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He’s Got a Problem

In response to:

The Human Sewer from the April 3, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

Some weeks ago I was held up in my apartment by a man (let us call him Jack) who, masquerading as a police-officer, handcuffed me to the toilet and made off with a tape-recorder, a radio-recordplayer, and $42.00. Jack’s act was convincing, his manner charming and regretful, and the spontaneity of his invention remarkable. While we “waited for the police-car” he even made me tea to calm my outraged astonishment, and it was only five minutes before he left that my suspicions began to simmer. Only when he was gone (“I’ll be back in five minutes”) and I made out the word JAPAN on the handcuffs did I know for a certainty that I had been had.

As it happens Jack stupidly left evidence behind him—he dropped a Social Security card. The name was checked by the police (through their own records, not through Social Security) and was found to belong to a twenty-five-year-old man on probation for illegal possession of a weapon, and with a record behind him which included charges of robbery and first-degree rape. Eleven days later a photograph of this man was produced and I identified it positively as Jack. We must now wait for a finger-print check (three weeks so far) and then some days after that it will be arranged that I try to identify him in person, either outside his house or in the probation office. If I identify him as Jack he will be arrested, and we shall presumably move at the same leisurely pace through trial, and quite possibly to conviction. And if convicted Jack will almost certainly go to jail.

Now, because I am the prosecution’s only witness, I am able at any time to stop proceedings by deciding to drop the charges. And this situation brings to a sharp focus for me the problems posed by Garry Wills in his review of Tom Wicker’s A Time to Die [NYR, April 4]. Thanks to Jack’s strange way of doing things I know him not as a “young hood” or a “masked gunman (Hispanic)” but as a person. What then is my motivation for allowing things to take their course?

Revenge? Absolutely not. “Society,” whoever that is, may feel vengeful at such things, but I can honestly say I feel no wish at all for revenge—no more than I might, say, after being beaten at pool: I would of course jump at the chance of a return match.

Rehabilitation? Well. I saw enough of Jack in the hour we were together to be sure that jail of itself will have no rehabilitative effect whatsoever. His imaginative faculty is so complete and so dazzlingly effective, and so obviously the only thing he has, that it is without question a necessary food for his personality, like piano-playing to a pianist. The time behind bars will be spent honing his gift, perfecting the fine tissue of his lies, and writing out ten thousand times in his mind “When visiting, I must not leave a visiting-card.” The only way to try breaking the compulsion of his behavior would be to integrate him in a social group where his artistry could be seen as art: where he could step back from himself enough to see the behavior not as himself but as performance. I have been feeling that the theater, my own profession, could well do with such a talent.

It is also clear, for the reasons that Mr. Wills gives, that the deterrent value of a jail sentence would be negligible. In the view of any delinquent friends he might have, Jack would be paying not for his crime but for his incompetence.

My only personal reason, for proceeding with the charges is the chance of recovering the stolen goods. But at the snail’s pace of the investigation—it is now over four weeks since the crime took place, although the police had traced the man’s name within forty-eight hours—the expectation of recovering the stuff is minimal. Furthermore, without being melodramatic about it, there is always the possibility of reprisal. Jack had a gang symbol tattooed on the back of his hand.

Do I then drop the charges?

Let us be clear: Jack was almost certainly armed (he told me he was, and though that means nothing I find it hard to imagine he left himself no safety margin beyond his wit); and if I had not been a little frightened and almost infantile in my naïveté there is a fair chance I might have been at least threatened and possibly wounded or killed. His previous record (if it is Jack’s) is not savory, and my friends tell me I am lucky to be alive. But will the next catch be as lucky? Will he make Jack laugh as I did, will he play the piano for him as I did—with handcuffs on? This clowning probably saved me, but someone so pathologically out of touch with the difference between truth and lying is surely almost as insensitive to the reality of death. “Just trust me,” he kept saying: “may my mother die if I’m not speaking the truth.” I fear for the old lady’s health, but I fear still more for the life of anyone who defies him. “Zapping” is child’s play, like making up stories.

I have the choice then, of getting Jack off the streets and into jail where he will by all accounts be brutalized beyond recall, or of dropping the charges and so being indirectly responsible for the possible maiming or even death of an innocent person, or two, or three. Multiply this dilemma by the number of crimes in New York State (fifty to a hundred a day in this precinct of New York City alone) and you have the “tragedy of Attica,” and the whole monstrous prison system. It is fine for us to reject the system as Wills and Wicker do—as I do myself. But what is to be done at this moment, now?

Michael Bawtree

New York City

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