Shame is a deep well.
Face tightened in anguish, a young man named Kevin Merrick was sitting in my office, telling me about the first time he’d slept with his sister.
“I musta been eight or nine,” he said. Kevin was in his early twenties, but thinning hair and pained, sunken eyes made him seem older, faded somehow. The three-week-old growth of beard didn’t help.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Rinaldi. I didn’t think…I mean, shit, it was all so long ago…”
“Take your time,” I said.
I let a silence fill the space between us. But inwardly, I was thrilled. After months of intensive work, of building trust and rapport, he was finally opening up, risking connection with another human being.
Not an easy task for him, considering what he’d been through. Life had battered him, left invisible bruises no less real than the old needle tracks on his forearms, the self-inflicted scissor-cuts emblazoned on his wrists.
His eyes flitted to the window overlooking Forbes Avenue five floors below. The steady drumming of the rain masked the usual hum of afternoon traffic snaking out of the Pitt campus. Beyond, through the grey-black webbing of the storm, you could just make out Heinz Hall and Carnegie Museum, venerable Pittsburgh landmarks, hunched beneath the regal spire of the Cathedral of Learning.
Kevin stirred, hands massaging the arms of his chair. This calmed him. It had taken time, but my office had finally become a sanctuary for him, a refuge. Once, he’d jokingly referred to it as the Womb with a View.
He did seem to derive solace from the place: the tan leather sofa, the twin brass table lamps, the marble-topped antique desk. My worn Tumi briefcase leaned against it.
Then there was the stuff my patients didn’t see—the photo of Barbara taken on our honeymoon, tucked away on a book shelf; a copy of Ringsider magazine, autographed by Sugar Ray Leonard, sharing cabinet space with patient files and a pewter hip flask—a gift from my old man after the Allentown fight, twenty years ago. Consolation prize, I guess. I’d gone down in the seventh.
Kevin’s eyes had been slowly sweeping the room, as though searching a crowd for a familiar face. His gaze rested finally on some psych journals stacked on the floor.
“Karen was four years older than me,” he said at last. “We were in her room…it was late. I knew I was supposed to be in bed, but Dad hadn’t tucked me in…”
“Did he usually do that?”
“Every night, since the year before, when Mom died…I remember people saying what a burden he had now. That he had to be both mother and father to me and Karen…” He blinked up at me. “What was I saying?…”
“That your father wasn’t in Karen’s room that night.” “Yeah. Anyway—” His voice caught. “All of a sudden, we were in her bed…just foolin’ around…Laughing. I remember how girlie I thought the sheets smelled…”
“You know what I mean.” A crooked smile. “I remember thinking, Yuck, how could she sleep in here?…Those pink, frilly sheets with the girlie smell…Yuck!”
His smile faded.
“Then…” He dropped his head. “Then she touched me… and I was so confused. It felt so strange. Not bad, but not good either…I mean, I knew what was happening…I was already pretty good at jerkin’ off, ya know?…”
He tried to laugh, a dry rasp that held no mirth.
“And I loved Karen so much…I mean, I hated her, too, ’cause she was my older sister and a bitch and everything, but I also loved her…and ever since Mom died, she was—”
He looked away again, at the window.
“And then she had her pajamas off,” he said slowly, “and I could see—it was dark, but I could sorta see everything, and feel everything…and it felt so…”
Suddenly, a sheet of shame reddened his face. His hands shot up, palms pressing against his eyes, like a child trying to push the tears back in. He cried out.
I leaned closer, on the edge of my leather chair. I could almost see a shudder move through his body, like a powerful wave. I also saw how thin and bony his shoulders were under his light blue shirt.
Finally, he turned, eyes searching for mine. His face was bleached of color, lifeless.
“I…I felt her hand on the back of my neck…I was shocked, surprised…The hand was so strong, pressing my face down… forcing my mouth between her legs…forcing me to…making me…taste her…”
Great sobs wracked his whole body. Without a thought, I reached across and held him, felt his body slump in my embrace. His tears were wet on my cheeks.
We stayed that way for an endless minute, the blood pounding in my ears. My own feelings shot through me. Anger. Pity. Some vague sense of anguish…
Finally, I released him, gently guiding him back against his chair. He seemed to be swallowed by it, legs half-drawn up in a fetal position. He closed his eyes.
I took a breath. Kevin and I would have to explore the meaning of my embracing him at some future date. For now, it was enough for me to know that I’d had the impulse to hold him, to cradle him, and so I did.
Fuck it, somebody should’ve done it a long time ago.
As I watched him settle down, I thought again about the clinical risks I often found myself taking with him. After all my years as a psychologist, it was always new; each patient a new beginning, a chance to teach myself how to do therapy all over again. I recalled, too, something that Jung had told one of his stu- dents. “It’s not what you know that heals,” he said. “It’s who you are.” A sentiment I agree with. It’s also a notion that conveniently flatters the narcissism woven into every therapist’s personality. Kevin’s body had relaxed, and he was reaching for the Kleenex on the side table. As he dried his eyes, I managed a smile, which he managed to return.
Some deep chasm, some important gulf between us had been crossed, and we both knew it. Despite the potential for significant pain ahead, he’d made another crucial step on his personal journey. And at the end, I believed—I had to believe—there would come a healing.
I’d never find out.
Within an hour, Kevin Merrick would be dead.
Kevin had been referred to me six months earlier, following confinement in the West Penn County Psych Ward. He’d been found wandering the aisles of a 7-11 store, bruised and bleeding at three in the morning. Barefoot, wearing only torn pajamas. He led the police back to his place, an apartment just off-campus, where the trashed room backed up his story: he’d been awakened around midnight by an intruder in a ski mask rifling his bureau drawers. They struggled, then Kevin managed to get free and out through the window. He told the cops he could only remember running like hell, into the night…
And then his memory went blank, until he found himself in the convenience store hours later, being rousted by two uniformed patrolmen.
After his discharge from the ward—where a computer check revealed he was no stranger to local mental health facilities— Kevin was questioned again by the police and a sympathetic Assistant DA, but he could offer no new information about the crime. All he could remember about the man was that he was big, and reeked of sweat.
“Probably a hype, needin’ cash,” the investigating officer said. “Fuckers don’t use ATM’s.”
The police got a break two days later, when another local resident called 911. Same scenario: sweaty guy in a ski mask helping himself to cash and jewelry in the bedroom. Only this time the apartment’s occupant—a retired steel-worker named Hanrahan—grabbed a baseball bat from under his bed and knocked the guy senseless. He was still groggy when the cops arrived.
With his mask off, the burglar was just another junkie, a scared black kid from the Hill District. His name was James Stickey, aka “Big Stick.” Nineteen, with two prior convictions. They gave him eight years upstate.
Meanwhile, Kevin just wanted to forget about the whole thing and get back to class. It was springtime, and a week from finals. But his blackout the night of the crime, along with reports of nightmares and frequent disorientation, had worried the Assistant DA enough to call the Department’s Chief Community Liaison Officer.
Who was worried enough to call me.
People like Kevin are my specialty. Victims of violent crime. Those who’ve survived the assault, the kidnapping, the crime itself—but who still lived with the trauma, the fear. The daily, gut-wrenching dread.
Or, perhaps even harder, lived with the guilt of having survived at all when a loved one didn’t.
My job is to help them remember what they need to remember, so that they can forget. Or at least achieve a kind of forgetting that lets them move on with what’s left of their lives.
Though the Pittsburgh Police have a number of shrinks on the payroll, they sometimes make use of outside consultants. Which is how I got into this in the first place.
# # #
It was about five years ago, during the public panic and media firestorm caused by Troy David Dowd, the monster they dubbed “the Handyman.” A serial killer who tortured his victims with screwdrivers, pliers, and other tools, he’d murdered and dismembered twelve people before his eventual capture.
Dowd would snatch people outside of roadside diners or highway rest stops in isolated rural areas throughout the state.
Only two of his intended victims managed to escape. One of these, a single mother of three, was sent to me.
Her name was Sylvia. Bound with duct tape, she’d been kept for two days in a stifling, stench-filled canvas tent, buried under a pile of twisted, decaying body parts from his earlier victims. Somehow, during one of Dowd’s frequent absences, she was able to cut through a section of tape using the sharp edge of a metallic watch band still strapped to the wrist of a severed forearm.
For weeks after her escape, she’d wake up screaming, clawing the air at the imagined bloody, blackened stumps encasing her. Recurrent flashbacks of her ordeal with Dowd continued long after his arrest and conviction.
In fact, it wasn’t until almost a year later—by which time Dowd was on Death Row, where he still sits pending his latest appeal—that Sylvia was willing to even leave the house. She’d walk around the block once with her oldest daughter and go back inside.
I considered this a victory.
My work with her caught the attention of the city fathers as well as the press, and soon the cops were using me on a regular basis whenever they feared for a crime victim’s mental health. Or when the DA worried that the victim’s emotional stability might be in question when it came time to testify.
Why me? Because of my background in Post-Traumatic Stress, working with Gulf and Iraqi War vets. Because I’d treated numerous victims of trauma and abuse at two state hospitals.
And probably because of something else, something personal, that inextricably bonds me to my patients, and always will. Something very personal.
Kevin was stirring.
I smiled at him again, absently pushing my hand back through my hair. Then I instinctively—an instinct reborn a thousand times—felt near the top of my head for the old scar, the familiar ridged surgical scar, where the bullet had gone in…