The Origins of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”

By Friday, July 25, 2014 9 Permalink 2

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For the two years that interrupted my run at The New York Times, I was the Art Director of National Geographic magazine. There was only one problem: my kids and I live in Brooklyn, but National Geographic’s offices are in Washington, DC.

That meant that four days a week, I commuted between the two cities. It took about three and a half hours each way, and that was when I didn’t miss a train or a plane (yes, for about nine months National Geographic paid for me to fly back and forth to work — go figure.)

As insane as this commute was — to this day I’ve never met another person who did it for as long as I did — it did provide plenty of time for writing.  So, I started to write scenes from my life, hoping that I might be able to sell them as short stories to magazines and that they might publish them.

But soon after I returned to The New York Times, there came a tragedy — a couple of them — that drew my efforts into resolution and pulled my disjointed prattling and aimless scribblings into a thing of purpose.

On April 24, 2009 I wrote about it on my blog under the title, “Two Little Boys.” It began thusly:

On April 6, just before dinner, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a Massachusetts boy who had endured relentless homophobic taunts at school, wrapped an extension cord around his tiny neck and hanged himself. He was only 11 years old. His mother had to cut him down.

On April 16, just after school, Jaheem Herrera, a Georgia boy who had also endured relentless homophobic taunts at school, wrapped a fabric belt around his tiny neck and hanged himself as well. He too was only 11 years old. His 10-year-old sister found him.


My heart broke for those boys and their families. I could feel it from both end. As a parent of 11-year-old twins at the time, I couldn’t imagine the breaking kind of pain that would bend you low when you walk in to discover the lifeless body of your child hanging by a belt in your house, and you have to cut down shell the that once held you baby’s soul and cradle it in your arms.

It is so many levels of pain and tragedy that I can hardly fathom it.

As for the boys themselves, I could also commiserate.  I knew the trauma of bullying. I knew that level of hurt and sorrow and ostracism could push a child to the precipice, that could make suicidal ideation hang on them like a lost spirit, that could make them believe that the only way out of suffering was out of the world.

I thought then: “Not on my watch!” If there was something I could do — something I could say or write — that I was going to do it. That’s when I knew that I had to weave my writings into the book that became Fire Shut Up in My Bones.

The basis of it were all in that 2009 blog post.  At one point in the post I say:

Children can’t see their budding lives through the long lens of wisdom – the wisdom that benefits from years passed, hurdles overcome, strength summoned, resilience realized, selves discovered and accepted, hearts broken but mended and love experienced in the fullest, truest majesty that the word deserves. For them, the weight of ridicule and ostracism can feel crushing and without the possibility of reprieve. And, in that dark and lonely place, desperate and confused, they can make horrible decisions that can’t be undone.

For as much progress that’s been made on the front of acceptance and tolerance of all people, regardless of our differences, enough hatred remains–tucked in the crags and spread about the surface–to force Carl and Jaheem into the abyss.

I couldn’t make this point strongly enough:

I say, seeking to diminish the human dignity of another whose only crime is not loving whom you would have him or her love is immoral and an offense to the indomitable determination of the heart.

At another point, I write about the bullies themselves:

Interestingly, the study also found that “the perpetrators who are the bullies also have an increased risk for suicidal behaviors.” Many bullies are victims too – wounded souls stumbling through life, knocking things over, crying out for help, trying to fill a void.

Then the post concludes, at length:

We, as a society, should be ashamed. The bodies of these children lie at our feet. The toxic intolerance of homophobic adults has spilled over into the minds of pre-sexual children, placing undue pressure on the frailest of shoulders. This pressure is particularly acute among young boys who are forced to conform to a perilously narrow concept of masculinity. Or else. My colleague Judith Warner put it best in an online column that she posted after Carl’s death:

“The message to the most vulnerable, the victims of today’s poisonous boy culture, is being heard loud and clear: to be something other than the narrowest, stupidest sort of guy’s guy, is to be unworthy of even being alive.”

Well, no more. All people are worthy just the way they are, the way God and nature made them, the way they see themselves through the truest eye of the soul. We must teach every child, nay every person, that the greatest measure of our own humanity is the degree of human dignity we afford those from whom we are different. A smile, a kind word, a handshake, a hug, understanding and compassion – the simplest acts of goodness can bridge the widest chasms.

These little boys deserved our love. Instead, through the vessels of our children, they were shown our scorn. We failed.

Carl and Jaheem, I will never forget you. I am the father of 11 year-old twins. I will give them extra hugs and kisses tonight in memory of you. I will teach them to be even more tolerant, in memory of you. I will make sure that they know that I am always there if they need an ear or a shoulder, in memory of you. I will let them know, when the waters get choppy, that the storm will always pass, in memory of you. And, I will make sure that they know in no uncertain terms that whomever they grow up to be, I will love them always and forever. This too I will do in memory of you.

We will soldier on in your stead. You rest in ours.

(It should be noted that to my knowledge neither child had self-identified as gay or bisexual at the time of their death, but now it matters not. Whoever they would have been is forever lost to the grave.)

That, in a way, was the genesis of Fire Shut Up in My Bones. That was five years ago. Carl and Jaheem would now be 16.

  • Anne Butterfield
    July 26, 2014

    Harrowing experiences… you’re right to focus on this. I am sorry you grew up witnessing this.
    Confused by the many language errors – seems unlike a professional newspaper guy (the ones I know seem to type perfectly and instantly – so unfair!). So many errors it seems a deliberate and stirring experiment? …feels a tad like Faulkner…
    Perhaps give a pointer to the reader to know how to see the language style?

    • CharlesMBlow
      July 26, 2014

      The post somehow reverted to an incomplete, unedited version before. Fixed now.

  • Anthony
    July 26, 2014

    Wow this is just terrible. My thoughts and meditations go out to their families and the souls of Carl and Faheem. Coming from a small town with narrow minds I too can relate. Fortunately my 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Mazzucco introduced me to the world of dance; creating a safe place for me to express myself. The family it created was detrimental to my coping with bullies at school and in my community. She changed my life. Because of her I learned I could throw away whatever junk the other boys in school would say to me, and I learned I could be happy being who I was. I wish those two boys could have had someone step in sooner to help them, but at that age Im sure they didn’t even voice their troubles. I hope for humanities future, discrimination of any kind, disappears. Unfortunately that seems to be far away but with the exposure the internet provides, hopefully the process speeds up!

  • Hannelore
    July 26, 2014

    Hi, I ´m from Germany and I discovered your articles some time ago by retweets others had made of them. Somehow I was hooked by your way of thinking and sharing your thoughts. Now I follow you on twitter. When I read about your book I preordered it immediately and am looking forward to reading it. Thank you for telling the story about the beginnings and the motivation of your writing this book.
    I am glad about every person in the world who dares to share his/her own feelings and experiences and to take over responsibility by trying to change things (or lets better say “people”). To bring your book to the public must have been like “giving
    birth” to a part of yourself. I wish you all the best (and also your kids – sounds as if they ´ve got a very caring father).

  • Jennifer Hatcher
    July 26, 2014

    Charles, thanks for bring exposure to this. My heart goes out to not only the families of Carl and Jaheem, but also anyone who has experienced this. It is human nature to fear what is different, but for a society to exist peacefully, we have to learn to be tolerant. Even if we may not fully accept what is different from us, it gives us no right to scorn those who we do not accept and vice versa. Those who do accept people who are different from themselves should help, but not force, others to be more tolerant. Our teachers, business owners, and people in positions of power should lead the charge on tolerance, setting the example, and not be the ones who are outright calling for those who are different to be as less than human.

  • Sharon Mason
    July 26, 2014

    I am hardly able to gather words, but to say thank you for writing this book. I have been thinking about it with great anticipation, looking for the official release in September. As a huge fan of yours, I have been more than eager for this moment, and now more than ever I turn towards its release , as I now know this exceeds an extension of your greatness, but rather is an honorarium as well. I say that, but I cannot begin to find a close enough word to suit. Again, thank you for creating this book.

  • Lizzie
    July 27, 2014

    Dear Mr Blow, Thank you for your wonderful column in the NYT I can’t wait to read your book Elizabeth Stone Michigan

  • Carol Ott
    July 27, 2014

    Your post has touched a cord in my soul (as most of your writing does) because I am also raising a child as a single parent, my adopted grandson. I have experienced the prejudice that comes to him because his peers judge him as an individual that they can take advantage of since he does not have a strong father figure to defend him against their bullying and physical abuse. However, I might not be as strong physically as a man but my strength is formidable when it comes to words and action!! His name is Rene and he was born with special needs that have made his daily life a formitable challenge. He wants so much to have friends, any kind good or bad, but he seems to only be accepted by the bad. They see the opportunity to use him to do their dirty work which has led him down the path to breaking the rules of law. Whether it be the legal or educational system or just the general public it seems that no one can understand children who are different than the “norm”. They are catorized as bad and that just disintegrates their fragile self esteem even more. We have a long way to go as a people to correct this illogical way of thinking. We need to begin providing the help that is desparately needed by the most vulnerable among us, our children!

  • Mark Ackerman
    July 27, 2014

    Thank you, again, Mr. Blow. Keep writing. We need you.

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