By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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When my marriage ended, I was left with a one-year-old and another baby on the way — no job, no savings, no child support, no alimony. I had to go on welfare. I found an apartment in a run-down part of town and struggled to get by on the meager government assistance. After rent and utilities, I had only pennies to buy necessities like toilet paper and soap.
One cold morning I was jolted awake at dawn by a loud crash. I rushed to the kitchen to find that several ceiling panels had become saturated with water and fallen, along with chunks of the plaster above them. There must have been a slow leak in the pipes.
The children hadn’t awakened, nor had a friend who was visiting. After putting the ceiling panels in the bathtub to dry out, I got out the broom and started to sweep up the damp plaster.
My friend appeared in the doorway. “Wow!” he said. “The ceiling falls, and you just start cleaning it up. Anybody else would be fussing and complaining about their bad luck.”
I laughed and said, “Well, someone has to do it.” Complaining wasn’t going to clean up the mess.
Anyway, I had far worse things to worry about: a food-stamp allotment so minuscule that even carrots had become a luxury; a neighborhood where houses were burned by landlords for the insurance money (the good ones warned their tenants first); a child-welfare system that threatened to take away my children if I didn’t conform to the social worker’s dictates.
A fallen ceiling was nothing.
In 1978 I led a strike at a glue factory on the shores of Lake Michigan. Trimmings and waste from meat-packing houses were boiled down in huge vats there to make adhesives and gelatin. The conditions were horrendous, the smell was abominable, and rats scurried all over.
There was a company town across from the factory, and a company-owned power station that supplied electricity and water to the workers’ homes. Rent and utility payments were deducted from employees’ paychecks. The seniority system was racist: Latinos with twenty years on the job were passed over for promotions, while recently hired white laborers moved up. The two hundred union members (half Latino and half white) were united in their strike demands: equal access to job promotions; elimination of dangerous working conditions; improved pensions; and wage increases to keep up with inflation.
Three weeks into the strike, no workers had crossed the picket line, not even the dozen white power-station employees. (The station was being run by a skeleton crew of supervisors.) Tractor-trailer loads of meat waste continued to be delivered, forming a mountain of greenish-gray offal that could be smelled miles away.
The factory’s corporate bigwig from New York told us that if we didn’t get back to work, they would shut off the water to the strikers’ houses, and the strikers could be evicted.
“If you shut off the water and evict the strikers,” I said, “how are you going to put out the fires?”
“What fires?” he asked.
“The burning houses,” I replied.
Two more weeks passed with the strikers remaining united. On the eve of Labor Day weekend, the company’s lawyer called and settled. We compromised on the wage increase but got everything else we’d fought for, including an end to racial discrimination in promotions.
Hugh V. Tague
My mother died while I was in college, and my father got remarried to a much younger woman six months later. I hated my stepmother, with her Wisconsin accent and her dyed-blond hair, but after college I couldn’t find work and had to move back home. The only consolation was that I would be closer to my two brothers: eleven-year-old Owen and eighteen-year-old Mike.
My stepmother thought Owen should learn to play the piano they’d bought. One day I stopped on the stair landing above the living room to watch him bang on the keys. It sounded awful, but Owen was enjoying himself, laughing and moving around on the seat, his red hair sticking out all over. He made me smile.
Then my stepmother came in, holding her new baby on her hip. “Do you call that piano playing?” she asked Owen.
He shrugged. “I’m practicing,” he said.
“You are not,” she replied.
“Yes, I am.”
She grabbed his ear and pulled him off the piano bench. His face contorted, but he wasn’t sobbing. He yielded as she dragged him. Our parents had hit us, but this was different: Our parents loved us. She didn’t.
Mike came running down the stairs. He passed me on the landing, ran into the living room, and shouted, “Get your fucking hands off him!” His fists were clenched, his face inches from hers. Our stepmother let go of Owen’s ear and shrank back. The baby started crying, and Mike relaxed his stance a little. “If you ever lay a hand on him again,” he said, “I’ll punch your lights out.”
My stepmother didn’t respond. Mike put one arm around Owen, and they turned and walked toward the stairs.
Once Mike was a safe distance away, my stepmother called out, “Wait until your father gets home!”
Kathy had told me we were just friends, nothing more. She had a boyfriend, but he was away at college, and I was determined to tell her how I felt. So I left a two-page poem in her locker. Every line began with Because: “Because your smile stays with me. / Because I’m not myself without you. / Because you’re more beautiful than you know . . .”
Later I went out of my way to pass her in the hall. She was with a friend and couldn’t stop to talk, but she widened her eyes at me.
That night Dad and I were watching Jeopardy! when the phone rang, and he went to answer it. “It’s for you,” he said.
I took the cordless receiver and heard an unfamiliar, angry male voice: “This is John. Kathy’s boyfriend.” My face grew hot, and I carried the phone to my bedroom.
John told me to stay away from Kathy or he would come home from college and kill me.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry. Just stay away from her. Don’t contact her. Don’t see her. Don’t call her. She doesn’t need this. I will kill you.”
He hung up.
Kathy apologized the next day and told me not to worry; John just had a hot temper. “I know you didn’t mean anything,” she said. “We’re still friends, OK?”
“OK,” I replied. But I avoided Kathy’s locker after that. And I looked over my shoulder after school for months.
At the age of ninety-three, my mother has her share of physical ailments — spinal compression, an artificial heart valve, a pacemaker — but mentally she is still fairly healthy. Yes, she repeats herself, and she sometimes mistakes my niece for my daughter, but she catches her mistakes, and we all have a good laugh. One time she looked me in the eye and said, “You know something, Jill? I think I have this whole old-age thing beat.”
Recently she landed in the hospital with a serious infection. Her fever spiked, and her blood pressure bottomed out. She was hallucinating so much I had to convince the medical staff she didn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s. My frail, 110-pound mom hurled a cup of water across the room and scratched and kicked the poor orderly who was trying to get her out of her street clothes and into a hospital gown.
In her delirium she even threatened me: “You better get me out of here right now, or I’m going to beat the living shit out of you.”
I wondered if these would be my mother’s last words to me.
Eventually the antibiotics kicked in, and a few days later she came around. When I told her she was in the hospital, she said, “That’s not where I was before.”
“Where were you?” I asked.
“I was dead,” she replied matter-of-factly. “I didn’t like it there. They don’t let you wear your own clothes.”
Santa Cruz, California
In 2005 I moved to Bogotá, Colombia, to work with Peace Brigades International, an organization that uses nonviolent means to protect activists who receive death threats. Our only “weapon” was our presence: in our bright-green vests, we represented the watchful eyes and ears of the international community.
I was assigned to protect a prominent human-rights defender named Iván Cepeda. One evening, after Iván had been dropped off at home, his bulletproof car was halted in a dark street by armed assailants. Not finding Iván inside, they let the car and driver go.
Later that night Iván sought refuge at our organization’s headquarters. He wasn’t sure whether the armed men had intended to kill him or just give him a good scare. We decided to provide him with round-the-clock accompaniment after that, and we met with Colombian and international officials to express our concerns.
For three weeks following the incident, we picked Iván up every morning at his apartment building and accompanied him throughout the day, dropping him off at night. One Sunday I went with Iván and his wife, Claudia, to a movie theater. As I sat in the dark, eating popcorn and watching James Bond, I should have been anxious, but I wasn’t. There was no place else I’d rather have been than sitting next to those two courageous people so they could enjoy an afternoon at the movies.
Many people ask why some women wait so long to come forward about harassment and assault. As a survivor of spousal abuse, I can speak only for myself.
I tolerated fifteen years of intimidation and threats because I had four sons and wanted to keep my family intact. Because I was a high-school dropout and had no means of financial support. Because the one time I called the police, they saw me cowering in tears and suggested my husband and I go away together for the weekend and make up. Because my abuser appeared to be such a nice guy that no one believed me, not even my own parents. Because he had a gun and would wave it in my face and threaten to use it if I got “out of line,” which could have meant something as simple as talking to a man at a PTA meeting.
Though my husband wouldn’t allow me to work outside the home, I eventually received his permission to go back to school. In 1972 I got my GED and enrolled in college, where I discovered feminism and a hunger for learning. My growing self-confidence made me a threat to my husband: If I appeared smarter than he was, what would people think?
I began to fight back verbally, and a war ensued. He left and came back. I left and came back. Finally one Sunday afternoon he became so frustrated with me for refusing to quit school that he backed me up against the kitchen counter and put his hands around my throat. I reached behind me, picked up a fork, and put it to his neck. He let go of me, packed a bag, and left for good.
I wound up working three part-time jobs while completing my education.
These days my kids are grown, and I live alone in a rural area. People tell me I should get a guard dog for protection, but I don’t bother. I feel safer now than I did when I was married.
I had known Mike for close to forty years and watched him spiral downward due to alcohol, drugs, and reckless living — but mostly alcohol. When I ran into him at the grocery store, he’d been out of jail a few days and had nowhere to live and no job. My wife and I paid for him to stay in a hostel until another friend let Mike sleep in his van and do some yard work for cash.
Mike had once been a good mechanic. To help him out, I hired him to do a few jobs for me at my small motorcycle shop, but the years of drinking and drugging had damaged his brain so that I had to redo everything he did. It was like babysitting — only I was paying the baby. I told him I didn’t need his help anymore and suggested a couple of places he could look for work.
As it got too cold for Mike to sleep in the van, my wife suggested a nonprofit that offered overnight accommodations in a local church. Mike had to do volunteer work during the day to get on the list. That was good for him, as it gave him something to do.
After the church program ended in the spring, Mike found a place to sleep on a hill south of town. I gave him a tent, and he occasionally stopped by my shop to “check in.” One afternoon he looked beat-up and told me he’d gotten into a fight with a guy at a bus stop. This was not a good sign. When Mike drinks, he will fight anyone for any reason.
A week or so later two guys showed up at my shop with a motorcycle engine. They said Mike had told them to bring it by so he could fix it. I told them Mike didn’t work for me, and they should make other arrangements.
The next morning Mike came by to complain, and I explained that I didn’t have enough space in my shop for him to use it. Later I got a text from Mike saying I had “made a big mistake.” I called and left a voice mail asking him what he meant. No response.
I spent the next day working on a 1967 Triumph motorcycle. Shortly after 5 PM Mike burst into my shop. I could tell he had been drinking. “What’s up?” I said.
“You know what’s up,” he replied. “You made a big mistake.” Then he took a swing and hit me on the shoulder. I had a wrench in my hand, and I let him have it on the side of his head. He staggered back, then rushed me and tried to wrestle the wrench from my grip. My shop is so small, we ended up knocking over a band saw, a five-foot tool-box, and the motorcycle I was working on. Finally I got Mike outside. He fell to the ground, bleeding and moaning, and I called 911.
When the police asked why I had hit Mike with the wrench, I said it was what I had in my hand at the time he’d assaulted me. I opened my phone to show them the threatening texts Mike had sent and saw a third one from earlier that day. It read: “It seems like you and your Jew wife have a problem with a black man.” This made no sense, as Mike is not black, but a lot of things he said and did made no sense.
Mike was taken away in an ambulance, and I went to the police department to be questioned. They also told me about the services they provide victims. It turned out that I would need them, as the whole event had traumatized me. I couldn’t sleep at night and felt anxious in my shop. The fight had also caused close to $2,500 in property damage, and I had to get tested to see if I had been exposed to hepatitis C from Mike’s blood. I’m still trying to put this experience behind me.
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
I met Tony at work. I was divorced and supporting myself while getting my college degree. He was witty and fun to be with, and he seemed safe. I thought he was gay: he polished his nails to a sheen and walked with a swish.
One day Tony invited me to go for a ride in his beat-up Ford Galaxy. “You know what they say about a guy who drives a junker?” he asked.
I did not.
“You don’t need a fancy car if you have a big dick.”
Was he flirting? Curious, I asked around about Tony’s love life. Nobody had heard of his dating anyone of either gender. Then one afternoon he kissed me — surprisingly well, in fact.
Tony and I dated for a couple of years while I finished my degree. He helped me with school assignments. And he wasn’t lying about size. But there was something unsettling about him. He occasionally became jealous when I was out with girlfriends. Once, he followed me to a restaurant where I was eating with a friend, and he insisted I go home with him because I needed to study.
After I’d graduated, I told Tony his insecurity about my friendships was too much. I wanted to end the relationship.
That weekend a girlfriend invited me to a party, where I was immediately attracted to a tall business student. He was also a Tony. At least I wouldn’t accidently call him by the wrong name.
Tony #2 was everything Tony #1 was not. We dated for a couple of weeks. Then I started getting hang-up calls while Tony #2 was at my house. This was before caller ID, but I figured it was Tony #1, and I called him back. He said he knew I was seeing someone else. I told him to stop bothering me.
My birthday was a few days later, and Tony #2 and I had plans for dinner. I’d decided the time was right to begin sleeping with him, and I woke that morning feeling happy and excited. When I walked outside to retrieve the newspaper, I saw a card under the windshield wiper of my car. I recognized the handwriting and knew right away that Tony #1 had left it. The card was the first clue in a scavenger hunt that led around my house and yard. At each location I found a generous birthday gift, starting with an expensive bathing suit and ending with a plane ticket to our favorite city: Savannah, Georgia. The last note said, “I’ll meet you at the plane — be there.”
It was the kind of romantic gesture I usually would have loved, but instead it felt like he was stalking me. No way was I going to keep these gifts or fly anywhere with him. I boxed everything up, called Tony #1, and got his answering machine. I said I would leave the gifts on his doorstep at my earliest convenience, and I reminded him that we were through.
When the phone rang, Tony #1 sounded uncharacteristically calm. He was sad that I hadn’t appreciated his efforts, but he understood my decision. “There is one more thing I have to tell you,” he said, his voice becoming louder: “You better not sleep with this guy until you get tested.” He claimed he’d contracted an STD — he wasn’t sure what kind; the tests wouldn’t be back till next week. “And, by the way, I’m bisexual.”
I hung up, dazed.
I felt sure he was bluffing, but I couldn’t risk it. I didn’t sleep with Tony #2. The next day I made an appointment with my doctor. After an anxious six-day wait, I got the test results: I was fine.
When I was five years old, my father left one day and never came home again. Though I don’t recall being told, I eventually learned what happened: The engine in the small Cessna that he was piloting froze as he and four other men flew over Mount Lemon near Tucson, Arizona. They were attempting to take a shortcut over the mountain rather than fly around it — perhaps to get home early as a surprise. Or maybe they were just foolhardy. They were young men, all in their late twenties or early thirties. All five of them died.
Decades later, at the advice of a therapist, I asked my mother how I’d reacted to the news of my father’s death. She said I hadn’t had a reaction, because she’d never told me.
I feel a marked uneasiness now when my husband leaves for work. I worry he won’t come home. It is not a rational feeling.
I tell myself that if we all obsessed about what disasters might happen, everyone would go mad. There is danger even in taking out the trash. We have to learn not to dwell on these perceived threats. But I have been unable to forget what I learned when I was five: that people can simply disappear.
About ten years ago I discovered my husband was cheating on me with a good friend. I tried to give him a second chance, but he was unrepentant, and we started the divorce proceedings.
As we were separating everything on paper, I learned from my retirement-plan adviser that my soon-to-be-ex-husband had to give his permission for me to remove him as the beneficiary on my retirement account. I was shocked and indignant that I needed to plead with him for my own money, but I took home the form he needed to sign and broached the subject. Naturally we got into an argument.
He was about to leave to go see her when, in a cavalier tone, he threatened not to sign and turned toward the door.
In helpless fury I blurted out, “Well, I know something about you that she’d love to know.”
He stopped, hand on the doorknob. Then he came back, signed the form, and left without a word.
I had no threatening secret, but he sure thought I did. Whatever it was, he didn’t want her to find out.
When I was growing up, My mom subscribed to the Focus on the Family newsletter, which proclaimed gay marriage a threat to heterosexuals everywhere. Later, as an adult, I told her I was pursuing ordination in the United Church of Christ (UCC), and she abruptly asked: “Will you marry homosexuals?” Same-sex marriage was illegal at the time, but I said I’d certainly officiate a commitment service for a civil union.
In 2005, freshly graduated from divinity school, I sat in an Atlanta conference center with many of my fellow UCC members and listened as a speaker warned of the threat the “gay issue” posed to the Church. It could be our ruin, the speaker said. We might split and never recover. Surely there would be financial consequences.
Still, when the vote was taken, the members affirmed marriage equality. I will never forget how people knelt in prayer, weeping for joy. Some began to sing. It was a holy moment, divided though we were.
That same year I went before the committee that would confirm or deny my request to join the ministry. Two years earlier the first openly lesbian minister in the UCC’s Southern Conference had been ordained, and the prevailing mood was divisive. “I think you’ll be fine,” one supporter said to me before the vote. “You’re married to a man, so you’re not a threat.” Though one committee member abstained due to my support of marriage equality, I was affirmed. In 2006 I took my vows and added “Rev.” before my name.
On October 10, 2014, a federal judge struck down North Carolina’s same-sex-marriage ban as unconstitutional. That same day, at the Register of Deeds in Asheville, I co-officiated the marriage of two men from my congregation. Natives of the North Carolina mountains, they had been partners for more than thirty years. I led them through their vows and wept as they were pronounced husbands, with all the civil rights and benefits afforded to married couples.
Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss
In 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, I decided to drop out of college, give up my student draft deferment, and take my chances. I was tired of going to school, and I had a relatively high draft number, which meant I had less chance of being called up. The draft reached my number, however, and into the Army I went.
I was promoted to private first class and received orders to attend quartermaster school in Fort Lee, Virginia. I would be in charge of supplies and provisions. Not bad, I thought. But then my orders were rescinded, and I was sent to infantry training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, where I would learn to kill.
One day they started teaching us to defend against sharpened bamboo sticks and booby traps. Wow, I thought. The Vietnamese people were clearly fighting with everything they had. I decided to take a closer look at the reasons for the conflict.
There was a library right there in Fort Jackson full of information about Vietnam. Most important to me was the fact that the Vietnamese had been our allies in World War II. They’d fought and died alongside us against the Japanese, and we’d promised them their independence. Instead we’d given control of Vietnam back to the French. But now that we’d armed and trained the Vietnamese, they were not going back to being colonized.
Convinced their cause was just, I filled out the paperwork to become a conscientious objector. The next time I received a direct order to pick up my rifle, I refused. The Army proceeded to court-martial me, but there was a long procedure to follow. While awaiting trial, I was placed on the second floor of a barracks, away from the other soldiers. There were about a dozen other conscientious objectors there, too. The only other enlisted men upstairs with us were the cooks, who were mostly African American and Asian. We got along well with them, and when the other objectors and I went to the mess hall, our eggs were cooked perfectly, and we often got the best pieces of meat.
One night a large group of soldiers gathered outside our barracks and yelled for us to come down and learn how to be Americans. They carried clubs and improvised weapons. For some reason there were no officers to be seen. When we wouldn’t come down, they started to come up. We all agreed it would be better to meet them on the stairs. Halfway down, we stopped and braced for an onslaught. Then, behind us, we heard the loud voices of the cooks: “You mess with these guys, you mess with us!” They had come to our defense.
The mob backed down. I wonder if they were actually afraid of the cooks or just didn’t want to eat runny eggs.
I left on a clear, crisp winter day with our two kids, a suitcase, and a hundred dollars. We were to catch an early flight out of Las Vegas the next morning. I remember a sense of giddiness.
When I arrived at the motel on the outskirts of Vegas, the desk clerk said there were many phone messages for me. (This was before cellphones.) The messages were from family and friends, and they were all the same: my husband had found out and was coming to get me.
Though my husband was across the country on a business trip, my good friend’s sister who worked at an airline figured he could feasibly make it to Vegas before we got on the plane in the morning. Needless to say, none of us slept. We left the hotel at 3 AM to go to the airport, where it seemed safer with all the lights and people. I was so anxious I felt sick. The kids and I picked at an overly large cinnamon roll and played card games. I positioned myself so I could see people arriving in our waiting area. My only thought was getting on that plane. I pictured him running toward us, screaming.
When our flight was called, we got in line. I looked over my shoulder repeatedly as we waited to board the plane. The line seemed endless. Even after we were on board, I didn’t breathe easy until the doors closed.
During my parents’ divorce, my mother said she would kill herself if I didn’t choose her to be my custodial parent. She told me this over the phone while I sat on my bed in my dorm room. I didn’t really think she’d do it, and I resented that she’d even make the threat.
My dad, for his part, didn’t threaten. That wasn’t his style. He wooed me with dinners out and gifts of jewelry — heavy silver-and-turquoise pieces I would never wear.
After nearly thirty years of marriage, Dad had left Mom for another woman. Accusations flew: lovers, trysts, hidden assets, forged signatures. It was the kind of split where the only winners are the lawyers.
I was their youngest child, just seventeen years old — a minor — but the court said I was old enough to choose my custodial parent myself. I felt angry at being put in this position, and the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I looked into becoming an emancipated minor, but the process would have taken too long.
I told a friend at college about my dilemma, and he offered a solution: he would marry me. He was a long-haired pot smoker with a rebellious attitude.
“Fuck them,” he said. “If you’re married, the problem goes away.”
I informed my parents of my impending marriage of convenience, clarifying that I was going through with it only to become independent of them.
After that, I heard no more about choosing. My mom didn’t speak again about suicide. I did not marry my long-haired friend, but I remain thankful to him for solving my problem.
I lived in the dorms as an undergrad at Daystar University in Kenya, about twenty-five kilometers from Nairobi. One night a group of other students and I went to watch the sunset from a rock outcropping that overlooked the campus. It was a warm night, and we enjoyed the beautiful display in the sky. After the first stars began to glimmer, we decided to head back before we got locked out of our gated compound. Though it was dark and the path was no longer clear, we could easily tell the direction of the campus due to the noise and lights.
Craving some time to myself, I started to lag behind the group. As soon as I lost sight of the others, the electricity on campus went out. Our generators often failed; the power would probably not come on again until the next afternoon. As I continued in the dark, over the slick rocks and through the scrub brush, I was vaguely aware of barking in the distance. At first I thought it was the dogs who lived in the faculty compound, but the barking was coming nearer.
Suddenly I was surrounded by a pack of growling and yipping wild dogs. Flecks of spittle hit my arms as they barked and jumped around me. It was hard to tell how many there were in the fading light. My heart was beating so fast I began to think I might die of a heart attack before I could be mauled by the dogs.
I was ready to lie down in the dust and give myself to the pack when I heard something whiz through the air and strike the ground behind me. About twenty yards away, behind the cement wall of the campus, I saw a guard armed with a bow. The object that had struck the ground was an arrow. A few days earlier I had laughed with another student about the fact that our security guards used bows and arrows. Now I didn’t care if they were blowing spitballs; I was ecstatic to see them.
Attending school in Kenya, thousands of miles from home, taught me some important life lessons: Don’t get separated from your group in the bush. And never make fun of grown men carrying bows and arrows.
Los Angeles, California
It wasn’t until I was thirty-one that I heard the term “borderline personality disorder” applied to my mother. My father had just died, and, during the reception following the funeral, his family was quietly comparing notes about her. She seemed nice enough when you met her, my father’s relatives agreed. And she was quite attractive. But “eventually she’ll turn on you.”
She would often revise her memory of past events to cover some flaw or weakness in her character. As my father lay close to death, for example, she had become frightened and begged my siblings and me not to make her visit him in the hospital. But a couple of years later she began to blame us for preventing her from being with her husband during his last moments. She was adamant: we had conspired to exclude her.
She lived another twenty-seven years, and my relationship with her was rocky at best. She could never admit any wrongdoing. People were just bad, and I, her son, was the worst. I had betrayed her somehow. I would reach out to her on birthdays, Mother’s Day, and Christmas, and she would seem to appreciate the contact at first. But as we talked, her comments would grow darker and darker until she would abruptly hang up.
Months before her death I called, and she seemed happy to hear from me. I told her my college-aged daughter wanted to be a nurse, a career my mother had once considered herself. We discussed my aunts and uncles and my mother’s childhood in California. But when I mentioned her younger brother’s prostate cancer, her mood changed. Finally she said, “When I die, don’t you dare come to my grave, or I will haunt you!” Then she slammed the phone down, and we never spoke again.
Salt Lake City, Utah
It was just after seven on an August morning when more than a dozen armed federal agents and local police poured into my house. I felt as if I would be knocked over as they rushed by me. I asked the man who appeared to be in charge what they wanted, and he said that they were looking for child pornography.
All morning I sat with my son on the living-room sofa while they interrogated my husband in another room. We watched agents carry out heavy boxes filled mostly with CDs and load them into the black SUVs in the driveway. Then they clicked handcuffs on my husband’s wrists and escorted him out. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
In the weeks and months that followed, while my husband remained in jail, agents looked for additional evidence. Because he and I lived in the same house, they didn’t believe I hadn’t known about his activities. I explained that our lives had been separate for years, and that I worked long hours while he remained home, having lost his job as a middle-school art teacher.
The agents threatened to arrest me. They informed me I was a “person of interest” and would have to appear before a grand jury. They said they would seize my home, because the child pornography had been found in the house. I was sent for testing to the Center for the Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior, to prove I wasn’t a pedophile.
Little by little, as their snooping turned up nothing on me, the threats stopped. One day I received a call from my lawyer, who said I could keep the house.
My husband received ten years in federal prison.
It’s hard to say when it started: my fear of going to school, of not being smart enough, of being less than perfect. And where did this anxiety come from? Certainly from my mother’s thwarted ambitions and the pressure she put on me to succeed. But there was something else, a deep shame associated with making ordinary mistakes. I distinctly recall the anxiety I felt about taking an exam to distinguish promising students from the rest. The reward was a heavier academic load. Unfortunately I passed it.
In high school I became twitchy riding the bus on the day of a critical chemistry exam. Would I do well enough to qualify for an Ivy League college? I had to, or I was a failure. This idea had been put into my head so successfully that it took years of therapy for me to start to remove it. I struggled to realize that maniacal competition was unnecessary, that mistakes were evidence of growth, that it was possible to love my imperfect self.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina