If they say I never loved you…

Hills are filled with fireAs Jim Morrison sang in LA Woman:

I see your hair is burnin’

Hills are filled with fire

If they say I never loved you

You know they are a liar

In these late summer days of the locust, I find myself thinking about one of the smartest kids I ever worked with… a sweet-looking boy with an open face, aqua-marine eyes and the kind of blondish hair meant for affectionately tousling, although I doubt it had gotten much of that in his fourteen years on the planet. 

It was just a few weeks into his being a resident of the group home for which I was therapist that I got an emergency call from my staff informing me that the boy had lit his own bed on fire.

While it flashed through my mind that he could be a fire-setter, he claimed he’d just being playing with a lighter and that it was an accident.  We confiscated his lighter, searched his stuff again, gave him a “level drop” (meaning less freedom to leave the house unsupervised) and tried to believe that he possessed “normal” (for a group home, anyway) issues like smoking cigarettes and weed at fourteen years old.  But as I examined the deeply charred spots on his mattress, inhaling the toxic whiffs of blackened nylon, I was left with the uneasy recognition that we had a deeper problem on our hands.

I can’t recall whether the next fire was before or after I’d called his former therapist to check a few things out (you don’t find “sudden-onset arson”), but there was a next fire, again contained relatively quickly (thanks to my staff’s vigilance), and there was also the hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-my-neck conversation with this boy’s old counselor.  I felt like I was meeting “deep throat” in a parking garage as she closed her office door (I could hear it on the phone), lowered her voice to a hushed near-whisper and said, “I put it in the report, but they made me take it out.” 

I was outraged.  I liked this kid and wanted to help him but five other children and four staff lived in the house and this one boy was at risk of killing them all.  She said that she knew that, and I could hear her anguish as she added, “they knew no one would take him if we told the truth, and we had to get rid of him for the safety of the others.”  “So you just put my kids and staff in danger?” I countered.  She was ashamed, sad, and yet as powerless as she was in her low-level position, I could understand it based on my own relatively powerless (yet loaded with responsibility) position.  We were both a couple of reasonably “good eggs” floundering in a society that largely didn’t give a rat’s ass about any of these kids.  She and I were both trying to balance the good of each kid in our care with the good of the group; looking back, this moment marked a widening of my own perspective—the good of one clinic or group home versus the good of another, the good of the “system” vs. the good of the society or culture at large.

But now this kid was my problem.  I hung up and went to consult with my supervisor, another “good egg” with what I then thought was some power, but what I later realized when I became a supervisor, was pretty much the same mandate of swimming against a tide of indifference with limited resources as any and all of us “helpers” had; it wasn’t anyone in the agency that held the power, it was the collective group of our culture—the one that builds Super-Max prisons, guards borders and exports bombs instead of books and medicine.  I was only dimly beginning to realize that it’s not “them,” (the “bad” companies, conservative government, etc.) it is, and will be until we personally change it, “us.”

As far as the fire-setting boy went, there was no doubt in our minds that this child needed to be in a locked facility.  While we went about securing one for him (which, since we were going to be honest, was not going to be easy) we also had to (or “got to”) to try to help him, while at the same time keeping him and the others safe.  It’s a nerve-wracking game to know that someone is an arsonist, and to know that they don’t know that you definitely know; and it’s further nerve-wracking (not to mention heart breaking) to know that you’ll be sending him away, while simultaneously trying to maintain enough trust and rapport so that he doesn’t burn down the house out of feelings of angry betrayal, nor slip out into the night to burn down someone else’s house (which would not only be horrible, but also a legal nightmare for the agency). 

I felt powerless, yet saddled with responsibility; and I also began to think about how this boy might feel, wondering if underneath those impassive eyes that could put out a fire as well as start one, he too felt helpless, sad and scared.

Looking back, I only now realize why he broke into the chart room to read, and partly destroy, his psychological chart.  At the time I was simply amazed at his ingenuity.  He had to steal a ring of keys from a custodian, wait until night, sneak out of the group home, sneak into the locked main clinic building, make his way into the chart-room and have the ingenuity and foresight to bring a crow-bar (also no-doubt filched) to pry open the locked chart cabinets.  Most kids in his situation had no idea that there even was a chart room, much less where it was.  He was also smart enough to vandalize a bunch of charts to make it plausible that someone else had done this, at least from a legalistic evidence perspective.  As I said, this was one of the smartest kids I’d ever met; and the thought of him putting all that intelligence in the service of doing bad things was not only sad, it was more than a little scary.

As I said, now I think I realize why he did it:  he was too smart to think that by changing his chart he would change his circumstances; I think that he wanted to know what was really wrong with him and thought that maybe we actually knew and had written it down.

At this point I told him that I knew he broke into the chart room, and I knew that he was a fire-setter, but I said it without accusation.  He looked at me with his exceptionally keen eyes, realized I wasn’t bluffing and then told me flat out that he’d been setting fires for several years—that all he really knew was that he got strong urges to do it.  Sometimes voices told him to do it. 

He went on to tell me that his dad was an arsonist, one who had taken him along from early on when he set fires; he said that his dad had also dragged him down a set of stairs by his feet with his head bumping each step as they went.  As for his mom, if his story was to be believed, she was also a fire-setter.  This kid was up against nature and nurture.

In a post-script to this story, about a year after we’d sent this boy to a locked State Mental Hospital I got a call from the front desk of the clinic that this very boy was here to see me.  Sitting in my office, he admitted that he’d slipped out, gotten a bus and made it back to our clinic many miles away.  He looked well groomed and rational.  He said that he wanted to come back, and that I was the only therapist who’d ever understood him.  I recognized that he was probably manipulating, but even bothering to tell that particular lie seemed to say something about the small filament of a relationship that we had actually developed.  Everything else aside, I really liked this kid; he had a way of getting under your skin.

He knew that I couldn’t just say the word and take him in, that he’d need to work his program at the hospital and earn his release, not run away—at least not if he hoped to stay within “the system.”  I also knew that I was not fully in my integrity at this moment, because once we knew a kid was a fire-setter, for legal and safety reasons, the clinic was more than highly disinclined to take them—it was virtually never going to happen.  I also knew that this kid could be potentially dangerous and so I suggested that he stay with me, while I would call his current staff arrange for him to go back.  It was a weird moment where if I wanted to make that happen, I’d have to physically make it happen; it was not the protocol for therapists to act alone to restrain kids—especially kids not even in our care.

It was like a chess game and his move was to look at me with something more tinged with love than hate.  I saw only the faintest hint of disappointment, but more the Gallic shrug of a character resigned to their fate, in this life anyway.  And with that he calmly got up and walked out of my office, knowing that I wouldn’t stop him.

Like Hermes, and other Tricksters, the bringer of luck brings both good and bad luck; and this particular sort of messenger is the only one of the archetypal figures who, without assistance from others, ventures to the underworld and returns.

He was halfway down the hall as I called our intervention staff.  But he slipped past all the beefy former footballers with walkie-talkies and was last seen warily trotting down the main road outside the clinic, in my mind’s eye not unlike the coyotes I see sometimes at dusk or dawn, this one with a cat dangling from his mouth, that one meeting my gaze with a trickster glint of his own and then vanishing into the brush.

So, let’s dedicate today to sending good wishes to that boy who is by now nearly a man, if he’s alive, and let’s dedicate today to the conscious recognition of all our collective children, and to the greater good of all parents, including those who are so disturbed (for whatever reason or non-reason) that they would hurt themselves or others.  Perhaps by being more conscious of the Shadow in us all, and between us all, we might ever so slightly reduce its dark hungers and destructive impulses.

Namaste, Bruce

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