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It Gets Better: The Day I Ran Away From Home
Some time ago, following press reports of suicides of gay teens who had been subjected to bullying, the sex advice columnist Dan Savage organized a series of videos addressed to gay teens on the theme of "it gets better." It gets better, so don't give up. Hang on, persevere, because it gets better. Famous people participated; President Obama did one. Obama's was quite moving, I thought; I guess a million people on YouTube agreed.
Good on you, Dan Savage, I thought at the time. At the same time, I felt a twinge of guilt. These people are speaking up, I thought. I could speak up too. I'm not famous, but I do have venues in which to write. I have never been gay, but I have been a teenager. Given my life experiences, I cannot help but see the situation as "a corollary of a deeper theorem," as a mathematician might say. I know something about bullying in school. I also know something about bullying at home.
There's a scene in the anti-Vietnam war documentary Hearts and Minds where Daniel Ellsberg describes being in the office of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara - his boss at the time - during a demonstration at the Pentagon against the Vietnam War. McNamara and Ellsberg go to the office window and look out on the demonstrators, and Ellsberg thinks to himself, "Those people are following their consciences. What would happen if I followed mine?" Which Ellsberg then proceeded to do, leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, revealing that U.S. officials knew the war was unwinnable, even as they sent more U.S. troops to die. (Do you think that might be happening today in Afghanistan?)
When Dan Savage organized "It Gets Better," I had a kind of Dan Ellsberg moment: these people are speaking up, I could speak up too. But everything I want to say about this involves my mother in some way, especially the present story; and she was still alive, and I was not yet ready to tell the story in public. I didn't want to embarrass my mother.
My mother passed away in March.
I ran away from home when I was sixteen. The immediate catalyst for my action was the fact that my father hit my mother.
The logic of this might not be intuitive to the reader. But at the time, it was ironclad for me; I could not see anything else. Until that time, while there had been a lot of conflict and violence in the house, I had always believed that there was a boundary, and therefore that the situation could be endured. My father had regularly hit me; my parents had endlessly screamed at each other; my mother had threatened my father with divorce a thousand times; they had broken plates many times at the dinner table; my father was an endless fountain of emotional and psychological abuse. That was all unpleasant enough. But while that was enough to make my head want to explode, I never had a visible bruise; there had been no blood shed; I never had to go to the hospital. And as far as I knew, my father had never hit my mother.
That last fact in particular represented for me proof of the belief that there was a limit, that there was a boundary, and that therefore I was "safe enough," and that the situation was tolerable. When that "rule" was broken, my immediate, inescapable, instinctive conclusion was: "There are no rules anymore. Anything could happen. Time to run."
I put some clothes and a book in a knapsack, grabbed my sleeping bag, and went to Eric's house. Eric's mom was quite cool about it. It seemed that she had been briefed, perhaps by Eric, maybe she had had a conversation with my mother: there was a Situation. I had told my mother I was going to stay at Eric's. That was not so unusual. But this was just step one of what I had in mind. Step two I hadn't even told Eric.
I had been thinking about running away since I was about four. I would like be able to say that I had been "planning" to run away since I was four, but I figure that if you "plan" to do something for twelve years, then after twelve years, you should have something that you can credibly call a "plan." I did not have a plan. I had a "concept."
I hate camping. I don't know anything about wilderness survival. I don't know how to build a fire, how to catch a fish, or which berries you can eat and which ones are poisonous. I'm all for other people learning and doing those things and getting enjoyment from them. But they never held any interest for me. This was a strong deterrent against hitting the road.
I did have a concept. I thought, maybe I could find a nice family somewhere with school-age children who need help with math. I could tutor the children in math in exchange for room and board.
How was I going to find this family? Al Gore hadn't invented the Internet yet. There was no Craigslist. This was the big gap between having a "concept" and having a "plan."
I did have some money saved. I had a savings account; I had had a paper route; I never spent any money; any small amount of money I managed to get my hands on, I put it in the savings account and left it there. This was the only way I can say I had concretely prepared for running away: socking away whatever money I could. And, I figured, the longer I can wait, the better off I'll be: I'll be older, and I'll have more money; if I can hang on long enough, I thought, I can escape simply by going to college. If I have to leave sooner, that would mess up the whole college thing, and that would be very bad. So, save money and hang on as long as possible, that was my plan.
By the time I was sixteen, I had about eight hundred dollars in my savings account. Not a princely sum, even by 1982 standards. But something to get started with, at least, if necessary, while I figured out what to do.
The day after this particular incident with my father occurred, I was supposed to take a math competition exam, something I had been looking forward to. I found the idea that this would be messed up just because my father had chosen this particular day to go completely nuts to be particularly annoying. So my plan, such as it was, was this: spend the night at Eric's, go to school, take the exam, walk out from school, go to the bank, withdraw all my money, walk to the train station. And that's what I did.
The plan was kind of hazy after that. The Chicago commuter trains go in different directions from the city. We were on the West Line, so I figured I should Go West. Isn't that what you're supposed to do? "Go West, young man."
But I got antsy waiting for the train, so I just started walking down the tracks. This was not strategic at all, especially given that it was raining, and I was wearing sneakers. Eventually I got on the train in a neighboring town.
But as I sat on the train going West, I started to think that I had made a strategic error. My mother was sure to call the police. I should try to get out of Illinois as quickly as possible, and there was a lot of Illinois between the end of the West Line and the Mississippi River. In contrast, the last station on the North Line was in Kenosha, Wisconsin. If I went that way, I could be sure to be out of Illinois by morning.
So I got out at the next station and changed direction, back through Elmhurst, through Chicago, on to Wisconsin. You can see how far away I was from Having A Plan. I was thrashing.
When I got to Kenosha, it was after dark, and I was exhausted. My sleeping bag was wet, the ground was wet, and I was wet. I could afford one night in a motel, I thought. Obviously this was not going to be a sustainable solution to the "where to sleep" problem. But one night in a motel I figured I could do if I could find a cheap motel.
There was a Holiday Inn not far from the train station. I thought that would be a cheap place to stay. Not a fancy hotel. But the room was thirty dollars. Eight hundred dollars is not going to last long at this rate, I thought. So I asked the guy at the hotel: isn't there any cheaper motel around here? He wrote an address on a piece of paper, about a mile away, he said, and off I went.
As I approached the address, it seemed to me that I was in a residential neighborhood, and that the address looked like a house, surrounded by other houses, not at all like a "motel." But at this point, what was I going to do? I rang the doorbell.
An older lady answered the door. "Pardon me," I said. "But they told me at the Holiday Inn that there was a motel here." "Right this way," she said, and took me to a small but well-appointed bedroom on the side of the house. "Hang on," I said. "How much is the room?" It's hard to imagine what she could have said that I would not have agreed to. My bargaining position was extremely weak. "Eight dollars," she said. Eight dollars! I thought. How clever and resourceful am I! But when I reflected on it later, it seemed to me that she had hesitated before saying "eight dollars," as one might do in making something up on the fly, estimating what a plausible lie might be.
But at that point I didn't care. I got into the big cushy bed, peeled off my dripping socks, and examined my feet, now wet, blistering prunes. I was starting to have some doubts about the Plan. Let me sleep on it, I thought, and decide in the morning.
By morning, no more thinking was necessary. Why should I leave? I thought. Why should I be punished? I haven't done anything wrong. If anyone should leave, it's Jackass that should leave.
"I think someone is expecting you...?" Our Sacred Lady of Kenosha asked gently.
"Yes," I said.
"So that's where you're going?"
"Yes," I said.
And off I went.
Someday, I'd like to know how many kids from the Chicago metropolitan area spent a night in the "motel" managed by Our Sacred Lady of Kenosha. Any kid who ever took the train to Chicago and looked up at the map would know that Kenosha was the end of the North Line. The guy at the Holiday Inn didn't seem to hesitate before writing the address down from memory.
In retrospect, it would have been polite to try to call my mother in advance. But this did not occur to me at the time. She was working the Reference Desk at the Elmhurst Public Library, which was just a few blocks from the train station. So I walked right in, right up to the Reference Desk, and right up to my mother.
When my mother looked up and saw me, she burst into tears. "Would you like me to cover the desk, Sandra?" her co-worker Donna said. I looked into Donna's face. The look of pain on Donna's face said: "I know everything."
A conversation followed with my father. Of course, when I say "conversation," I mean "monologue," as it ever was. My father talked incessantly. Whereas my policy in talking to my father was "name, rank, and serial number...anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law." Years later, when I was in college, my father once asked me why I "never came 'home' to visit." "Does the prisoner go back to visit the warden?" I asked in response. To this he had no reply.
In his monologue, my father said: "Your mother read me the Riot Act...she won't let me hit you again." He went on to argue that this would in fact be bad for me, because any notion of discipline would be out the window, and that I should feel guilt about this. Basically his line was: "we had a well-oiled discipline machine going here, but now you've gone and screwed it all up with your acting out, and now it's going to be chaos. Nice job, boichik, I hope you're happy with yourself." But, in his own sick and twisted way, it was clear that he was trying to communicate reassurance: don't run away again, you're going to be safe. And for my purposes at the time, that was good enough. I did not run away again after that, and he never hit me again after that.
I had never intended to go on strike for better conditions, but that's apparently what I did. That you can sometimes constrain Power by withdrawing cooperation, even if you don't have a very good plan: that's not a bad lesson to learn at the age of sixteen.
My father had some self-knowledge. Many years later, I arranged for a friend to stay with my parents when she had a fellowship to do research in Chicago. At one point, she was telling them how her father's death had affected her as a child. My father said: "Don't feel bad, honey. Some of us are screwed up because our fathers lived."
By way of restitution and amelioration after this episode, my father gave me a very nice gift, one of the best gifts I have ever received. He gave me a year off of my sentence.
Somewhere a committee met - chaired by my father, I presume - and changed the TV station from "abusive father" to "troubled gifted kid needs helpful attention." I did not raise any objection. A high school counselor took interest and started blocking for me with the school administration. Unexcused absences? Gone, the record wiped clean.
My father started calling around to universities. I overheard one of the conversations, and his rap went something like this: "My son has already burned through all the high school AP classes, he's already taken classes at the local college, I'm looking to see if you have something to challenge him." It turned out that the University of Illinois had an Early Admission Program: three years of high school, no diploma necessary.
So my father came to me with his proposal. I think you and I would both be better off with a separation, he said. I readily agreed. You can wait a year, he said, get your grades up, apply for scholarships, get student loans, and try to go to a good private university. Or you can go to the University of Illinois in the Fall. At that time, a semester's tuition at the University of Illinois was about six hundred dollars. No scholarships or student loans would be necessary. That was before the state government withdrew from supporting public higher education.
It took me about two seconds to decide: I took the ticket for early release. "Looks like the University of Illinois!" The high school counselor arranged that I could get my high school diploma anyway, despite skipping my senior year of high school; they would count college classes towards my remaining senior requirements. Moreover, I would not, in fact, have to take two gym classes my senior year to make up for the one that I failed by cutting class more often than allowed; the gym requirement would be waived.
I can't say that my relationship with my father - or anything else - was all unicorns and ponies after that. My father and I continued to have a strained relationship until, debilitated by diabetes, blindness, paralyzing stroke, and mostly untreated bipolar disorder, he killed himself in August of 1997 at the age of 62. And we continue to have a strained relationship to this day. "It's complicated" with my father, as they say on Facebook.
But did it get better? You betcha. When I hear people wax nostalgic about childhood, I just have to laugh. To be an adult, to have your own job, your own money, your own house, your own transportation, to choose your own friends and lovers, your own environment - until you taste it all yourself, there's no way you can really imagine what it's like to experience that, to look back on your period of captivity, and to exhale the breath that you held as a child. That's worth hanging around for.