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The Favorite Son: My Fallen Uncle and Our Culture of Abuse

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Sonny's mug shot

Sonny’s mug shot on the news

By Michael Workman

Before dawn, the whippoorwills cry in the trees, their song carrying across the empty expanse of flat land and a two-story Tudor house. As seen from the road, the house appears solemn and absent of movement, the windows dark, horse and pig corrals beside it, only a single sow trundling across the broad side of the barn, nuzzling the damp mud for scraps. Three groups of men in helmets and black body armor appear, blue Ford slowly rolling up behind them as they advance toward the house, unslinging their assault rifles, front and back of their clothes marked, in big, bright yellow, with the letters F-B-I.

It is Summer 2009 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 3am. Uncle Sonny sits in his Steelcase office chair in the basement, hair weighted with the hours he’s stayed awake, precisely tapping the butt of his Winston on the edge of an aquamarine ashtray, not noticing it’s finished. He’s fixated on the lines of file names as they scroll down the screen, 5,000 or 10,000 of them, and CLICK, another page, more files to share, a huge number of video clips. Small lights blinking on a series of computer panels stacked on the bookshelf beside him: internal storage discs whirring as they read, transfer, copy, transmit and receive child pornography. The small silhouette of a video camera is mounted on a tripod standing in the dark behind him, staring out past him, unnoticed, forgotten.

He is so completely absorbed in his concentration that he second guesses the noise as the front door crashes in upstairs, the wood frame suddenly splitting, hurried footsteps on the floor above his head confirming what he thought he heard. In that moment, he feels all the blood in his body present and gushing, a sensation familiar to what he felt in the Korean War when mortar debris hit his face and left him with one lazily sagging eyelid. Reaching out to press the square button on his computer monitor, Sonny hears the boots upstairs and his shrieking wife. He releases the button. The room around him plunged into darkness except for the array of computer lights all blinking out of sync.

Eyes open, he sees the FBI men in helmets and black raid gear, assault rifles trained on him, waiting, two plain-clothed men in dark jeans and t-shirts with pistols drawn, looking. Moment. Moment. One of them lowers and holsters his pistol, eyeing Uncle Sonny, and weaves his way forward through the officers to him, “Sonny J. Swiers*. You are under arrest for the sexual exploitation of children and distribution of child pornography.” Pause. Beat. Sonny, still seated, stammers, “You guys have guns,” mouth the driest it has ever been, near-impossible to form the words, unable to force his voice above a whisper. “Please take out your guns and shoot me. My life is over.”When the eight o’clock news comes on, the story is the first to run, and they lean hard on the pastor-pedophile angle. Yes, he had served as a chaplain with the sheriff’s department. But I’d never thought of him as a religious person, except where his ego was concerned. I imagine the moments he spent with prisoners counseling them faith, and am filled with a sense of how bitter those who accepted his hypocrisies as a source of redemption, of hope, must now feel. I’m glad my grandparents are dead; it would kill them to see what their favorite son has done, the lives he has participated in destroying. It takes almost a year before news comes out about the plea agreement, and his sentencing.

It is all very simplistic and procedural. Nearly fifteen-thousand hours of child pornography are found, the other men in the ring connected to file-sharing-service subscriptions totaling many thousands more. It’s enough for almost thirteen years of prison and five years supervised release after. Sonny’s already in his mid-sixties, though. It’s a pretty decent bet he’ll die in jail. It just doesn’t feel like punishment enough. Not for the wedge this drives through our family, not for the acceptance our family extended him and how we have been repaid, or for the deeper things, the tussle over who loved better, more meaningfully. His phone call to refuse attendance at my wedding because my wife, he told me, was just “another whore.” I think of him, I remember the moments I spent as a child loving him, and I can’t help but think that humanity may just be a fatal disease we have all contracted.

But watching the TV wasn’t how I first heard about Uncle Sonny’s fate. I’m sitting in my living room, checking email when the phone rings. It’s my sister. “Have you seen the news?” she asks. “It’s Uncle Sonny.” It is then that I switch on my computer, find a local channel and start watching the news stream from my hometown station. They show his picture in the lead-in to the morning show, right there alongside the traffic updates. I’m literally nauseous but not surprised.

How could he do it? I marvel, and the more I ask myself this question, the more I find myself dredging memories, from throughout childhood, of my encounters with what in my youth was referred to as the culture of abuse. Over the years, subtle mutations in the phrase have taken place, sprouting new colloquialisms, and often it has, most recently, congealed into the term “rape culture.” Rape culture. Until the 1970s, according to a report in the June 2011 Psychology of Women Quarterly, “Most Americans assumed that rape, incest, and wife-beating rarely happened.” Leaving, of course, the exploitation of those most vulnerable in our society to take place as an, if not accepted, at least generally tolerated state of affairs. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau report “Child Maltreatment 2010” concluded nearly ten percent of children in the nation were sexually assaulted. And this is with the caveat that child sexual abuse is “far greater” than what is reported. And isn’t that just common knowledge now?

Simple. Reductive, even. Yet, how commonplace the world that outlined his soul. As a child in the late seventies, I remember our visits to his house, birds singing outside the window. As a farm, there’s not much growing, just open expanses of frozen dirt separated by large swathes of forest and ice ponds. Sonny leads my father, brother and I out across the property, rifles pointed to the ground. We walk all day long, firing shots into the surface of the frozen pond. POP. CRACK, a gurgling sound as an air pocket opens beneath the ice, spreading in a slick pool across the surface.

We walk as the sun lowers, turns orange and darkness rings us, the cold grows hard, bitter chill pressing through our coats and clothes, and I can just make out Sonny’s face, lips a straight line across his drawn features, so similar in looks to my grandfather without the chastened spirit of his time in the concentration camp, without the memory of the Battle of the Bulge and capture by the enemy. No, there on Sonny’s face, the baggy, beaded eyes and hard frown of prolonged disappointment, lined cheeks that evoke the gaunt flesh of a man starved of joy. Walking back, as the last tinge of light drains from the sky, we walk silently toward the solitary illumination of home.

Alone together when mom and dad have drifted off to the kitchen, I pull on Sonny’s arm, tugging at his thick wrist and at the gold-plated watch snapped tightly in place around it. His arm seems thick as a tree branch, sweaty, and as I hold on, he lifts his arm horizontally, until my feet are raised off the ground. As he lifts, I pull, tugging and yanking his arm till it’s forced down slightly, his expression a red-flushed movie-monster mask, vein popping tentacle-like out the middle of his forehead.

He laughs and says, “So you think you’re tough, hah?”

“Yeah, I’m tough,” I huff, dropping his wrist.

“Let’s see how tough,” he says, pulling with his pursed lips the butt of a cigarette from the paper pack in his breast pocket, and lights it with a snap of a tiny blue Bic. He raises his forearm, tensely holding it in front of his face. Fist balled, he places the lit cigarette in the middle of his arm and holds it there, smoke rising between us.

“You hold it on your arm like this. First one to take it off loses,” he explains, then lights another, motions for me to raise my forearm. I ball my fist, ram it up in front of him, and he gingerly drops the second cigarette in place on the back of my arm.

It takes a few seconds to register the heat. Sonny raises his arm to mine, cigarette smoldering with the smell of burnt hair. Now it burns, slicing into my flesh, and I swipe my arm aside, flinging the cigarette across the room. OUCH! I shout, clapping my right palm to the burnt spot, slightly raised in a yellow blister. Sonny holds up his forearm, cigarette still there, and I see that the burning end is held off his skin by a layer of thick reddish hair. He plucks it off, places the butt between his lips, takes a long, satisfied drag and exhales through that toothy smirk. He looks at me as if asking a question, staring, entrancing me with the restrained excitement in his unspeaking, wide brown eyes. I stare at the left one, pupil cloudy with cataract, sagging slightly lower than the other, exposing a sliver of pink flesh inside the lid, mostly rheumy, running over with tears.

It’s early in the afternoon when I manage to catch the first news teasers about his arrest, and then they start appearing every commercial break. It’s sickening. Sonny’s mugshot has been running on the breaking news updates all morning. “Tonight at 8…” It’s so strange to see his face on the TV. That face. Celebrity.

Shaken, I pick up the phone and call my mother in Florida. Sonny is her brother, and I wonder if anybody has told her yet. She picks up, her voice its usual cheery tone. “Have you seen the news?” I ask. She has. We talk awhile and she slips into her paranoid delusional default, blames it on the nasal sprays he always carries in his shirt pocket. Calculatingly blames it on the unknown substances in the spray and how they interact with his brain chemistry, neatly explaining away her own “chemical imbalance.” It’s easier than the gray zone of her diagnosed psychiatric disorder, played out years earlier in a prolonged period of repeated suicide attempts. And I can understand her need to explain away her brother’s newly minted infamy; at least her own self-destructiveness had the tinge of something more noble. Of martyrdom and self-sacrifice. Manmade nasal sprays, where’s the pride in that? I start to try reasoning with her about it, then stop myself. It’s another case of her usual, ironclad denial, and not worth arguing.

fountaininfrontofoldcalvarytempleAfter we hang up I sit in silence, thinking about my mom, about everything she went through. I remember back to when I’m a child, maybe five or six and, in the middle of the night, when I’m sound asleep, she lifts me up out of bed, my toes bumping her knees. Am I still dreaming as she lifts me? and glimpse the outline of a man’s head and shoulders outside the window, his breath fogging the glass? She sits me down on the couch in front of her, covering my legs with a crocheted red and black throw, and hands me a glass of water. I drink, wiping my eyes. HOLY HOLY HOLY she chants, hands in prayer in front of her face. Then she clears her throat, wipes her eyes and seems to compose herself. “I need to talk with somebody,” she tells me, swallows, sits cross-legged, moving her long, black hair from her face. “I’m scared,” voice trembling, “because the devil came to visit me tonight.” I listen, room quiet, nothing but the sizzle sound of the wick burning and crocuses singing outside. “He came to see me in my room tonight, and told me if I told anybody that I would die.”

“Don’t be scared, mom,” I tell her, leaning my head against her breast, folding my arms around her waist and pulling. She’s crying as I hold her, her sobs synchronizing with the chorus of crocuses coming in through the open window. I feel her fingers in my hair, moving under my chin. Salty tears. After awhile, the sobs abate and it’s quiet. I watch as she pulls away slowly, her wide eyes glistening and wild, looking back into mine. I stare back at her, scared that she thinks I’m the devil.

Morning light creeps in. 2009 again. I’m into my first cup of coffee, still thinking about my mother as I stare absent-mindedly at the pictures flashing on the TV screen. I’m thinking about her devotion to the church, her near-physical yearning for a sense of God’s presence. Devout. Almost fanatical. We spent most of our free weeknights at Calvary Temple, the Protestant church in our neighborhood where my father works as a deacon. She even enrolls us in several youth programs, her favorite of which is run by a man named Peter. Thin, tall, and with a wiry moustache, in blue jeans, tucked-in checkered shirt and white sneakers, Peter is gentle-mannered and friendly with everyone. Talkative. Personable. Resembles a high-school science teacher. All the parents think he’s a good thing for the church, for the kids, for helping reach out to grow the congregation.

It’s past my bedtime on a Thursday night and I’m happy to be up. I’m corralled with other kids in the basement of a church rental off the main campus, in a shabby storefront with gray stipple carpeting. All the kids are gathered around one of the metal folding tables for juice boxes and cookies. We each read passages from a selection of dramatic works, stumbling through our pronunciation, trying to give the words some semblance of meaning, of feeling, our little minds struggling to render our own imagining of moments from “Alice in Wonderland” and “Watership Down.”

“That was a beautiful reading,” Peter tells me, taking the book from my hands, holding it at his side, considering me. “You have a lot of talent, Mikey.” He says, holding his gaze on mine, sincere and serene, conspiratorial. “We just need to work on it together.” He looks at me with an introspective, pinhole fixation in his eyes, wide smile lingeringly agape, and breathing evenly.

Peter drives me home that night, flashes of blurry neon flying past the window. I keep saying his name in my head wrong, but like the ring to it, Peter Salt. Peter Salt. I lean forward and look up, searching the sky until I find the constellation Ursa Major, tracing the lights of the Great Bear until I find the pointer stars. “I have to stop at my place to let the dogs out,” Peter tells me as he switches on the radio, twisting the knob with a flick of his thin, dark-haired wrist, other hand gripping the wheel tensely, listening to the snowy crackle of passing channels until he finally settles on one.

We turn into a housing addition, headlamps briefly illuminating a large wooden sign that reads CANTERBURY GREEN. We drive along the main road, turn a few times and pull up in front of a two-story house. I press my palm flat against the cool, damp window. “Want to see them?” Peter asks, switching off the ignition. His living room is large, dark, cavernous, with a black, saggy leather sofa. A head with two pointy ears rises up over the back of the couch to look at me, the Doberman’s eyes sparkling slightly red. Peter makes a quick succession of kissing and sucking sounds, patting the front of his thighs with his palms, and the pair of dogs disappear out into the dark of the back yard.

“Let’s give them a few minutes,” he says. “I’m going to go change,” he explains, and motions with his hand to the now-open sofa. I sit. It’s still warm from the sleeping dogs, almost hot, and smells faintly of wet fur, acrid and fishy.

Time passes, I’m not sure how much. Childhood years flash past in seconds. I get up and walk upstairs, toward the second-floor landing. It grows brighter as I find a room and look around the edge of the doorframe at Peter, contemplating himself in a full-length mirror. He sees me. “I’m having some trouble with my zipper,” he says, craning his hands around his crotch, zipper on his fly gaping open. “Can you help me with it?” Gooseflesh runs up my spine, and I step back. “No,” I say, and continue moving until I’m back outside the room, and stand there, staring at the wall in the hallway. I freeze. Eventually he comes out, pretends like nothing happened, and takes me home. There’s no more conversation. I shut down my mind, stop feeling. Stop thinking.

It takes me a few days, but eventually I tell my dad what happened. Early evening one night I walk into my parent’s bedroom as they’re gathering laundry and, very grownup-like ask, “Hey, you got a minute?” My dad stops and looks at me. “Sure bud. What is it?” I come in, sit on the bed in front of him, and tell him everything that happened with Peter. It’s uncomfortable, but I know I’m doing the right thing by telling him. I get to the part about Peter asking me to zip up his jeans and offer that “Maybe he just really couldn’t zip them, but it wasn’t right for him to ask me to do that.” My dad nods. “No, it wasn’t right for him to do that, Mike,” he says, and I ask him if we shouldn’t tell somebody about it. Maybe tell the pastor.

Dad looks at mom. “Yeah, I think we should tell him.” He says, tells me that he and mom are going to talk about it and I did the right thing by telling them, and I leave the room. It feels good to do the right thing. I’m proud of myself, filled with love for my dad. Feel safe. He never tells them.

The TV crackles. Zzzt. In and out, waves of rainbow lines. By mid-day, the story has hit CNN. Reports start coming across the news channel’s feed, and the details are scant at first. Then the local station pipes in with the basics. Chaplain for the Sheriff’s Department. Pastor. War vet. Ministered to convicts in the local prisons and at the VA. Lots of friends in the community, at the Baptist church where he takes the pulpit some Sundays. I sip my coffee. It’s cliché. At least if you can’t trust church and family, you could always count on your friends, whose families are just as fucked up as your own. All families are dysfunctional, I hear myself think. Quoting. And yeah. My friends all had fucked-up families, and all my friends are fuck-ups.

calvarytemple(nowfirstassemblyofgod)Sonny certainly thinks so, thinks my brother and I are hoodlums, and he let us know it. Hoodlums with hooligan friends. And they are, some of them. But our friends are the ones we just feel the most comfortable around, still holding onto some shreds of innocence. And of course, we are too, and pissed off at the world for how shitty everything is. Brewster, a kid who lives in the neighborhood, is one of the more pissed-off friends I know. In the middle of the night we sneak out together and run around vandalizing the neighbor’s backyards. Breaking and stealing shit, tee-peeing our friends’ houses. Brewster’s cool.

We spend a lot of time together and eventually Brewster invites us to sleep over. That day, my brother Tad and I trundle extra pillows and a change of clothes over to his place, three streets back and across the interstate. Brewster and his brother Matt are sprawled on the porch in their underwear and t-shirts, pale legs and arms shiny with sweat, reading comic books and drinking purple Kool-Aid.

Eventually the heat begins to abate as it gets darker, and we head inside. Brewster’s bedroom is still a sauna when we go to play Ouija, talking spirits and demons, the afterlife. Invite a pantheon of demons into our souls. Fuck you, Jesus! we laugh, wiping the stinging sweat from our eyes. Eventually, the game loses its charm. It’s just too hot. Brewster lays back on a rolled flannel blanket, in graying Hanes and moves his hand over his sunburned chest, head tilted slightly, contemplating us. It’s quiet except for the sound of bugs.

“It’ll get cooler if we kill the lights,” says Matt, standing up and walking over to hit the switch, the shining streaks of condensation flashing on his bedroom window. My eyes dart around to find Tad, adjusting to the shifted light. The heat seems to grow more dense, the TAP TAP TAP of a powdery white moth flitting against the window, sweat filling the divot in the inner curve of my left ear. I start to nod off.

My forearm feels warm before I realize it’s the heat of a touch, the sensation of hot flesh against mine, startling me awake, yet I keep still. Brewster’s hand gently levitates above, then against my arm, shoulder, across my collarbone. His fingertips slide along the slight swell of my chest, then, his mouth against mine, I yank sideways. I squirm, crane my head back, struggling, his hands pushing me down, and then I think of Tad. If I don’t let him do what he wants, I think, he’ll go after Tad. Both of us sucking breath like sprinters, I see his curly hair in silhouette, and stop struggling. Slowly roll over for him, calm, arms out at my sides, and he slips down my shorts. “It feels just like a girl,” he whispers and I can feel his erection as he positions, and presses into me just a little, then more. I hear Tad move, and glimpse the top of his head in the darkness as he moves toward me. “Don’t come down here Tad,” I whisper. Brewster’s sweat drips onto my back. I go limp until he’s done, as exhausted as the faltering light.

Later that week, my mother and father and I are sitting in a restaurant with my two sisters and brother, and I’m looking at the fried chicken and mashed potatoes on my plate. Kids are laughing. It’s busy. Every table is filled. We listen to the grinding sounds of glass, silverware and ceramic plates, not talking. The tablecloth has pictures of wagon wheels and cowboy hats. My sister Mildy’s voice shouts STOP IT, tussling with my brother Tad, and I accidentally knock over my glass. Panic surges through me, and suddenly there’s a sharp pain in my cheek, forehead, and bone along the upper orbit of my left eye, and I see white, with pink and green spots. My hands come up, and I feel them being forced back down. My father smacks me two more times in the face with his thick, hard hands. BEHAVE! It’s thoughtless, mechanical. I’ll have bruises the next day. I stare down at the table, holding my head.

It’s all the same after awhile. One day Ms. Gale, the black social worker at our school, in her stiff black coat and pants, is saying “Come with me,” intently doing her job, yet I sense a degree of reassurance in her tone. “Don’t worry,” she tells me, then. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” I’m thirteen. She places her hand between my shoulder blades as I walk out of the classroom, keeping me close, guides me to the administrative office. I don’t know why Ms. Gale is taking me out of class, I’m just grateful she is being nice to me, happy I’m not in trouble.

She asks me if I know how I got those bruises, and sensing the weight of my answer, I think, Don’t tell her. “Did your mom and dad do that to you?” she asks, and I feel a little vibration shoot through my chest. I didn’t know she would ask that, and my mind clouds as I try to think what to say, blurting out YES before I can finish. Nodding. Yes, they did this to me. “You can’t help me,” I tell her, looking at the floor. “Why not?” she asks, staring back at me. Ten, fifteen seconds pass in silence. I don’t have an answer for her. How can I believe anything she has to say either?  Why should I? “You just go home and we’ll see about that,” she says, and I nod. I get it. I’m tough. I’m in the system. A week or so later, Child Protective Services will visit our house to interview my parents. It’ll be the first of many visits over the years. Looking out the doorway from Ms. Gale’s office, through the bay windows of the corridor, I catch the sun being eclipsed by a looming supercell storm cloud. It rains before I get home.

*Slightly changed, for my mom’s sake.

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