One afternoon Texas State Trooper Derek Prestridge turned up for a meeting early and while he waited, he bided his time reading a magazine article that would change his life and many hundreds more. The story, in a law enforcement magazine, chronicled the capture of a multi-state child sex trafficking ring, which used a section of I-10 that passed right through his jurisdiction. The article hit Prestridge—hard. He wondered if any troopers had ever come in contact with the traffickers, and he started to think about ways the troopers might have stopped the traffickers, and saved their victims.
A lot of people might read an article like this and just get on with their day, but Prestridge kept thinking about it, for years, and slowly developed a training program to help police spot the signs of human trafficking. I learned about Prestridge in the spring of 2017, and eventually published an article in the Washington Post about his mission—and his success in Texas and multiple other jurisdictions where, by this time, Prestridge-trained cops had rescued numerous kids. Now I can update that story, because it turns out that a trio of federal legislators read it and decided to support Prestridge’s program. You can read my original article here, and the update on the new legislation at the Washington Post.
He started to look nervous when we approached the boat, I thought, his concern showing in his eyes. My son Jack, who will be six in July, is very different from his fraternal brother—more aggressive, going after every ball on the soccer field, and more prone to worry. Eli is the mirror image, often letting Jack have his way, and with a look of curiosity on his face, as if he doesn’t understand why the issue of who sits where, for instance, was so important. He is also fond of saying, “I’m not afraid of anything,” and so far that has been pretty much true. The experience of raising twins has been tremendously gratifying, and coming to understand my two boys as individuals has probably been the most exciting part, though sometimes when I see some part of me in them that has not always served me well, I wish I could help them escape it somehow.
The port at Salem where the ferry to Boston pulls in is a long graying pier with a festive bar in the middle, a place where we could rest and overpay for a small and unadventurous selection of beers. We did, of course. And I enjoyed the breeze and the water coursing underneath us. As the bartender slid a can my way, however, the boys both asked to go to the very end of the pier and look out at the water. Lisa took them, and I accepted their interest—Jack’s, in particular—as a good sign.
Several weeks earlier we took the boys deep sea fishing. We gave them Dramamine for kids and talked to them, cheerily, about how sometimes people get sick at sea and sometimes they don’t. We wanted them to be prepared but not expectant of illness, but both boys threw up, one after the other, before the boat even dropped anchor. They shook it off, had a good time, shouting exultantly when anyone on the boat caught a fish, and I saw the opportunity to get them both back on a boat, a ferry running to Boston, as a way to cement this new understanding between them and the sea. I also figured, between the two of them, Jack was more likely to worry about it. Because in this, he is like me.
When I look back at my life, it is characterized mostly by anxiety—the vast majority of it totally unnecessary. I have wasted countless hours, sleepless nights, expecting and imagining difficult conversations, confrontations and calamities that never came to pass.
I finally gained some control over this part of my psychology about 15 years ago, coming to understand that these feelings would arise in me but held no more power than I afforded them. I meditated. I realized that when anxiety occurred I could note it, find its origin, understand its pointlessness and move on with activities more productive than fear. Over time, my bouts with anxiety grew less frequent, and any fear I felt held less power than before. Then my children were born and… something happened.
I’ve found myself waking, wired, feeling I have something to do even though I need more sleep. I am generally fearful of how life might go wrong. I catch myself, in the middle of the day, just eating lunch or scanning my to do list, taking in shallow, fast breaths, as if I am in a low level fight or slight response.
Am I simply more tired? Do I, in them, have more at stake in the world and need to relearn my ability to deal with my own emotions?
There is something in this last bit. The stakes are so high now. The boys mean so much to me and need so much from me. I just don’t want to let them down, and none of this worry does them a bit of good, yet still I feel it—in buckets and torrents and storms.
I would like to give my boys a different constitution. Eli is like me in a lot of ways—resentful of intrusions into his daydreaming and his creativity, but without the fear. Jack, though, has my mom’s lopsided smile and angular face—beautiful and quick to crease at even the concern that there might be some cause for concern. And of course, this next sentence isn’t science, but I believe it: She passed this anxiousness on to me, and I to him. And so I sat there, nursing my beer and glancing out at Jack and wondering how he’d do, and hoping to do right by him.
He seemed fine enough when he got back to the bar and boarded the boat looking only a little tentative. The ride from Salem to Boston is a little less than an hour and the sea between the two cities is loaded with sail boats. Eli took it all in exultantly.
“That looks like a pirate ship!” he exclaimed when we passed a boat with its sails billowing.
There were numerous islands with big, expensive looking homes on them, causing us all to wonder aloud who built them, and why, and what might life be like, in sight of Salem, yet isolated there on the rocks and surrounded by water. But Jack, he had trouble entertaining these thoughts. He got a troubled look on his face right away, as soon as we left the no wake zone and picked up speed.
“I feel like I might throw up,” he said.
Jack’s belly, I knew, was full of brunch: sausage, bacon, muffins and milk. We’d sat in a small, four-person booth in the shade, me and Eli to one side, Jack and Lisa on the other. I imagined his morning meal spilling across the table and sloshing onto us all, the four of us landing in Boston with a mission to find new clothes.
I lit off, secured a sick bag from one of the crewman and brought it back to the table, to wait. Jack’s face was twisted up by now, with a mixture I felt of sickness and fear. We had him look at the land on the horizon line and focus on his breathing. But he breathed too fast, like he was going to hyper-ventilate, and I had the sense memory of doing the same thing myself when I was a kid. He wasn’t dealing with sea-sickness, so much as fear of sea-sickness.
Lisa, noticed the same thing, I think, because she asked the very same question that arose in my mind: “Are you afraid of being on the boat, or of throwing up?” she asked him.
“Throwing up,” he said. He was bent over the table, and I felt like he was on the brink, like he could either pull through or give in and let go of breakfast.
“There is no reason to be afraid of throwing up,” I said. “It’s no fun, but you know how daddy always tells you when there might be some danger? I always tell you when you need to be careful?”
“Well, I’m sorry you feel sick, but I am not worried right now at all,” I told him. “So you know you do not need to be afraid at all.”
Then I told him that, “Pretty soon we’ll get near the Boston harbor and slow down in another no wake zone. That’ll be easier, like it was when the boat first started.”
He seemed to brighten immediately and a couple of minutes later the Boston skyline came into view.
“Does that mean we’re almost in Boston?” he asked.
“Yes,” we told him.
The worry lines were gone.
He straightened in his seat.
When we got nearer still massive jets passed right overhead and the buildings seemed to climb higher in the sky. “My stomach is feeling a little better, and we’re getting closer to Boston where we are going to slow down!”
I knew then he’d be ok, the sick bag transformed into an empty souvenir. But I also know this represents no final triumph—for Jack or for me. I hope to teach him, to teach him without his even realizing it, how to focus on what is and not on his worries of what could be. And I know that will require me to figure these things out for myself, to regain the calm I’d found but in this new context, as a father.
That night, when we were getting ready for bed, the four of us, in our hotel room, I told him, “I am proud of you,” glad for him, for a moment, that he is too young yet to understand the depth of the journey we’re on.
We’d just finished dinner and were beginning our evening routine when I discovered that my wife had chucked the leftover spaghetti noodles back into the pot. Residual heat, left behind by boiling water, further cooked the noodles, so they stuck, in a gross cake, to the pot’s metal bottom.
I felt a rush of impatience. Each night after dinner, Lisa marshals the boys through their bedtime ministrations while I clean up the kitchen. Then we all meet back up for story time. My impatience was unnecessary. I could have soaked the pot and finished cleaning after story time. But I wanted to be done and decided to gauge just how struck the noodles were by giving them a quick scrape—with my fingernails.
I felt a sharp, stabbing sensation and stepped back, wincing. A shaft of pasta stuck out from under my fingernail. I scrambled and found something—I don’t remember what—to scrape the dried out pasta from under my nail, but the pasta broke. Only a small bit emerged. I bled a little, but focused on finishing the cleanup and being ready for story time. We read about pirates (Eli’s choice) and dinosaurs (Jack’s), and my finger continued to hurt. I could see a tiny discoloration, a dash of yellow, where the pain was most intense and took that to be the remaining splinter of spaghetti. But, I wondered, how could that possibly be a big deal?
The next morning I awoke to find that my finger was now swollen and painful. Really? I thought. I’m this stupid? I injured myself with a spaghetti noodle?
I half-heartedly tried to get in under my nail and remove the pasta. And I wondered whether to even raise the subject with my wife. Being aware of my own carelessness was painful and embarrassing enough. But it was another to tell someone else about it, particularly someone who counts on me to—at the very least—avoid infecting myself with dinner.
Silence remained the best option I could see till supper, when there was no longer any avoiding the topic. My finger had swollen to twice its normal size, and the spreading infection encompassed my knuckles. The pain was pretty much constant, a dull throb.
“I think I have some pasta stuck under my fingernail,” I said.
“Are you serious?” Lisa asked me.
“Yes,” I told her, and showed her the finger.
Much conversation ensued. First, how could this happen? When I explained, she looked at me wanly, then offered support. Deductibles were discussed. Options emerged. I could go to urgent care and spend several hundred dollars to heal my finger and codify in my medical records this lapse of reason. Or, we could find some other way.
I started Googling, searching “pasta” and “fingernail”. Sure enough, the top items were from people—just like me!—who’d suffered the pain and embarrassment of a severe pasta injury. Two clear paths emerged: I could go the traditional route and see a doctor, who would administer a pain killing injection by inserting a hypodermic needle under my nail. One woman, who posted her own experience, declared her noodle-associated pain worse than childbirth. But even rendered numb, I suspected, I’d feel the sting of self-recrimination as the doctor removed the pasta.
I didn’t like the sound of that, and my wife’s idea was no better. “Let me do it,” she said.
Her plan was to dig the pasta out from under my nail without any anesthetic at all. The procedure would certainly be cost saving but even more painful and uncertain than the doctor’s visit. I had no question, however, that she was totally serious—even eager. Her mouth curled at the edges into a gleeful smile. Was this a not so passive aggressive way of punishing me for attempting to use my fingernails to scrape burnt pasta from the bottom of a cooking pot?
My wife is generous in her forgiveness. But, lurking deep inside her, beats the cool heart of a natural born dentist—a person who is not only willing but enthusiastic about dispensing pain to effect a beneficent cause. She loves all stuff medical, and fondly remembers the time she spent during her first job, debriding wounds.
I declined her offer, and returned to Google.
One link held promise. A naturopath had posted her experience helping a friend deal with exactly my circumstances merely by soaking his finger, in alternating shifts, in hot and cold water. She wrote something about the helpful changes in blood circulation this would cause in the infected area. But all I really cared about was that this option promised less pain and embarrassment.
I told my wife, who slightly scaled back her hopes. “Maybe,” she offered, “I could just prick your finger with a hot pin?”
“Thanks,” I responded, “but I am gonna try this soak first.”
She sagged a little, but supportive to the last, suggested I include Epsom salts.
For about 45 minutes I stood with my infected finger dipped in water. Then relief arrived.
The infection cleared. And so did at least a little of my embarrassment. I’d impaled myself with a pasta noodle, but I’d fixed it. And I never missed a story time.
While I was working on the “Dark Files” TV show, I met Michael Bourke, a psychologist with the U.S. Marshal’s service. The show involved wild and unsubstantiated claims of child abductions, and the conversation naturally drifted toward actual cases of abduction. Some 19 months later, I’ve got a story in print in the Washington Post that sprang straight from that conversation.
“The Rescuers” is a story about an anti-child trafficking initiative, which teaches patrol cops to recognize children in distress. To date, the program has been taught to less than 10,000 police, primarily in Texas and Arizona, and has led to hundreds of what they call “child rescues.” Many of the kids were victims of sex trafficking, but they have also recovered children who were lured out by adults they met online, kidnapped by custodial parents or simply abused. The program has also led to the arrest of multiple child pornographers.
To most reporters, myself included, stories are generally considered most worthwhile when someone powerful doesn’t want you to print them. Getting “bad guys,” wherever they are located, is—or at least should be—a shared motivation for police and journalists alike, though of course that often leads to conflict between the two professions. This story doesn’t exactly fit that mold: Primarily, the piece revolves around the actions of police—a Texas State Department of Public Safety Police Captain named Derek Prestridge, and his colleagues there; a Georgia cop, Deputy Patrick Paquette; and the psychologist, Bourke.
Behind these white hats, however, looms the specter of real bad guys—child pornographers, abusers, and human traffickers. I’m pretty sure that they didn’t want this story in print.
The program, dubbed “Interdiction for the Protection of Children,” takes its cue from similar training designed to help police recognize drug traffickers. This, for me, was a bit fraught. The “war on drugs” has largely been a spectacular failure—an attempt to treat drug addiction, a medical problem, as a criminal matter. But the similarity between this program and drug interdiction is at once incredibly powerful and terribly small.
For decades now, police have understood many dozens if not hundreds of “tells” for drug trafficking that they can pick up in the course of a typical highway stop. One of my favorites, which I learned writing this story, was that the presence of a tire jack among the front or back passenger seats of an otherwise “nice” vehicle. The idea is simple: Few would want to dirty the inside of a vehicle with a tire jack. But drug traffickers might, and had often been observed doing so, because they value quick access to a hidden compartment in the wheel well. The presence of any one indicator is likely not enough for an officer to begin a vehicle search, but something like that jack could put them on alert to look for more indicators, ask the motorist additional questions and perhaps wind up making a drug seizure and arrest.
Prestridge, the Texas DPS captain, took this idea from drug policing—what can cops readily see in the normal course of a 7 minute traffic stop?—and used it as inspiration: Shouldn’t there be a similar series of clues, he figured, that would help police recognize kids in distress? But the similarity ends there: The IPC program is not focused on policing drugs, or even prostitution, though sex trafficking is one of its core missions; it is about recognizing exploited, abused and endangered children.
I wondered what kind of trouble might come from misunderstandings. One of the most immediate clues an officer might lock on is a car occupied by people unrelated by blood and of disparate ages. This struck me then (and now) as a sensitive subject—a point where police might end up targeting mixed race couples, adoptive families or simply friends, co-workers or neighbors of varying ethnicities. But as I researched the mechanics of a typical traffic stop, the opportunity to “investigate” these situations seemed both organic and benign.
A patrol officer might ask for a child’s name, for instance, and run that name through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, to determine if they have been reported missing. The results shoot back in the officer’s on-board computer almost immediately, and the family is on their way. As Prestridge told me at the time, kids and adults in safe and legal relationships are revealed as such very quickly, with little investigation at all. And as both he and Bourke explained, the IPC program trains police to look for a “confluence of indicators”—a collection of signs that a child is in trouble, not just any one thing. In general terms, kids in safe situations just don’t look like kids who aren’t—not when police know exactly what details might be most important.
The more I looked, in fact, the stronger the Texas DPS’s program appeared. And as the publication date approached, I felt particularly good about this story. To this point, the Interdiction for the Protection of Children program had received scant public attention, but people need to be aware this training exists to determine if it should become standard, nationwide. I’ve shared very little of the article here. The story itself revolves around Prestridge’s journey, specific rescue stories and the decision Texas DPS made to try and provide the training to police agencies outside their own jurisdiction. That last bit raises a pressing question: How does a state agency promote and provide a unique and intensive program on a federal level?
Police who hear about the program tend to want it for themselves. In the days since “The Rescuers” was first posted online, in fact, Texas DPS started receiving calls and emails from multiple outside police agencies around the country to inquire about receiving this training for their own patrol cops. I don’t have a figure on that yet, but I’m sure there will be more to write later.
Now that “The Dark Files” has aired, I thought I’d share some of my thinking about the Montauk Project, a conspiracy of seemingly endless strange claims.
As a quick primer for those who might just be stumbling into this subject, the Montauk conspiracy is one of the more elaborate tales in the entire field of paranormal and conspiracy-oriented thinking, involving allegations that a military base at the tip of Long Island, N.Y., housed secret efforts to create an army of up to 1 million “super soldiers.” These people, now known as “Montauk boys” (and also some “Montauk girls”), were allegedly victims of government mind control experiments. These soldiers would exist as a secret government military force, ready to be deployed wherever and whenever they’re needed, even off-planet or in different time periods. The story balloons from there, encompassing wormholes that allow for interplanetary journeys and even a time travel machine. Reptilian aliens make an appearance. And so does a Bigfoot-like creature created by pure thought.
The story gets so big, in fact, that its believers invoke it to resolve numerous mysteries. Montauk is one of a number of areas on Long Island associated with cancer clusters. This spike in cancer cases sometimes comes up among the Montauk project’s adherents, who look to the ominous radar tower, on the old military base, or experiments going on underground, as the possible culprit. There have been numerous stories about increased cancer rates throughout Long Island. The concern is not restricted to Montauk and possible causes vary depending on the source, including toxic landfills, utilities, gas additives in the well water and outdoor pollutants associated with industry. In fact, Suffolk County, where Montauk is located, has failed the American Lung Association’s air quality test. Suffolk is afflicted by a high level of pollution, much of it generated by man made industry and natural weather patterns. Coal-burning plants and other sources in the Midwest follow the Jet Stream and wind patterns push pollution into the area, reads one report.
In short, it seems grossly unlikely—a nonstarter—that any secret government program is to blame when well-known sources of pollution and the Jet Stream provide sufficient explanation.
The Montauk Project is also blamed for creating dramatic events in which deer scatter and run into town—scared, presumably, by something emanating from or happening at the old military base. Locals laugh this off, ascribing this often retold tale mostly to a single incident: A deer lost its footing while running through town, slid into a closed tavern door, righted itself and galloped off. I stayed in Montauk for about two weeks (I highly recommend Shagwong tavern; try the braised short rib). The place is famously thick with deer, which are so accustomed to living in the small town that at dusk they stroll along the streets, like vacationing families heading out to dinner. I would be more surprised, frankly, if none of these deer ever ended up downtown.
Believers in the Montauk Project raise further questions about security at the base, which has now been converted into a park. From my point of view, however, restrictions preventing trips underground or walks through hazardous areas reflect typical bureaucratic concerns about liability. Shots of the base’s old radar tower are dramatic, revealing panels missing from the big heavy dish—panels that weigh hundreds of pounds. Putting up a fence, lest people get killed, strikes me as a necessary safety precaution. And the presence of a work crew as seen in “The Dark Files,” operating complicated ground penetrating radar systems, further suggests a bureaucracy with lax security and nothing to hide.
I realize that up to now I am dealing with the small claims, but I am starting here because in some respects they represent the most immediately accessible aspects of the alleged Montauk conspiracy. As far as I know, we cannot travel back in time to see the alleged mind control experiment in action, so any residual weirdness might at least provide some scintilla of evidence that something there is out of the ordinary. Near as I could see, however, nothing was.
How was the talk of a Montauk conspiracy spawned? The short answer is that Preston Nichols started all of this, decades ago. As the legend goes, he was a technical expert on the project, but his mind had been scrubbed of any recall. Then he became part of a small group of people who started regaining memories of the experiments. They first held gatherings to discuss their memories. Then Nichols wrote a book. Today, he looms as the story’s foundation: Want to get to square one? He’s it.
I wouldn’t want to hold anything he says right now against him, given his haggard state, but I still think we can investigate the man as he was many years ago, when his book first came out.
In his book, Nichols included electrical engineering diagrams. But I had a couple of electrical engineers look them over and neither thought the diagrams displayed any meaningful competency. I invite any believers, skeptics or strictly neutral parties with an interest in the Project to submit the drawings to still-more electrical engineers. Perhaps my guys are wrong. But my own sense is that this story started with Nichols and never gets off the ground. It is up to the people making a claim to present evidence, after all, and the entire foundation of the Montauk tale just crumbles.
Both Nichols and the Montauk story, I’d suggest, are also undermined by Stewart Swerdlow. A self-proclaimed “hyperspace intuitive,” Swerdlow claims to be one of the many thousands, if not cool million, subjected to the super soldier program. He also has a past conviction for bank fraud, in which he pleaded guilty to an embezzlement scheme. Swerdlow has since claimed the plea was coerced: The government wanted to discourage him from sharing his memories of Montauk. And of course, the presence of one opportunist doesn’t undermine the entire story. But Swerdlow was accepted as a “Montauk boy” long ago by Nichols, which strikes me as another blow to a tale that already can’t survive scrutiny.
Of course, believers will object to my analysis. And there is a danger that even discussing the Montauk Project can trigger some “backlash effect”: Sometimes, merely presenting conflicting evidence causes believers to cling to a false story more strongly.
I could go on. But I want to go big picture for a second. I am identified in the show as a skeptic, which isn’t a definition I’d reject. However, I’ve been a big critic of organized skepticism, primarily because I think it’s often too strident, condescending and dogmatic for its own good. I bring this up because I didn’t approach this as a debunking exercise. In my own head, I kept thinking, Well, can I find evidence that anything truly weird ever happened here? Can I find any evidence to indicate some facet, any facet, of the Montauk Project is real? But every time I interacted with this story, it seemed to fall apart like wet tissue paper in my hands.
There’s a particular moment in the show that captures the fragile nature of the whole tale, in which Brian Minnick—who often explored the abandoned military site as a teen—talks about some old food receipts he found there. The receipts supposedly dated from the time after the facility was closed, but he threw them away. “I’m really sorry,” he says.
“I’m sorry, too,” I reply. The thrown away receipts, in fact, matched my whole experience: Is there any evidence of any weirdness out there? Forget reptilian aliens. Forget time travel. Is there even… an unexplained grocery bill?
The short answer is, no.
The show does end with the discovery of some unidentified structures or anomalies beneath the ground, which might be consistent with a fuel storage tank or could represent… something else. I find that discovery interesting, but it doesn’t even begin to confirm the Montauk Project: It’s one thing to find a structure underground, after all, and quite another to discover what happened there.
I wanted a chance to do journalism on a subject—conspiracy theories—at the center of our national conversation. The topic of conspiracy theories, and the paranormal, for that matter, is in desperate need of smart coverage. And even a conspiracy theory like Montauk could provide a kind of jumping off point: I think it’s particularly important to explore why people might believe so outrageous a story in the first place. I’m also on the record, in past work, arguing that the stories we keep on the margins—the stories we usually push to the fringe—are worthy of and require serious exploration. And today, I remain confident, we still need that sort of investigation.
The other evening I walked upstairs to find one of my sons, Eli, playing quietly on the carpet in his bedroom. He glanced at me, blue eyes regarding me coolly, then turned back to his toys. Eli builds, habitually, utilizing Legos, blankets, stuffed animals, stickers, loose paper, tape, clothes and Magna-Tiles in single structures and vast multi-media tableaus. He once built a “Halloween party,” in which he incorporated a toy silver pot, a broom, three cardboard boxes and a grilled tomato. As an addition to the party, he built an adjacent “baby squirrel nest” using an easel, a box of raisins and his favorite blanket.
Sometimes, when the projects are big and incorporate large pieces of furniture, he asks us to leave it up overnight because he wants to see it again, and work on it some more, in the morning. The request triggers a slight tremor in his voice, conveying his hope we will say yes, his fear we will say no and his overwhelming desire to see what he created survive. We say yes, always, and my heart breaks a little because I do not know for certain what is happening in his young and developing mind but I know it is beautiful and I love him so fiercely that I fear for myself—fear I will simply gut anyone who ever stands between him and his dreams.
The other night, he kept his building project very simple. He arrayed a big panel of large Magna-Tiles—semi-transparent, colored magnetic squares—on the floor in front of him. He rearranged them in varying patterns and looked utterly content, just seeing which order pleased him most.
Strangely, this was a problem of sorts. I love Eli’s solitary excursions, and as a writer I relate to them. But my wife Lisa and me recently decided that we needed to recommit to spending more dedicated time focusing on each of our boys. We both work full-time jobs, and settling into play or interact with the boys on a daily basis, without distraction, requires serious commitment. The boys had reminded us, indirectly—by virtue of increased defiance, delay tactics that turned brushing their teeth into a 10-minute drama, and shrieking in tones consistent with having their entrails pulled out—that we had been slacking. For a little while, we actually felt upset with them, till we got a little sleep and remembered the problem was us.
We get that sometimes kids just need to test their boundaries. But habitual misbehavior is a kind of political statement: As citizens of the tiny township of Volk, they were trying to tell us that they were disillusioned with our leadership, and upon reflection we had to agree. They wanted and needed more attention. And so I had come upstairs to give Eli some of the alone time with dad he seemed to be craving. “Do you want to play with daddy?” I asked, “Or keep doing what you’re doing?”
“Just stay with me,” he said.
So I did, curling up behind him on the floor and watching while he played. I wasn’t sure, initially, if this would count as quality time. Shouldn’t we be wrestling or something? Then he inched back toward me a little. Maybe it was my imagination, but I believed I could feel him taking pleasure in my being there.
Of course, we—mom and dad—feel like dopes. We’re aware of the research on how much kids need undivided attention from mom and dad—blocks of time in which we are not simultaneously cooking, cleaning, working, or use our cell phones. But our summer was so busy, particularly around vacations, that we slipped and became too task-oriented. A bad week like that, of washing the dishes before sitting down with my kids, had become a month in which I hadn’t spent much time purely focused on them at all.
All of this was on my mind as I sat on the carpet. I watched Eli build—he was particularly engrossed with determining if he should intersperse the orange and yellow tiles or separate them—and found myself reaching out, absent-mindedly, to touch him. I casually tousled his hair. I lightly scratched his arms as he played. I reached over, rested my hand on his shoulder, and gave an occasional squeeze.
“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t help but want to snuggle you a little.”
“I don’t mind that,” he said, without looking at me.
We spent about 15 minutes like this—him playing, me watching and offering small gestures of affection—in almost complete silence. Looking back on the previous couple of weeks, I felt like I’d been away for a while, only to return home find him waiting for me.
That night, he donned the backpack he just received in preparation for kindergarten right over his pajama top. Then he climbed into bed and dropped right off to sleep. He looked so peaceful when I kissed him before leaving that I lingered over him for a moment, believing I saw both the beautiful face—and the satisfied mind—of a boy who had just built a fabulous new creation and taught his daddy a lesson, too.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross ran counter to people’s expectations in most ways. She rolled right over her father’s objections and got a university education when he wanted her to become his secretary. She insisted on pursuing a career in medicine at a time when women rarely entered the profession. She treated the mentally ill with dignity and respect, bent on returning them to a normal life, at a time when the dominant thinking was simply to warehouse them, like dogs in a kennel. Most famously, of course, she stalked the hallways of a Chicago hospital, chronicling westernized society’s shoddy treatment of the terminally ill.
The only time I am aware of that the little Swiss pirate bowed to popular convention is when she decided not to publish any material on Near Death Experiences in On Death and Dying. I write about that decision at length in Fringe-ology. But Kübler-Ross’s story goes much deeper than space permitted me to explore in my book. So here’s one of the funnier, more telling anecdotes I didn’t have the opportunity to include—one that speaks to the depth of her friendship with a particularly important person in that chapter, The Reverend Mwalimu Imara.
Kübler-Ross and Imara were allies in the 60s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, at the University of Chicago Hospital. The administration believed Kübler-Ross needed a kind of symbolic bodyguard—a sidekick appointed by the hospital to indicate that she was not alone. When I spoke to him, Imara delighted in recalling what an unlikely pair they were: He was tall and black; she was a tiny, Swiss-born white woman with a thick accent. He was a Reverend; she rejected organized religion.
“We were a Mutt and Jeff team,” he says.
Over time, their friendship leant them the strength to buck standard hospital practices. Rather than ignore the terminally ill, they focused on them. Rather than discouraging conversation with the dying, they sought it out. And looking back, the revolution they fomented inside the hospital’s walls mirrored the cultural forces bringing a whole new day to America on the streets outside.
For her part, Kübler-Ross found all these cultural concerns decidedly unhelpful. And as Imara remembers it, she seemed entirely disinterested in whatever cultural taboos they were breaking—either in their friendship, or on the hospital wards. He didn’t feel that he could be so cavalier about the questions their friendship raised. But he did know he could trust Kübler-Ross. He could relate to her in a way he simply couldn’t afford to relate to most other white people. And so Kübler-Ross also broke taboos that existed for him.
For instance, in quiet moments, when they were relaxing after a day spent ministering to the needs of dying patients, Kübler-Ross sometimes asked Imara to sing. Imara still retains a deep, resonant baritone. And in his younger days, he boasted a fine singing voice. But Kübler-Ross didn’t ask for just any song. She asked Imara to sing “Ol’ Man River.”
To this day, of course. “Ol’ Man River” raises up some powerful ghosts from this country’s past. “Ol’ Man River” is Al Jolson in black face. Minstrel shows. Racism institutionalized as “entertainment.” In the 60s, “Ol’ Man River” spoke of a country that had yet to award African-Americans the right to vote.
“If anyone else, any other white person had asked me to do this,” Imara told me, “I would have taken offense. But I knew Elisabeth. And so I knew there was no ulterior motive for her.”
In short, Kübler-Ross asked Imara to sing “Ol Man River” because the rigors of ministering to the dying left her in need of some solace by the end of the day; because she thought Imara had a good singing voice; and because she liked the song.
So how did Imara handle this odd request?
“I sang it,” he said. “I sang ‘Ol Man River’.”
There was a real, familial love between Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Imara. And now that there is a movie about her life in the works, I hope, very much, that it will capture that bond for everyone to see.
When I lost my old site, a lot of content disappeared, too. I’ll occasionally re-post old items, like this one, and intermix them with new stuff as time allows.
I became a new parent last July—twice over, to fraternal twins, Jack and Eli. I’d been warned, by long-time parents, “You’ll forget the whole first year.” The life of a new parent, particularly with twins, devolves into a timeless haze of diapers, breasts, bottles and burp cloths. The standard chatter I hear about this life from most parents and even one particularly vitriolic nonparent is negative. One woman who found out I had twins said, simply, “They will break you.”
It might be that they have. I know I probably cried more in the last six months than I did in any other given year. But there has been another steady theme to the last six months: unbridled joy. And frankly, I’m surprised at how relatively few parents spoke to me about that. One of my finest moments arrived unexpectedly, in the midst of a low.
What time was it? Hard to tell. The clock said it was 3 p.m. My body said it was Never O’Clock, a land beyond time I arrived in by virtue of sleeping just long enough to stave off a hallucinatory breakdown.
My wife held a boy, Jack.
I held a boy, Eli.
Eli was fussy, whining and yelling in tones that stung me. I walked, holding him in cradle position. I rocked, holding him like a football. I clutched him to my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Nothing helped. Never O’Clock, it seemed, was a timeless space built for whining and crying.
“He fights it,” Lisa said, meaning Eli cries his way toward sleep.
I sat down in a makeshift fort of pillows: Eli in my left arm, an iPad to my right. He cried. And I jiggled my boy, not sure what I was trying to mimic: A car. A swing. The motions he felt in the womb. He wailed and groaned like I was torturing him. Then he quieted. Yawned. I tried to jiggle him with no more force or enthusiasm than before. But inside, I thrilled at Eli’s silence. I began to read a book on my iPad: Why Does The World Exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. The book ponders a central question of philosophy: why is there something, rather than nothing? And suddenly there I was … reading. I got lost in the words, pondering the mysteries of existence, and when I turned back to my left there was a small, sleeping boy nestled in my left arm. His lips were full and pink, his eyelashes terrifically long, telescoping out like the tendrils of a flower. He slept, and I turned back to my book. Holt was in Europe, pondering the Big Bang, a universe that is slowly expanding, and I could feel myself coming back together. I passed a transcendent hour this way, turning from book to boy, admiring his face, till it was no longer Never O’Clock.
It was 4:40 p.m., and I knew I’d finish reading this book, even though I’d predetermined its end: Why is there something rather than nothing? Oh, Jim Holt. For Eli.