Archive for September, 2009

Not Growing Up in America

Daniel Quinn authored the book Ishmael, published in 1992. I read it at the time and was annoyed when he referred to the student uprisings of the late 1960s in this country as the “children’s revolution.” That societal upheaval seemed important to me, especially as part of my own personal history, and he was calling it childish. Sadly, I now think he may be right. More importantly he seems to have captured the whole picture of a society of immaturity that is now this country. Everything from political gridlock to road rage to overcrowded prisons seems like it can be traced to “adults” who simply never grew up. These are people who have all the rights and privileges of adults, yet they throw tantrums like little children.

Formally, he is referred to as "The Honorable" although here, Congressman Joe Wilson dishonors himself by acting like a child yelling at the president.

Formally, he is referred to as “The Honorable” although here, Congressman Joe Wilson dishonors himself by acting like a child yelling at the president.

Last night a United States congressman called the president of the United States a liar to his face in a joint session of the Congress. It was an unprecedented breach of protocol and an outrageous display of disrespect. Here was a 62-year-old man whom his fellow citizens thought well enough of to represent them in the highest level of government. Yet he was too immature to control himself in the most public arena of the land. It was a shameful, childish tantrum, yet so revealing of a disintegrating society.

Although it was a long time ago, there is one thing I do remember as a child. You were never supposed to misbehave, but if you did it at home it was understood as just childish behavior that needed to be corrected. But when we went out in public, the edict was iron – you do not misbehave in public and embarrass the family. If you did, the consequences were not trivial. And yet, even the harshest consequences did not involve physical or emotional abuse – or abandonment. In a lot of ways, that’s what we do with our misbehaving adult children today; we send them to prison with abusive terms and if they’ve misbehaved more than a few times we simply abandon them to prison. It was not always this way.

Last Sunday marked the date of 60 years since probably the first non-military, mass murder in this country. On the pleasant, sunny Tuesday morning of September 6, 1949 a 28-year-old man spent 20 minutes murdering men, women and children in his neighborhood of Camden, NJ. With a pistol he brought back from the war, he shot and killed 13 people. Any rational person would clearly see it was an act of insanity. When the police finally got him in custody, one of the arresting officers is quoted as asking, “What’s the matter with you? Are you a psycho?” And Unruh replied, “I’m no psycho. I have a good mind.” No one believed him, of course; his behavior was plain to see. At least it was plain to adults.

Although indicted for the murders and assaults, Howard Unruh has never been tried. Within a day he was placed in a maximum security institution for the criminally insane, and he has been there ever since. A psychiatric assessment said he “is suffering from a malignant, progressively deteriorating schizophrenic illness.” He is now 88 years old.

Howard Unruh (in suit and bowtie) placed into custody minutes after calmly murdering 13 people in Camden, NJ in 1949.

Howard Unruh (in suit and bowtie) placed into custody minutes after calmly murdering 13 people in Camden, NJ in 1949. [Image courtesy CourierPostOnline.com]

It never occurred to the adults running the world at the time that Howard Unruh was anything but insane, and there was no cure for him in the courts and prisons. While his acts were unimaginably heinous, he was seen as a human being who was sick, not as a fellow human we needed to extract revenge from. That seems to me the difference between how adults treat one another and how children treat one another.

There was a story yesterday in New Jersey newspapers about the death of a man whose parents were killed by Unruh. His children said he had waited all his life for a phone call saying Howard Unruh had died, but the call never came. A comment made by a reader of that story is: “What a pity Mr. Cohen didn’t get his lifelong wish to see this scum die.” For that reader, Unruh obviously does not exist as a human being. The totally depersonalized label “scum” characterizes him. And I would suggest this is how children see the world. Some human lives are worthy of respect and others are not. A more humane view requires emotional maturity.

It’s easy to respond to Howard Unruh as “scum.” It’s easy to open your mouth and throw a tantrum during a joint session of the Congress of the United States. It’s easy to put a man in prison for 25 years to life because we don’t know how to cope with his behavior anymore. And it’s easy responding like children, without personal or societal discipline to anything we don’t like. Being mature, restraining our base instincts, that’s hard. But that’s what adults do. The good parent does not murder his child when he throws a stone through the neighbor’s window. He treats him like an adult who does not yet have the emotional and intellectual tools to act like an adult, and he provides rehabilitation through consequences and loving discipline.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzennegar delivering a speech to the citizens of the state. Childish that he didn't feel a need to dress for the occasion and that he decided a huge knife was a good prop.California Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger delivering a speech to the citizens of the state. Childish that he didn’t feel a need to dress for the occasion and that he decided a huge knife was a good prop.

I don’t know where we are going to find the adults and good societal parents we need today. I feel as if I’m living in a real-life version of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. If you aren’t familiar with it, a group of young boys are stranded on a deserted island after their airplane goes down in the ocean; there are no adult survivors. Although they attempt to create civilization in their little island society, they simply descend into vicious savagery. That’s what I fear when I look at our prisons and our political “leadership” and the disintegration of our families.

As the comedienne Joan Rivers always said, “Oh, grow up.” I hope we can.

William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies.

William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies.



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Outside of sheer of boxing excellence, I could never find anything to recommend in Mike Tyson. Nevertheless I recently found myself watching the 2008 documentary movie about him, Tyson. It’s summertime when the world seems to slow down, and nothing else in the video store really snagged my attention – and it was a free rental anyway. I ended up watching it twice. There’s no way I could say I like the man, but I was fascinated at how perfectly he shows the personality of most prison inmates. Were it not for his boxing successes, fame and money, I’m certain he would be spending most of his life in prison.

Mike Tyson with probably the only person he ever trusted in his life, boxing trainer Cus D'Amato.

Mike Tyson with probably the only person he ever trusted in his life, boxing trainer Cus D’Amato.

“Iron Mike” as he is familiarly known, turns out to be scared to death. He has lived his life in abject fear, and that fear has motivated just about all he has done. In the movie, he graphically talks about this, time after time. He nearly fled the dressing room for his first professional fight because he was so afraid. He said every time he walked into a boxing arena for a big match, he was afraid. And unlike most of us, Tyson’s fear was not for the physical pain. He was terrified of the humiliation of being beaten, literally of being found out for what he sadly believed himself to be, a bum, a loser, a worthless wretch. “I’m just afraid of being physically humiliated in the streets,” is the way he expressed it. Turns out he was a fat kid who was bullied. Obviously, he’s never gotten over it.

Prison inmates are afraid. I’ve found that to be a dominant characteristic. It’s what makes many of them so dangerous – just like Tyson. That was the first serious lesson I ever learned about inmates, and what it takes to deal with them. I had only been working in the prison a few months. An inmate and I had a disagreement about the way things were going to be. Within a group of inmates he challenged me in no uncertain terms. I didn’t back down, and he moved closer to me, an intimidating move. I wasn’t having any of it, so I got right up in his face. And when I looked in his eyes what I saw was fear. I could not have been more surprised.

When he saw I was not going to be pushed around his psyche crumbled. He looked down and backed up. I was almost afraid he was going to cry. This loss was humiliating to him in front of other inmates. The whole thing was dangerous, and I’m lucky I escaped my inexperience without encountering any kind of physical violence. If this inmate had as much fear as Mike Tyson, I’d probably have been a knockout victim.

One astonishing thing Mike Tyson said in the movie was that he was surprised to learn most people are afraid of him. His own deep fear prevents him from correctly assessing the intentions and feelings of other people. I watched him brutalize his opponents in the ring when he was young. And it seemed like there were countless news items about him getting into altercations around motor vehicle incidents or perceived slights. He was convicted of rape (probably wrongly) and did three years in prison, much of it in a control unit according to him. My impression of him was an animalistic brute with a hair trigger temper. I’m sure if I’d ever found myself someplace where he was present, I would have left. And this surprises him. It surprises him because he is the one who is afraid, and it’s his poor self-esteem that nurtures his fear.

I know very few inmates who had good family experiences growing up. Poor self-esteem is a hallmark of their upbringing. And that poor self-esteem is what prevents people from coping successfully with defeat and presumed humiliation. The kid with low self-esteem gets beaten up a few times so he gets a gun and shoots someone, or he joins the local gang thinking they will protect him from what he fears. The kid with good self-esteem, and probably a supportive family, gets beaten up and uses it as a learning experience. He may have his family talk to the school about the bullying (the very best way to handle such things) or he may learn to box or take martial arts lessons or something that will give him confidence to deal with physical aggression in the future. Either way, he grows as a human being and is more likely to be a healthy adult. The child with the low self-esteem is probably on a path to becoming a scared inmate as an adult.

Strong, mature families are so important to our society. That’s something Mike Tyson never had. The only time he was ever successful in his personal life was when one man (his boxing trainer Cus D’Amato) became a father figure whom he could trust. He died when Tyson was only 19, and I believe Tyson’s life has been falling apart ever since. If you are a parent, I urge you to use the resources available everywhere to learn the best parenting skills. One thing I do is subscribe to a free email message every weekday from Family First. It’s not the only resource out there, but it’s dependable and credible, just like a good family should be.

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