I drove through the campus of the Desisto School today. My memories of the place 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. Zoning laws prevented a steady winnowing away of the land until the houses were cheek to jowl and the darkness that only a conifer forest can produce was replaced with the blinding glare of the American suburb.
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. A stake through the heart of a monster who wasn’t quite dead enough.
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, the gymnasium that served as a waystation on my way out and the mansion itself. They appeared to have been completely and thoroughly emptied. The mansion was collapsing on itself.
There was no opportunity to enter the buildings. While the buildings were profoundly fucked the grounds were actively maintained with a landscaping crew undertaking the seemingly impossible task of mowing the grass. They didn’t give me a second look. Perhaps they were used to gawkers stopping in. Maybe it happened everyday. It all seemed unlikely to me. How did something that did so much damage to so many children have the evil so thoroughly 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. Sometimes these fantasies were an action movie pastiche in which I would toss out pithy one-liners as I stood in the center of the dining hall doling out punishment. Other times it was a slow stalking of them through the night, eliminating them one by one. 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. I very quickly became a member of an AA group in my area and thought that this would be sufficient to heal me. It wasn’t. I boiled over. 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 like 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.
A teacher failed me for a paper that addressed the political underpinnings of technological development. I thought it was very smart and challenged her assessment. An F? At the very least I should have been passed with a C. She dismissed my objection. I hadn’t written for the question.
I was incandescent and launched the kind of verbal assault that only a teenager steeped in violence can achieve. I pointed out the herpes sore on her lip. I told her that I would murder her whole family. Then I walked from the room, intent on leaving this school and all its ilk behind.
The teachers at this school had some kind of panic button. As I walked down the hall towards the door I was confronted by two security guards tasked with keeping us from leaving. I threw a futile roundhouse punch at one of them and then ended up pinned to the floor for a time, the institutional tile cool on my cheek. It was hard to breathe.
They deposited me in a closet that served as a stop-gap padded room in this place. I slammed my head against the bricks as they stared at me. Blood ran down my face. I didn’t care. This would be my last day in a school of any sort for years. It would mark the beginning of another boring journey as a person who was peripheral to the world, just hanging on as I chewed the gristle of my life, ruined before it began.
To close, 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: “Chickie Pete and his trumpet. He might have played professionally, why not? A session man in a funk band, or an orchestra. The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cure diseases or perform brain surgery, inventing shit that saves lives. Run for president. All those lost geniuses- sure, not all of them were geniuses, 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 the plight of a black boy in a reform school in the 60’s and myself. But then I do. Once the world has convinced you that you are not worth saving you turn into something else. Something abnormal, a stripped and sprung cog in a machine that insists on punishing you for the horrors it has already inflicted.
Violence bends you. Violence 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.