by Justin Ennis
When I tried to trace the events that led up to my crime, I could not initially figure out how I had arrived at this destination. All I knew was that I carried a pain so unbearable that I felt compelled to pass it on to others through rage. I lived in torment, passively suffering until I lashed out, expressing myself in the way I had learned through observation. I assumed that development from childhood to adulthood happened naturally and more or less automatically. I could not have been more wrong.
My first memory was of my parent’s divorce when I was four. I remembered being loaded into a U-Haul with the family pets and majority of our possessions. As a child, the complexities of this issue were far beyond my comprehension, but, even in my naivety, I could grasp that something was wrong. Unfortunately, I believed the issue was me … and rejection would be a recurring theme.
Now a busy professional and doubling as a single parent, my mom spent a considerable amount of time as the former to meet the material needs of the latter. Before the sun rose, I was awakened by the proverbial changing of the guard. My mom headed off to work and a babysitter prepared me for school. After school, parents retrieved the other children; I was shuffled off to daycare … as closing time neared … she would rush in wearing scrubs and stethoscope … looking like the ever-doting mother. … But her urgency was for her, not me. After working for 12 hours and a commute, my mom wanted to get home and take care of the domestic requirements. … Upon our arrival, I would be encouraged to occupy myself so she could handle whatever chores needed tending to. Any of my attempts to participate in the tasks would be taken as interruption and I would be shooed away. Not good enough for one parent, this made it feel true for two.
Was I good enough for anyone? Surrounded by my peers for more than half the day seemed like a viable way to explore the inquiry. The results: no. At school, I failed to acclimate to the social climate. Maybe it was my desperation to be accepted despite the fact that I had minimal experience with that kind of interaction. Either way, I was an outcast at best and a target of ridicule at the lower end of the spectrum. My last name is Ennis, like tennis without the “t”. Somehow, that translated to “ee-nis” when teachers conducted roll call … thus, the nickname “Eenis-penis” took rise.
The loner ever seeks to fill the void. Feeling rejected by my family, then schoolmates, I turned to teachers. The teachers seemed to sympathize with my plight and appreciate that I sought to persevere by distracting myself with assignments. “Teacher’s Pet” was far from the worst title bestowed on me. The initial name-calling it brought seemed well worth enduring in order to get the attention I was so desperately seeking. Having no life experience at the time, I was oblivious to the impending dangers. Words may not physically hurt, but I soon learned they serve as strong indicators of future action.
As it did on every playground, the abuse followed its natural course. My failure to address the verbal abuse opened the door for it to become physical. Restrooms became a dangerous place to be, since that is where the most severe abuse took place; I would avoid them at all costs. Yes, to the point I would risk and even suffer having an “accident.” To the underdeveloped mind this seems like a logical way of coping. It figures the accident will only be made fun of, which saves from the alternative of violence. I did not even realize the physiological ramifications it would bring.
All of this took its toll on my ability to concentrate in the classroom. The teachers detailed the problems to my mom, who, in turn, relayed them to a clinician. Therapy and pharmaceuticals were prescribed promptly. The former began amicably. It was a nice outlet to have considering my mom did not talk about feelings, regardless of whose they were. However, the tide quickly turned. It was not long before the therapist was putting in a paramount effort to coerce me into alleging an adult had sexually abused me. The insinuation was that molestation must have been the cause of my shortcomings. When I finally lied and said something to that effect had occurred, I was so ashamed; I vowed never to visit that office again, no matter what the cost. It was a promise I kept. The other avenue did not end up much better.
The pediatrician struck the same chord. There must be something wrong with me. What else could explain away the failures of such a successful person’s offspring? My mom was distinguished in the medical community as a hardworking and intelligent person. It was apparent that I was well provided for financially. In his expert opinion, I needed medication. This was a textbook case of Attention Deficit Disorder. He explained that I was incapable of concentrating. That is why I was distracted. This is a thought for a confused eight-year-old to ponder. Then, since he is already struggling, call him up to the front office every day to take his medication. Now, even the teachers looked at me as “less-than.”
Shunned by what felt like everyone, I was ill-prepared for another stressor. … My mom’s boyfriend Jason M. became physically abusive with her, destroying the solitary place where I still felt safe. This is when the recurring theme became very apparent. People seek to appease the abuser. At school, the kids and teachers placated the bully; my mom would make excuses for and lavish attention upon Jason with each trauma inflicted. I formulated two beliefs that I supported with evidence: abusers get affection and one will be either the abused or the abuser. In my mind there was black and white; it ultimately turned red.
It is a fact that the earlier emotions are inhibited, the deeper the damage. Since the visceral brain learns and remembers, but is poor at forgetting, it imprints the trauma with a permanence that will dominate its future. The neurological explanation for severe over-reactive responses is the enlarged neuronal imprints from these stressful experiences that distort how we react to stimuli as we get older. The emotional pain in my limbic system reacted overwhelming, the energy of the trauma building like an electrical storm, reverberating tension throughout the biological system. I was a lightning bolt, waiting for a prototypic event to trigger my strike.
The details that proceeded the pivotal moment are still unclear to me, but what happened remains vivid even after all these years. Scott L. said or did something and the reaction was not equal to that particular antagonism. I lashed out with a rage equivalent to the culmination of every pain I had previously repressed: my resentment with my dad for choosing another woman over us, my frustration with my mom for not recognizing that her time was worth more to me than money, my exasperation at not being worthy of acceptance, my shame with the counselor for exploiting me, my vexation with the doctor for labeling me, my aggravation with the teachers devaluing me, my fury with those kids who beat me up, my helplessness with that man harming my protector. I smashed Scott’s face into the water fountain as he bent over to drink. He went limp, falling to the ground where I vengefully proceeded to stomp on his head. The crowd of spectators looked on, stunned into silence, shocked into inaction. As abruptly as the assault began, and as seemingly unprovoked as it appeared, it ended.
I walked away so nonchalantly it added an air of callousness to the already heinous attack. Reinforcing the experiences from my past, the abuser, I was not subject to any repercussion. The kids and the victim were too scared to report what they had witnessed, just as my mom was, just as I had been. I was not propelled to stardom, but my new status as pariah felt comparable. However, alone can only be a temporary reprieve. It would not meet my social need for affiliation nor did it resolve any of my problems at home. The cycle that would repeat itself as my primary coping mechanism would eventually be infused with addiction, and ultimately culminate in murder.
The pressure of living in torment and passively suffering can only be contained for so long. It is not safe to assume that, because I feel, it is acceptable to do. No, maturity does not come easy. Coping skills come in both negative and positive forms; the difference is; only the latter will meet my needs over time. This is only one chapter out of the novel, the author known not as a name now, but as a prison number. So be forewarned about carrying your pain. Hurt people hurt people, if only to hurt themselves
.Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.