S and I warmed to each other and he began to tell me about his escapes, of how on one occasion he hid under a couch for two days, pissing on the carpet until he felt he could leave safely. I had always wondered why it smelled like urine in the common area.
As we established trust we made the leap from telling war stories to making plans, and in the bitter cold of Massachusetts in January we devised a scheme to leave. In hindsight this plan would have been better executed in the Spring.
One night at 12:00 AM we left our bunks. No one woke up, even when we broke the lock that separated us from our shoes and coats. Then we ran in darkness towards the gym and auditorium where we had never played a game or watched a performance.
It was unlocked. We pilfered clothes from a stash in a closet, then made our way to the basement where we hid beneath a tarp behind a boiler. We stayed there for 24 hours. We each had a baseball bat, and in the event that a member of the staff happened upon us we were going to beat them into unconsciousness. This almost occurred. One of the maintenance men came to the basement. I readied myself to attack, but he left after and there we stayed.
To make the hours tolerable I engaged in a pleasure I had not enjoyed for 7 months, which was cursing. These words were edited out of our vocabulary through a number of punitive measures. From then on, every sentence was a proper noun sandwiched between “Fuck”. I still speak this way.
When the next night fell we emerged from hiding. We walked across the campus. S knew the layout of the administrative offices and the plan was for him to enter and steal the petty cash drawer, allowing us to get bus tickets to a destination that was yet to be discussed.
From this point on details become hard to retrieve. I remember walking along railroad tracks and things being fleetingly beautiful. Snow was glowing under a generous moon and the windows of houses gave off orange light. I imagined the families within and how their children might be built right, not crazy or dangerous like me. We talked as though we were kids on an adventure. Eventually we reached a highway. We walked beside it, moving with the big trucks through the snow.
We caught a ride from a trucker. We bought bus tickets to Albany and slept in the mission, smothered in the odor of clothes that never get dry and feet. Eventually we were cast out by the minister. He was not his brother’s keeper.
We split up. We had different survival strategies. I slept under a loading dock on the SUNY Albany campus, then over a heating grate, soaked by rain and feeling death evaluating me, and then I was arrested for vagrancy. A cop threatened to shoot me in the head and leave my body in a ditch and I wished our roles were reversed.
Jerry, a friend of my father’s, picked me up from the police station and began to drive me back to the place I’d escaped from. There was no point in telling him that I would be sitting in a corner in a cold shack and staring at the wall, making up sins so that the staff would consider me to be sufficiently repentant. We stopped at a diner and when he used the bathroom I ran into the woods. Jerry is dead now, killed on a highway off-ramp.
After this I called my parents and told them that this would be the last time they would hear from me. I wouldn’t go back. Being on the street was deadly but at least I was free.
My father eventually arrived. I don’t recall him asking me anything much about where I’d been and what I’d done. These things were mostly boring anyway. I froze. I starved. My life was threatened. As far as I am aware these are the commonplace indignities that homeless people endure.
I drove through the campus of the Desisto School recently. My memories were of darkness, of a hidden cult tucked away from the world and endless distances traversed in the snow. Instead I drove through wealthy New England villages with the usual trappings of ski shops, yoga studios and restaurants, each of them promising an innovative take on farm to table cuisine.
I think I was hoping for ghosts. For an air of menace. For tall grasses encroaching on crumbling buildings that somehow contained relics of the misery doled out within. More than anything I envisioned a tree erupting from the roof of the mansion, life somehow struggling through the rotting carcass of a building that was mortared with the ego of an utterly forgettable megalomaniac.
Instead I felt bored. It was so much smaller than in my memories. Close to the road, only a few miles from a good cup of coffee. All of the buildings had been razed except the building I slept in and the mansion itself. They appeared to have been completely and thoroughly emptied.
There was no opportunity to enter the buildings. The grounds were actively maintained with a landscaping crew mowing the grass. They didn’t give me a second look. Perhaps they were used to gawkers. It all seemed unlikely to me. How did something that did so much damage to so many children have the evil drained away?
But then it is worth saying that some of the evil didn’t drain away. It just moved, dressed up in a sheriff’s uniform. It became a dangerously corrupt piece of shit in a new place. In a failed bid for congressional office, right wing border hawk Paul Babeau came undere scrutiny for his time as headmaster of the school.
Despite his emphatic denial of any knowledge of the punishments being foisted upon the students under his care, in a home movie leaked to the media Babeau stated “They need to feel hopeless; they need to feel depression and complete failure. They have to bottom out and then be able to work through it.” I have been working through it my whole life.
I came back from Desisto School changed in a bad way. While it was beyond a doubt that I entered the school an angry kid I emerged enraged. I lay awake at night fantasizing a wholesale slaughter of the staff and administrators. To admit to such thoughts in the present is the highest breach to a number of taboos, but this is all I got out of the Desisto experience.
My life hadn’t been normal before and it wasn’t normal after. The hostility that I felt against authority figures, suppressed for an adolescent lifetime, turned white hot. I punched trees until my knuckles bled. I terrified my sisters with the enormity of my anger. My father and I circled one another, animals ready to lock horns.
I was enrolled in a public school for damaged kids. All I remember are grey skies and long bus rides. I was choking on myself. I threatened a teacher’s life, tried to leave the school grounds, was restrained by two security guards, and charged with misdemeanors for my threats. This life experience became standard, but it never stopped feeling novel.
In Colson Whitehead’s 2019 novel The Nickel Boys the protagonist of the story comments upon a man who was imprisoned with him in a state run institution: “The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place […] Chickie Pete for example wasn’t solving special relativity- but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”
I don’t want to present the idea that there is a direct parallel between my experience and the plight of an African American boy in a reform school in the 60’s. I have insulation that such young men couldn’t have dreamed of, and more second chances than I really deserve. But still, I know this: Violence bends you. Domination breaks you. It turns you into something that you never wanted to be. And then, when you have finally relaxed into the shape that it has made for you the whole thing shatters. And then you’re nothing at all.