The Chestnut Prison

I’ve had a lot of stressful things go through my life lately.  Some things I’ve mentioned in the blog; some things I’ve mentioned only to my closest friends.  Some things I’ve never mentioned to anyone.

And lately it’s kicked my insomnia up a notch.  It’s affected my emotional well-being and my cognitive reasoning.

And in an effort to try anything – ANYTHING – to take the pressure off me, I tried to convince myself, “Hey Chuck, you’ve been through the fire, you’ve dealt with adversity before, and you’re still standing today.  Be proud of yourself for surviving.”

And I looked back through my past.  Yes, I survived.  I certainly didn’t come through unscathed, but what I did survive in the past hopefully made me a better, more well-rounded person.  And I keep thinking that if I tell my stories today, that if anything I’ve told helps readers of this blog overcome their own personal struggles and deal with their own personal situations, than maybe just maybe it’s worth it.

And for me, I need to go back in time.  Not to Hamilton College, not to my Street Academy high school – but to a time in 1978 when I felt the most despair and helplessness in my life.

And it involved the Chestnut Prison.

From September to December 1978, I lived with my biological father and his wife (and his wife’s son from her previous marriage) in a ranch house on Chestnut Street in Abington, Mass.  I needed a change of location in my screwed-up life, and in my desperate 15-year-old mind, I thought that maybe if I lived with my father for a while, things would get better.

Things looked promising, I have to grant you that.  I enrolled in school there – Abington High School, home of the Green Wave – and attempted to fit in with my New England classmates.

But at home on Chestnut Street, it was a different story.  Both my father and his wife were quickly growing angry at me for not producing straight A’s on my schoolwork; and thought that the best way to improve my grades was for them to purchase textbooks and make me read them and do home-schooled homework assignments.  I was also forbidden to watch television, and bedtime was 8pm and strictly enforced.  I endured a torrent of emotional abuse – I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t this or that enough.

I spent most of my time in my bedroom, which I gave the nickname of the Chestnut Prison.  I created the analogy that at that time, my life was like a chestnut – unable to break the sweet nutty insides out of the hard shell, only absorbing light and nourishment through the tiny pores in the shell casing.  I couldn’t break out – all I could do was grow inside.

I started keeping a personal journal in an old spiral notebook, writing down my inner thoughts and concerns.  How frustrated I felt – a 15-year-old kid trying to make his way in life, feeling alone and desperate and cold.  Believe me, I tried to study – I applied myself as much as I possibly could, but 10th grade in a South Shore high school was different than 10th grade in the Capital District.  And I wrote these things down in my journal.  And each night, I stuffed the journal under the mattress in my bedroom and hoped no one would find it.

The emotional abuse got worse.  By November, I was struggling in school, and there was no way any of the friends I made in school would understand what I was going through.  One kid – who was definitely not my friend – decided to give me some trouble.  He teased me about my dorky appearance and my lack of athletic ability, the fact that I came from New York and that I was ugly and homely and probably a few other slurs that today would require YouTube video responses about how things get better.

One day, after my phys ed class, he went too far.  I can’t remember completely what the worse he used were, but I simply recall the horror and shame that poured through my body like cold sludge.

And, God help me, I lost it.

And I cold-cocked him.

And I kicked him.

It was what he was waiting for.  “Oh, you wanna street fight?  I can street fight!” he snarled.

And if the phys ed teacher hadn’t gotten there in the nick of time, and hauled my tormentor’s sorry self off to the principal’s office – apparently I was not the first victim, and I doubt I was the last – my first victory over a bully might not have been a victory at all.

Word got around school that the new kid had stood up to the bully, and my classmates actually gave me support and a pat on the back and all those other things.  Heck, even Cindy Jones – the prettiest girl in school – spoke to me, asking if I would like to go to lunch with her tomorrow at the cafeteria.

The joy, of course, was short-lived.  I got home, only to find out that the school had called my father and let him know that his son was involved in a fight at school.  “I heard you got into a fight at school and beat someone up,” he said to me.  “What was her name, and did she just get out of kindergarten?”

It went downhill from here.  It was almost as if my father had continued the verbal abuse that would have started as physical abuse in the phys ed locker room.

And back up to my bedroom.  And back to the Chestnut Prison.

And then came December 1978.  Report cards came out.  I didn’t have any A’s on my report cards – mostly B’s and C’s, and a D in French.  Merde.

I knew if I brought these grades home, I would get more excoriation and evisceration.  What to do.  What to do.

At this point, my screwed-up mind – infused with four months of Stockholm Syndrome and Pavlovian electrified cage acceptance – did something completely stupid.

I took a pencil, and carefully traced over the C’s and D’s in the report card, turning them into B’s.  I hoped that my folks would see the report card, sign it, I would take the report card back, erase my penciled alterations, and things would be better.

See, this is 15-year-old stupid boy thoughts.

And my father saw through this like it was a piece of cheesecloth.  And he played along.  He said he was impressed with my B average, all the while knowing that my grades were worse.  And a few days later, he let me know that he was well aware of my forgeries.

At that point, life in the Chestnut Prison got worse.

And I needed to write down what had happened in my life.

I went upstairs to my bedroom.

And I went to find my journal, which I had carefully tucked under the mattress of my bed.

And it was gone.

Oh no.  I looked all around my bedroom, thinking against thought that maybe I had written something down and placed the journal on my desk, or in the closet, or somewhere else.

“Looking for this?”

It was my father’s wife, standing in the doorway of my bedroom, holding the journal in her hand.

While I stood there, my body frozen like a statue, she opened the journal and read it aloud.  She read the passages about how helpless I felt.  About how I hated where I was, that I wished I wasn’t treated like a lab experiment.  That I hated that they cared more about contract bridge tournaments than they did me.  And she read it aloud. And she commented on everything.  And she laughed.  And she said that she and my father have been reading the journal for the past couple of days – and that, if it weren’t for what she called my sub-par writing style, that it would make a halfway decent comedy – that people would read this and laugh about how terrible the writing was.

It was an emotional rape.  Pure and simple.

She then curtly reminded me that I should never expect any privacy.  That I had no rights in the house, all I had were privileges, and those were few and far between.  She then walked out of the room, the journal still in her hands.

And my father, bless the piece of sheetrock he used for a heart, sided with her all the way.

The next few days were an absolute blur.  But I knew one thing.  I needed to escape the Chestnut Prison.

So one day, when I knew my father and his wife weren’t home, I summoned all the courage I had left in me, and called my grandmother in Boston and told her what had happened.

The next day, she called the school.  I would go to class that day, as normal.  She would pick me up after class.  We would drive back to Chestnut Street.  She had already spoken to my father.  My personal belongings were boxed up in the garage.  I took them.  I left the keys to the house.

And I never went back.

I spent a couple of days with my grandmother, essentially going through an emotional recovery.

And then I returned to Albany.  I had survived four months of emotional hell in a Chestnut Prison.

And no matter how dark and horrifying my life ever got after that…

I can still say, even now, more than 30 years later, that I’ve been through worse.

And if it wasn’t worse than today – at least I know that if I survived the Chestnut Prison, then maybe I can survive anything.