April 27, 1994. Blue Lake, California
My 41-year old cousin Sylvia was murdered outside the tribal offices of the Blue Lake Rancheria. She was the chairperson of this tiny reservation of Wiyot Indians. The 27-year old man who killed her was my son.
I've viewed the news clip of Chris's arrest often enough to know it by heart. If I close my eyes, I can still see police tape rippling in the foreground as he's led toward a patrol car. He wears a black motorcycle jacket and a baseball cap bearing the insignia of a submarine.
I'm haunted by the possibility that my cousin's death could have been prevented. Two months before the murder, when I discovered Chris's mind was starting to unravel, I tried to get help for him. But my efforts were thwarted by a narrow interpretation of California's "51-50 law," which states that a person can be held for psychiatric observation only if they're a threat to themselves, a threat to others or gravely disabled.
Now, nearly ten years later, I continue to sift through the facts, searching for something I could have said or done differently. Something that would have made someone listen.
May 6, 1994. Blue Lake, California
It's been nine days since the murder. To keep busy, I clean the house where Chris lived, scrubbing floors and sinks, washing his clothes. I start on the walls, removing photos and memorabilia, piling everything on the kitchen table.
These pictures are like the Rosetta Stone; if only I could properly interpret them, they might help explain the enigma of my son. There are snapshots of his submarine and his last detested Commanding Officer, a bovine presence with massive chin and tiny, close-set eyes. There are pictures of Chris's father, friends at parties, citations spelled out in military jargon, documentation of his eight and a half years in the Navy.
I turn my attention to the bedroom where he secretly stockpiled weapons. I remove camouflage cloth from the window, letting in natural light for the first time in months. Mildew clings to the glass, a result of the jungle atmosphere in which he'd grown marijuana. He probably played music for those plants, an eclectic mix, a little Beethoven, a little Willie Nelson. It's all dismantled now but I stand for a minute and imagine the room might have been a pleasant place, warm and pinkly fluorescent.
After awhile, I go outside, ostensibly to clean cobwebs from the windows with a broom. But it's really to get away from the shards of his fractured life. The sky is muddy gray. The air smells like rain and redwood smoke.
Chris, born in 1967, was identified as gifted by first grade. His teachers fell into one of two camps—those like me, who enjoyed his intelligence and lively imagination, and those like his father, who saw him as an annoying challenge to their authority.
His father and I divorced when Chris was eleven, and I married Allan. We had two more sons, Nicky and Josh.
By age thirteen, Chris was floundering at school. At home he was arrogant and prickly one minute, full of self-contempt and tears the next. I worried about his future and wondered how he'd get through college or hold down a job. Would he ever find a mate who could tolerate his ups and downs?
In his sophomore year of high school, we found a boarding school that had a reputation for motivating underachievers. It was an outdoorsy place, where students were expected to chop wood to heat water for showers and to help cook meals or work in the garden. Chris was eager to enroll after a single visit.
His grades and his confidence soared, but at the end of the year, he was asked not to return. He'd failed to shoulder his share of the community workload and he'd been caught with marijuana and a girl in his room. Most damning of all, during a confrontation with a student pref3ect, he'd pulled a knife.
After Chris tried unsuccessfully to live first with his father and then with his grandparents, he wanted to enlist in the Navy. I wondered how he'd cope with military discipline. Would he end up being court-martialed? He was only seventeen but it felt as if we'd come to the end of a road. I signed the permission papers and wept all the way home from the enlistment office.
The military turned out to be a good match for Chris. Regular urine testing meant he couldn't smoke marijuana. After earning a G.E.D. he rose quickly in the racks to Petty Officer.
During his Navy years, he was often at sea for six months at a time, but when he had leave, he came home. Chris turned the corner into adulthood and was proud of his achievements. I praised his new skills when he repaired a light switch and rewired our ancient VW bus.
There was only one problem: he was always drinking, a habit acquired during boot camp. But that would change, I though. When his life became more stable, he'd develop other interests.
Chris became disenchanted with military life during his last deployment on an aging and dangerous nuclear submarine. The Commanding Officer was a tyrant, despised by the crew. Stress and fear triggered Chris's first psychotic episode, which was covered up by his crewmates.
During his final months in the Navy, Chris became excited about returning to school. Allan and I offered to let him live, rent fee, in a house we owned next door to my parents, in Blue Lake. Like the rest of Humboldt County, blue Lake is "behind the Redwood Curtain." Goods and services aren't as available there as they are in urban centers. It's remote, sparsely populated, and so laid back that bankers and doctors wear blue jeans to work. It seemed perfect for Chris.
After his discharge, he moved into the house in February of 1993. He was enthusiastic about his college classes and seemed to have friends. I hoped he'd found the path to his "real" life.
When we visited him in July of 1993, I realized that he'd progressed from drinking all day to being drunk all day. I returned home deeply depressed.
In early March of 1994, my mother called to say, "Chris isn't doing too well." Five words that shattered my fragile dreams for his future.
Next day, I drove thirteen hours to reach Blue Lake before nightfall.
When I arrived, Chris grinned slyly, as if he were the keeper of an amazing secret. I made no comment about the piles of mildewed laundry, mounds of papers, dishes smeared with rotting food, dried puddles of dog pee and empty beer cans everywhere. My heart lurched when I glimpsed an assault rifle lying just inside the door of the main bedroom. Until that moment, I hadn't realized he owned such a weapon.
I asked, as casually as I could, what he'd been up to. His grin widened. "We're going to get Leonard Peltier out of prison!"
There was no hint of alcohol on his breath. How could he say such a thing when he wasn't drunk?
"Incredible," I said. "How?"
He pulled a crudely drawn flow diagram from a stack of papers stuffed into a pillowcase4. His body seemed filled with springs, tense with excitement. "I'm working as a bridge between indigenous people and the government," he said and led me through the diagram, delineating bizarre linkages between himself and Ted Turner (via "coded messages" from CNN), Congress, President Clinton, and finally Leonard Peltier, an Indian activist, who's been in Federal Prison for decades.
I was stunned; unable to believe he was saying this when he was sober. His dog Zoe and his mallard duck, Gandalf were staring in through the smeary glass door, as if they were waiting for my opinion. I couldn't stay what I truly thought: it was just crazy.
"It's…interesting," I said and read disappointment in the sudden slump of his shoulders. He shook his head and muttered something under his breath.
"Very interesting," I added.
"You're a fucking idiot!" he said, pounding the kitchen table.
I backed away, afraid suddenly of my own child.
"Don't worry," he yelled. "I'm nonviolent!"
I nodded toward the bedroom. "What's a nonviolent person doing with an assault weapon?"
"Guns don't kill people, Mom." He sneered.
"Why do you have to collect guns, for God's sake? Why can't you collect stamps?"
"I do," he said with a laugh.
And I caught a glimpse of the boy I used to know inside that stranger, as if he'd been swallowed whole.
Next day I talked with people at Veteran's Services, united Indian Health Services and the local Police Chief, who became very attentive when I mentioned Chris's guns. Everyone was sympathetic but said that, legally speaking, unless Chris did "something wrong," their hands were tied. The Police Chief and I finally coerced Chris into an evaluation at the County Mental Health facility. But my crazy, brilliant son managed to bluff his way through. Frustrating as it was, the only positive thing was that Chris agreed to let one of his friends take the weapons for safekeeping.
The result of my "meddling" was that Chris was seething with anger directed entirely at me. And there seemed to be nothing more I could do to help him.
I returned home and tried to prepare my family for the coming disaster. I lay awake nights, tortured with various possibilities: Chris burning the house down, Chris wrecking his motorcycle, colliding with a logging truck, drinking himself to death, drowning in the Mad River. At least, I thought we took his guns away. That became my mantra.
Allan and I gave Chris an ultimatum: Either go back to school in the fall or start seeing a psychiatrist. If he wasn't willing to do either of these things, he would have to move out of our Blue Lake house.
Predictably, he was furious. After venting his wrath, he tried to bargain. We remained steadfast, certain we'd stacked the deck in favor of psychiatric help.
My father called the morning of April 27th and told me to sit down. "Chris shot Sylvia," he said. But I couldn't make sense of the words. I heard my mother sobbing in the background. Hysteria twisted in my stomach like a clump of snakes. No! We took his guns away!
"Why?" I whispered. But I knew there w2as no answer. It could have been anyone. It could have been me.
I was horrified by Sylvia's death. She was well regarded by many, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). But I disagreed with the way she handled tribal matters and in 1991, I'd been involved in an unsuccessful effort to oust her as chairperson. Chris, in the Navy at the time, knew nothing about that.
May 6, 1994. Blue Lake, California
Dried husks of moths and flies stud the cobwebs, which instead of sticking to the bristles of my broom, spread and smear, clinging to the blood-red rough siding of the house. Occasionally an alarmed spider peeks from behind a gap in the window trim, waving a leg at me like an accusing finger.
The wind comes up. A couple of raindrops fall on my cheeks. I slump down on the porch steps and sob for a long, long time. Eventually I go back inside, filled with a need to call the jail.
"I just wanted to make sure what the visiting hours are for tonight," I tell the jailer.
The woman asks whom I'm planning to visit. When I give her Chris's name, she stumbles over her words. "Uhh…he can't have visitors tonight. He's got a …medical situation."
My voice is so loud, so angry, it surprises me. "He tried to kill himself," I say. It's not even a question because I know it's true.
"No. No," she says. "He's just got this medical problem, but he'll be fine."
"I'm his mother…" I plead. But she's unmoved.
The next morning there's an article in the paper about an attempted hanging at the jail. No names are mentioned. I call the jail again. This time I'm screaming. I want to curse the man on the phone and call him foul names in a hundred different languages. Apparently the note of hysteria in my voice is enough because he gives me the sheriff's home phone number.
I call the sheriff and tell him all I want is to see my son. He hesitates a moment then relents. "OK. Your son's in intensive care. In and out of coma. They won't know for a while if he's got damage to his brain or spinal cord from the hanging."
By now I'm crying again. "Please, please, can I see him?"
He tells me he'll arrange that. After a pause, he says, "Mind if I ask how you knew he tried to kill himself?"
"I'm his mother," is all I can say.
May 7, 1994. Hospital. Eureka, California
Once inside the locked doors of ICU, a nurse leads me to a cubicle where a guard sits in a chair next to the bed. His gun is huge and as black as oblivion.
Chris's arms are strapped to the bedrails. He lies there, think and pale, fragile as a fallen bird. Something drips from an IV bag into a vein on the back of his hand.
I cup his cheeks in my hands and his forehead. "Chris?"
Tears drip from the corners of his closed eyes. Pain? Sorrow? Both, I think.
Does this guard fear my son? I wonder what the doctors and nurses feel about this patient? Can they dredge up any kindness for a murderer?
Months later, a friend whispers, "Do you sometimes think it might have been for the best if he'd done it—you know…killed himself?"
I've given this some thought. A female guard found him hanging unconscious from a noose made out of a bed sheet. Even though Chris's heart had stopped, she cut him down, forced breath into him, and pummeled his chest until paramedics arrived. For that, I am grateful.
Each night I search THROUGH Chris's belongings, in hopes of discovering a key to his delusional world. I find a new home for Chris's duck, a farm with a pond and other ducks. His dog Zoe and I walk for miles and miles.
While wandering the streets of Blue Lake one day, I stop in front of a window to read some flyers about Curtis, a missing boy. They're put together like ransom notes, with words and pictures clipped from magazines. They suggest conspiracy on a massive scale: FBI SEARCH STARTS FOR KILLER OUTLAW GANG, and LOCAL TALK OF MAKING CHILD POR VIDEOS IN BLUE LAKE, and AT LEAST THREE PEOPLE IN BLUE LAKE KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO CURTIS.
It's exactly the sort of thing that would speak volumes to someone who's already unhinged.
One flyer features a malevolent crab and I remember that Chris, at one point, referred to Sylvia as a "cancer on the land." Suddenly it all clicks into place. Cancer the Crab, the astrological sign. Although it's crazy, I understand that Chris believed Sylvia was part of a gang of child molesters, responsible for Curtis's disappearance. My suspicions are confirmed when I call Curtis's father, who says Chris came to see him, hinting that he might have information about his son. The father asked him to come back later. But he never did.
May 13, 1994. Courthouse. Eureka, California
There's a murmur in the hall outside the courtroom and a second later, I burst into tears when Chris is escorted in, barefoot and chained like an animal. His psychosis is visible now. His matted hair is gathered in haphazard braids that fall across his vacant eyes. They've taken away his glasses, perhaps for fear he might fashion a weapon from them. He shuffles along slowly, his ankles in shackles. Heavy chains anchor his manacled wrists to his waist.
The judge postpones the hearing until they can determine his mental competence. In the meantime, he'll be sent to a prison hospital, since they aren't equipped to care for him at the county jail.
A former girlfriend of Chris's, shy and teary-eyed, introduces herself. I'm stung when she tells me, with some embarrassment, that she assumed his mother must be dead, since he'd never mentioned me at all, but had frequently talked about his brilliant astrophysicist father.
Hoping to glean another piece of the puzzle, I take her out to lunch; ask her about herself, about their relationship. She buys me a rose and says her mother would never have stood by her in something like this. After that, she disappears.
November 6, 1995. Courthouse. Eureka, California
Nearly eighteen months after the murder Chris comes to trial. Actually there are two trials although the first, to determine whether or not he committed the murder, seems a mere formality. To no one's surprise, he's found guilty.
The trial to determine his sanity is longer and more involved. I'm not allowed to enter the courtroom until it's my turn to take the stand. Because my testimony comes late in the trial, much of what I know comes from sifting through 2,000 pages of court transcripts.
I naively assume that everyone will recognize how ill my son is. By no means am I trying to "get him off" with an insanity plea. The last thing any of his family wants is for him to be released to the streets. Our hope is that he'll be committed to a psychiatric facility where he can finally get intensive therapy. Surely anyone can see that this will best serve both his needs and the needs of society.
What I fail to grasp until after it's all over is the distinction between the medical definition of insanity and the much narrower legal definition, as defined by the conservative M'Naughten standard, used in California.
Expert witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense seem to agree that Chris was psychotic at the time of the murder. There are various opinions about what's wrong with him, but schizoaffective disorder—a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar (manic-depressive) illness—seems closest.
A psychiatrist for the prosecution says he believes Chris "would not have killed her" if he hadn't been delusional. But he explains that what's at issue is whether Chris's psychosis prevented him from understanding the nature of his act and knowing right from wrong. In the end, the jury believes that at the moment Chris pulled the trigger, he did indeed know right from wrong. On December 5th they find him legally "sane" and the judge sentences him to twenty-five years-to-life, plus five additional years for using a gun. A gun his friend secretly returned to him three days before the murder.
December 1995. San Quentin Prison
Chris is sent to San Quentin for processing and while there, decides to quit taking his recently prescribed anti-psychotic medication.
January 1996. Unnamed Prison, California
A few weeks later, he's sent to another maximum-security prison, where he's paid fourteen cents an hour as a teacher's aide in a literacy program. I'm surprised to learn that something seemingly innocuous as passing out pencils and paper can be fraught with danger. Chris has to cope with occasional threats for refusing to give out "extras". Sometimes he caves in and sometimes he doesn't, each decision based on a snap evaluation of his own place in the pecking order at that moment. This terrifies me since his judgment is obviously impaired.
So far he's been able to avoid the racial violence so rampant in prisons, though he informs me he was standing three feet away from someone who was murdered with a knife made from the lid of a tuna can. These are the realities of his life now. These are things no mother wants to know.
Mid June 1997
Inmates are not allowed to receive phone calls from home. Chris and I are able to talk only when he calls collect. Based on a couple of these conversations, I sense that his mood is revving up and relay my concerns to a counselor at the prison. She says they haven't read his records yet and aren't aware that he has any psychological problems. Later that day, they grill him for a couple of minutes, prefacing their inquiry with "your mother says…" Among the questions: "Do you feel like harming anyone? Do you feel like harming yourself? Do you hear voices?" Chris, crazy but not stupid, knows the "right" answers and this episode puts considerable strain on our relationship.
On July 2 Chris has a psychotic break. I discover this after my father and I have traveled several hundred miles in an attempt to visit him on July 11.
In the grip of his delusions again, Chris believed that because he was an FBI operative and a Supreme Court law clerk, the prison guards were plotting his death. And just like old times, he was convinced that his television was "talking to him".
Terrified when the guards tried to remove him from his cell with pepper spray, Chris fought back, using a sharpened metal typewriter key. As a result of assaulting a guard and possessing a weapon, he was given two 115s, serious infractions which will add time to his sentence.
Chris spent several days in the infirmary and was again put on medication. Then he was moved to administrative segregation (AD SEG), the equivalent of solitary confinement, clearly intended to be punitive.
I talk to a sympathetic nurse there who advised me that AD SEG is not an appropriate setting for someone experiencing paranoid schizophrenia. She suggests I write to the warden requesting that he be moved to another prison with an Enhanced Out-Patient (EOP) program, designed to accommodate inmates with mental illness.
Following her advice, I write to the warden, the chief physician in AD SEG, and also the California Department of Corrections. I also call my state Senator. When I phone the nurse again, she says my letters have created a stir among the prison's medical staff. After my fourth letter, the warden finally responds. In essence, she's not interested in Chris's psychiatric problems. She believes he should be punished for his disobedience and says he'll have to stay where he is until he stands trial for the 115s.
In September, I contact the Prison Law Office, an advocacy group in San Francisco, and they send someone to the prison on Chris's behalf. By this time, he has become a large burr under the warden's saddle. Finally, she agrees to let him go to another facility, with the proviso that me must come back when they're ready to try him for the 115s.
December 24, 1997. Another Unnamed Prison
The day before Christmas, Chris is taken by bus to a prison with an EOP. Within a few months, he becomes suicidal and psychotic again and he's sent to a prison hospital for testing and evaluation.
March 1999. Prison Hospital
They have a state-of-the-art machine here. It can see through your clothing; it can spot a credit card in your pocket or metal underwires in your bra.
My middle son, Nicky (now twenty) and I have come to visit Chris. Unfortunately, Nicky's khaki pants and brown jacket are similar to the guard's uniforms, and they're reluctant to let him in. When Nicky asks if they can lend him something, they offer a pair of women's sweatpants. Bright red, size XXXL. Gamely he goes into the bathroom to put them on, emerging a few minutes later, with a wry smile, acknowledging how ridiculous he looks. He's so tall the pants barely cover his calves. He's bunched them up around his narrow waist, and cinched them with a borrowed plastic belt.
Next they examine our shoes for false heels or insoles, places to hide contraband. One of the guards eyes a couple of rolls of quarters I've brought for the vending machines. She breaks the clear plastic wrappers to make sure I'm not smuggling drugs.
Finally, we're handed passes and the insides of our wrists are stamped with invisible ink. Then we're buzzed through a metal door, which leads us outside to a metal gate near a tower where a guard sits with a rifle, studying the people who collect there. When there are ten of us, the electronic gate opens and we shuffle through like cattle in a feedlot.
Inside an anteroom, a young Hispanic woman sits in a dimly lit, concrete-reinforced cage. We show her our passes and hold our wrists under the black light, so she can see the fluorescent stamps. She buzzes us through another door into a cavernous room echoing with the cries of irritable children, bored teens, dozens of families, hundreds of people, standing sitting milling about.
The door clangs shut. Nicky and I stand there, confused and too intimidated to approach the indifferent guards. We wait by the door for fifteen minutes until a passing inmate, a huge black man with corn rowed hair, points to the far end of the room and says, "Y'all gotta put them passes through the slot in the wall."
We thank him and do what we're told. We have no idea how long it will be before they get Chris out of his cell. At first, we can find no place to sit. Prisoners and visitors fill every chair, jealously defending the invisible borders of the territories they've carved out. Nicky spots a couple of empty chairs near a family of three: an inmate with a greasy red pompadour and a dog-eared Bible, his presumed wife and a listless toddler. We move to sit in the chairs until I notice the man is glaring at us.
"We crowding you?" I ask and try a smile.
"You mind?" he snarls. "I'm trying to have a moment with my wife."
Nicky and I scurry back to stand against the wall.
Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian; what these inmates have in common—aside from their blue chambray work shirts, badly fitted jeans and heavy black work boots—is that they at least have family ;and friends. I wonder how many men at this prison are never allowed entry into this room because no one ever comes to visit them.
Near the food machines, a respectable middle-aged woman, sits beside an inmate who looks dangerous, despite being in a wheelchair. His face and neck, even his ears, are covered with tattoos. With a fierce scowl, he leans toward the woman, listening intently as she reads aloud from a paperback book.
Finally, the metal door near the slot opens and my firstborn son stands there, blinking as if he's come out of a cave. I seem him before he sees us. I have just a second to tuck my shock away. He has gained weight. His head is shaved. God, what does that mean? And then he sees us and smiles. All three of us hug and I won't let myself cry. Miraculously, Chris finds three chairs that apparently belong to no one. We have no trouble finding things to talk about. I remember some of the family anecdotes I've been saving up to tell him. Nicky takes over for a while, talking enthusiastically about his sophomore year at Berkeley. Chris is a little quiet, as if he's out of practice making conversation.
"Do you have friends?" I ask.
He smiles, a little embarrassed. "Friends are kind of a liability in her, Mom."
"But," I persist, "There are people you like…?"
"Yeah, I guess."
He's thirty-three years old now. I know I must sound to him like I'm prying, like I'm being a mom. But, damn it, I am a mom! I'm his mom. So I ask the one question that worries me more than any other: "Staying on your meds?" When he says, "Yeah, Mom, I'm staying on my meds," I relax, letting myself believe he'll be okay, if only he continues to take the medications that silence the Voices in his head.
Inmates are not allowed to touch money so Nicky goes to the food machines, buys three boxes of frozen French fries and thaws them in the microwave. Chris smears them with mustard and gobbles them down, the first fries he's had in six years. He tells me he has dreams about food, about my home cooking.
Too soon they announce that visiting hours are nearly over. There are a million things I wanted to talk about. His electronics class? His new cellmate? Chris asks about his dog Zoe and I tell him a story about her, adding embellishments until we're out of time. I hiss him and hug him, holding on as long as he'll let me. "I love you, Mom," he says and pulls away.
Nicky, already an adult with a bright future and a confident gait, takes my hand and leads me toward the visitor's exit. I turn one last time and see Chris walking with his head bowed, tilted at an angle, the result of damage done to the muscles of his neck when he tried to hang himself. He looks as if he's walking into the wind.
January 2004. Prison Hospital.
Chris continues to stay on his medication. He's now part of a team that makes recordings for the blind. Recently, at an awards ceremony, where he was named "Reader of the Year," a reporter asked if he had a message for those outside the prison walls.
His answer was, "Second chances are important."
Appeared in Chattahoochee Review, Fall 2004 (Lamar York Prize)