Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dear Wally: It's me. A judger.


I had to slap myself mentally yesterday, and I hope Wally Lamb would be proud of me for it.

Our neighbor is an outdoorsman of sorts, if you can call someone who putzes around in a bus-sized RV outdoorsy. It is a tan behemoth with dull stripes of brown, worn out by the miles and too many hours in the sunlight. He parks it parallel to our back fence. Once while working in the yard I looked up to see him sitting in the driver's seat, eating a sandwich. I imagine it to be peanut butter and jelly. I looked away quickly, embarrassed at catching him in what felt like an intimate moment. I glanced covertly back a few minutes later, but a curtain had been drawn across the windshield. I didn't know they made those things. Perfect, I suppose, for blocking the sun's rays or probing eyes.

In good weather he periodically pulls the RV out and takes it for a drive. The skyline looks different without it.

We've taken to calling him Kent.

He lives with his elderly mother, a sweet woman who wonders why the neighbors aren't more friendly. His hair is a spiky shock of white and gray over round, startled eyes. Hers is deep black, and her makeup is flawless. She is all crimson lips, powdered wrinkles, and sparkling purple eyeshadow. She owns the house. He owns the RV.

A few weeks ago a car pulled up, towing a camping trailer. It's not as big as the RV, but plenty big enough. The whites are whiter and the finish still retains some shine. Several times we've watched the vehicles dance; the RV pulling out and the trailer changing positions, the RV returning and nestling in to the camper's side like a pair of land Belugas.

We aren't sure who the new person is, male or female, but we've taken to calling him/her Kent Jr. Which brings me to yesterday.

When we first moved in, the single mom of five who owned the house before us stopped by one day to check for mail. She asked "Do you have young children? No? Well that's good because the guy who lives over there is a sex offender." She went on to describe how he'd invited her kids to watch movies in his basement. Her youngest are a set of 6 year old twin girls. They shared a bedroom at the rear of the house, adjacent to the back door which didn't lock. Her eyes were a mix of disapproval and glee, and the tween girl at her side nodded in collusion.

I took the news to Google, which confirmed its truth.

Wally Lamb's latest novel is called We are Water. A key construct of the plot is the sexual abuse of one of the main characters by an older cousin. The cousin's name is Kent. It is an intricately woven story, powerful and sad and satisfying in typical Wally Lamb style. A few weeks ago, I chatted with him a bit about the book and about this character. We talked about the difficulty of creating fully fleshed villains, and he said that it was hard to create humanity in Kent, but that he hoped he'd been successful.

Wally has volunteered in a women's prison for nearly two decades. He teaches writing, and has read a lot of stories written by the inmates. He cites a staggering percentage of sexual abuse among their histories. Through this, Wally has insight into the connectedness of victim becoming villain and the cycle that perpetuates. Insight which most of us will never have, nor would we want.

Yesterday morning the shuffling of recreational vehicles was underway again. I watched the camper being pulled by a black SUV, and called out "Kent Jr. is on the move!" The name became a running joke after Dolce and I read We are Water together. It gave us a way to name our discomfort and wariness without requiring discussion. But yesterday I felt ashamed of myself for saying it. For reducing this person, these people, to caricatures. No humanity was involved in the Kentishness I had created. No recognition of a tortured soul or a reformed mind or the simple presence of the very image and imprint of God. Just a caricature of a child abuser and his (imagined) partner in crime.

I'm still ashamed at the memory.

So Wally, if you are out there, and God, who I know is listening, please forgive me. And please be proud of me for my shame.

Today I will go back to that sex offender website. I'll find out my neighbor's name. And the next time I see him, I will say hello.

9 comments:

  1. This is quite good, if not a bit confusing as I first read it. The jump to "Wally lamb's latest Novel" took a few lines for me to make the correlation between the neighbors but in the end, there seemed a surprising result. As I read it I realized that there are two victims in sexual crimes...the victim and the perpetrator, not to mention the poor mother who wonders why the neighbors aren't more friendly. It's natural to make caricatures of the people in our lives with which you have no real contact. Of course it's unfair but it is in the margins of our day to day lives where other worlds live and often thrive without our attentions. I enjoyed this piece.

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  2. Thanks for reading it, and for your comments! I wondered about the confusing nature of the wandering thought process. I love your phrase about worlds that live and thrive without our attentions. I've thought about that a lot: how unlikely it seems that so much exists outside our own little universe of being.

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  3. Life and awareness are the best teachers. The young girl with her mother is experiencing a closed mind and a snarky attitude, which she may well make her own one day. You are experencing life differently, with a mind open to the thoughts and events of others. My favorite quote is from Carl Rogers. It has become my mantra. I'll begin by paraphrasing what I remember of his message:

    Before meeting a new patient for therapy, I remind myself that I am not perfect. I am human, and as a human, I have my own faults and fears, weaknesses and worries, successes and strengths. If I were perfect and not human, how then could I have true empathy for this person who is about to tell me his deepest fears? He, too, is human. He is not perfect, and is trying to do what he can to be a better human. Perfect is not human; perfect could not relate to his human imperfection, and so could not listen to him with true empathy, and could not help him find a way to make things better within himself. I am Human. I am not Perfect. But I am Enough.

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  4. Love it Terry. Thank you for passing it along.

    One of the prayers our priests use during the celebration of the Eucharist refers to it being "more than enough" and that we can also become more than enough. It's a lovely sentiment, given how flawed we are.

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  5. "Hi, neighbor. Glad to meet you; I found your name on the sex offender website."

    The need to forgive--as a Christian--does not either justify calling someone else closeminded (for doing what she feels necessary to protect her daughter) or in fact to open yourself up to repeated contact with a dangerous person.

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  6. Thanks for the read, and for your comments Carol. My problem with the previous owner wasn't with her judgement, but with her glee and hypocrisy. (If I had two little girls (and several older ones) living here, I'd be flipping OUT.) But the story on that front is complex.

    (Click here if to read more on that: http://www.smdewitt.com/2014/05/on-mowing.html)

    She didn't -want- to move; she got kicked out by the owner. So the glint in her eye had the sparkle of sour grape juice. Meanwhile, as I said, she never bothered fixing the broken lock on the door adjacent to the twin's bedroom, which faced the back fence. And the windows to that room weren't installed properly, so anyone could have pushed on them and they'd fall into their room. Dave told us one story of finding the two little ones lying in the middle of the road in the dark of night playing some game, and claiming that they had permission to be outside.

    In other words, I don't think she was simply warning me. At least, it sure didn't look or feel like it.

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  7. This topic always gets me angry. I've always believed that anyone that could hurt a child or animal needs to be punished severely. This article brought to mind that as a gay man who has been judged (albeit in my mind only) nearly all my life, that many people have said the same about us. One may not agree or like what another does, but it's not for us to judge. I still don't feel it's right and will watch out for these people.

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  8. Thanks for reading the piece Jim! It's an emotional and complex issue; one I was hesitant to even take on. But at the bottom of it all is our humanity. Even within the abuser. Our humanity itself calls out and hungers for dignity. Who am I to withhold it?

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