Acceptance of Denial - In Three Acts

Jim was tall, lean and intense. A successful engineer in sustainable energy, he spoke with the halting precision of those who carefully consider every word. He orchestrated training seminars on a global scale and wrote technical manuals about building the foundation of a fledgling industry. Jim was comfortable in his success and confident in his ability to be effective. I met him when he attended a digital media course I taught in Helena, Montana. When the course ended, we continued a casual friendship.

For the fun of it, our conversations often devolved into quirky fantasies about ways to profit from the foibles of human nature. I had my fall back novelty product, Shroud of Turin beach towels aimed at the Easter break crowds in Florida. Jim usually joked about writing a book called "Acceptance of Denial", targeted at middle aged men. The title alone guaranteed a best seller, he said. Even if the text was nothing but blather.

Jim married a woman with a young a boy from a previous marriage and undertook fatherhood with total commitment as a role model to his step son. Being an accomplished player himself, Jim introduced Sam to ice hockey and signed him up in the local junior league club where he volunteered as a coach, allowing all the more time to spend with Sam.

My son was also on the hockey team so I saw Jim often and watched Sam grow up along with the other boys. He was exceptionally intelligent and a gifted musician. His mother had a talent for languages which he inherited. Sam's future seemed brighter than the sun.

As Sam entered his teen years, Jim got an opportunity to study sustainable energy in Europe. His wife was thrilled since she could assist him using her talents as a translator. And Sam was beyond ready for the cool of living in a foreign country. So they spent nearly three years in Europe, living mostly in the Czech Republic. When the assignment expired, they returned to the US.

Back in Helena, Jim's work in energy consulting flourished. In the aftermath of 9/11 oil prices were beginning to climb beyond the stratosphere. His authority in cutting edge energy made him an in-demand expert with national media attention. Jim and his family became local celebrities in Helena and an invisible wall began to politely separate them from people they once recognized as friends.

Preparing to take my own son on a trip to Rome, some of my older cousins insisted that I get advice from Father Paul, a priest they'd all known since childhood. He was an accomplished stained glass artist who had done restoration work in some of the world's largest cathedrals, including St. Peter's. A long list of adoring clients vied to own his next original work.

My cousins created opportunities to brag about the marvelous trips they took with him to the Vatican. Hoping to stir envy, they would carry on without encouragement about being welcomed into secret inner sanctums simply because Father Paul was such a brilliant and special man. So unbelievably generous and caring, they said. He just happened to be teaching art history at a Catholic college in Helena, so of course I needed to contact him.  Basking in an opportunity to "pull some strings", they arranged for me to meet him.

I vaguely remembered Father Paul from my childhood when he was a teen-ager, but had no expectations beyond those my cousins had planted.  Being a renowned stained glass artist, Father Paul's priestly duties excluded the usual saying mass and such. He had special allowances about living arrangements giving him a private home and studio in a large old Victorian where we met for our appointment.

There was a veneer of polite formality when we met at the door which surprised me since we shared so many connections that boasted about his warmth and friendliness. There was no relaxed acknowledgement of the place we both grew up. 

As though bothered by an unwelcome intruder, he rushed to arrive at the point of our meeting. His eyes remained awkwardly averted as though fearing I would actually look into them.  This opened a recognition from my years in San Francisco and my stomach twisted with the queasiness of being told an obvious lie.

Something in his too fastidious manner projected a tension bigger than just being hidden behind a closet door and he knew that I felt it.  The heel of one foot kept grinding into the floor while he dug both hands into the deep pockets of sharply creased black pants.  The amazing Father Paul quickly covered enough Roman highlights to fulfill his obligation as a travel consultant then hurried me back out the door. 

Planning another European trip for myself, I read about a German concentration camp intended primarily for SS training and experimentation.  Situated only twenty miles from Berlin, Sachsenhausen was not hidden in an isolated region. Instead it was the dominant structure in the center of a small village called Oranienburg. 

I read an account of the camp's liberation written by a young American soldier new to the war.  He said that they began to smell the distinct stench of burning flesh when they were still over three miles from the camp. That's how powerful it was.

Yet when the American soldiers interrogated the local people, many of them claimed complete ignorance of what had taken place behind the barbed wire wall that separated them from the neighboring death camp. At the end of the war, German army commanders paraded thousands of skeletal men and women, the remaining prisoners, in a Todesmarsch (Death March) through Oranienburg in plain sight of the villagers. In their interviews, the villagers usually cited the Todesmarsch as the first time they had any idea about the real purpose of the camp. Even though the arriving American soldiers smelled evidence of it from three miles away.

Of course, there were resisters, sympathizers, and profiteers in Oranienburg.  Fear of ending up in the camp themselves was a strong incentive to ignore the evident truth.  But there were also a great number who seemed truly shocked when confronted with the reality. The only explanation for their ignorance seemed to be an extreme state of denial.

A few years after I met Father Paul, he was found dead in his studio.  The newspapers called it sudden and unexplained, code words for the suicides which happen all too often in Montana. For a long time, "What a shame" was the only comment made about it openly. The college mounted an exhibition of his stained glass art and a walking tour of patron homes where his commissioned work had been installed. "Such a great talent gone too soon," was all that was said.

Cloistered in the recesses of local newspapers, cryptic headlines began to appear about sexual abuse charges being filed against the Catholic Diocese. Names were not yet directly mentioned in the stories, but could be surmised by the timelines of when and where accusations were made. Father Paul's suicide now had a logical explanation. Terms of the eventual settlement required that names be named and published.  In the end, there was no doubt.

My cousins stopped bragging about the Vatican trips. It was as though Father Paul had never existed. I brought up his name once just to gauge their reaction and none of them heard what I said.

In their late teens, my son and many of his friends were busy testing the bounds of acceptable behavior. Keeping track of my own day to day parental tumult was more than enough to handle so, in general, I didn't pay much attention to what was happening with anyone else. 

I happened to cross paths with Jim one day and we exchanged the usual conversation between friends in a small town. While I alluded to concerns about my son's lack of enthusiasm for high school, Jim said that Sam's years in Europe had propelled him beyond the need of a classroom. He was now fluent in four languages which he used to help translate popular Wikipedia articles, all while maintaining his skill at classical piano and working full time at a local health food store. At seventeen, Sam was fit for maximum self direction. Jim and I parted ways wishing each other the best of luck. 

On an unusually warm night for Montana in June, a blaze of police cars wailed through Helena's narrow gulch of downtown streets. Three teen-age boys had been shot at close range by a fourth teen-age boy who know did not even know them. One of the boys died immediately while the other two survived with debilitating wounds. Early police reports said the shooter escaped on a bicycle but had been apprehended at home in his bed.

Because the crime was so brutal, all juvenile exemptions were waved. When the shooter's name was released it was nearly as shocking as what he had done.  It was Sam, Jim's bright and talented stepson who had shot three boys his own age, all strangers, as he looked into their eyes. 

News stories struggled to resolve the absence of motive with acts so ruthless their only logical explanation had to be revenge. Yet there was none. The boys screamed at him to stop but Sam twice reloaded his 45-caliber Tanfoglio handgun and emptied it into their bodies. When the ammunition was all gone, he beat his victims with the butt of the handgun, hard enough to break his own hands.

A few who knew him said that Sam was no stranger to guns and erratic acts.  But he was certainly a stranger to the lives he destroyed. And even to his own parents. 

Acceptance of Denial is a story that many will buy but few will read.