don't hear it. Because it starts to hurt up in your stomach, and in your back, and in your neck, because you're trying to listen all day.
I'm getting nervous just thinking about going outside. I'll be getting out of here in a couple weeks. And I can feel it coming back. Just nervous. I feel a little normal while I'm in here.
John says jail is a good place to practice being normal, to practice having normal conversations, where you don't talk about much. In jail, John says, he'll yell at people, and then actually go back and apologize. He says it's the first time in a long time he's talked to anyone who doesn't have a white jacket or a Ph.D. John says he's not sure what he'll say to Dominique once he's released, or how he'll explain what's happened. He says he wants to apologize, and see if she'll have him back.
Chris Neary in Chicago.
Our program was produced today by Lisa Pollak and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind, [UNINTELLIGIBLE], and P.J. Vogt. Music help from Jessica Hopper.
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