DESCENT INTO THE SEVENTH CIRCLE
I always looked forward to the drive out to the San Joaquin Valley in springtime. The orchards on my way to the facility for incarcerated juveniles were in full bloom, white and pink blossoms formed a gossamer carpet which invited one to stay in its shade to avoid the certain oppressive heat of the day. But I was on my way to a facility where I consulted regularly to examine and report on forensic cases. Almost all of them were adolescents who were in serious legal trouble, had been convicted and now were doing their sentences.
As usual, the cases for the day were stacked up on my desk. I rearranged them in the order which made sense to me. I preferred cases which were referred by the parole board, because that meant the young man (or “ward,” in the juvenile justice system) was close to being released. My exam and recommendations could have maximum impact shaping their future. There was one in the stack that was referred by the board and the staff. Gordon Sampson – sounded vaguely familiar but I could not place it. Leafing through the file, I found a newspaper clipping from the Oakland Tribune.
Mr. Huckaby’s body remained in the chair at the table where he had been eating. He had been shot twice in the back of the head, execution-style, creating the impression that this was a gang killing of a popular and effective member of the police force. The murder weapon, a police service revolver out of its holster, was found on the table next to the victim. The shots had plunged Huckaby forward onto the plate of food, which was filled with his blood, containing fragments of his skull. Mr. Huckaby’s stepson called the police and identified himself as the killer. He said, ‘I just shot my mom’s husband. I am at home. He is dead. The sergeant on the case, a close colleague of Mr. Huckaby on the force, stated that he was at a complete loss to explain this event. He knew the Huckaby family well. He would have never predicted such an event, given the people involved. The stepson was a model citizen and student, a first-rate football star who had been recruited by the University of Michigan as a running back.
Being an alum and an ardent follower of Michigan football, I always tracked new recruits. This was one of them I had expected to make a difference. I struggled that I was now called to report on his status as a ward in the California Youth Authority.
Gordon was referred by the staff for a consultation before his upcoming parole hearing for a specific reason: the members of the Board and staff could not understand why this phase 4 (highest level of privileges in the system, reached just prior to release) boy would not discuss his committing offense to show that he had developed insight into his crime. He was smart, popular among staff and other wards despite being envious of his achievements on the football field and in academics. Gordon would readily admit to having done wrong, very wrong, but any question about why he did what he did invoked his deep and intransigent silence. The most one could get out of him was a tense and downcast, “I don’t know.” On several occasions staff and board reminded him that without such a discussion, he would not be discharged. He could be held until age 25 for certain and even be re-tried and given an adult, much longer sentence. Everybody was at their wits end. He was an immovable mountain of muscle and silence, polite, respectful. Yes, he had killed his stepfather with two gunshots to the neck. Yet, deep silence as to why. The staff had a quick solution: “Send him to the doctor, let him figure it out.” I was looking forward to doing that. I stepped out of my office as soon as I got the call from the guard in the waiting area. “Doc, I got Sampson here for you.” Before I went to pick him up, I quickly went over essential safety points. Yes, the door opened out. There were two chairs, one by the door would be mine. My alarm pin was working. The phone was next to me. Then, I walked down the hall to the guard station to pick up Gordon.
Gordon looked the athlete. He wore workout clothes. He was called while doing his daily workout in the yard. His muscles rolled in tight definition on his bones, a veritable living anatomical atlas. Sweat covered his face and arms and legs. He moved like a tightly wound coil ready to spring forward at any moment. To do what? I imagined him breaking my neck with a police-hold. Sitting on the edge of the seat, he turned to see me as soon as he saw me. His eyes were focused and intense, as he tried to look relaxed, not intimidated, or worried.
The guard gently pushed him in my direction. “Sampson, you behave with the doc. He is tough on kids that don’t.” The guard, a heap of undisciplined fat looked like a blubbery former football player himself. After the guard spoke, he lit up a grin flashing sets of ivory teeth. Then he exchanged a high five with the young man while striking a Heisman posture, nudging the man-boy in my direction. Gordon got up and came in my direction with cautious small steps, ready to stop at any moment. His face was tightly controlled smooth obedience while is eyes shot darts of worry and irritation.
I walked over with an outstretched hand, palm up. “Hi, Gordon – you must be Gordon. I am Doctor Steiner. You have a meeting with me, right?” I squeezed his hand firmly, his remained flaccid, clammy, and wet. He was afraid. Small wonder: why would a middle aged, grey haired professor of psychiatry from Stanford be safe to talk to for a black murderer? I knew from the staff that he asked not to see a psychiatrist, as he was not “crazy.” He had never seen one and did not like the whole idea. What could they offer him that would help? I had flashes of his hands holding a pistol and pulling the trigger. His fingers dialing 911. I took a deep breath and motioned down the hall with an inviting sweep of my arm and a furrowed brow on my face.
The meeting in my office started out with my short questions, and Gordon’s complicated knot of silence. “The board has asked me to help with your case.” I paused, giving him a chance to say something. He noticed, but his face stayed smooth in a flat politeness. He just asked for a tissue to wipe the sweat of his face. “All right,” he finally said, looking down on the floor. I was not sure what that meant, so I expanded. “You are doing an excellent job in the program. Everybody says so. Kids, staff, teachers all like you. They respect you helping other kids with their schoolwork, board preps, settle them down when they are upset by their families, give them food that your mom brings, let them use your phone to call home, help teachers in the classroom. The only person you are not helping is….” I stopped to let him fill in the blanks. He looked up, expressionless.
“Well, you.” I pointed straight at him. My fingertip hit a wall of granite.
Gordon started sweating again, at rest. “Not sure what you sayin. No disrespect, but I never seen a shrink.”
“Gordon, they want you to talk about what exactly happened.”
“I said I done it.” He sounded like a sullen teenager while avoiding my gaze. A ‘what else do you want’ hung in the air.
“Right. That’s what they call assuming responsibility for your actions. But they want more. They want you to tell them what you think about why you did this. Assure them you won’t do it again. Insight they call that. You give them that, along with the responsibility for your actions, you go on parole.”
“I told mom. And the minister. They know.”
“Now you have to bring it to the staff and the Board.”
He pulled his massive arms up to across his chest. His arms were bigger than my thighs. I imagined being the ball cradled against his chest. Pry that thing loose? Not a chance. My words bounced off him like pearls of sweat. Surely, he had heard all this before. Was he playing dumb? But why?
“I called the police and told them. They wrote down what I said.” He was back on the edge of his chair. For a second I thought he was going to leave, power right by me. He lifted his gaze. It was back to being laser beams fed by a glistening silent fury, fed by a deeper layer underneath his respectful smoothness. Was he even aware of these tightly wound emotions? The image that arose on me was a complicated knot, which could not be undone.
Still, this was a job for me. I had encountered these twisted psyches many times before Working with Stanford elite athletes seeking stoicism as a basis for championship glory had taught me that they struggled similarly to Gordon. I also had found – somewhat surprisingly to me – in our studies of delinquents that this type of person was 16% of incarcerated juveniles here in California. I knew I could help.
THE SEVENTH CIRCLE
The following meetings did not go much further. To detonate the tightly wound silence we settled into a routine of discussing Michigan football. Who would be contenders, who NCAA champion? This discussion flowed easily. But any attempt on my part to shift the focus away onto his high school or family did not move the yardsticks much. I heard some of the staff managing Gordon’s Hall muttering “What are these guys talking about in these sessions?”
The last time I ran into Gordon before the Board Meeting, we were standing in the hall of the administration building. Gordon was on his way to do a copying job in the office. When he saw me, he came over to tell me that his Board meeting was scheduled in two weeks. I told Gordon that I would be at the meeting, as usual. He immediately frowned. “How come?” I could see doubts and re-awakened suspicion. I said, “That is what they usually want me to do, give them a report where you are at.” He nodded with a tortured look on his face. I was invading something. Twisting a knife. Could somebody like me be trusted? Could a middle-aged white man, professor at Stanford, psychiatrist to boot do the right thing by a black teen convicted of murdering his stepfather? He let air escape from his tightly pressed lips, then added “The Board always say these things which I know aren’t right.” “Like?” He waved me off and continued his way to the office. His words were a trickle of boiling blood and flames. He looked disgusted, his clenched fists, and the slapping sound of his steps on the concrete floor gave away the anger he struggled to keep under control.
The Board meeting went as I expected. Three members in attendance. Gordon was the last case. The Board, all upstanding citizens without much expertise in mental health, was tired and ready for lunch. Gordon did them a favor. He was respectful and distant. He briefly answered their routine questions. Then he went into an eclipse of silence when it came to the insight part. Predictably he was dismissed with stern warnings. On his way out, he caught my eye. He looked to be happy to get out of this room. His eyes said “They all can go to hell. They are not going to break me.” In my report I simply said that he was a complicated young man who needed intensive help to put the pieces of this puzzle together. I was happy to do that with him and I believed he could make good progress. One of the Board members, a portly gentleman with a giant belt buckle which barely contained his bowling ball belly, chuckled ever so gently. “Haven’t you tried that already, doctor?”
I said “No. What made my interventions with Gordon so unproductive was his being unfamiliar, even threatened by delving into his emotions. In this he was like many elite athletes I had treated. The pressure to be perfect, stoical, calm was always part of the game of football. I could almost hear his coach screaming “walk it off Gordon, look forward, not back!” The thought that emotions could be informative and useful was alien to him.” Here I looked directly at Mr. Belt Buckle, who in anticipation of the end of the meeting had plopped his boat shaped Stetson on his balding head, ready to leave. I asked for 6 months of intervention for Gordon. The goal: get him to show insight and readiness for discharge. After some deliberation I was granted this request.
Walking back to my office, I saw Gordon again in the hall. I asked him to come to my office so we could discuss the meeting and its outcome. He came although he looked hesitant and mad. I closed the door and summarized what I had said. He looked out the window as I spoke. “Six months?” His anger was palpable. “Yes, gives us a chance to work on the insight question and prepare you for going home. I also want your mom to come in and help me understand what happened, and whether she is ready to have you back.”
Gordon looked annoyed. “Dr. Steiner, can we leave my family out of all this? They have enough to deal with. And I don’t want to get into adult business. Really.”
“I can understand that. But the Board really wants kids to go home to their families and they have to say that they are ready to accept you back. In fact, let me call mom right now and set up the first meeting. Please give me the best number for her to be reached. What is her name?”
“LaSheeba.” He squeezed the syllables out between lips as tightly closed as they could be. “LaSheeba Sampson.” I evidently violated a firm rule in the family. But I thought that we had enough of a relationship to do what I know I was expected to. I also might need LaSheeba’s help to break up this logjam.
I agonized for a long time over how best to start the meeting with LaSheeba. I had a small script I had written out to get things started. When I went to pick her up from the visiting room during family hours, I was completely surprised. She had a fine boned face with her son’s café au lait skin tone. The way she sat on these cheap plastic benches made her look the splitting image of Nofretete the queen of Egypt. Not a shadow of uncertainty or demureness. She was not to be deterred, guards, concrete walls, steel fences and all. It felt like I was going to be taught a lesson.
“Dear Ms. Sampson. I am so sorry for your losses – first your husband and then your oldest son. I wish I could make it all go away. I can’t. But I can help Gordon and you understand and start anew.” LaSheeba turned her head to me. She calmly looked into my eyes for quite some time. Then she said: “Doctor, let us have bygones be bygones and go forward in God. He can and will help.” Not a tear or even moisture in her eyes, her voice calm and steadfast. I should not have been surprised. She was the daughter of a well-known preacher in Oakland, famous for standing up for his community. She also gave me the steely wall treatment. I studied her appearance to find any hints that she was not at ease, she was suffering, wanting help. I got stuck on her fine boned beauty, her gorgeous grace. Her eyes were mesmerizing, a deep amber with green speckles. Her teeth two perfect rows of ivory. Her hands moved languidly parting blue waves of adversity.
I quickly shifted into my clinician mode. I needed more on Gordon’s background, but it was hard to shake the feeling I had to prove myself. LaSheeba spoke clearly, uninterrupted by emotions. She summed up what I needed. Mother became pregnant with Gordon at the age of fourteen. Her father had been a high school principal and a preacher himself, so his daughter’s pregnancy was a scandal. The teenagers married. Initially all went well. Her husband was set on a large family and forbade birth control. LaSheeba had four children by the time she was twenty-three. By then she and her husband were arguing incessantly, and they finally divorced. It was then that LaSheeba was able to get her own life going. She was accepted at the University of California at Berkeley and eventually received her bachelor’s degree in criminology. She got a job with the San Francisco Police, where she met Bill Huckaby. Bill’s commitment to serving the community was impressive; he was a Protestant minister and a community activist. He was in the army reserve. Bill and LaSheeba got along well for a year, so they decided Bill should move in with the family. Bill did so. The children had never met him. LaSheeba and Bill both thought that this was adult’s business, and the kids just would have to accept it.
LaSheeba was surprised when the children, especially Gordon had a hard time
with this move. The problem was partially resolved when Bill was called into active duty in the war in Iraq. He was needed as a pastor and soldier. Much to Bill’s misfortune, he was present when an errant SCUD missile hit a tent of some 100 new arrivals from the states, causing heavy casualties. All that Bill could do was minister to the dying and the surviving. He did so with great distinction, but it left him with all the classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was never diagnosed and did not receive any treatment for it.
LaSheeba noticed big changes in Bill when he returned to the family. He drank heavily, was extremely strict with all the kids, especially Gordon, whom he accused of wanting to take his place and crowding him out of the family. The slightest disagreement or disobedience would result in vicious berating and even beatings at the hands of stepfather. This progressed and spilled into school. Noticing a black eye on Gordon one day at school, a teacher called child protective services to report her observation. The agency investigated but took no further steps, feeling that the boy’s stepfather as a minister and officer of the force would not commit such violence. Gordon himself ended up calling Child Protective Services with similar results.
LaSheeba said all this with a resigned stoicism which I found difficult to empathize with. “They did not do their job,” she said, lowered her head and waited for what I was going to say. Then she added “Let me talk to Gordon and encourage him to work with you on this.”
“I would really appreciate that. We all want him to leave from here as soon as possible. It is my job to help him tell the truth. One shot is understandable, maybe even forgivable. But two? Anger and even fury, yes, but the second one, revenge? The board also will need to know whether you are willing to have him back in the family. One could understand if you did not.”
LaSheeba looked at me, leaned her head back and blew – barely audibly- air out of her nostrils. “I am his mother, right?” I added in my mind, “And the queen of Egypt.”
PULLING THE TRIGGER
The next time I met with Gordon he seemed to be more present, in the room with me, not constantly hiding behind misunderstandings. He even wanted to tell me some more details about the antecedents of the fatal shooting. LaSheeba had done her part. Now it was my turn. Despite his mother’s encouragement, it wasn’t easy for him to share his insights with me and work on his release. Lots of stops and starts. The story was like the water of the sea at low tide, splashing onto the beach with gentle murmurs, draining from view as soon as the sea withdrew again into itself. The only sign that water had landed was the glistening of slippery shifty dark sand the sea left behind.
Gordon’s account of the murder began with a description of the night before the shooting. Gordon remembered that he heard noise from his parents’ bedroom. As the stepfather had become increasingly concerned about intruders, Gordon decided to check this out. Bill’s preoccupation with danger invading his family was most likely a function of his injured, untreated mind.
“I walked down the hallway, and all I could hear was my dad yelling at my mom. And she was yelling back. But she sounded afraid, like he was going to do bad things to her. You know, ‘Bill, no! Don’t!’
“So, I opened the door to the bedroom, and I saw my mother . . .”
Here Gordon sighed and paused. I leaned forward to encourage him. Often at this point, patients will break into tears and spill the story in a gush, in a welter of weeping and words. Gordon sighed a second time. The water was recoiling. I could feel the pain in his withdrawal. I noticed the quiver of his lower lip.
“What happened?” I said finally.
“He was in bed with her.”
“It was night, right?”
“He was on top of her.”
His face went back to being impassive, as though he had just told me that today was Monday.
“And she was crying. He had his gun to her head.”
I did not know what to say to that. “Hold on, you must have been scared out of your mind! Where to even begin. Bill was threatening to kill her?” I felt the impact Gordon was wrestling with at this moment, his terror, his rage, and his paralysis. Whether he could do anything to stop Bill from killing her, and him, right then and there. Gordon reached for a statue in the hall, ready to strike, but strike what? I could not square this maelstrom of thoughts and emotions with how Gordon now appeared. His expression hadn’t changed. He remained almost . . . sweet looking, with a shadow of a smile on his lips. “What did you feel? Could you even think?” I asked.
Gordon did not continue. But I had the impression that his reticence had little to do with any inability to describe the scene. Rather, he just didn’t want to go through all this again or make his family look bad. I felt like I was prying.
“He was forcing her….” Gordon’s voice trailed off again.
I waited. Finally I said, “To have sex with him?”
“Bill looked over his shoulder at me and . . . he pointed the gun at me and . . .”
Gordon shrugged, keeping his eyes on the backs of his hands, on his junior high school graduation ring.
“He said, ‘You keep sticking’ your nose into an adult’s business, you’ll be next!’”
“Did you know what he was talking about? Did you think of calling for help?”
“No. They’d been fighting a lot recently. And then they always settle down again. I left.”
“What did your mother do?”
“Not…I don’t know. She stopped hollerin.”
After a long pause I asked him what the next morning was like.
“We had breakfast.” The tone was more like what else would you do in the morning? I awaited more information, but there was none.
“What kind of breakfast?” Not a great question, I remember thinking. But he took up thread.
“Corn flakes, I think. Some toast.”
“Yeah, for dad. I don’t drink coffee.”
“How were your parents dressed, Gordon?”
He leaned forward and looked to the side, trying to remember the details. His back pressed against the T-shirt, his athletic musculature causing it to rise and fall in valleys and hillocks.
He continued looking to the side. I waited. My silence should weigh on him. In my own eagerness to help and soothe, I forgot that basic tenet of psychiatric interviewing. I slowed down the pace of my questions. “Did you and your parents talk about what had happened the day before?”
“Did you remember?”
“Yeah. I ate my breakfast. And then went to school. They went to work.”
Gordon’s tone still was decrescendo: Oh leave me alone. This was a family problem, none of it my affair. I continued in my more measured pace. More information was necessary because I knew the Board would not be satisfied with all these clipped monosyllables and muscle-bound silence. They would want to be taken from this breakfast to Gordon picking up his father’s service weapon and executing him.
“I came home from football practice. You know, it was late . . . like 6:30 in the evening or something.”
“Your dad was there?”
“Yes, my mother had fixed our dinner and left it in the fridge.”
“She wasn’t there.”
“No, nobody was there. It was just him and me.”
“So, did you sit down and have dinner with him?”
Gordon’s father merely grumbled something at him and continued eating. Gordon didn’t want to sit with him because he knew his father would just give him trouble for something . . . for not cleaning up his room, for the “B” he got in English on his last test, for coming home so late.
“Then what?” I asked.
“I saw his piece, hanging on the coat rack.”
“I took it out and walked into the dining room, and I . . .”
At this, Gordon took aim with his right index finger at something before him, below him.
“I pointed the gun at his head and shot him.”
He looked away toward a window.
“Twice.” He shrugged and gave me a faintly apologetic smile. “Then I put the gun down on the table next to him.” Gordon held his hands open before him, the imaginary pistol now having disappeared into the air. “I dialed 911.”
“What made you pull the trigger?”
“He threatened me. I had no idea what he meant by ‘You are next.’ Somebody had to take care of him. And nobody was there except me.”
“I understand you were scared and angry. But what was the second shot? He was dead, right?”
We sat in silence for several minutes. Gordon was breathing heavily. Then he forced himself to say, “I wanted to make sure.” He hissed like a pneumatic door.
We sat silently. I waited for him to come back into the office, look at me. When he did I extended my hand again. His handshake was warm and dry.
“Will you be able to say all this at the Board meeting?”
Gordon just shrugged and wiped the sweat off his brow. “Sure” he said, “if you think they want to hear this.” I was not so sure of him being sure. I was still in shock. I strongly emphasized that he had insight into why he had committed his offense in my report. I underlined that he was just acting in a familiar role that fateful evening: he took care of his mother, his family.
At the next meeting, the Board was satisfied. I congratulated Gordon. He smiled politely. “So I get to go for real?” There was the shadow of a doubt in his voice, and I thought I detected a quiver. We went through the next steps together. Then we called LaSheeba. She thanked briefly thanked me for the call. I said that I was happy for them. I had Gordon repeat the steps to follow. The call ended after five minutes.
In preparation for the release, Gordon was transferred to an Elite unit of older inmates who were like him on Phase 4, often asked to step up and help with services for younger kids. Stays there were short, in the order of months. But such exit prep stays also had their challenges. Gordon was aware of these, having lived through them on his own unit, after his arrival. Kids and staff usually wanted to know about who the newcomer was, what crime he had committed, how much time he was supposed to do. And, of course, what kind of cell phone he had so they could steal it at the first opportunity. Asking for the phone was the first step. The kids on the unit also were extremely interested in physical facts – what exercises the newbie did, how much he could lift or pull, how many reps there were in these impressive biceps. The most senior kids then would set up bets and even fights to get concrete proof of what was possible.
Gordon looked worried when he heard about the transfer. “Why can’t I just go straight home? Mom wants me, she said that at the meeting.” He was worried he would get challenged, especially when everybody found out about his football background. Getting caught up in any of this would mean he would lose privileges and might even get a time add. “Some of these guys I know from the hood. They were selling and then some, running women, all that. And then there is the Black versus White versus Latino thing. Every gang will be on my back to join them, work for them when I get out, promising me connections, associates and money.” The furrow did not leave his brow.
I tried to calm him by speaking to the fact that he had successfully avoided all this while in the current program.
“Yeah, aw-right, but here is just them puppies and wanna-bes. On the exit hall, these guys are the real thing. And I don’t even know any more how to talk to them, they have their own way of talking, know what I’m sayin?. If I come at them with your stuff, like ‘Look deeper at this or that, let’s talk it out, let’s agree to disagree’ they will think I am some sort of…”
He drifted again, then again added “Know what I am sayin?”
I said that if I were him, I would develop two languages. And stick to the fact that you need to get out to take care of your family, stay away from trouble, and are not interested in joining up with anyone outside of the family for now.
“You make it sound easy. I know it’s not. But I will try, for my mom’s sake. I will stay cool. Their gang program here is a joke, but you are right, I can do this again. Two languages, huh?”
“With all the fixins.” I smiled encouragingly and gave him a high five. “And whenever possible, I will come over and work with you on this and that.”
“Coach, I got this,” he said, this time with a wide grin. Then he left for chow.
A month later, I had only gotten a couple of visits in. The staff did not like for me to disappear from the unit I was assigned to. I explained the need Gordon and others in his situation had for some continuity in their preparation for going home. Staff grumbled. To them I was abusing the system not to work. Yet another obstacle, but despite all the grumbling I persisted and met their stubbornness with my intransigence.
At one point I had a longer absence. When I returned, one of the first things I did was to go over to the exit unit, wanting to meet with Gordon. When I arrived, I was met with confusion about his whereabouts. Someone said: “He went home, didn’t he?” To which another one added, “No, I think he was in lock up and then transferred to an adult prison down at Tehachapi.” I felt my heart beating. “What happened?” I almost yelled at the guard.
The ensuing discussion was not particularly fruitful. I went to the office and asked for Gordon’s file. It was gone. I still had LaSheeba’s telephone number. When I dialed it, the usual AT&T robot came on: “You have reached a number that is no longer in service or disconnected. If you feel you have reached this number in error, please hang up and dial again.”
I dialed it several times, with the same result. As I put the phone into my vest, I was flooded by images: Gordon in a Michigan uniform, scoring touchdowns against Ohio State at will. Others were darker and more foreboding – Gordon at Tehachapi, desperately fighting off all those who thought he belonged there, was theirs to keep, invade and insult. In the darkest circle of hell, Gordon had been expulsed from the family, cut lose, wandering the streets of Oakland, hooked on drugs and extremely sick.
I picked up the phone again, this time to dial our admin. I had to track him down through parole, prison, police, public health records. In the haze of this pursuit an ugly dragon kept raising his head: What if I had been wrong? What if he became one of kingpins of crime in his hometown? What if……