By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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My memory of that night twenty-five years ago remains vivid. I was eighteen, on my way to a dance with my friends. We were street-smart and tough, filled with the kind of macho bravado characteristic of city-bred adolescent boys. A dance meant excitement — girls we had not met or encounters with rival groups. As the night progressed, the dance seemed similar to a score of others we had attended. We danced, tried to impress girls, and slipped out occasionally to sneak a beer. Toward the end of the evening, a friend of mine named Billy exchanged angry words with a boy we didn’t know. The police at the dance broke up the conflict before it grew into a fight.
After the dance, as Billy and I headed for our cars, we heard someone yell to us from a side street. About a hundred yards away stood Billy’s antagonist from the dance. He said, “Come on, let’s finish this.” Billy and I trotted down the street toward him. We were about twenty yards away when another friend, Dennis, cut in front of us to get to him first. I saw Dennis and the other boy exchange words. Suddenly, Dennis stumbled back, doubled over, holding his stomach. It looked like he had been punched. Billy pushed in front of me and ran toward the other kid. In that moment I saw the knife in his hand; Billy did not. A second later he buried the knife in Billy’s stomach. Billy fell back. I carried him to the nearest porch, took off my shirt, and wrapped it around him in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding. As Billy lost consciousness, I whispered an Act of Contrition in his ear. My Irish Catholic upbringing was the only preparation I’d had for the possibility of death.
I could hear the pandemonium behind me as more kids arrived on the scene. When I looked up I saw three of them on the ground, bleeding from knife wounds. Finally, the police cars and ambulances arrived. I learned later that evening that Billy was pronounced dead on arrival at Boston City Hospital. My other three friends barely survived. As I walked home that night I reached in my pocket, took out my own knife, and threw it away.
It took me two months to select the exact spot on Bear Creek Road where I would die. I planned it very carefully. When I drove off from this clearing, my Volkswagen Bug would arch over the shrub-covered cliff, be free for one soaring moment, drop, and disappear into the woods below. I needed to have an almost-empty gas tank, because I didn’t want to start a fire. I didn’t want to damage anything living. I wanted my wreckage to go unnoticed, undiscovered. I just wanted to be erased.
One night my supervisor invited me over for dinner. She kept asking me what was really wrong. Finally, embarrassed and overwhelmed, I started sobbing and could not stop for three hours. I left her and drove home, passing by my suicide site. I walked into our cabin, petted our Siamese cat, and told my wife that I had to leave her. She begged me to stay the night.
The next morning I drove along Bear Creek Road for the last time. I stopped on the side of the road at the spot. I didn’t need it now. I drove on, still afraid to go on living with the pain of her need and my isolation.
In 1974 I found myself in the Ecuadorian rain forest visiting a family of Waorani Indians in the company of an evangelical Protestant missionary named Jim.
Traditional Waorani culture was extremely violent. They viewed all outsiders — meaning almost anybody outside their immediate family circle — as a threat (in truth, most others were a threat to their way of life); they dealt with this by making the concept of first strike a tenet of their society. Their feuds would rage for decades, and they never forgave or forgot. Their neighbors called them Aucas, a Quechua Indian word that means savage.
I had gone to South America alone in an attempt to escape from myself. Another relationship had ended, and I was lonely and withdrawn. My one satisfying personal connection was with a woman who showered me with anonymous compassion the nights I was able to reach her at the local crisis hot line.
I desperately needed to reveal myself to people. But I did not have the courage to do so in a place where so many knew me, especially after having so long shown them a false image of inner strength. Instead, I took the extreme measure of putting myself in a jungle where I would have to depend on the mercy of strangers for my physical survival. I preferred that danger to facing the emptiness within me.
After hooking up with oil prospectors and missionaries for food, shelter, and transportation, I ended up staying with Jim, who was really more of an adventurer and anthropologist than a Christian missionary. By 1974 few Waorani still killed strangers on sight, so I felt relatively safe accompanying Jim when he visited Waorani families still living a nomadic lifestyle within a day’s walk from our camp.
So it was that Jim and I entered a clearing in which an extended family of perhaps fifteen Waorani lived. The women and children scurried to the rear of the communal hut as the men, wearing an odd assortment of old bathing suits or vine and bark covering their genitals, approached us with bowls of masato, a foul-smelling fermented drink.
They giggled and spoke nervously among themselves. One man touched my blond hair. Another examined the stitching on my shirt. A third opened my hip pouch to check inside. Then the headman, short and squat like all the other men, proceeded to ask me the sort of questions he asked of everybody: who were my relatives? Where did I live? Whom did I live with?
The questions were intended to determine whether I was allied with someone with whom he might be feuding. If so, I would be a threat. He simply couldn’t conceive that I came from someplace far outside his forest world, and that there was no possibility he could have a beef with anybody I knew.
I thought it best to simplify. I said I lived by myself beyond the mountains, leaving out details about a son living with an ex-wife, and parents who were as perplexed as this Waorani chief about what I was up to. Jim translated my words, and as he spoke, the smiles on their faces immediately disappeared. Then the headman, looking directly into my eyes, said something that Jim again translated. He said it saddened him to learn I lived alone. He wondered who hunted for me when I was sick or injured, who fought beside me if I was attacked, and didn’t I need children to take care of me when I got old?
His concern touched me deeply. This “savage” had tapped into my vulnerability in a way that no one had before, and I began to cry.
This was a transformative moment for me. It marked the start of an ongoing healing process that has brought me back to family and community. There has been a great deal of pain, and there will be more. But I learned that no matter to what length I went, home was forever inside, and escape was not an option.
Los Angeles, California
One word that comes quickly to mind when one thinks of escape is “prison,” a place from which one would want to escape. But there is in my life a prison to which I escape.
I am among four people who twice a month visit prisoners in protective custody in a state correctional facility. The sixteen men in this unit are segregated from the rest of the prison because the nature of their crimes or their personalities or their reputations puts them at risk of being injured. They’re confined to their cells twenty-three hours a day.
It isn’t to the prison that I escape, but to the hearts and lives of the men themselves. There is something so fundamental about the relationships I have with them, about the topics we discuss, that I experience with these men a clarity I feel nowhere else. With them I can live for an hour or so at the very bottom line of what it means to be human. Together we escape from triviality and that cruel notion of “killing time.” Our time together is limited, precious, rare, and we use it, savor it. They have taught me so much about hope and patience, about endurance and faith, about commitment and forgiveness. They have taught me what extreme pleasure there is in relieving, if only for a few moments, the suffering of another being, and that anyone and any place can be a teacher if I am willing to learn.
On my hardest days, when busyness and worry and responsibility fence me in, entrap and burden me, I check my calendar to see how soon I will be able to escape to prison and the very free men who are living there.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I first noticed the caged monkey after I was already in the back seat of the Dodge. The monkey lunged. The passenger in the front seat said, “Watch out! She bites!”
A few rides later I stood in the rain, stranded, as dawn approached. I was hung over and dispirited when I reached a mining town in northern Pennsylvania. It was Thanksgiving morning and all the people driving past were either returning from church and continuing on to Grandma’s for dinner or heading for the forests on the first day of deer season. A station wagon with ma and pa and four little tykes drove by, and the mother flipped me off. My mouth dropped open. She must have been in church only minutes earlier. Her angry and frightened response to my presence there convinced me to keep my thumb in until I reached the other end of town.
The first time I turned around again to hitchhike, an old Rambler with four hunters clad in orange and red passed me by — but not before they too gave me the finger. By then I’d had enough and gallantly returned their salute.
It wasn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done. The Rambler immediately pulled over, and the doors flew open. The two men in front jumped out and grabbed their rifles from the back-seat riders, who then also got out of the car to follow their friends toward their game — me. To my immediate right was a high electric fence with barbed wire. The town lay about a half-mile behind me on a straight, desolate road. To my left was the forest, the only direction open to me for escape. I figured I had no chance against these hunters with their scopes and rifles.
The feeling of being boxed in and cornered flushed all color and fear from me. I was angry. Angry that the world wasn’t giving me an inch. Angry at the dumb hitching choices I’d made. Angry that these hunters were going to threaten my life because I’d given them the finger.
I raised my suitcase over my head and smashed it down on the road’s graveled shoulder; I thrust my clenched fists into the air and, growling the roar of a furious lion, charged them. Of course, they’d only intended to play with me, to scare me a little. My unrestrained attack caused them to stop in amazement, whirl around, retreat, and hurriedly drive off.
Collapsed in the grass, weak with fear, I laughed until I cried. And then I laughed some more.
There were rules for us men born in the twenties. A man never cries or hugs another man. He is tough, sensitive only in the genitals. He controls his feelings. Three packs of cigarettes a day is OK.
As a good student, I built my wall well. My feelings stopped there. Beyond it was only numbness.
In my teens I raised a pig, Fitzjames, like a pet. We were friends. He trusted me, but I had bought him for food. In time I said goodbye and slaughtered him. No looking back — I was a man then of about sixteen, and proud to help put food on our table. Those were lean times.
Years later I nursed my mother through a devastating terminal illness. We had always been close and now grew closer. Moments after she died, I gently closed her open mouth. I felt such relief for her and for myself, but soon my feelings reached the wall. So I didn’t grieve for her, as I hadn’t grieved for Fitzjames many years before.
At times I did observe strange things. For example, a friend and I were once looking at a painting. It was pretty. I liked the colors. Then I noticed that my friend was shivering. I remember wondering how a painting could possibly evoke that, and I wished I too could have such an experience.
In later years my house was full of books about the mind. But they were for “sick” people — not for me. I never read them.
Once, as a private in World War II, I lost my temper at an officer. I usually controlled my anger, but this time I lost control. It lasted through only a few costly sentences. Needless to say, I never forgot.
A few years ago I began looking toward retirement. The children had left home. It was approaching time to tell “war stories” and discuss my health. At that time a big crack appeared in my wall. I was alone, trying to write a difficult letter. The pile of crumpled papers grew. The circle tightened, and once more I went out of control. That was perhaps the most frightening experience in my life. Fear pushed right through my wall. I must give credit to that wall-builder in me, for now he led me straight to those books.
That day I went crazy then came back. By the next day I knew that I would tear down the wall, and that the process had already started. When I tried again to write the letter, I finished in ten minutes.
Gradually I let go of my fear of losing control. And there was no turning back once I learned to look inward. I discovered there that I could choose how I felt about anything in my life. Before, I had always believed that my feelings were reactions to my environment.
I sometimes wonder why the wall held so long; and more, why it cracked over such a small matter. I still from time to time muse, “What if? . . .” then feel waves of gratitude for what is — that I can cry for joy or sadness, hug people, and shiver on many occasions, including when I see a beautiful painting.
Thoreau wrote, “Oh God, to have reached the point of death, only to find you have never lived at all.” I could have done that. What a narrow escape.
Here in Chicago we have bumper stickers that say, “Escape to Wisconsin.” That’s one kind of escape — cutting loose for a few days from the usual places and routines. (But what sort of lives do we lead, then, if the daily routine is something from which to escape?)
We can also make larger, more lasting escapes, or dream of them. I shook the southern Illinois dust off my feet as a young man and since then have considered, more than once, escaping from the city to which I escaped. Sometimes I wish I could flee this poisonous age, gather my family about me, and leap over the coming evil centuries to some distant future where — possibly — human beings will have learned to live simply and richly again. We will all slip free of life itself someday, willingly or not; we cannot escape that escape.
But the big escapes aren’t my problem. The little escapes are the ones that have eaten away at my soul: the little lies I tell to avoid a confrontation; the nights I read a magazine instead of doing my work, or listen to the radio instead of my own thoughts and feelings; the smiling face with which I cover my anger; all the ways I have of deceiving others and anesthetizing and distracting myself — anything to escape the reality of this moment.
The habit of escape is deadly, whether you run from marriages or sinks full of dishes. It makes you into a kind of human rabbit, always afraid and uncomfortable — though it is fear and discomfort from which you’re trying to escape. I know this too well. It’s my hard and necessary discipline to win back, little by little, the integrity and courage that, little by little, I have lost. I begin by renouncing the daily escapes from the moment and learning again to bind myself to this person, this task, this feeling.
Robert Bly once wrote, “Now more and more I long for what I cannot escape from.” I think that is the longing that arises in a man or woman who has stopped running, who has turned to face reality with open hands — whether to fight or to embrace. It is a longing I hope someday to feel.
Richard A. Stewart
The man stepped in front of me. He grabbed my breast with one hand, and twisted it, hard, while shoving a small knife at my ribs.
“You’re coming with me, lady,” he growled, and began to pull me toward the dark, garbage-strewn alley.
I should have screamed. Surely, I should have panicked. But I’d just been through another hysterical fight with my lover. I had left on foot, after midnight, and I was too drained to respond in the prescribed manner. I guess I just stood there a second. He was very clear to me in the street light, a breath away from my face. His hand on my chest was shaking; I could feel him shiver.
“What’s the matter?” I heard myself ask. “Do you need help? Do you want me to walk with you? I’m going this way. You can come with me if you want.”
I didn’t plan it — I just said it.
He wavered. For a moment I thought he’d melt all over the sidewalk. He backed away, confused, and seemed to shrink to normal size. He ran away.
I cried, finally, tears of rage and relief. I was bruised and frightened, but alive. I had escaped.
I thought wonderful things could happen only to someone else. As for me, I had developed a magnificent talent for pulling the rug out from other people’s moments of joy, and, probably because I’d convinced myself that my sarcasm was full of spiritual wisdom, I held myself above everyone I knew. I considered myself to be kind, gentle, and sensitive, but there was little evidence to support this. Even though I seemed to have normal relationships, I was detached and desperately lonely.
I had played hockey since the age of ten. At twenty-four, I was still playing in a serious university league. I was the captain of my team. It was not fun. In order to prepare myself for a game, I would listen to the loudest, angriest music I could find. I would dance in the middle of the obnoxious sounds and create within myself a steel wall of aggression and anger. I loathed this ritual, but I knew it was necessary for survival on the ice.
In a subtle way, I was using the same techniques to survive the threats of daily life. I sincerely wanted to change, but my efforts to be upbeat and positive brought only very temporary and superficial results.
Then, in the first shift of a mid-season hockey game, I got cross-checked from behind into the boards. I hit the barrier square on my right shoulder. The other player got a two-minute penalty, and I got a severely separated shoulder.
For the next couple of weeks, I experienced unimaginable pain. In the daytime, if I sat perfectly still, it was almost bearable. But at night, even full of pills, I screamed and cried until morning. My girlfriend felt so helpless and sorry for me that she sat beside me all night and cried too.
Gradually the pain subsided. As I became more mobile and started to get back into my daily routines, I was aware of a change. The events of the world had somehow slowed down. There was more time for me to observe and to listen. I realized that for the first time I was more concerned with what was going on around me than what was going on in my head. Every slight emotion touched me dramatically. For the first time, I felt a part of my own life.
The first thing the doctor had said to me at the hospital was that my hockey career was over. I don’t know how exactly, but I know that in some way I caused that injury. It was the only way I could escape. The escape wasn’t in quitting hockey, but in breaking down the walls of fear and anger.
I am an escape artist. I can enter or leave a room without being seen. I have slipped in and out of relationships the same way — unaware of the havoc wreaked around me in the process. This “skill” has been a source of pride since childhood. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve also become aware of the devastation and the cost.
I am staying with him at his house. Many nights I have lain awake in bed, unable to sleep for all the thoughts shoving themselves into my awareness. Do I still love him? How can he be interested in her if he says he loves me? How can he do this to me? Recently I found two poems I wrote to him last year when our romance was wild and new. As I read them, I thought she must now feel that way toward him, seeing all the wonderful things in him that I saw and loved. I find myself hating him for being attractive, for being so warm and generous with her. I climb out of his bed, go into my little room, and, once again, plan my escape.
He fears I will leave him. He says he would never do anything to jeopardize our relationship — he loves me too much. He will just be friends with her. But she wants more. She gives him gifts. She is young and beautiful; he is flattered, attracted. She wants distraction from her empty marriage; she is lonely. He is a good listener. He gives her articles and books to read. He sees her every day at work. He is lonely, too, having left his own empty marriage only a year and a half ago.
If time is the healer, then why has it stopped? We three seem frozen: he’s reaching for me and watching her; I’m waiting for his touch and watching the door. But I am so tired of running. From deep inside comes a desire to stay, to take some chances, and to fight — fight my urge to run from possible pain, sadness, humiliation.
Then I kill the squirrel. He runs in front of my car so suddenly I have no chance to avoid him. Living in the country, I have experienced this before; I’ve felt this crawling agony several times. I never look back, driving away from the animal to put distance as quickly as possible between me and my discomfort. But this time, after a mile or so, I find myself turning the car around and driving back. The closer I get, the stronger I feel the fear and anguish. I pray he’ll be gone. Oh God, what will I do if he’s half-alive? And then I’m bending over the body, doing the one thing I’ve never willingly done before: I am looking at the consequence of an action — my action. I am looking at something incredibly beautiful. Studying his strange feet and delicate tail, I imagine him flying along the treetops, alert and sure-footed. Again it seems as if time has stopped. I’m looking at utter stillness, utter silence, death. Slowly I stand up. I begin to gather some bay leaves and a cluster of wild grapes from the roadside. I begin to cry. I have reached the center of sadness.
At my house, I perform a simple ceremony, with candles and branches from my favorite trees and plants. Then I just sit for a long, long time. No fireworks, no great revelations; only me, and a dead squirrel, in stillness, in timelessness. I bury him at the edge of the forest, circling the grave with a ring of stones. I will visit the grave again. It marks a passage — mine. It marks courage and completion. It marks a beginning.