I made friends with my burglar
“IT HAPPENED TO ME"
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He broke into my apartment and hit me with an iron book end. Then the law took over and I learned that my burglar and every boy like him needed a friend. That friend is me
It began at four-thirty on an August morning in 1956. The beginning was terror and disbeliet. The ending could have been death: mine. If it had. the boy who struck me down would have been as much a victim as I. But luck kept me alive. So there has been no ending yet: it waits on the uses an imprisoned sixteen-year-old finds for his life. This is what he did. and how he and 1 have both changed since he did it.
That evening I had gone to bed early. Like most women who have inhabited bachelor apartments for a significant number of years, I had lost any apprehension about open window's, despite the ground-floor location of my apartment in midtown Toronto. That night they were Hung as wide as the paint-stiffened frames would permit.
At four-thirty I was abruptly awake, with an uneasiness I couldn't trace. Impatiently I argued w ith myself and turned, rigid with determination, to the wall. The uneasiness and sense of some-
thing wrong persisted. Finally, glancing at the luminous dial of the clock, I considered two alternatives. I could lie, stiff, alert and vulnerable to this unaccountable feeling, until daylight, or I could get up, walk to my kitchen, satisfy myself that I was indulging in nerves and go back to sleep.
Impulsively I chose the last course, threw back the covers, and walked to the door of my living-sleeping room. Later, I discovered someone had shared my few seconds of decision. As I passed the bathroom. I switched on the light. In the kitchen a book had fallen from the window sill. I replaced it. opened the refrigerator, poured a glass of milk, drank it and started back to the living room. On the way I reached out to turn off the bathroom light. Directly in front of me was the darkness of my living room and 1 don't know, even now, what prompted me to glance into the bathroom.
In memory it seems I studied, thoughtfully
and for hours, the sight of the window. In fact 1 know it was a matter of seconds. Earlier that evening I had opened the bathroom window. 1 had to push against it to shove it back a few inches. Now' it gaped wide. With my hand still on the light switch, I remember thinking, "Someone is trying to get in.” It did not occur to me that someone was already in. Automatically I walked toward the window, leaned across the tub that stretches along the wall, and shoved against the stiff window. It did not move and I leaned closer, shoving more forcefully, convinced someone was planning an entry or that an entry had been planned and then abandoned.
As I pushed against the resisting frame, in the brilliant light of my bathroom, a hand was suddenly around my mouth from behind. There was a moment of utter disbelief and in that moment my head turned instinctively to the right. From a corner of my eye I could see a tiny piece of blue material. I remember thinking, "Don’t be
ridiculous;" in the next instant something heavy and very hard struck my turning head.
I insisted, hours later, that I did not black out. Fact suggests otherwise, since my next memory has me staring up from the bathtub, where I was sprawled sideways, into the watchful blue eyes of a man. Dimly I registered: something covered the lower half of his face: he was medium height, slender, with a blue shirt and dark pants; he held something in his hand. I could hear the sound of someone shrieking wildly, and from a far distance I recognized the sounds. They were coming from me.
In that isolated moment it was as if I were two people: one a screaming, hysterical animal without mental processes, acting only with emotion; the other oddly calm, recording fact and fighting against it. The man was standing silently, the object still in his hand, the makeshift mask covering his face, watching me almost with detachment.
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“Beyond doubt this stranger was going to take my life. My regret swiftly changed to rage”
His eyes were blue and they stared down at me like two persistent, unbelievable lights. The calm recording part of me tallied up the facts. It could not be happening and yet it was. This stranger was going to take my life. There was no doubt. There was a swift hot rush of regret, replaced as swiftly by rage that overcame the panic and insisted I do something. 1 struggled to get out of the tub.
There is no memory of movement by the man, but suddenly he was gone. Uncontrolled and apparently uncontrollable screaming still bounced from the walls. Beyond the window there were intermittent voices and apartments were lighting up as other tenants hurried to find the cause of the commotion. I found myself out of the tub and the bathroom, standing for what seemed an endless moment by the door of the apartment, and considering—idiotically—the next move. I decided to scream again.
The superintendent’s voice shocked me into silence. When I opened the door to explain he appeared understandably puzzled by the contrast between the disheveled. apologetic woman facing him and the wild screams he had heard seconds earlier. His questions about a possible nightmare were simple to answer; 1 put his hand against the bump, swelling now to egg size, on the side of my head.
Someone in the building had called the police and minutes later my apartment seemed to bulge with them. They grouped around me recording the details carefully. I offered a description: medium height, slender, blond, blue eyes. Very blue eyes. Age? Perhaps twenty. No, I didn’t know how long he had been in the apartment. No, there had been no conversation between us. Our meeting had all the characteristics of an explosion, but the noise had come solely from me. No, there had been no criminal assault. No, 1 did not recognize him. No, I didn’t think he was an irate boyfriend. Struggling against a spurt of renewed hysteria I suggested that, as an advertising-agency employee, I might be in more danger from an irate client. The suspicious stare choked off the attempt at humor.
Another policeman hurried into the room. They had picked up a newsboy answering the description. He had no alibi. Would they bring him in for identification? One of the men caught my shudder and suggested they take me to headquarters.
At the station we drove into a back lane, while a second car pulled up into a garage. A blond youth was motioned from the second car under a bright light and from the depths of our car I peered at him across a distance that seemed end-
less. The two detectives waited.
“That the one?” one prompted.
The boy slouched in exaggerated nonchalance. He was short and slight and he looked blindly into the darkness beyond the circle of light. He had no alibi and obviously he was on the police suspect list. I shrugged helplessly. Another youth was pulled under the light. 7'his one was bigger, more defiant, smiling as he held up his head to the light. The first had seemed too small, this one was too big. The detectives exchanged a look and with defiance that might have seemed strange under the circumstances, I asked if this kind of identification weren’t surprisingly unfair. It was reasonable to assume that I would be in a state of shock, which might prompt me to be either too cautious or too eager. The men matched my shrug and motioned me into the building.
This was the weapon
Inside the station a policewoman gave me a cup of coffee and an aspirin. Two policemen eyed me curiously. Another asked if I'd like a doctor, reminding me that they were responsible should 1 drop dead on the premises. I accepted the coffee and aspirin, refused the doctor— with apologies for the trouble I’d cause if I dropped dead — and felt another surge of defiance. The bump was growing nicely, but there was no particular pain and the shaking had settled into spasmodic quivers.
Twenty minutes later I was ushered into a brightly lit room on the second floor. The headquarters men began a second interrogation, one carefully typing my statement, while the other watched me as he checked the description, probed for forgotten details, insisted that I relive the experience.
When the statement was complete a detective held out my kitchen towel and one of my book ends for identification. The towel had been found in the courtyard beyond my apartment. Staring at it in the reassuring light of the station office, I recognized it as the covering which had hidden the lower half of the man’s face. The book end, found on the floor beneath the window through which, presumably, the intruder had escaped, was obviously the weapon. I studied it. It was made of iron. Either I had the hardest skull in Canada, or sheer luck had brought it down on an area that resulted in a bump and not death.
That day brought the first fragments of new awareness. The newspaper accounts claimed I had been thrown into the tub. Friends reported that radio newscasts contained similar accounts. It made a good story, but it was not true. Strangely enough. I found myself wondering how my prowler had reacted to the reports. In retrospect l could admit to myself that the hard, flat stare I had met in those screaming seconds had been a look of fear and panic, not viciousness.
7he days were consumed by inquiries, police visits, sedatives and high-pitched tension. The doctor assured me that I suffered from no more than a bump on my head, some bruises and a network of fragile and outraged nerve ends. He added that my instinctive head twist might have saved my life. If I had been struck on the back of the head the blow could have killed me. The thought was singularly sobering. Later it became even more significant.
At three-fifteen on the morning of the third day my apartment buzzer sounded. When, mentally, I had scraped myself off the ceiling and opened the door, two plainclothesmen strode in to tell me that the prowler had been caught. He was
picked up as he walked along a city street, carrying a radio he could not explain. He had confessed. They knew I had not been sleeping and decided I •would feel better if I knew he was behind bars. They could not know, of course, that my terror had taken on an unreasonable shape now. For the first time in my life 1 knew physical fear.
My question that night was a casual one, asked as I measured coffee for the two policemen. How old was he? When the answer—sixteen—came, I remember pausing and glancing at them. They shook their heads at my look.
“Don't feel sorry for him,” one said as he leaned against my refrigerator. “He’s incorrigible. Been up on two cartheft charges. Spent time at Brampton Training Center and he was on probation
when he came in here.”
There had been no evidence, yet, to connect this young man with the crime. The fingerprints had been blurred and my identification would be uncertain. I asked why he had confessed. The men shrugged. Then they gave me his description. This young man had hazel eyes. Emphatically I insisted there had been a mistake. My prowler had brilliant blue eyes.
“There’s no mistake,” they said. “Forget him and get back to normal.”
The next morning headquarters telephoned to report the capture officially. He would appear before the magistrate later that morning. At four o’clock I telephoned for a report. The young man had been remanded for sentence for a week. Because he was sixteen, he had appear-
ed in adults’ court. Yet there had been no lawyer to represent him. When I asked the reason, the sergeant sounded puzzled; he had not asked for a lawyer. Had he known he was entitled to one? The sergeant didn’t know. It seemed to reverse the law. I asked to have his statement read to me and then I asked the name of the lawyer who had defended him on the previous charges. On an impulse I telephoned the lawyer. I still had a feeling that this was the wrong man and the speed with which he was being condemned was alarming.
The lawyer sounded discouraged and the story he told me was not unusual. David's father had died a year before, after an illness of over eight years, and his mother was left to cope with the bewildering behavior of her only child. David—that isn’t his right name—held jobs for limited periods. His problem did not appear to spring from any routine source. There is nothing so poignant about David’s story that everything may be forgiven him on the basis of human tragedy. Money was not abundant, but it was not desperately scarce either. David’s mother had told the lawyer about the latest incident that afternoon, and he had telephoned the police as a favor. “The boy’s incorrigible,” the lawyer told me. “His mother has done everything she could.”
He had tried, he said, on previous occasions, to “get through” to David, but he had met only an intangible wall. David was quiet and submissive, apparently incapable of the spirit and strength required to overcome the problems of living. Yet he had chosen to bring an iron book end down on my head. He had been frightened, but his fear had taken a form opposite to submission.
Hazel eyes turn blue
I thought of a young man confronted by the bewildering pattern of his own behavior and its consequences. Doesn’t anger come from fear, and fear from the feeling of being unloved or unlovable? Slowly, from the midst of these impressions, there seemed a new simple perspective. Within me still was doubt that this was the right man, but there was a growing feeling that it did not really matter. A sixteen-year-old was facing a reaction of society based on such influences as newspaper accounts, and apathy. He was still vulnerable to the attitudes of a society to which he, like every young person, must want to belong. He had stolen a car and had served a period of time at Brampton. If he had deliberately broken into an apartment and assaulted its sole occupant, under the conditions of probation, he was taking a big chance. I tried to understand why a boy of his age would take that gamble.
The conversation with the lawyer did not indicate that there had been a mistaken identification, but he suggested that I contact the welfare worker. Her report confirmed David’s guilt. Hazel eyes, she reminded me, turned blue under certain lights and David had admitted the crime freely to her.
“I’m afraid that this is the boy,” she said with genuine regret. “He seems quite incorrigible. Unfortunately there isn’t much you can do under the circumstances.”
By this time I was involved with a life that had crashed into mine; now David was two people to me. One was the terrifying figure who had come out of limbo to threaten my life. The other was a sixteen-year-old in bad trouble. There was, too. a dash of Scottish stubbornness in me. I knew that no one is born bad or vicious and too many people
were labeling David incorrigible.
Now I found myself persuading the lawyer to represent him. We discussed possible psychiatric examination. There was no question of David's sanity, but it seemed reasonable to hunt for emotional disturbance, since psychiatrists insist there is an emotional reason for every unreasonable act. The magistrate granted the request and David was remanded for a second week.
During that week a number of things happened to strengthen my uneasiness— not only about David, but about all young people in trouble with the law. From the welfare worker 1 had gone to the priest at Don Jail, a man of judgment, humor, patience and vision. He said to me. “There is so much we need. Most urgently we need the support and understanding of the public.” 1 didn't fully appreciate, then, the meaning of the statement.
Slowly 1 accumulated pieces of David s life. He had tried to w'ork. One job ended abruptly, that of busboy in an exclusive Toronto club, at noon of the day he began work. They had discovered his previous record. There had been other experiences in his hunt for jobs and. too. he was living under the list of don’ts set up under probation regulations. These are all understandable and justifiable to adults. But they are further pressure on the young, and additional evidence to them of society’s continuing suspicion and hostility.
A youth released from Brampton must not fraternize with fellow students who have been similarly released or are on probation. This is a reasonable ruling, yet in many cases they are the only triends with whom he feels kinship. There is, as well, fierce loyalty, which has a core of defiance, between youths who have an identifying bond. Then too, there are no rehabilitation centres for these boys in Toronto. If a boy has no family and no friends, aside from former Brampton associates, there is apt to be an explosion of defiance or loneliness. Again, on parole he must be in his room by eleven o’clock. On probation the time is also set down by regulations. And at all times he is subject to unexpected calls or visits from his probation officer. These, I found, were some of the pressures that had borne on David.
So. during the week, 1 telephoned the Toronto Psychiatric Clinic for information on the psychiatrists at Don Jail. I was told there were two: one was not certified. My growing interest and uneasiness prompted a call to one ot the psychiatrists. He had spent an hour with David. In order to reach a reasonable conclusion, the Toronto Psychiatric Clinic and the Ontario Mental Home require interview's over periods ot trom thirty to sixty days. The Don Jail psychiatrist said he had received no response from David. I asked his conclusion.
“Sane," he said-^romptly.
The request h^(/? been for an investigation of a possibf? emotional disturbance, but the psychiatrist was operating under the law, which seeks to establish legal sanity, that is, could he be held accountable for his action, and could he distinguish between right and wrong? There is no legal concern with emotional disturbances.
That Friday David was again brought to court. He was sentenced to eight
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months at an Ontario reformatory.
The following week 1 visited him at Don Jail. I had not attended the trial and. at first, the idea of meeting him had been frightening. But now there w'ere too many impressions in my mind, too many bits and pieces, too much uneasiness. I wanted to meet him.
The governor of Don Jail generously permitted our interview to take place in his office. My chair was parallel with the door and, as David entered, I caught a glimpse of blue. For an instant 1 froze in terror — remembering the similar
glimpse a second before the book end crashed on my head. The governor motioned him to a chair.
"Do you recognize this woman?” the governor asked.
I heard a quiet. “Ves, sir." 1 looked up and the terror left. A tall, thin, pale young man was gazing steadfastly at the floor. This, then, was the silent sixteenyear-old who had selected his weapon and, ignoring the possibility of escape, had waited in the dark and followed me into the bathroom.
The governor explained my presence
and I winced for David as he emphasized my “kindness." 1 thought that if 1 were David 1 would hate me. and the thought led to a question. How much had he hated me in the moment of attack?
As the governor continued, embarrassment for David and for myself accumulated and I realized, with some bewilderment. that l felt strangely an ally of this silent young man. I w'as listening w'ith his ears to the flow of words, watching the governor and myself with his eyes, and even summoning from the past my own youthful fears and rebellions. I was
interpreting all this as David might himself.
The governor was authority, spotlighting guilt and underlining deficiencies. I thought of other days when I had stood, shamefaced, before the authority of parents or teachers, confronted by my own misdeeds. It was, it seemed, a matter of degree—the degree of wrong-doing and perhaps, too, the degree of damage. David had been termed a problem child. Replace the word “problem” with “unhappy,” and many things are thrown into new perspective.
David slid down in the chair. The governor glanced at me, suggested that I forget he was there, and turned back to his desk. For a moment I was caught in apprehension. By confronting David I was accepting a responsibility without knowing if I could discharge it.
I could hear my voice saying, “David, you’ll have to look at me. I know it’s hard. I had the same problem.” Obediently he lifted his eyes. They were hazel now, but familiar in their quiet watchfulness.
“Why did you hit me?” The question slid out. He answered simply.
“I was scared.”
When I murmured, out of memory, “So was 1,” he nodded. “I know,” he said, “I’m terribly sorry.”
The silence moved in again. Outside a September rain pelted against the window. David looked back at the floor. There was no sense of*violence in him and no sense, either, of communication with him. The comments of the lawyer, the welfare worker, the psychiatrist— even the priest—returned. “There is no response.” Yet I wondered to what David was expected to respond. He had retreated from something and now he seemed locked in another kind of prison, fashioned by himself or by others. The eyes were detached, the young face impassive, the voice gentle and controlled.
“I’m no good”
“David?” I tried again. His eyes answered. “I’ve talked with a lot of people about you. Apparently some have tried to help. What’s the problem?” It was a foolish question. It would take trained, skilled people a long time to dig out the answer, but what he said was revealing.
“I’m no good,” he replied with almost casual acceptance of the idea.
The governor interrupted and, much as I respected him, his comments strengthened the sympathy that was growing in me for David. He reminded David that he was a failure, even as a criminal. He suggested that David was capable only of striking women. The boy tightened his mouth and sat silent. He was not sullen; the governor’s words merely echoed his own belief; David, in his own eyes, was no good. So it seemed to me.
Uneasily I tried to tell David that I was not a lady bountiful or a professional do-gooder. If I could help, I wanted to try. Hesitantly I suggested that if he could use my friendship, I would like to offer it.
David glanced unsmilingly at me. “I want it,” he said. The glance was honest and accepting. He admitted many people had tried to help him; he said his mother was “the best” and he had no plans for the future. Finally, as he passed to leave the room, my voice halted him and when I held out my hand, there was the first, faint smile.
A few days after this visit I received a letter from David. He thanked me for coming, apologized for his shyness and promised he would “do or say anything you want when you come to see me, or
if you don’t, when I get out.” When I telephoned Don Jail, I was told David had been transferred that morning. I was also told there had been a change in his sentence. There had been two remands for sentence, one at the request of the court, the other requested by David’s lawyer. The purpose of the court remand is to check records. Yet two weeks after the original remand and sentence, the charge of breach of probation was added. He was now sentenced to fourteen months.
As a second offender David could not be sent back to Brampton. He had been transferred to the Ontario Reformatory at Guelph. At Brampton he had been taught bricklaying by an institution said to be unique in its freedom and approach to rehabilitation. This time he would be under far stricter discipline.
In my first letter to Guelph I told David I would like to know him, and suggested we forget the circumstances of our meeting. His reply offered facts without embellishment. He liked painting, dancing, music and writing. He apologized, again told me he would “never forget it,” and asked me to write again.
In letters he did not, at first, go beyond facts. Later he told me he had intended “going back to crime” when he got out, but my letters made him think someone was worried about him. However, he doubted if anyone would give him a third chance. When I was slow in replying to another letter, he asked if I were mad at him. Shortly after Christmas I received a brief note. His mother had remarried. There was no comment and when I asked his reaction, the answer was typical: “If Mom is happy, that’s all that matters.”
The letters relaxed over the months. Now, gradually, something of the feelings within David are creeping into them. Similarly within me the initial feeling of sympathy has deepened into an appreciation of him as a person.
I listen now through David’s ears to ignorance, indifference, and distortion of the facts that apply to emotionally insecure youngsters. In Vancouver last autumn, the publicity man for a welfare organization explained plans to establish rehabilitation centres for emotionally disturbed or troubled young people. He suggested I keep David’s letters.
“Some day,” he said, “they will contribute to the proof that everyone has one essential need, to have one person who unconditionally supports him.” Welfare workers point wearily to countless cases who should and could be helped if facilities and people were available.
My first visit to Guelph took place a few months after the day I met David. Under reformatory regulations, only one visitor a week is permitted and I had not
wanted to interfere with visits by David’s mother.
The grey building is surrounded, ironically, by parkland. You walk down a corridor to a barred door and beyond is the visiting room, called the control tower. The place suggests a recreation centre until you notice the uniformed guards, the armed guard at the entrance, the barred windows and the reformatory clothing.
A huge door swung open and a group of young men walked to the far end of the room to be searched for contraband. Then, with a smile that was astonishingly radiant, David came to me. There was a swift rush of affection for him. which, momentarily, surprised me. Then I remembered someone’s comment that awareness of the reason for anything removes the barriers. David had put himself in his letters and that self was intelligent, perceptive and endearing. If he felt any strangeness, he did not show it. We talked of his activities at Guelph and of his eventual release.
“I won’t let you down”
At one point he said abruptly, “I hope I won’t let you down.” The doubt about himself was still there. He said, too, that his first days at Guelph had been spent sitting on the edge of his cot, staring at the bars. Then he decided that was wrong. He talked of the difficulties of writing letters to his family and friends —the bars on the windows hampered natural communication. He had been making car-markers during the early weeks of his time at Guelph—another of the many “industries” of the reformatory. Now he was working in the laundry. He asked hesitantly and doubtfully about a job when he is released.
When the half hour was up, his name was called. David stood up. “That’s us,” he said. “I’ll take you to the desk.”
As we walked across the long, crowded room, I thought back to the day in Don Jail, to the comments, the label “incorrigible,” and I looked at David. He did not require, that day, any command to stand up straight. He looked like a normal sixteen-year-old, whose sole concern was the ball game tomorrow, the exam next week, the beckoning, unmarried future. He smiled and waved as he joined the group—waiting again to be searched before they were returned to their cells.
In his last letter David asked if I had a camera and, if it were possible, would I take pictures of “the outside” and send them in? He said, “If I get another chance, I’ll prove to them and I won’t let you down.” When I received that letter, eight months after our first meeting, I realized perhaps for the first time how much David has given me. I now have the knowledge, at once alarming and incredible, of a gap in our social system; I have a senste ?f being returned to an earlier time in, r.iy own life and remembering how it w«*y.
It is possible, of course, that in three years—or in one—David will be back at Guelph. I do not believe that will happen. If it should, the responsibility will not be solely David’s. He knows, as I do, that it will not be easy. He will meet, as I have, the curious resistance among a segment of our society to any attempt at understanding youthful offenders. He will meet the same attitudes I have, varying from instinctive understanding and alliance to lifted eyebrows and vehement condemnation.
David now has his chance to “prove to them.” It may be harder than he knows. He needs all the help he can get. ★