Thursday, February 16, 2012

Guest Post: Ty Johnston

For the record, the only time I've ever done a guest blog post was when Bill Giovannucci wrote something absolutely brilliant that was too long to go in the comments section.

But some writer I don't know from Adam is doing a blog tour. He wrote a nice letter and I thought, "Hey, if the post is half as good as the letter, the kid's a damn good writer." also, the request came at the perfect time, since I was so deep in editing three manuscripts and finishing a fourth that the blog was languishing.

So, without further ado, welcome Ty Johnston:

When I was twelve, I stood between my mother and a man who was trying to kill her. I remember no emotions at the time other than a sense that “this has to end.” For five years my mother had lived with violence, beatings and worse that came at least once a month, almost on schedule. More than once she had to go to the hospital, twice for extended stays because she had cracked discs in her neck.

It might seem to some I exaggerate by stating this man, my mother’s second husband, was attempting to “kill” her. Perhaps so, but it did not feel that way to my twelve-year-old self at the time. I merely knew he had threatened to kill her on more than one occasion and had seemingly attempted to numerous times.

He never laid a hand on me during his violent episodes. There had been times when we had rough-housed out in the yard, and a couple of times he had left me with bruises and the wind knocked from my chest, but that had been play, though today it might be considered crossing the line. It didn’t seem so back then.

Though he was not my father, this was a man who I respected, as difficult as that might sound. He was a Vietnam veteran, earning my regard for his service and a bit of youthful awe at the tales of war he and his buddies would pass along. He was also educated and intellectual, and built by hand rows upon rows of shelves in our basement before covering those shelves with thousands of books he had acquired over the years. If not for this man, my interests in literature might never have blossomed.

Yet he was also the man who regularly attacked my mother, leaving her beaten and in tears.

Why she tolerated this for so long, I do not know, even to this day. She and I have talked about it over the years, and she does not have a good answer, not one she herself can come to grips with.

As I mentioned, I felt no emotion at the time of standing between this man and my mother. I do remember beforehand a general feeling that I knew this was coming, my facing down against this man. I was waiting, waiting for myself to grow older and bigger and stronger. I realized he would probably mop the floor with me, perhaps harming me worse than he had my mother all those years simply because I was standing up to him.

But none of that was in my mind the night I was in bed and heard the first of the screams. It was a familiar pattern, one I knew well, and I realized I would be awake all night, helpless to do anything but listen to the cursing and crying. That night was different, however. I can not say what was different, but I remember that “this has to end.”

I jumped up out of bed, wearing only pajamas, and rushed through the house and down the stairs to the basement where those lines of books encompassed the room. He had shoved my mother over the couch. She was climbing to her feet and he was approaching as I rushed between them and stood there and stared at him. I did not even raise my arms.

He did not look at me, but tried to rush past, to reach my mother. Without thinking, I shoved out, sending him sprawling across the couch. At that point my mother ran up the stairs. He jumped to his feet and lurched after her. I followed as fast as I could.

In the kitchen upstairs, my mother was at the phone, attempting to call the police. Somehow I managed to place myself between her and my step-father once more. I was in a doorway, and there was no room for him to get by me. The only way he could get to her would be to physically remove me.

I remember expecting to be slaughtered at that moment. But it never came. I continued to stare in silence into his face, and then I realized he would not look at me. His eyes were down, and he only stood there several feet away. His fists were at his side, and soon opened, hanging limp.

To this day, more than thirty years later, I’m still not sure what happened that night. Armchair psychologists and the like might say he was too much of a coward to face someone who was willing to confront him directly, and perhaps that is true. I don’t know. I do know that for only being twelve, I was pretty big for a boy at 180 pounds and nearly six-feet tall. However, my step-father was no small man, standing at about six feet himself and weighing slightly more than two hundred pounds. Plus, he was an adult, with at least some military training, whereas I was a kid who hadn’t even played football yet. Maybe harming a kid was a line he would not cross.

That memory is the most vivid one I retain of the few instances of violence that have intruded upon my life. Obviously I had witnessed many sessions of my mother being beaten, but after all these years they all seem to tumble together in my mind.

Of the other times violence has entered my life, there have been few, but I remember them with a little less recall. There was then time when I was ten and my grandfather, my mother’s father, pistol whipped my step-father, for reasons one can guess. There was the time I went camping with friends at 16 and ended up staring down the barrel of a revolver, to this day my mind’s eye telling me that was the biggest firearm I have ever seen in my life, even though cooler heads eventually prevailed that night and no one was hurt. There were a few fist fights in high school. There was the time I went hiking with my dad, I think I was 18, and someone fired several shots over our heads, for what reason I do not know, perhaps just to get their kicks scaring some yokels.

That is the extent that violence has directly affected my life, at least that I can remember.

Odd, then, at least to me, that fictional violence has become such a part of my everyday life. I’m fortunate in that I get to write fiction for a living, and my preferred genres are the fantasy and horror fields. Why is this? Why do I utilize so much violence in my work?

I can’t give a good answer. I could go on about the freedom I find in exploring the human condition when I write fantasy, or I could talk about the sheer fun I have at writing horror, because being scared can be fun, at least when the frights aren’t real.

I could also chat about other writers, how Hemingway used violence to subtly explore the minds of his protagonists, or how Tolstoy despised violence but still found a use for it to guide his characters in their search for God. I could turn to pulp writers and focus on Robert E. Howard’s use of violence as a way to highlight the eternal struggle between civilization and barbarism, or Ed McBain’s dichotomy of violence that on one side was often little more than a day-at-the-office for the police officers he wrote about, but could become quite personal and breathtaking in the blink of an eye.

I could go on and on about all of that, but none of it would be real, none of it would truly focus upon violence.

Before I was seven, before my mother remarried, the world I lived within found violence to be exciting. Back then I got my violence from comic books and television, and that stuff was tame by any comparison of what we have today. Spider-man pounced on crooks to set the world right again, and Roy Rogers blasted a six-gun out of a black-hats hand to save the day and win the girl.

Again, though, none of that is violence, real violence.

None of those memories answer the question of why I write using violence so often.

Or do they?

When I really sit and think about it, when I force my mind to go back, it occurs to me that I am not writing about violence, no matter how many villains my protagonists slay nor how many innocents fall prey to my monsters. What I am writing about is adventure, about a seven-year-old boy’s version of violence.

I have seen real violence, if only a little as compared to others, and I do not write about that. It is too painful to write about, but I can write about fake violence, which isn’t even violence in the first place. I can write the thrilling dreams of a little boy who has yet to taste real violence, because that is who I once was, and perhaps who I want to be again.


Ty Johnston said...

Rory, thank you for hosting me today. More importantly, thank you for challenging me. I hope your readers find some interest in my words.

nry said...

Not sure if there is anything suitable to write in response to that. I guess it's good that you have dealt with the past, and ddid what you did at the age of 12. I suspect we could have been reading a different story otherwise. Good read, thank you.

Vaughn said...

I enjoyed the read.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, I've never had anything near that kind of experience, although I've had a few bar fights. I too use violence in my stories and I think the focus is clearly on the adventure element. You need antagonists and they have to be tough and dangerous and mean to make your hero work. These kinds of folks don't step aside without a push. In real life, I am quite the peaceful person, as my wife will attest.

Anonymous said...

That gave me a chill. I had the exact same experience, at the same age. In my case I was a girl of about 110lb, and the man was my biological father. He was strangling my mother, and I punched him in the side of the head. I will never forget the look in his eyes when he turned to face me. It was like looking to the maw of hell. I turned and ran like a rabbit. I'll never know if he would have killed me had I stood my ground. I had aborted the strangulation, which was my aim, so I ran.

Anonymous said...

Four thousand women are murdered each year by their husbands, their ex-husbands, their boyfriends or ex-boyfriends (in the United States). It is hard to forget a number that big. The testimonies by the above children (now adults) bear witness to the devastating impact of domestic violence. I am not the same anonymous as posted above. I was involved in helping to set up a new women's shelter.

If you find yourself in the same sort of family situation, please seek outside help, go to a women's shelter. You do not have to live that way. You can take your children with you. There's a better life waiting for you.

Ty Johnston said...

Thanks everyone for their comments. It's much appreciated.

karrde said...

@Anonymous, 0744

I agree with you about the tragedy of murder/abuse of women by romantic partners. I'm also pretty sure that 4000 women are murdered by husbands/boyfriends annually is not true.

(If you acuse me of being a pedantic data-geek, I'll accept the charge. I don't think that inflated statistics help any cause.)

For starters, the Dept. of Health's CDC keeps stats on death and injuries (available from this page). The numbers for violent-death-by-homicide, filtered for female victims only, come up a little short of 4000 total. (I get 3695 female homicide victims in 2009, 3703 in 2008, 3835 in 2007...the years 2001 and 2002 are the only ones in the past decade which have a value above 4000.)

I have a hard time believing that 100% of those homicides were committed by husbands/boyfriends.

If I troll the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports for a recent year, I find that they don't sort homicides by gender of victim. But they do have a chart showing homicides by relationship of victim to perpretator, and the known intra-family homicides don't rise above 2000...for both male and female victims. The known homicides for girlfriend/boyfriend categories don't rise above 650. (There is, however, an uncomfortably large group of unknown relationships...but if the relationship is unknown, we can't assume anything.)

It is a noble thing to help women who are victimized by their romantic partners.

However, it is also wise to be able to discern poorly-sourced numbers from well-cited statistics.

karrde said...

@Rory and Ty,

The story is compelling, disturbing, and amazing.

I first thought that I am thankful that I have lived in a family in which such behavior was (and is) unknown.

My second thought is that I wish I could find an explanation for the outcome of the standoff, and why it didn't lead to injury to Ty.

I can attempt an explanation: Ty was a young-man-in-training. The step-father was willing to rough-house with Ty, but was unable to break Ty's arm (or do worse). It is also likely that no one had ever come between the step-father and his woman before.

But that's arm-chair psychology, and I'm not a shrink.

On another thread of thought: when did I become aware that most fictional violence is stylized and unrealistic? I can't tell. The knowledge kind of seeped in; even though I have less real-world experience than Ty does. I gradually became aware of the stylization of fiction.

People have been telling stories that include violent adventure since before the days of Homer. (Did any of the old Achaean soldiers who heard Homer laugh to themselves about the battle-sequences he recited? I doubt it, but I'm not sure.)

I think Ty is right, people tell stories about adventure. The stories include depictions of violence, because adventure without physical action is empty.

Anonymous said...

My second thought is that I wish I could find an explanation for the outcome of the standoff, and why it didn't lead to injury to Ty.

I can attempt an explanation: Ty was a young-man-in-training. The step-father was willing to rough-house with Ty, but was unable to break Ty's arm (or do worse). It is also likely that no one had ever come between the step-father and his woman before.

But that's arm-chair psychology, and I'm not a shrink.

First Anonymous back again....

From the standpoint of 17 years of living in that situation and the subsequent lifetime of post-analysis, I can venture a theory of why stepdad didn't go for Ty. Ty wasn't following the script.

In many cases, both the abuser and abused have developed a scripted dynamic that just plays over and over. The abused usually responds in the same manner, one which feeds a need and expectation for the abuser.

If you break from the script, the abuser will respond by either 1) being completely nonplussed and not knowing how to respond, or 2) uncontrolled enragement that someone dared try to divert from the script. Ty got #1, I got #2.

Anonymous said...

Addendum... abusers like to pick on people who won't fight back, and on people who are small and weak enough to not pose any danger to them even if they did fight back. Ty was not only stating a willingness to fight back, he was big enough that stepdad might have not been able to administer the same uncontested beatdown that he was accustomed to administering.

Ty Johnston said...

I can't argue with any of those ideas. I like the notion of not following the script. That feels ... right, sort of.

Rob Lyman said...

Script-breaking can work in other contexts; a friend of mine once broke up a Monkey Dance between her brother and random-guy-in-bar by inserting herself into it, where a woman isn't "supposed" to be.

Anonymous said...

Very cool you could share this Ty.

Lots to think on. An inspiration to think back to that time when we were mostly on the other side. At some age I suppose we were really someone else, and not quite just inexperienced version of our current selves yet. It might be work and even painful to go back there, but reflecting on how we came through big things then has to be helpful.

-Billy G.