What First Got Me to Step Up
By Roland Murphy
A lot of people have asked me why I care so much about the issue of child abuse, since I don't have kids and am not really close to any other children.
Part of it is sociological. Abused children grow up into damaged adults, a percentage of whom go on to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Intervention helps break that cycle and reduces risk to the society at large.
Part of it is hatred, pure and simple. I experienced an abusive incident at the hands of a non-family member, myself, and it left me with scars it took years to come to terms with. There's no denying my hatred for the person who abused me gets projected onto every other abuser in the world and fuels my desire to fight them all. In that way, I use my hate for positive means, rather than projecting it inward or turning it on the world at large.
The real reason, though, stems from an experience I had when I was 22. The following account has appeared elsewhere, but I thought it was relevant to post it here again.
When I was a young reporter, there was a ballot proposition in the county general election to fund a new safe house for abused women and children. I reviewed the measure. It would cost the average resident of the county about $5 a year, and there were no diversionary loopholes in the language.
Since there was a good-news peg and it would fill a lot of space over three editions, I pitched a three-part story series to my editor. I wanted to look into the issue of domestic violence in the area and do (a) an overview of the issue in the readership area, (b) an overview of the laws and stats, and (c) a feature on the existing safe house and why the group that ran it felt they needed the money. I wasn't going to take a side, but I thought it was an important enough issue that it warranted more consideration than the board of elections issues pamphlet would give it.
The first two stories were easy. It was all interviews with experts and research into laws and cases. In other words, they were detached.
For the third story, I went to the safe house. I had been working closely on the stories with the organization that ran the house, getting source material and introductions to experts, etc., and they agreed to let me come out for a "tour."
I may have gone on a tour, but these selfless warrior women were pulling a tour-of-duty.
I got there at 9 a.m. on a crisp autumn Saturday morning in the farm country of southeast Michigan and rang the bell. Approaching the house (the location of which was a very closely guarded secret for obvious reasons) I heard all manner of noises coming from inside. The second that bell sounded, the only thing I heard was the hum of wheels on the distant country road.
A woman answered the door without opening it. She asked who I was and what I wanted. I identified myself, told her the director had given me permission to come out and was supposed to have told the staff. I slid my press ID into the mail slot and said if she needed to check with the director I'd be glad to wait.
Three minutes later she opened the door and said she'd been expecting me, but it was policy to verify everyone, particularly every man, who came to the door, get ID and make a copy before the door was opened. I was impressed but not surprised after working so closely with these people for a month.
I've seen enough accidents and crime scenes to make a corpse's stomach turn. I've seen the effects of violence firsthand, some of it delivered or received by me. I'd done my homework and research. I was tough. I was armed with research and the ever-important facts that make up "the truth." I thought I was ready for that morning.
What impressed me most at first was the noise. The safe house was a large, old farmhouse that would have been incredibly spacious for a single family, even one with a lot of kids. There were a dozen women there and nearly as many children. Bedrooms had been converted to barracks. The women took turns caring for small groups of kids, doing chores around the house and trying to eke out a little time for themselves.
Every woman there who was not on staff had been victimized by a member of their family, usually a spouse, within the last 60 days. Many of the staff members had once been residents who came back because they felt they owed a debt.
Every child there had been abused with either violence or sexual predation, or both, in the last 60 days.
The women covered pretty much the entire socio-economic and racial spectrum, as did the kids.
But my gods, the noise would drive a saint mad. Imagine 36 people in a house. With the staff, the volunteers and the residents, there were three dozen people in this house built for (maybe) ten, 24 hours a day.
There was a "quiet room" set up where women could go to read or just sit. The one rule was no talking after you crossed the threshold.
Oddly enough, there was only one woman in there. Everyone else was busy doing something or just interacting with someone else.
I'll never forget one old, or at least high-mileage, woman sitting on a couch in another common room, holding a young woman in her mid-twenties. She was saying something to the effect of, "No, baby girl, you're not stupid. You got smart and left. It took me thirty years to get smart and brave enough at the same time. You at least saved yourself some life left to live."
I was 22 and cocky and hard-assed, and it was all I could do not to cry hearing that.
There was one little boy, about 5 years old or so, who was still in his PJs. They were white with a broad red vertical stripe down the sides. A ninja holding a pair of nunchucku was pictured on his left breast.
He jumped out into the hall as the volunteer and I were walking past, yelling, "Heeyah!" in this absolutely adorable little kiai that reminded me of teaching my own nephew a few years before.
I did the quick finger wave, "Hi." He got a little bit shy and I made a point of asking the volunteer if I could talk to the kid, to give him reassurance from someone he trusted that it was okay.
She asked the kid if it was all right, which struck me as about the coolest and smartest thing ever. Way to give the kid some empowerment and control for probably the first time in his life.
He softly said, "Okay," and I sat down on the floor next to him. I asked and he told me his name. I told him mine. My given one. I couldn't bring myself to just tell him the last name, like I did with adults. Little guy earned my respect just by being there and by giving me permission to talk to him when he had less than no reason to trust me.
He perked up and said, "I'm a karate man, you know!"
I said, "Yeah? That's pretty cool. I took karate, too. From the way you jumped out and spooked us like that you must be pretty good, huh?"
He said, "Yeah!" Then he lowered his chin down to his chest and said, in that soft voice only very scared or very ashamed little children can get, "I don't hit nobody though. That's a bad way to be."
He may not have gone around slugging people, but the little guy hooked me right in the liver with that comment.
I saw a few more women and a few more kids that day, and I got the inspector's report of all the things wrong with the house. It would cost more to fix it than to build a new facility to spec—by more than half.
I went back to the office, glad no one was usually in the newsroom on Saturday afternoons. The sports guys did the artwork and layout from the high school football games in the morning, and it was now around 2.
I went in, and Renee, our receptionist and office manager, was there. She'd come in to catch up on some paperwork. Even though she was only 26, Renee was the mother hen of the office, and she particularly worried about me. As a very driven Chief Reporter, I tended to work 96-hour weeks doing my stories, assigning and copyediting the other reporters, working out layouts with the editorial staff, covering meetings and networking for news. It wasn't uncommon for me to pull straight 48-hour shifts and maybe catch an hour or two nap under the composition table.
She noticed I had about a thousand-yard stare going but just gave me the cocked-head, "You okay?" look.
I sat down at my terminal and just stared at it. How could I write what I'd seen and not make it sound like some liberal pantywaist boo-hoo bullshit.
I just sat there and stared at the monitor, my fingers on the keys, motionless, for I don't know how long.
Without saying a word, Renee, who was pregnant with her third kid and one of the best damn moms I've ever met, walked up behind me and gave me a hug. She'd never done that before. I was the cynical hardass, and people just didn't touch me without being invited.
When I felt her very pregnant belly against my back, I just lost it. I started sobbing like a little kid. She just held me and rocked me, stroking my hair.
After just a few seconds I forced myself to stop. She sat down next to me and told me to let it out. I told her I couldn't. I needed to keep it in if I were going to write this story. That was the hook I needed: the emotion behind what I'd seen. There was no way I could keep this story merely factual or a just a simple by-the-book "scene" piece.
With the exception of the lede, which I never did get nailed down to my satisfaction, it turned out to be the single best story out of the gods-only-know-how-many I wrote in my time as a reporter.
I went to my editor Monday and told her I was going to write an op/ed piece for that week's issue. She told me it was policy not to allow that, you couldn't do editorials about the issues you covered, particularly something like a ballot proposition. I said, "Is it policy that I not turn in my story, which I have the only copy of on this floppy, and delete all the other reporters' stories for this week's issue before I quit in about five minutes if you don't change your mind?"
She saw I wasn't bluffing and said, "Okay. Fuck the policy. Do it."
I wrote the op/ed about what I'd seen at the house and urged people to vote for the ballot measure. We referenced the op/ed in the "In This Week's Issue" box in the primary optical area.
The Wednesday after the election, the SAFE House campaign director came into the office. The measure had passed by a 3-to-1 margin.
She pulled my publisher, who was a friend of hers, out onto the newsroom floor and said, "We didn't have the money to put together the kind of campaign we needed to get this passed. Murphy was a one-man, relentless machine for us. Everyone in the county reads your paper—" They did. It was free of charge and home-delivered, as well as on newsstands. "—and I don't know anybody who doesn't like his articles. I was in (the diner, I can't remember the name) when the papers were delivered last week, and I saw everybody read the story on the SAFE House (which I'd insisted be the lead story since it was a slow news week). Then I saw everyone go to the editorial page. Four people were crying by the time they were done.
"Your work is what got this done for us, Murph. How can we ever repay you?"
"Keep doing what you're doing. Your work is a hell of a lot harder than mine. You don't owe me anything. Just let me know if you need anymore help from me." She wouldn't let me off the hook; so I told her to buy me a cup of coffee. The next day she came in with a Thermos and a plate full of cookies from the staff and residents at the house. I have to say it was some of the best coffee I've ever had, and the frosted sugar cookies were outstandingly sweet.
Writing that series of stories and helping to get that new facility built (and it was) counts as one of the best things I've ever done.
So, yeah, I care. And because I care, I fight.
If you care, and if you want to fight in the most effective way possible, you can find out more at Protect.org.
Since 1992, Roland Murphy has worked as a reporter, business consultant, corporate marketer and private chef. He has also contributed dispatches to the PROTECT newsletter and done occasional research. A longtime fan of Andrew Vachss' writing and message, he stepped into the ring to fight for children almost from the first moment he heard about PROTECT and regularly uses the power of the whisper-stream to spread the word and bring in new recruits. His motto: "You don't have to work for a news outlet to be a reporter, you just have to care enough to observe and speak. Real journalists aren't in newsrooms spinning stories for advertisers. They're on the street spreading the truth." You can read other dispatches by Mr. Murphy:
© Copyright 2010 Roland Murphy. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.