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Four Screams and A Whisper

Accepted By: Sterling Lord Literistic, New York City, 2017, Contact Agent: John Maas


For Truman Capote. He stared , forgot and paid the price.


The sweltering heat on this Saturday afternoon lay in shimmering layers over the buildings  of the Stockton California Youth Authority campus, housing hundreds of incarcerated youths.

It made time move slowly, and my mind sluggish. Working out of a non-airconditioned office in the com center, I slowly plowed through the list of requested psychiatric evaluations for this day. There were not too many, most of them the usual simple requests to assess the youth’s treatment needs – which usually meant comments on the ability to participate in the core program, especially schooling without causing any disturbance; and requests to make recommendations to the parole board: did the youth meet the minimum standards for release, i.e. “did he assume full responsibility for his actions”; and “did he develop insight”. I should get through this in good time, get back home have dinner and maybe catch a movie.

            Outside of the com center, in the boiling midday sun, stood a group of young men in the institutional garb, clustered around on of the councelors, Jack. These were in all likelihood were my prospective examinees. Jack was a  tall, slender man, in his fifties, who still moved with the grace of a former athlete. His past as a professional football player was a source of endless stories, which he freely shared with the young men. His past prowess on the field earned him their deep respect and admiration, as did his easy going manner in which he got them to do all the things they needed to, as per program: line up for chow; go to school; put the dumbbells back on the rack, get ready to go to sleep, say goodbye to their visitors on the weekend. He did not have a family, but referred to his charges as “ his boys”, relishing the fatherly role he was able to play with them. And the boys relished his ability to fill a void in most of their lives so effectively. Jack was easily the most popular staff member on campus. He was appreciated by almost all kids, black, white, latino, Asian, it did not matter in a place where race very often was a strongly defining and delineating characteristic.

            I called to guards at the com center to bring up the first examinee, and I heard them barking over the loudspeaker: “Turner, get your ass in here, the doc is ready for you”. Turner was in the cluster around Jack. But instead of him coming up to the door to buzzed in, I saw him lean over something or somebody on the ground, with everybody in the cluster doing the same, pointing and yelling something which I could not understand. The youths turned to the guards and screamed for help. My first thought that this was “ a gang related incident”, as was so often the case on campus. The cluster contained a mixture of  all races. Had somebody “dissed” somebody? Was there a fight? I went up to the guard’s command post to get a closer look to see if I could do anything, yelling to the guards: “Get the 911 team out here”.

            There was Jack, on the ground surrounded by the boys in the cluster. He was very pale, blood gushing out of his mouth, his breath looked very shallow. By the time I got to him and the emergency medical team arrived, he stopped bleeding and breathing. All attempts at resuscitation failed. Jack was dead. The boys had backed off to let us work on Jack, looking terrified, some with tears rolling don their cheeks. Jack was dead. The guards called in reinforcements, assuming somebody had shanked Jack. I must confess, I also thought that someone had taken revenge on him for something, in an act of senseless violence as was part of living on campus. A few months earlier, a female guard had been killed by one of the inmates. But what had happened with Jack?

            As it turned out, Jack died from a hemorrhage caused by metastatic lung cancer. He had kept the diagnosis a secret. Violence had nothing to do with it.

            What happened after his unexpected death impacted me profoundly. The rumor of his death spred throughout the campus like wildfire. All the wards on my examinee list reverberated with they had witness first hand.  Wards were aggrieved and reported similar deaths by significant people in their lives: family, friends, “homeys”.  But what also happened was that the event reactivated other and seemingly unrelated traumatic experiences, which they had kept a secret, for fear of being seen as “weak” or “unmanly”; or becase they simply lacked awareness of psychiatric symptoms, or worse yet, they had no words and language to describe them. Sequelae of child abuse, sometimes life threatening, sexual exploitation at the hand of trusted figures, unspeakable atrocities committed or witnessed as a part of living with or in a gang come forth, a deluge of human misery. Most importantly, none of them had been identified, diagnosed, treated, followed up. This was all the more a tragedy, as I knew that psychiatry in the past 3 decades had progressed sufficiently to effectively treat abnd eradicated most of these problems. These boys could have lived very different lives, had the help they needed been brought to them. My head and my heart ached. And my vision of how we could change the trajectory of all these lives for the better took a firm hold of my imagination. And they strengthened my resolve to tell these stories through research, teaching and clinical care for the following 3 decades. The current book delivers my knowledgeand experience in a different way, one that I hope will reach a broad lay and political audience, persuading them to join me in my battle.

            I will attempt to achieve this goal by telling stories. The events in this story are real. However, in order to protect the identity of the students, teachers, parents, school and the perpetrators, they had to be deeply disguised. I want to be certain that the reader gets a close up look at an otherwise very difficult to understand and tragic phenomenon. The stories to follow are patterned after a typology which we have shown to be helpful in assessing and treating the ven most severe delinquents, predicting their future and making available what modern medicine has to offer to a world of crime. To group the stories into types helps me disguise identities, while staying true to character. The product is hopefully the best that narrative medicine has to offer: showing the human side of youths which often seem devoid of conscience, regret and repentance.


For the full book proposal, please click here.