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.