Every writer loves a good paradox. Our brains are trained to sniff out life’s Catch 22’s and spin them into plot points:
A doctor must decide between saving a pregnant mother or her unborn child. A cop with a drug dealer son must choose between loyalty to the job and loyalty to his family. A general has to decide between bombing a village or letting an international terrorist slip away…
These agonizing decisions are the beating heart of good fiction. They keep the pages turning and the reader engaged. But in real life, such dilemmas are a lot less fun. Consider the most recent in my world…
You’ve probably heard me talk about the blind man. He’s been in prison since 1986. I met him a couple of months ago when I moved into my current dormitory. He challenged me to a game of knock gin with his Braille playing cards and we’ve been cool ever since. I walk with him to the chow hall for meals, and most evenings we listen to Braves games together.
For the record, I am not friendly and I don’t require camaraderie. I think of myself as fully self-contained. I could do years on this bunk without speaking to a soul and be perfectly fine. I really prefer the conversation in my head to the conversations around me, and get cranky whenever someone interrupts. But I was intrigued by the blind man. Although my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, touches on a form of blindness called retinopathy, I’ve never actually hung out with a blind person and I was curious to learn how accurate my assumptions were. Plus, this dude has a sunny disposition in spite of his handicap and I admired his self-sufficiency.
The more I got to know him, the more I liked him. He told me stories about riding bicycles while flanked tightly by his two brothers who kept his course true, about the one time he drove a car (!), about his proficiency at the sport of wrestling as a kid in the 50s. When I asked him about the school for the blind where he lived from ages 5 to 18, his usual smile faded. “There were some nice people there, but some were just plain evil.”
I shouldn’t have looked him up. I usually don’t. Nobody is in prison for going to church, and I’d rather not know the sordid details of people’s criminal histories. But there are a couple of exceptions: 1) if we’re cellmates; and 2) if we’re friends. Then I need to know.
In hindsight, it was pretty obvious. What else could he be in prison for? Racketeering? Arson? A blind armed robber? I think I just assumed it was murder. I mean, he does have a life sentence. Turns out, it was something much uglier. Sexual battery. The worst kind. On a child younger than 12. Enter the paradox.
I know what you’re thinking: What paradox? He’s a diaper sniper. Case closed. I feel you. In the hierarchy of prison, child molesters are at the very bottom of the food chain, just below punks and snitches. During my quarter-century in the joint, I’ve witnessed them get turned out, pimped out, and traded like baseball cards until they eventually either commit suicide or check into protective custody. Those who manage to escape that fate are still robbed, extorted, or at the very least, slapped around and relentlessly ridiculed. Although I don’t participate in the abuse, I don’t have any sympathy either. I see it as karmic law in action.
I’m sure there are parents out there who take small solace in the fact that these men are being tormented in here. I know if one of my nieces or nephews were victimized, I would transfer to every prison in the state until I found the predator and punished him for his actions.
But this blind man… I can’t make myself hate him, or even be cold to him, in spite of whatever he did thirty years ago. This is a big-time conflict of interest. No self-respecting convict would ever treat a cho-mo like a human being. I keep rationalizing, maybe he’s innocent. It seems like the only thing worse than being a child molester is being an innocent man wrongly convicted of those charges.
And then there’s the evil he alluded to at the school for the blind. They say most predators were once victims. The idea of a little blind kid, hundreds of miles from home, being abused by some twisted staff member is as sickening as it is heartbreaking. I couldn’t hate that kid, even though he is now pushing 70. The best that I can do is this reluctant compassion.
But see what I mean? Paradox.