October 31, 2016

"He Wasn't In His Right Mind"


"All of the victims were shot in their heads
and all but McGowan were shot in their beds,"
Doyle said.

"The beds were undisturbed.
The house itself was undisturbed,"
Doyle said.

"There were no signs
of a break-in,"
Doyle said.

-- No Motive Found in California Murders

Above, the unintentional "found poetry" of a local murder in Garner Valley, California. Exceptional enough to be brought to the ever shortening attention span of the nation because the toll was unusually high: David, Father, age 42 -- believed dead by his own hand; Chase, son, age 14; Paige, daughter, age 10; Raine, daughter, age 8; Karen, wife and mother, age 42; Karen's mother, no name or age given in the report.

We learn that a "911 dispatcher didn't hear any voices on the line, but was able to identify the sounds of the telephone hitting the wall and a gunshot." We learn that the father's body was found next to a handgun and a phone. We learn that "this community is in no danger. We are not at this time looking for a suspect." We learn that the town is really quiet and that, "A lot could happen right next door and you wouldn't even know it."

We don't learn if the standard spontaneous shrine of flowers, balloons, stuffed animals and children's art and crayoned notes has been erected at the edge of the police tape in front of the home, but we know it will be, and it will remain until the rains wash away.

We won't learn, unless we live in that small town, the "why" of it all.

We probably could know, in time, the why of it all if we became interested in this common killing, exceptional only for its body count. We could learn if we followed the ever-shrinking national news reports down to the local level. We could, we think, learn why if we followed the reports on through the inquest and into the six graves that wait after all the bodies are autopsied by the men who spend their lives
"Working on mysteries
Without any clues.."

We could know why, but we won't bother to find out. No need really. We already think two things that keep us from needing to know. First, we think that we do know what happened in the house. Second, we know -- because it happened in that house -- it will never happen in our house.

We know it will never happen in our house because, as humans, we have an almost limitless ability to forget any hint of 'could' when it comes to horror. In those few moments when our forgetfulness fails us, we remain secure in our belief that we would never do such things to those we love. We know to an absolute certainty that anyone who could must not have been "in his right mind."

That's a common but still strange phrase -- "not in his right mind." Everyone uses it as shorthand for things people do that are, large or small, somehow far outside what we normally expect them to do. Nobody that I know of takes it to the other side of that common phrase and looks at what a person does when he's "in his wrong mind."

Our right mind doesn't like to think it's got a wrong mind. It doesn't like to think it because it does indeed have one, and it is hardwired. Each of our right minds has a wrong mind and we are, with good reason, very, very frightened of it. So frightened that we don't think of it because to even think of our wrong mind gives it power, and it has far too much of that already. It has so much power that, once the wrong mind starts to control us, it takes, as they say, "a power greater than ourselves to restore us to sanity."

I grow increasingly uncertain about many things in this life, but of that one thing I once became, and today remain, certain of without a scintilla of smidgen of a doubt. Like most men, I tend to forget about that greater power when mucking about in the detritus of daily life. That really doesn't matter. Sooner or later I am always given a miraculous moment on the small scale of ordinary life that lets me know in no uncertain terms that, for human beings, only "a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity."

I know that this invisible power exists because I have seen it.

You might think that this encounter with a "greater power" is a "drinking thing," but for me it was a "feeling thing." Except for a few years when I was young and it was the style, plus a brief passage later, I've never been much of a drinking man. My default state, when it comes to drinking is that I find I can drink as much as I want, but that I don't want to drink all that much.

My problem and one of my many flaws is this "feeling thing." I can very easily feel too much and have a problem stopping the feeling of feeling too much.

It's not easy being an empath. You learn early to just shut down emotions; to keep them caged with silence. You learn later, much later, that keeping feelings caged with silence is like putting your wrong mind on steroids. It only makes it stronger. Much stronger. At some point you lose the power to keep your right mind in control of your wrong mind. And that's when very bad things can start to happen.

One day in June many years ago in a universe far, far away, in a small town on the other side of this continent, bad things started to happen in me.

It was at the end of the usual long banal litany of love gone off the tracks -- secrets, lies, scorn, and selfishness. There were years of too little money followed by far too much money coming too quickly, until people could finally afford the favorite American fantasy of dumping the old and tried to get to the new and better for the sake of "personal growth."

Her need for personal growth and "more space" had been building for over a year, as had my own silent rage of feelings. She'd gone into the city for a late meeting and "dinner with a client." It would "probably run late" so she'd just be "sensible" and "take a hotel room and come back in the morning." How perfectly sensible that was. What could I do but agree?

"A lot could happen right next door and you wouldn't even know it."

She got dressed for the city and packed an overnight case and got in her new Saab and drove off down the hill towards the city. I watched her car disappear around the bend in the road by the school. I waited by the window for five minutes and then went and searched her bathroom. I didn't find what I was looking for. She'd packed her diaphragm. Standard equipment for "dinner with a client" in those days.

I checked my six in my soul and found, naturally, no real emotions roaming about. They were safely caged and there was no key. So, without really thinking about it all that much, I did what any normal American would do under such circumstances. I got into my wrong mind and went shopping.

I backed my gold '72 Cadillac out of my garage and drove down the hill to Highway One and turned right in the direction of the city she'd gone to. I drove less than half a mile to the store that stood alone in the trees and turned left into the parking lot and went inside.

An hour or so later I drove back to my house and pulled into the garage feeling, as the song says, "comfortably numb." I set the brake and went to move my right hand off the steering wheel to turn off the ignition key.

But I could not move my hand off the steering wheel and onto the key.

You never really think about how you move your hand until you can't move it. The hand is the mind and soul's interface with the world. It's working that way right now as I press the keys that make these words and this period.

When you find, suddenly, that your hand won't obey your brain, that you've lost the power to make it do your bidding, it brings everything else in you to a full stop. It did with me that afternoon in my garage.

Even though the house was in a very quiet area on a side road above the town, everything seemed to get much quieter still in those moments when I couldn't move my hand. So quiet in fact that the white noise that had whined in my mind all afternoon faded out until I heard a voice whisper in my ear, quite calmly and distinctly, "You shall return that stuff in the trunk right now."

The stuff in the trunk was a brand-new shotgun and a carton of shells "for home defense."

Whatever it was that was telling me to return "that stuff" wasn't making a suggestion. It was giving me an order that, because God was not yet done with me, I could not refuse. I knew it, my right mind knew it, and my wrong mind knew it and was taken, in that instant, by that power, and put back in its place deep beneath the light.

And then I could move my hand, not to turn off the ignition -- that was still not allowed -- but to put the car into reverse, back out of the garage, drive back to the Gun Shop, and return "that stuff in the trunk."

When I walked in with the stuff and laid it on the counter to get my money back I said, "I decided I don't really need this after all."

The man who sold the stuff to me gave me a straight look and said, "I guess you don't."

He was right. What I did need, I decided, was a drink. And since that need's solution is always ready to hand in America, I drove across Highway One and directly to the local dive bar back from the road next to the on-ramp to I-95.

I'd seen far too much of this scuzzy joint in the last few months and I was destined to see a lot more of it in the months to come. It was one of those 'great bad places' in American life; one of those spaces where they're selling, morning, noon and far into the night, eight kinds of despair on tap and a wide selection of numb on the shelves behind the bar; mixed, on-the-rocks, or "neat."

"The Tip-Top" had been through a lot of owners, each of whom was determined to get more money out of it by putting less into it. It wasn't quite to the stage where you could get a shot and a beer while standing in rubble up to your knees, but it was getting there. It had the requisite thick smoke from stubbed out, lipstick stained L&Ms for standard atmosphere, but it had something extra as well. It always seemed to me that, in some strange way, the management had managed to inject into the haze of blue-gray smoke a fine particulate of black specks. It seemed to give it ... character.

It was one of those bars whose main attraction was that, no matter how down you were and no matter how ugly you were and no matter how crazy you were, there was always someone there late at night that was more depressed, ugly and crazy than you could ever be. That made you feel good in a very bad sort of way. To amp up this quality feeling, the jukebox -- on those evenings it worked -- was dedicated to country and western songs. Did I mention that it was called the "Tip-Top?" It was and it was just the bar for me; my own very down market version of the cocktail lounge in "The Shining." The only real difference was that at the Tip-Top I always had to pay.

Like I said, I've never been a drinking man, but in those days I did drink more than I have before or since. Sometimes much more. The extra advantage of going to the Tip-Top was that I could drive back to my house about a mile away along back roads where, late at night, the police only came when they were called. A perfect situation. What a brilliant bar it was.

After leaving the Gun Shop and walking into the Tip-Top with cash in hand, my first move was a shot of Irish whiskey with a beer back so I could toast whatever power it had been that had forced me to take the stuff in the trunk back to the dealer. I had no idea what the power was, but I knew I felt stronger for it. I was again in perfect control of my feelings. I was so much in control of my feelings that I felt the need to celebrate that achievement with an aperitif, which in this case was another shot of Irish whiskey. Tillamore Dew -- top shelf stuff, no well bottles for me.

By the time that was down I was feeling hungry, so I took a look at the fly specked bar menu at the Tip-Top and ordered their daily special, a pint of Guiness at half-price. Very nutritious.

Not quite full, I decided on dessert which, being a double Kahlua on the rocks, was far too sweet for my tastes and needed a night-cap of Cognac, served neat in a snifter, the better to get a quality case of the vapors.

Having taken all necessary measures to feel no feelings at all, I left and got in my car and drove carefully on the back roads with all the windows open -- for the refreshing breeze -- until I pulled into my garage. This time I had no trouble at all with my hand and shut off the ignition.

I got out of the car, leaving the driver's door open, and walked back and pulled the garage door down. The garage was under the house and, because the house was built to keep everyone warm through the New England winters, the garage door had flanges that sealed it tightly against the cold winds and snow. I'd installed a new bottom seal the autumn before so I knew it was in good shape, even Tip-Top.

I turned from the door and walked back along the car intending to go up the stairs and into the house and to bed. Instead, I found myself getting back into the driver's seat. I sat there for a moment and stared at the back wall of the garage with its collection of rakes, shovels, and other tools. There was a dingy storage compartment off to the right and I remember thinking that I really had to give it a new coat of paint.

Then it came to me that it would be a really good idea, a perfect idea, a shiningly stunning idea, if I would simply reach out my hand and turn the engine on. A glance at the gauge on the way home had informed me I had over half a tank. That would certainly be enough to get me where I had to go. It was a warm summer night and I could even leave the windows down. Better still, I didn't need to worry about being a little drunk and getting pulled over and having to breathe in a tube since I wouldn't be driving on any roads at all. I looked at this plan from a lot of angles and I could find no flaw in it.

Okay, I thought, lets get on with it. So I told my hand to reach out and turn the key. Gentlemen, start your engine.

And for the second time that day, I couldn't move my hand.

I mean, I really could not move my hand. I told it to move with my mind in no uncertain terms over and over to no effect. It just stayed in my lap in that limp and unresponsive state your limbs get to if you sleep on them and cut off the circulation. When I thought about reaching across with my left hand to do the duty of my right hand, that entire arm stopped working. That made me angry enough to talk to my hand out loud, "Just get with it. Quit screwing around and turn the damn key!"

Which is when I wept, very loudly and for a very long time, but not for the last time. It was okay to weep though because, as I thought at the time, I was the only one there.

When that was over, I got out of the car and up the stairs to the kitchen and then up to bed where I indulged myself in the luxury of passing out with my clothes on.

I woke up in a patch of sunlight the next morning, stripped, took a shower, six aspirin, a lot of orange juice, and three cups of coffee sitting outside at the picnic table I'd built next to the rope swing I'd hung from the oak, close by the small platform tree house I'd put up in the willow. All that was over now, and there'd be years of bad days ahead, but they'd all -- no matter how bad -- be better than the day I'd just passed through.

Somehow I'd gotten into my "wrong mind." Somehow, I thought then, I'd gotten back into my "right mind." The thing with the hand not working bothered me quite a bit, but I didn't have any ready explanation for it and, being a man who just loves rational explanations, I put it aside until I could 'study the phenomenon' from some book that certainly had the answer.

I didn't know then that the only sensible and rational answer was that "a power greater than ourselves had restored us to sanity." I think I know that now, even if I forget from time to time.

But I remember it anew when, like this morning, I read the common, garden variety headline, No Motive Found in California Murders. That could have been my headline many years ago, and we all know the motive behind "No Motive Found."

Over the years, I've told a couple of therapists and a few friends about sitting in my car in my garage with the door closed on that June night. I've never told anyone about the stuff that was in the trunk earlier that day. Until the end of my days, I'll always be grateful and humbled by the power that stayed my hand and made me return that stuff.

A man named Poretto told me recently that Grace is something that is always waiting and knocking quietly at the door of your life. In California, yesterday, somebody forgot to answer the door. In Connecticut years ago, I couldn't answer so something just kicked mine down, walked right in, and took over.

"A lot could happen right next door and you wouldn't even know it."

First published 2005

Posted by Vanderleun at October 31, 2016 3:34 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Wow....a very compelling read.

Posted by: bleedingbrain at May 11, 2005 12:13 PM

Thank you, Gerard. One more beautiful glimpse of what's going on inside the bravest and most eloquent essayist of the new millenium. If that was as good for you as it was for me, and I'm sure it was many times more so, you are one lucky man. And we're lucky to have you.

Posted by: Uncle Mikey at May 11, 2005 2:14 PM


Posted by: TmjUtah at May 11, 2005 3:24 PM

That's grace. I recognize it.

Posted by: Juliette at May 11, 2005 10:39 PM

Wow. Just wow.

Posted by: Stoney at May 12, 2005 2:38 AM

Years ago, when I was (belatedly) studying for my baptism and confirmation, my pastor told me that sin was "that which put you further away from God." You've made it clear why we shouldn't stray out of reach. Thanks.

Posted by: TheRandomTexan at May 12, 2005 4:48 AM

Profound. I wish I were as blessed with such grace.

Posted by: Dawn at May 12, 2005 8:29 AM

This is an aspect of life, of being "they" don't want you (us) to know about. The spiraling down - depravity, despair, depression - into the wrong mind as you say.

Kierkegarde and existential dread - sinking into the hollow core of a life that looks like nothing but pain and misery, rage and fury.

There are real monsters of the Id hiding under the bed, but how can we teach anyone that? Your nightmares are real.

We skim along on thin ice, ignoring the depths below and enjoying the view as we zoom about in the sunshine until - BLAM! and we're drowning in dark cold waters.

Glad you made it back up to the sun. Glad I made it back, too. An invisible hand, purely out of mercy, since I don't remember asking out loud, made it possible.

Posted by: mark butterworth at May 12, 2005 12:57 PM

Thank you.

Posted by: Nej Tack at May 12, 2005 1:46 PM

A very nice read. Has a very nice tone. (e.g. "A glance at the gauge on the way home had informed me I had over half a tank. That would certainly be enough to get me where I had to go.") Could be paired down a little. Very nice as is.

As far as the loss of control thing, that was excellently dealt with by Bukowski in The Fiend.

Importantly, however, the one (only) advantage of the loss of control over the inability to lose control, is the question about whether the latter, instead of grace, is merely a matter of cowardice. Of course, with the loss of control, you know finally and certainly who and what you are, and that you are in hell.

Posted by: Andrew at May 12, 2005 10:35 PM

On May 12, 2005, at 11:32 PM, Martyn Burke wrote:

You are seriously pissing me off. You are cutting into my writing time outrageously with all this shit that I can't stop reading.
You think you had troubles with your hand on the ignition key? --hell that's nothing compared to the sclerosis engulfing my finger
hovering over the Delete key praying for a boring patch that doesn't come.

I once rented a car and driver to go down the Andes straight into Lima --about a two hour journey if you're a rock being dropped over the side
of the mountain -an hour and half if you're with one these fucking cholo freelance taxi drivers whose relatives are regularly called upon to plant little crosses on the places where the cholo didn't quite take the curve and went airbourne at 14,000 feet. Little crosses are as plentiful as billboards on a state highway in the South. My own personal cholo on this venture forgot both tires with treads and windshield wipers that worked and in the midst of a twilight we rocketed down the mountain.

Reading your columns I am sometimes reminded of that journey. That by the way is a form of compliment. In case your hand is stuck on the ignition again.


Posted by: Martyn Burke at May 12, 2005 11:34 PM

If nobody's notified you yet, you're cruel site of the day (cruel.com). Your essay was brilliant.

Posted by: cruel reader at May 13, 2005 12:25 AM

Thank you for the powerful read.

Posted by: just me at May 13, 2005 1:10 AM

Hits close to home. Not the part about the guns, but the right vs. wrong mind. Dealing with that a lot these days. Thanks for reminding me that I'm not the only one to figure out that defense mechanism. Thanks for being that quiet knock at the door...

Posted by: A Comfortably Numb Girl at May 13, 2005 4:56 AM

Thank You! My right mind, again today took over as I passed the old oak tree on the way to work. I could not turn the wheel of my car, as my bad mind was intending. I expect there will be more bad days for me as well, with Gods grace and guiding hand I will keep passing by the tree.

Posted by: Faye at May 13, 2005 7:12 AM

Great insite of the working of the mind. fred

Posted by: fred at May 13, 2005 7:35 AM

What is the source of this Grace?

Posted by: Gary at May 13, 2005 7:38 AM

It's posts like that which keep me coming here at least twice a day, even when you're on an announced hiatus. Because I always have hope that maybe you will cut that break short and nurture my spirit again.

Posted by: growler at May 13, 2005 8:06 AM

I'm so lucky to live in the same cosmos as you, oh brave essayist.

You almost shot your woman [when anyone with half a "right mind" would have just walked] and you used to drink like a 19-year-old sorority dupe on a bachelorette party pub-crawl?

Did "grace" finally enter the picture, as you suggest, or was it just common sense?

This is pretty gritty stuff for the ‘morals and values’ crowd. Too bad it comes off as total, condescending bullshit.

Love the Bob Seger quote, too.

Posted by: Indyscribe at May 13, 2005 9:02 AM

"Too bad it comes off as total, condescending bullshit."

Yeah, I guess when you're a sophisticated cynic everything seems that way. Good luck with your life, dude.

Posted by: Stephen B. at May 13, 2005 9:08 AM

Oh, sorry.

Ahem ...

"You caressed my mortal soul, brave essayist, with this riveting tale of good’s triumph over evil, Allah be praised."


No non-Kool Aid drinkers allowed in the "New" America, I guess.

-Smarty Pants Cynic

Posted by: Indyscribe at May 13, 2005 9:24 AM

Hey, just leave old Indyscribe alone. What good party doesn't have the bitter drunk off in the corner talking to the houseplants?

I'd be offended but then I can see his understanding is blunted. I have to remind myself that what other people think of me is none of my business.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at May 13, 2005 9:26 AM

Hey, I'm really starting to "Taste the Grace" on this site, blunted as my understanding may be!

Obviously Gerard is the next Dalai Lama and I’ve committed a grave offense by questioning the divinity of his writings.

Worse, I’m a bitter drunk (unlike Gerard, who almost blew his lady-friend’s brains out before getting loaded at the honky tonk) and now I’m even TALKING TO THE PLANTS!!!


Posted by: Indyscribe at May 13, 2005 9:37 AM

I join the admiring chorus. This is a very fine essay.

And though there always must be naysayers and dissenters (and, if they didn't exist, we might have to invent them), Indyscribe's reaction is a bit puzzling. When someone writes, as you have, openly and candidly about his own flaws, dark night of the soul, missteps--it's taking quite a risk, and done in the spirit of humility and of saying something honest and true about the depths of the human heart.

How Indyscribe can call that "condescending bullshit" is mysterious (although I could, if necessary, float some theories on what's motivating him :-)). He may be offended by your essay in some way, and he certainly doesn't have to like it, but two words that certainly do not decribe what you have written are "condescending" and "bullshit."

Posted by: neo-neocon at May 13, 2005 9:45 AM


Always read your stuff but had set this one aside because of the length... damned happy that I came back to it...

Great job man... and grace... it's... something...

Posted by: Rick at May 13, 2005 10:56 AM


Thank you for a powerful reminder of the sheer tensile strength as well as the presence of grace. I hope you will publish a collection of these essays some day, perhaps with some of your photos too. Your writing is a gift to us all.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at May 13, 2005 4:14 PM

A brave and riveting personal account of the struggle between the animal and rational sides of the human mind. I quite enjoyed this.

However, we can all do without the hokey "grace" angle which was kind of shoehorned in there. We know now about the chemical processes which mediate the "animal brain" state of mind and how they shut down rational thought, as well as how times of heightened stress can alter consciousness so that "voices" or "presences" are felt. Gerard won his struggle and things turned out alright. Great. It doesn't always happen that way and those who rely of "grace" may get the shaft instead.

To anyone struggling with runaway emotions, may I suggest perhaps a course in Anger Management or self-esteem building exercises. Waiting for grace might get you killed or worse.

Posted by: VJ2k1 at May 13, 2005 5:41 PM

Yes, I can see how one might think that it could if one has nothing else going for his being than nothingness.

In that case, taking a 'course' might well be the answer.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at May 13, 2005 5:45 PM

"Yes, I can see how one might think that it could if one has nothing else going for his being than nothingness."

My, how delightfully condescending. One doesn't need to believe in a higher power in order to have a full, rewarding life. I know from personal experience.

Honestly, I've found that taking the proactive approach to dealing with one's problems, instead of waiting for the mystic hand of grace or whatever, to be much more successful and personally empowering.

Posted by: VJ2k1 at May 13, 2005 6:12 PM

This is wonderful to read. I know that you know. I have tried for years to convey those same feelings. Are they the rantings of a madman; a Christian gone sour, or just plain insanity? I had the drink problem; I have seen sights that make men pray for blindness. Grace feel on me. No booze now for over a decade. But the madness the insanity grows - tethered to my tormented soul. Living a life of quiet desperation is its own madness. Living another lie. No more dreams, no more ... no more. When shall I summon the courage, or just be in my wrong mind. That is the last question. When will the pain of living outweigh the fear of dying. Each of us must die - alone. Someone please "Stop the madness!"

Posted by: Hush don't tell at May 13, 2005 6:12 PM

I'm sure 'Dear Abby' would recommend counseling.

Tragedy, comedy, gravity, pathos; we're all fallen creatures trying to find our way through this life.
But hey! Anger Management might help to fill up the empty hours, so you never know.

Posted by: David at May 13, 2005 6:16 PM

Everybody off this guys back! Wonderful means of expression- and with the art of role reversal- I can say, been there- done that. Quite a mind blowing experiance- frightening where your emotions can go! My best to you- keep up your writing- you handled it better than I.

Posted by: Carrie at May 14, 2005 12:09 AM


Every human being has their breaking point, although some fortunate souls never experience the required conditions. Those individuals have life experiences that cushioned them from experiencing any extreme losses, and thus cannot comprehend how one reacts in such conditions.

When faced with the unbearable, one finds the mechanical structures of rational thinking an inadequate refuge. At the critical juncture, either one hears the inner voice of grace, or faces their howling beast without defense. I am glad that you heard the voice of love and hope.

Posted by: Mirramele at May 14, 2005 5:51 AM

Wow, the same "power greater than ourselves" has helped me a few times too, like when i was in the bathroom looking at a bottle of sleeping pills or surfing the web viewing suicide methods

Posted by: Pat at May 14, 2005 10:07 AM

Goddammit, Gerard, you're back doing your best stuff. That tale could be that of nana's yoga teacher & family, slashed to death, who knows why. Or maybe we do know why. It doesn't matter really. What saves some of us is The Voice. The one that says "no, you're not going to step in front of that bus today." That "power great than ourselves can restore us to sanity" is prefaced by "came to believe". I've always liked the interpretation that goes by progression:


Came to

Came to believe

I'm glad you're here to tell the whole story.

Posted by: lendie at May 14, 2005 12:56 PM

So, it is a divine "voice" that keeps conservatives from killing their wives and drinking up a storm? Intelligence, personal morality, and common-sense just don't enter the picture, eh?

Posted by: Old Pat at May 14, 2005 2:37 PM

You really need to get past the mental loop that reduces everything in the universe to politics. It isn't all politics. Really.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at May 14, 2005 4:55 PM

thank you for noticing the reality that can make anyone break...everyone has a breaking point...don't they?

Posted by: soul1383 at May 14, 2005 5:01 PM

Got here from Cruel.com, expecting something gruesomely comic. What a jolt.

I'm what most people would mistakenly call an "agnostic," meaning "not actually an atheist." I don't believe in God or gods, but I admit the possibility.

The only Grace I believe in comes from the strength of the human spirit, not from an external higher power. But your essay is rich with that strength, not so much in how you made it through that terrible night but in how you live with it today.

I came too close to being one of those headlines myself, years ago: My hand obeyed me for a half-second when it shouldn't have, and only chance saved us. Maybe today somebody will read your dispatch here and later, remembering your account, find that extra half-second of strength they need.

Posted by: too personal at May 14, 2005 6:32 PM

Absolutely fantastic writing. Even Harlan Ellison would be proud of this one. Unlike some of the other commentators, I do believe in God. Perhaps they are blinded by their own beligerent denial and prideful independence. I'm one of those lucky people who was dead and brought back. I have zero doubts of the existence of a loving caring God. Bravo Gerard. Your artistry is brilliant.

Posted by: Dylan at May 16, 2005 7:48 AM

A final, shallow point: I may be wrong, but I believe the gun in question was not for the woman friend.

Many if you have not felt true despair, it seems. It is a horrible place to be, but the human emotional range inherent in some of us, the one that can take us on these trips to the edge, also provide a climb to the highest of the peaks, resplendent with euphoria. The ride can be rocky, but to go on it, is to feel.

Posted by: MarkH at May 16, 2005 8:24 AM

I have to say that I enjoyed the essay. It was well written and had film noire qualities and at times very cinema like. That said, it certainly affected the readers emotionally as seen by the varied responses from the critics. I beleive we all connected to its fundamental human core, though some obviously peeled away more layers than others.

Life, though we all the know how it ends, why skip to the last page and miss all the good stuff. It's the journey not the destination and lastly remember to keep your seat belts fastened and your seatback in an upright position just in case you experience any unexpected turbulence.

Posted by: Louis G at May 16, 2005 11:43 PM

Thank you, Gerard, for putting into words many things that I feel but am not able to say. All of this is real and true. In my despair over my son's death, and the resultant visits by my wrong mind in many guises, I too had Grace helping me put the pieces back together. It often helps to know that others have the same kinds of experiences.

Posted by: Bill at July 24, 2005 6:27 PM

The grace is in the essay.

It's hard to bring oneself to nitpick brilliance but in the interest of perfection:
"but of that one thing I once became, and today remain, certain of without a scintilla of doubt"

I love the irony of "Andrew"'s condescending "could be PAIRED down a bit" -- with what, deuces?

Posted by: Deborah at July 26, 2005 10:14 AM

I've been there, twice.

First time it was 1953. We were off the coast of South Korea, going through landing practice. I got a letter. A bit later we had a rehearsal. Partway down the cargo net I let go and pushed off. In full gear. I don't think they ever recovered the body.

The second time was around 1993. New life, same trouble. Once again I was ready to end it. Until, that is, a voice muttered to himself, "Oh Christ, not again!"

The last time he was ... not pleased. This time around he left me with the firm impression I was going to get a talking to. I gave passing thought to the ultimate act of self-abuse, but gave it up when I got the feeling that not only would I be in a lot of pain, but I'd be starting all over again at the bottom. That's right, had I done it I'd probably be a chuckwalla by now.

That's right, you can ignore him. But it takes a lot of effort. And it's a damn stupid thing to do.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at June 21, 2006 12:24 AM

I knew you were good but now you're posting from the future? Wow. Any tips on time travel would be appreciated.

Posted by: Duffy at June 21, 2006 5:39 AM

Very good. Thank you.

Posted by: LS at June 21, 2006 6:42 AM

In the movie Shadowlands, a character tells C.S. Lewis:

"We read to know we are not alone."

Your essays provide us, your readers, this experience.

Thank you.

Posted by: Phil B at June 21, 2006 7:11 AM

Devil's Right Hand, by Steve Earle

Well I get into a card game in a company town
Caught a miner cheating I shot the dog down
Shot the dog down, watched the man fall
Never touched his holster, never had a chance to draw
The trial was in the morning and they drug me out of bed
Asked me how I pleaded, not guilty I said
Not guilty I said, you've got the wrong man
Nothing touched the trigger but the devil's right hand


Damn, now I know why you are Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, I can't find the exact description I'm looking for, penned by the immortal Stan Cornyn, the King of Bad Liner Notes, written about Frank being able to sing the way he did because he'd been belly to belly with reality and the other belly blinked.

This hardboiled sililoquy on Nancy Sinatra will have to do:

"A young fragile living thing, on its own in a wondrous-wicked-woundup-wasted-wild-worried-wisedup-warmbodied world. On her own. Earning her daily crepes and Cokes by singing the facts of love. Her voice tells as much as her songs. No faked up grandure, her voice is like it is: a little tired, little put down, a lot loving.

"No one is born sophisticated. It's a place you have to crawl to, crawling out of hayseed country, over miles of unsanded pavement, past Trouble, past corners and forks with no auto club signs to point you, till you get there and you wake up wiser."

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at June 21, 2006 9:18 AM

October 10, 1994
That was a bad day.
One thing I knew intuitively: no human power was going to relieve me of my misery.
I thought that was the worst day of my life. Turns out, it was the best day of my life.
I’ve quit making divine/diabolical assignations as I go through life. I’m always wrong. If I just do what’s in front of me God blesses the effort and things work out the way they are supposed too.

I was absolutely wrong about how life works. Thank God.
Life is wonderful today.

It is impossible to explain to some people.

Gerard, keep doing what you’ve been doing. We benefit.

Posted by: keith at June 21, 2006 10:39 AM

A beautiful and moving essay.

Posted by: Fausta at June 21, 2006 1:19 PM

A beautiful and moving essay.

Posted by: Fausta at June 21, 2006 1:19 PM

Thank you sir. The night of grace for me was April 7, 1983. It is important to remember.

Posted by: Binx at June 21, 2006 2:17 PM

An honest piece. We've all been there. The hostile comments are bizarre.

Posted by: bird dog at June 21, 2006 3:12 PM

The night of grace is any moment you're doing something that benefits not just Humanity, but you as well.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at June 21, 2006 4:01 PM

Grace visited twice.

Now lives with me and my daily quest to return to the normal-like-I-was-before state of 'right' mind.
or perhaps - an improved state

thank you

- - -THANK YOU - - -

Dallas, Texas

Posted by: velma at June 21, 2006 4:20 PM

What a wonderful story; thank you for sharing it.

Many years ago, I was sailing in the BVI's with a man I cared greatly for. It was day 5 and the two of us were moored off a place called "The Bitter End." As Providence would have it, a great row ensued and we both went into our wrong minds, throwing each other shoes, among other things overboard, like petulent children having a great temper tantrum.

And then in what can only be described as the Grace of God, my hands were directed to toss other things into that night sea. Little did I know that this would be one of the great turning points in my life.

Things calmed down quickly that night, off the Bitter End, but I would never forget my bad behavior nor the Voice of God that saved this from becoming an international boating incident.

Back in the States, still very shaken, I was prompted to a begin a daily walk with a Power Greater than myself, and did. And many years later, that Power has become the Savior of the World for me.

I have learned with great gratitude that sometimes when things seem to be going very wrong, they're really going right. And I give thanks that I am alive to tell the story.

I'm glad that you are too!


Posted by: Webutante at June 22, 2006 4:23 AM

I doubt I have ever been visited by true Grace - I have a sinking suspicion that all the times I felt the presence of God in the world, it was not a true experience of Grace. Merely some cheap biochemical simulacrum thereof, never strong enough to stop me in my tracks and make me think that it really was God.

I have faith that he has not abandoned me, but I can't help but feel like he's left me alone for a very long time.

Posted by: Michael Andreyakovich at June 22, 2006 3:52 PM

My response - reaction - can be found here:



Posted by: Everyman at June 24, 2006 7:00 AM

That "power greater than ourselves" is called "strength of character." In a macabre way, you're fortunate. Many of us spend a lifetime without discovering whether we have it or not.

Posted by: Frank at June 25, 2006 1:46 PM

Well, that was an unexpected read. I started reading your blog a few days ago for what I hope will be a look at the other side of the coin - I'm an unrepentant Leftie, but bored with the Huff Post - and this piece from, it seems, a friend of Bill W., was surprising, moving, and insightful. So, I continue to look forward to critical, but insightful views of the spectrum.

PS: Came your way from Right Wing Bob, who posted your parody of Visions of Johanna.

Posted by: Richard Wells at November 18, 2008 10:02 AM

Well, that was an unexpected read. I started reading your blog a few days ago for what I hope will be a look at the other side of the coin - I'm an unrepentant Leftie, but bored with the Huff Post - and this piece from, it seems, a friend of Bill W., was surprising, moving, and insightful. So, I continue to look forward to critical, but insightful views of the spectrum.

PS: Came your way from Right Wing Bob, who posted your parody of Visions of Johanna.

Posted by: Richard Wells at November 18, 2008 10:02 AM

Anthony Daniels (Theodore Dalrympe) and Oliver Sachs are examples of wonderful men of great acheivment and intellect who are also atheist. So it can be done, is done.
What we see more commonly from atheists is the hatred and resentment by those who do not contain the real confidence in their own opinions that will sustain a certainty at ease with itself.
The true differences in humanity are found in humility and gratitude.
Hayek--We shall not grow wise before we learn that much of what we have done was very foolish.

Posted by: james wilson at November 18, 2008 10:44 AM

Thank you so much for this very, very beautiful essay.

Posted by: Sarah Rolph at November 18, 2008 11:39 AM

Regardless of what life has thrown my way I have never felt the desire to kill...myself or another..religion,upbringing and temperament I suppose...I just about understand this but don't condone...but not for me to condemn either.

Posted by: thud at November 18, 2008 2:24 PM


Your writing just doesn't quit, and my admiration and gratitude for your work just goes on and on.

The first time for me was in 1965 when my beloved daughter was taken from me, never to return. I agree with the poster that the target of the shotgun was probably not your wife, but what do I know?

I wish I could say that was the last time; I hope I can say it'll never happen again. For the posters who seem to feel so superior to your pain and honesty, I can only express envy. Karma, contrary to popular belief, refers to the life you get born into, not being rewarded for being a good person.

As for me, "'Twas Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home." No other explanation.

Bless you.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at November 18, 2008 3:18 PM

Well, that finally explains the strange look on your face you gave me at Caltech when I said we should get together for whiskey. You multilayered bastard.

There are moments when I remember why I love old men, and they have everything to do with being the old man back from war, the incredible weary grace of a humble witness to the barbarity of mankind only finds its voice when it knows the barbarity of self. Back from the edge we are not possessed by the abyss, God help us from testing another look. It is often enough to see a steely, watery eye in prose. Thanks, old man.

My wrong mind is the thousand mile stare, the amoral logic of que sera, imbibing of detrius and inhaling of vapors just to test the strength of my digestive system, to fuck her just to see the look on her face. The wrong mind is reading yourself into the part made for Bonaparte - it's all about getting away with hmmm... what is it I can get away with?

Sometimes. Sometimes I have to remind myself to be afraid. There are seven moments of fearlessness somewhere in my life I am not ready to confess, but two I remember from childhood. One was me staring over the edge of the Hoover Dam wondering how long it would take me to hit the water and how many helicopters they would send after me. The other was wondering how the half horsepower circular saw with the dull blade never powerful enough to cut my 2x4s would deal with my thumb from a dead start. On the second occasion I tried a pencil instead and remembered the value of fear. On the first occasion I was screamed into submission having put one foot over the rail.

What matters is that the survivors of the plague remain healthy enough to tell tales of horror. We are nothing without it, our bravery empty. Ask the man who base jumps for the adrenaline, he inevitably knows no history. So we would all self-destruct on sacrifices unworthy of our humanity were there no monsters lurking in the stories of our elders.

Posted by: Cobb at November 18, 2008 5:34 PM

You're a good man, Cobb. A good man.

Posted by: vanderleun at November 18, 2008 5:45 PM

The many fine comments here attest to your particular and moving essay. When I enjoy reading (or sifting) those comments almost as much as the original piece I know I have found something good, whose source runs on good faith as much as style. Like attracts like, with a few exceptions just to remind us of what grace is.

As for one particular wiseacre-- anyone who is offended by the company of plants does not deserve the company of people.

Posted by: Hannon at November 19, 2008 9:20 PM

That's powerfully written.

Posted by: pdwalker at December 1, 2008 11:15 PM

That was powerful. I don't think I could ever admit to such truthful things about myself in print.

Posted by: Jewel at April 7, 2011 5:43 AM

I read that every time you put it up. The beast lives among us mostly controlled but occasionally escapes or is unleashed.

Posted by: charles at April 7, 2011 6:05 AM

This has not aged a day since it was written. I neglected to send it to my children, which has been corrected.

Reading all the comments puts me in the experience of Goethe--Viewed from the summit of reason, all life looks like a malignant disease and the world like a madhouse.

Posted by: at April 7, 2011 10:10 AM

Like Charles above, I read this every time you put it up. Powerful stuff.

Posted by: Daniel K Day at April 7, 2011 12:54 PM

I think I've read this every time you've put it up.

I'm lucky enough (or God likes me enough) that I've never considered doing anything like that.

But I'll keep reading it every time you repost it.

Posted by: Eric Blair at April 7, 2011 1:50 PM

Because of your essays and your links, about five years ago, I wound up reading a cache' of the writings of Aristotle. I poured over it repeatedly until the lights came back on. I never looked back.

I've thanked you before, thanks again for returning what you didn't need.
Thanks also to the web for less than five degrees of separation.

Posted by: Greg at April 7, 2011 9:27 PM

I still cannot imagine how a man could do that to his wife and family. It's just wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Never been down that road, never looked down that road, never walked by that road. Some darkened streets maybe, but I always know morning comes and with that, the light.

just a small case of eternal optimism?

Posted by: pdwalker at April 8, 2011 12:17 PM

Your story loses nothing in the retelling. It only grows.

Posted by: pdwalker at October 30, 2014 10:55 PM

Welcome back, Walker.

Posted by: Van der Leun at October 31, 2014 7:50 AM

Pressure builds, over time.
Pressure makes diamonds.
Pressure makes explosions.
All of us are pressure cookers.
Some of us are diamonds.
Some of us may blow.
With sufficient pressure.
In a split second the world becomes different.
A split second before, a split second after, and forever more.
One moment everything is like it always is.
The next moment everything is like it never was.
There are no winners.
This isn't poetry.
It is life.
Under pressure.

Posted by: ghostsniper at October 31, 2014 11:10 AM

A powerful story, Gerard. Thank you for posting it again. In a sense, it says that the grace that stayed your hand has never left your heart.

Posted by: LT at October 31, 2014 11:16 AM

We love you, Mr. V. So glad neither scenario got played out. Ain't God wonderful?

2 Corinthians 12:8-9 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Posted by: AbigailAdams at October 31, 2014 7:34 PM

I lived 3 properties down the street from them. Nice Family, very tragic. Our Family always thought our street name was a little creepy, Devil's Ladder. RIP....

Posted by: John at November 7, 2014 9:18 AM

In my case, I didn't have to go to the store; I just sat with the keys to the gun safe in my hand for an hour or so.

And, in my case, it wasn't (explicitly) grace, it was a cold calculation. Prison time vs. cost of divorce.

Ultimately, I chose divorce.

For those in this same bad situation, I recommend SurvivingInfidelity.com

Posted by: lpdbw at October 31, 2016 5:22 AM

Just want to add to the commenters above - I read this every time you post it, as well. Thanks.

Posted by: Julie at October 31, 2016 6:44 AM

I can't shake what happened in Albuquerque in late August... or Uglyquerque as I call it again and again. I live about an hour drive from there way out in the sticks. Just like this story of dad with his shotgun in hand, dispensing the entire family, you're left wondering what makes a parent sacrifice a child triggered by the rancid stew of chemicals in which the brain sits.

Michelle Martens invited a guy named Fabian Gonzales into her apartment so he could rape her 9 year old daughter Victoria. Michelle like to watch. She had already allowed the same for three previous gents. Michelle let Fabian move in and during the month he lived there Michelle said he was raping Victoria daily while she worked at a store called Buy Buy Baby. Nobody could make up this stuff. Fabian let his cousin Jessica Kelley move in just a couple of days after she was released from prison... and then a few days later on August 21... Victoria arrived home from school around 4 pm. An hour later she was dead. Fabian was raping Victoria and held his hand over her mouth to stop her screaming. Then Jessica plunged a carving knife into her stomach several times to quiet her down. Though Victoria was dead Fabian continued having sex with her lifeless body. Then 20 minutes later Michelle was having sex with Fabian. After all the festivities Michelle made tacos for dinner. I guess sometime later the responsible adults decided maybe they should get rid of Victoria's body so they severed her arms, wrapped her body in a blanket and set her afire in the bathtub. I can't imagine what caused the argument... maybe these people weren't thinking clearly... but Jessica got so agitated that she clobbered the faces of Michelle and Fabian with a fireplace iron.

The noise, the smoke, the commotion of 4:00 am caused the police to be summoned. Jessica tried to flee jumping off the 2nd story balcony and broke her ankle. Michelle's parents have been on TV describing their daughter as a wonderful lady who would never harm her children... they only want to know what the others did to cause this crime. But Victoria's younger brother was getting raped by various men while Michelle enjoyed watching, also. The boy just happened to be in the custody of his dad that evening or maybe there would be two funerals.

There was a memorial service on Saturday for Victoria, an empty casket as a symbol only, because her body is still under examination by the authorities. The trials are easily a year off which is typical for crimes of this complicated nature. The stories these three will tell will read much worse than anything Stephen King could ever dream of, I'm sure. You don't have to post this, Gerard, if you don't want to. I just felt like sharing my angst of late regarding inexplicable human behavior. But today IS Halloween so maybe this serves as a suitable story to scare the shit out of everyone. It certainly scares me.

Posted by: Tom Hyland at October 31, 2016 10:19 AM

I've visited that blackened land a couple of times myself. Thanks, Gerard.

Posted by: ahem at October 31, 2016 11:35 AM

I'm sorry I misspelled your name. If you can access my post please correct that... it bothers me. Not as much as Uglyquerque... but anyway. tom

[Okay, got it. Thanks,


Posted by: Tom Hyland at October 31, 2016 12:52 PM

It is in the "acceptance of things I cannot change" in which I find the explanations for why some things are. Also, I find there that the coexistence of good and evil in this world makes sense, within the greater context of human free will. But I have also learned to realize the evil never triumphs, it is always less in measure than good. For that, I am grateful.

Posted by: GG at November 1, 2016 2:46 PM