Agnes of Bakersfield is getting spayed today and I’m a total wreck.
A mother and former Army sergeant who pleaded guilty to a charge that she recorded herself having sex with her 3-year-old son was sentenced in federal court Friday to 28 years in prison.
Chief Judge Fred Biery of U.S. District Court in San Antonio told Epperson moments before her sentencing that her assaults on her son had effectively “sentenced him to life,” adding he would have 70 years or more to remember and relive the abuses.
“Instead of doing what you should have done (as a mother), you provide this sacrificial lamb of your son,” Biery said. “Because of your own needs, you were willing to make a sacrifice of your son.”
Nice to see a judge who gets it.
Listening to James Blake and avoiding people. I’m kinda awesome at it.
I’m an astronaut without a mission.
I type these words on the only working console in the dim-lit, womb-like control room of the space station Minor Chord, circling an unnamed moon of an unnamed planet in an uncharted galaxy.
I await my orders.
I was never like other boys. I never wanted to be an astronaut. I was always too afraid of this world, let alone any others. I was trained and selected for this mission without my knowledge. I went to sleep in my own bed, beside my husband. I woke up here, out here, alone, save for the chihuahua that we’d rescued from the streets of central California. My husband brought her home and we named her Agnes of Bakersfield. Apparently she was selected for the mission too. Or she selected herself.
She took to me immediately, followed me around our house back in San Francisco. (When I type the words “San Francisco” I have to close my eyes and steel myself against the longing.)
Agnes now follows me as I pace the long empty corridors. The lights flick on and off automatically, marking our progress. She’s my sole companion. Agnes curls up at my chest at night, a small, soft source of warmth. When she curls up she makes a noise that kills me. It’s the noise of surrender, the noise of a creature who feels safe.
I want to cry when I hear that noise. I do not feel worthy of such trust. But I’m unable to cry. This is an issue that I would like to rectify.
Before bed each night I talk to my husband through the video screen in the control room. His image flickers and his voice comes to me across a hundred trillion miles, full of space dust and distortion. I’m an astronaut who nearly failed high school physics, and every night I smack the side of the monitor. My husband continues to flicker. I’ve put in a work request through the proper channels but my anonymous employer has yet to reply.
“When are you coming home?” my husband used to ask. A year later he no longer asks. Still he remains optimistic. He tells me that all of this is a temporary setback. He tells me to be patient.
Every three weeks I’m allowed a twenty-minute video conference with my appointed psychiatrist. She has dyed hair and tattoos and a statue of Buddha on the shelf behind her. I’d like to think that in real life we’d be friends. I’ve asked her where she lives, where she speaks to me from, but she always deflects my attempts. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself instead,” she says. A stopwatch on the margin of the screen counts down our remaining time. Seventeen minutes. Twelve minutes. Three.
“I feel like a ghost,” I tell her. “I feel like I’m already dead.” She makes a note on her pad.
Drones deliver my new medications, along with boxes of Triscuits, Life cereal, and countless packets of Crystal Light.
I would like to be a Buddhist. I’ve read about and thoroughly understand the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of meditation but can’t stand being alone with my thoughts – I’ll do anything to distract myself from my own head.
Sometimes after my psych appointments I scroll through the medical records to which my anonymous employer has given me access:
- ASYMPTOMATIC HIV INFECTION
- HYPERTENSION (HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE)
- GERD (GASTRO-ESOPHAGEAL REFLUX DISEASE) (HEARTBURN)
- MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT
One day I log on to find that MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT has disappeared from my record. In its place is a new entry: CHRONIC POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER.
I scroll back and forth to be sure. It’s gone. Maybe you are only allowed one of the two.
For a few days my record is clear of MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT. I resolve to ask my psychiatrist about this, but keep forgetting. My short-term memory has been severely compromised. Another temporary setback, I hope.
A few days later the MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT appears again, above the CHRONIC POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER. I keep forgetting to ask what happened to it.
At night I climb into my bunk and roll onto my side. Agnes jumps in and curls up next to my chest. She makes that noise I told you about. I used to lay awake for hours, tossing and turning, always picking up the chihuahua with calm hands and placing her again at my chest. But a new medication arrived, and I fall asleep quickly now.
…It gets worse before…
……………………………….it gets better.
I heard these words as I fell – an astronaut sucking on a near-empty oxygen tank
plunging down a rabbit hole.
Who said them? I can’t remember. Ground Control, maybe, on whose couch I’d been riding for 60, then 90 minutes a week, spilling my guts for the discounted rate of six 20-dollar bills, which I’d remove from an ATM up the street on Castro before each session, later ducking into Walgreens for a Cherry Coke Zero, all the while feeling like someone behind me was getting set to toss a grenade at me. Do people get grenaded on Castro Street? I mean literally grenaded? No. But reason couldn’t touch me in those days, just after I’d found the father-son-incest-erotic-skincrawling-get-the-fuck-away-from-me stories on the fucking internet.
Grenades at work, grenades on Market Street, grenades on MUNI. They were all flying my way, the poor astronaut in a sweat-soaked business casual shirt. More than once Ground Control found me hiding in his waiting room a good 90 minutes before our session. I’d wave my iPhone at him, ear buds firmly in place, as I pretended to rifle through my bag. “Don’t worry, plenty to do here, I know when our session starts! Haha!” Truth was I just felt safer in there.
Maybe I heard those words from some other poor rabbit-hole-plunger, one of the shut-in dudes I’d chatted with in online forums where those of us in various stages of the shut-in process hung out, dudes who spoke their own shared language, using words like perp, as in, “Who was your perp, bro? Mine was my uncle.” Or simply letters. T for therapist. As in, “My t tells me it gets worse, bro, before it gets better. Meanwhile my disability is about to run out.” I got pretty good using bro in a sentence without irony.
I kept falling. I told Ground Control that I couldn’t remember what a feeling felt like. He eventually figured out that me getting molested by Hank the Blank at the age of nine was merely one event in a chaotic childhood. That my favorite childhood memories were the ones where I was alone. That all I felt growing up was lonely and that today I only felt empty. That I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t focus, couldn’t get my work done at work, couldn’t write, couldn’t find the word for..for…fuck it.
But I could talk on his couch, that much I could do. For 90 minutes I’d fill that oxygen tank and hope it would last me the remaining 6 days, 22 hours and thirty minutes…
Then a package arrived from my father.
I had a feeling. I just knew he would send me something. “How did you know?” asked Ground Control, after the fact.
“I just sensed it coming.”
Hank the Blank had disregarded my plea to leave me in peace for the rest of our lives, and sent me a package that contained everything, he said in the accompanying letter, that he could find in his “Mike File.” Old family photos, graduation ceremony programs, newspaper clippings. He told me he thought I might want these things, as if what he were giving me was a gift, though it felt like a sucker-punch. Here’s everything I have of you. I don’t want it.
The rest of the letter was such a masterful example of…what’s the word? I can’t…can’t… fuck it, here’s what he said:
1. Hank the Blank was in a lot of pain because I no longer wanted to talk to him, and he really wanted me to know exactly how much pain he was in, and how all of it was my fault.
2. He would like to have a relationship with me, but only if I agreed to “shield” him from my anger.
3. He and my stepfather were getting married in the spring, and all the family would be there, but I wasn’t invited unless I could agree to number 2 (see above).
4. He hoped my therapist would help me see the “big picture,” a.k.a. all the things he had brought into my angry, ungrateful life aside from child molestation.
5. He assumed that I no longer expected to be included in their will. In either case, he and my stepfather agreed that I shouldn’t be “rewarded” for blogging about this very delicate matter, which I had entirely misconstrued and then advertised to the internet.
6. No matter what I said or did, he’d still be my father.
I’d like to say that I was all like, psssht, no sweat off my…don’t let the door hit you in the…
And maybe I pulled that off for about 48 hours. But I kept falling
Couldn’t think for shit at work. Sat paralyzed at my desk, as if I getting up and moving would lead to my death. Sometimes got up and moved and didn’t die but found an empty office, closed the door, barricaded it, turned off the lights, and lay on the carpet for two hours.
Went home at night on BART checking my six for grenade-tossers, locked the front door behind me, climbed the stairs, took the dogs out back to pee, then back upstairs, into the bedroom, closed the door, pulled the blinds, lay in bed getting kissed by dogs, flipped on Netflix streaming and watched docs about soldiers coming home all fucked up from Iraq.
Then one morning I pulled myself out of bed and emailed work and said that I couldn’t come in for a while, I wasn’t sure how long. And for the second time in a year I went to Kaiser and told them that despite my totally amazing husband and my loving dogs, and my house, and my friends, and my punch card at the pharmacy, that I couldn’t stop thinking about ending it all.
February, fell down a rabbit hole. Turned around to take a hard look at some hard times and fell head-first.
falling. Every time I thought I’d hit the bottom I just kept going. I honestly didn’t think it would be this hard.
I’m crazy now. Or crazier, maybe, than I used to be. Me and Alice, down here in the hole. Mentally ill by definition. No straightjackets down here – I tried to get a bed in the loony bin, forgetting that we’d already shut them all down.
So I sit in a law firm by day, sipping my tea with all the Mad Hatters, quietly going bananas in a Banana Republic shirt. I do make this look pretty good.
Chronic PTSD, that’s the label they’ve pinned on me / I have a punch card at the pharmacy.
That’s the lullaby we sing at night, down here in our rabbit hole. It’s been a while – since we last spoke I’ve kept my husband and said good-bye to most of my family. But to you I wanted to say hello.
Less than 24 hours after reading the stories promoting incest that my father Hank had spent the last three years writing and posting to the internet, I got stuck on the rock of forgiveness.
I’d swallowed the pop culture definition, in which my future happiness and security depended upon extending forgiveness to the man who’d molested me as a kid. Hank the Blank, the same man who then, thirty years later, attracted thousands of fans with stories in which young boys were always eager participants in acts that made my skin crawl to read.
If I wanted to be a wise, sober, evolved person, I must forgive. If I wanted liberation from suffering. If I wanted to be a good man.
I went there immediately. I went there first. And it felt fucking horrible.
Then I read Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, and I came to this passage:
Some survivors attempt to bypass their outrage altogether through a fantasy of forgiveness. This fantasy, like its polar opposite (revenge), is an attempt at empowerment. The survivor imagines that she can transcend her rage and erase the impact of the trauma through a willed, defiant act of love. But it is not possible to exorcise the trauma, through either hatred or love. Like revenge, the fantasy of forgiveness often becomes a cruel torture, because it remains out of reach for most ordinary human beings. True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution.
It was only when I read that passage that I felt something like liberation. That I got unstuck. For 31 years I’d tried to be a good boy. I’d crammed 98 percent of my feelings into the farthest darkest corners of myself.
I honestly couldn’t answer Ground Control when he’d ask me what I felt about something. Here I was, the “sensitive” kid, the “sweet” man, and I had no fucking clue what I felt.
“I know depressed,” I told him.
“That’s not a feeling,” he said.
Shit, I thought. I had 31 years of feelings to vent. 31 fucking years. I better start now.
I once remarked to the Manly Fireplug that I had a lifelong attraction to bad boys. Friends or lovers, it didn’t matter. I liked the boys who could tell the world to fuck off.
“That’s cause you’re a bad boy,” he said. It was one of those ah-ha moments. But that was a few years ago, and I stayed stuck on the rock.
After I found Hank’s stories and lost my mind, after I bought a knife for self-protection and positioned myself so that nobody, nowhere, was behind me, so that I could watch everyone and suss out their motives, after I tore Hank the Blank a new one over the phone, after I came home from work every night drenched in my own sweat, after all of that, I gave myself permission to be angry, petty, sullen, and stubborn. I dropped reasonable, diplomatic, and forgiving. I wouldn’t torture myself in the pursuit of “fairness.”
I told myself that if I fucking wanted to say fuck on Dogpoet, I’d fucking do it.
Sometimes a well-meaning person tells me I need to forgive. That it’s the key to my happiness. And sometimes it feels like a cobweb on my face that I just brush off. And sometimes it feels like control, like Hank the Blank himself is imposing his will, trying to bend me to his own fucked-up purpose, and I can’t get away from that person fast enough.
Look, I get it. We don’t want to see people we like suffering. We want to imagine that there could be a tidy resolution to pain, and we gently push our loved ones in that direction.
But there’s nothing tidy about child abuse. There will never be a day in my life that I won’t be affected by it. It’s fucking family. It’s primal. It’s everything. It cuts deeper than anything else, working its way into our marrow. We don’t “walk away” from it. We can’t.
I tried the tidy resolutions and the peremptory forgiveness. I tried whiskey, and meth, and Manhunt, and Playstation, and shoes, and gardening. I got snatches of songs stuck in my head every waking moment for over a year because I couldn’t handle hearing my own thoughts. That way doesn’t work. That way ends with the razor and the gun and the rope.
Look, Hank the Blank isn’t contrite. He doesn’t get it. “It was only an hour of your life,” he told me. Four months ago he made me a promise that he’d seek therapy. I knew it was empty, and I was proven right. Hank the Blank doesn’t deserve forgiveness.
That doesn’t mean that I’ll lug his crap around forever. Four months later I feel less burdened, not more so, because I cut ties with him and decided not to forgive. I’ll feel what I need to feel, once I figure out what a feeling is. I’ll save my love for the people who deserve it.
Spent the morning plugged into a treadmill at Kaiser in an effort to find out why I haven’t been breathing like my old self. Electrodes and wires dangling everywhere. Have they made bionic lungs yet? Are they covered? Will people make fun of my now-patchy chest hair?
While not breathing, I started thinking about stress, which, you know, kind of defeats the purpose. Thinking about stress convinced me that I was suffering a heart attack on Saturday.
“Do you want me to take you to the ER?” asked the Fireplug.
I paused from checking my pulse for the seventh time and whispered, weakly, “Let’s finish this episode of Southland first.”
I crossed a sort of threshold over the weekend, where I stopped looking at stress as a modern badge of honor. I suppose not breathing will convince anyone to entertain the ludicrous idea of slowing down.
When anyone asks me what I’m going to write next, after this family memoir that’s swallowed nine years of my life, after PTSD and therapy and suicidal ideations, I joke that I want to write fiction so that I can just make shit up.
My father, Hank, once took me to a men’s gymnastics meet at the University of Minnesota. I was maybe twelve. Thirteen. His partner joined us. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a non-Olympic men’s gymnastics meet, but you pretty much have your choice of seats. Hank steered us to the second row. And this is where it gets, from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy, batshit creepy.
He broke out the binoculars.
Oh my fucking god we are sitting in the second row and Hank the Blank is looking at the gymnasts through binoculars. Every time he raised those fucking things to his eyes I felt like a huge million-watt spotlight swung over and fixed us in its glare, while a loudspeaker boomed:
HOMOSEXUALS SITTING IN SECTION A, ROW 2!! THREE HOMOSEXUALS!! YES, THE BOY IS ONE TOO! HE WILL NEVER AGAIN BE NORMAL! IN FACT, SECURITY, PLEASE ESCORT THE HOMOSEXUALS FROM THE BUILDING!
The handful of times I’ve recounted this memory to friends I’d stop there, framing it as nothing more than a squirmy-funny anecdote of What It Was Like to Have a Gay Dad.
But there was so much more.
I remember that the gymnasts took my breath away. I remember the smell of sweat and powdered chalk. I remember their smooth round muscles. I remember their nerves and their power – the fluid impossible beauty of their mid-air contortions. I remember my scrawniness, and how small and clumsy and ugly I felt sitting there beside my father, from whom I’d inherited that scrawniness. I remember the yearning – peculiar to gays, maybe – of wanting to be what I also desired. I remember knowing that all of it – my yearning, my father’s yearning, the fucking binoculars – was wrong.
My sexuality was waking up alongside my father’s coming out. And I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to be like him – I didn’t want to be a child molester. A creep. A blank.
I remember how the gymnastics coaches would step in, and help lift the gymnasts up to the rings, and then step back.
I remember how desolate I felt, sitting there, imploding with feelings I didn’t want, and that the man who could have helped me understand them, the man sitting next to me, had proven himself, one night, three years before, to be utterly untrustworthy. The man who had abdicated his fatherhood of me.
Few fathers help their sons understand sex. Or at least, that’s my guess. I don’t mean to suggest that I was special.
Only that I wanted to pull away from Hank, and from the binoculars, and climb somewhere higher in the stands, somewhere up near the back, so that I could watch the gymnasts on my own, not just the parts of them that the binoculars could show, but the whole fucking thing, all of it, the crazy, heart-rending, mid-air opera. The men stepping in, lifting the boys, and stepping back.
For several years after that day in the gymnasium, I’d steal Hank’s porn mags. First Hand, they were called. I was a teenage boy. I’d read those stories and then slip them back in his dresser drawer.
Sex is a goddamn mystery. It’s a distant alien star pushing and pulling us, and we deny it every step of the way. Until we don’t.
It’s funny in a squirmy kind of way to admit that when my father first told me that he’d been writing erotic stories and posting them to an online site, I knew exactly which site he was talking about, because I’d visited it many times.
I never wanted my sexuality to have anything to do with Hank. And so for many, many years I tried very hard never to wonder why I had a thing for older guys. And in recent days, when I’ve forced myself to sit with that wonder for a while, I feel confident in saying I never desired Hank.
Rather, I wanted what I never had. I wanted what those gymnasts had, someone to step in and lift them up to the rings. Someone who’d step back and make room for their miracles.
So this is a very long, digressive, muddled answer – there is nothing wrong with reading those stories. There’s nothing wrong with writing those stories. We all have our shadow sides, and it does us no good to deny them. Consenting adults, be free!
I want that to be clear. My pain and skin-crawling horror of recent events has little, really, to do with the stories themselves. If I’d found out, accidentally, from some other source, that Hank the Blank had written stories about incest and posted them on the internet, it would have been awkward and weird and yeah, I’d probably wonder a little about his inner self.
But that’s not what he did. Hank the Blank wrote stories about incest and then decided to share those stories with the son he’d once molested. A series of decisions that made a couple of things clear:
- He had no remorse, or even the barest understanding, of the long-term effects of molestation.
- Someone that unaware was dangerous.
- His disinterest in attending therapy or examining his actions in any kind of sustained, supervised way, made it unforgivable.
This took some time to put together. Immediately after reading his stories, in those first few weeks, I walked around, shell-shocked and hollow. I couldn’t see anything, let alone make connections.
My own sanity, my own sense of being a man, a human being walking around on the planet, demanded that I leave him, separate myself, climb up, somewhere higher in the stands, so that I could see not just the separate parts, but everything.