On the Shape of Heartbreak and My Teenage Cousin’s Fatal Crime
Katharine Blake Tries to Comprehend the Grief That Arises From Terrible Violence
What Joan Didion wrote about San Francisco but also America more broadly was still true years later: the center was not holding. In her day, it was Vietnam and LSD, racism and assassination. Four decades on it was tent cities and evictions, opioids and meth, school shootings and racism and prisons filled to their literal ceilings with bodies.
I was born in San Francisco, and in my late twenties I moved back after spending most of my life on the East Coast. The move was for a man I loved, still love, but I didn’t love San Francisco. The topography made me tense, as if I might topple backward at the crest of each steep hill. As if the houses nestled into hillsides might start sliding.
The year before, I’d graduated from law school and then worked for the Children’s Defense Fund in DC, and when I left that job for San Francisco, it was for love, but also because I’d lost hope. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, during which Adam Lanza had killed 26 people, mostly children, had thrown us into a fight for federal gun safety measures, and when we lost that fight, I was angry and disheartened. Around the same time, my 16-year-old cousin, Scott, who’d had a mental break and murdered a child, was being tried as an adult and facing life in prison without parole. The world of the law that I’d studied and worked to be a part of seemed irredeemable. I’m not proud of losing hope—it smacks of weakness.
Others have kept theirs in scenarios a thousand times more harrowing and grave. I didn’t yet know that hope is nothing less than a discipline. In any case, bitterness opened the door for me to leave.
But also I left for love. I wanted to make a home and a family. I wanted to see if I could make a family different from the one I’d been raised in, which was not an original desire. My mother and father had tried to do this, and maybe their parents had, too, in their own confounded ways. Now it was my turn. And leaving DC for the man I loved (I’ll call him L) seemed like an elemental step in this enduring desire. After a long search, L finally found a tiny, whitewashed one-bedroom for us in the Castro, a neighborhood that was not socked in by fog the way others were. Our lives were sun-soaked. But in other ways—down certain streets and alleys and around some corners—San Francisco swirled with apocalyptic darkness.
Through the wide bay windows in the bedroom of that apartment, we watched the light change over the face of Corona Heights and listened to the sounds of people living on the street below. We listened to their yelling, swearing, laughing, and fighting each night as we went to sleep. Marijuana smoke drifted through our windows. The perimeter of our building always smelled like piss.
In the early morning, as I stepped over sleeping bodies stretched out on flattened cardboard boxes, arms and legs like commas punctuating the sidewalks, I thought of the parents I’d met while fighting for gun legislation, the living cautionary tales meant to put a human face on gun death. All those parents who were missing their children, and here, the second line of the couplet—all these children on the streets of San Francisco, missing from somewhere else.
There was a stretch of days when a young man sobbed inconsolably as he paced up and down the block each afternoon. Once or twice, he threw his slender body on the sidewalk and beat his fists against the pavement.
What troubled me was the chaos—not just the chaos of unhomed lives but the chaos of fate that they suggested. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it all boiled down to chance. That I was the one who ended up sleeping on clean white sheets and not on cardboard boxes felt like nothing more than luck. I couldn’t find any sense of order, divine or otherwise.
Shortly after moving to San Francisco, I started teaching at San Quentin State Prison. The course curriculum covered everything from grammar to composition to how to write a five-paragraph essay and cite sources. In practicing these skills, the men wrote often about their lives before prison, about the women who raised them, their mothers and grandmothers. One wrote about how it felt to get the call that his mother had died while he was locked up and he couldn’t say goodbye. Another wrote about the crime that put him in prison—he’d shot the guy who’d killed his little brother—and the way he felt he’d let his mother down because now she was alone. The catch-22: he would have let her down if he hadn’t avenged the death. The cellblocks in the prison were like library stacks, rows and rows of stories down every dimly lit hall.
San Quentin Prison is settled on the shore of the San Francisco Bay between Mill Valley and San Rafael, some of the most scenic real estate in the country. A three-bedroom home ten minutes from the prison will sell for no less—and usually much more—than a million dollars. As I walked from the parking lot to the first clearance gate, the disequilibrium of the barbed wire and armed watchtower against the bay at dusk always made me hold my breath.I didn’t yet know that hope is nothing less than a discipline.
Just as I held my breath in the city, so full of suffering as it was. Which is to say, there was a link between the city and the prison. Between the bodies I stepped over in the street as I walked to my car to drive to San Quentin and the caged bodies in the yard once I arrived. Homelessness and incarceration represent two points on a circle, both characterized by a lack of privacy and, paradoxically, invisibility. They also share the condition of something broken. Lives bent and bowed, histories of heartbreak.
It was in those days of traveling between San Francisco and San Quentin that I started keeping track of heartbreak. I know I was thinking of Scott when I did.
My cousin Scott was a rising junior in high school when he killed a nine-year-old boy he’d never met named Ryan. The night I started thinking about heartbreak, I was thinking of Scott because I heard on the car radio that Creigh Deeds, a Virginia state senator, had been attacked by his son, Gus, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Gus had stabbed his father in the face and chest and then shot himself. I’d met Senator Deeds years earlier when I was working on a political campaign in Virginia. I remembered his kind blue eyes. I tried to imagine those eyes with a scar running between them.
When I heard about Creigh Deeds, I was driving through Haight-Ashbury on my way back from San Quentin. In light of the attack, your host Rachel Martin was interviewing another father of a son with mental illness. There is a debate in this country about mental health and resources, she said. Are people getting the access to care that they need? The father said simply, no, people were not getting the care they needed. And then he said: I don’t know the whole story and probably never will, but the tragedies never end.
The tragedies never end.
Of course when the man said those words, he was talking about Creigh Deeds, but to me it sounded like more. A thesis, a catchall. It was both personal (a phrase pulled from the depths of his own pain with his own son) and general (a comment on the endlessness of suffering). It was shorthand for how the world looked after Scott’s crime, a feeling that filled my days and nights in San Francisco. It was how I felt when I stepped over sleeping bodies and heard fighting below our windows and walked past the old gas chamber at San Quentin. It’s how I felt when I got a letter from Scott with the return address marked Death Row. The tragedies never end. So how do we go on?
That night, when I got home, I opened a Word document and typed it out: the tragedies never end.
At the top of the page I wrote HEARTBREAK. And then I stared at it. The word surprised me. It wasn’t one I’d thought about very much before, but in that moment, I was struck by its precision. It felt good to have a word. I don’t mean that I thought my heart was broken—though I think now that it was; I think having your heart broken is as easy as listening to the news or trying to love the world—rather, I mean it’s what I’d been seeing when I looked out my window. My literal window, but also that broader, metaphorical one that defines any worldview.
Heartbreak was a word for the pain I saw in families and systems, homelessness and violence, courtrooms and prisons. It was the cause and effect of that pain. And though I would not have said then that my heart was broken, I knew enough to know that the pain I carried inside my own body collected in my chest. The document grew and grew. Over weeks and months and years, I copied sentences from books and poems and plays, conversations with friends, headlines, and studies about hearts—anything that shed light on the nebulous and to my mind misunderstood concept of heartbreak. I wrote down questions. Where did the word come from, why does it mean so many things, how do you keep your heart intact, how do you go on after it breaks, what does justice look like for the brokenhearted, what does it mean to heal, do you inherit the heartbreak of generations past?
What you look for you will see. Big red slashes of heartbreak out in the world. A shooting. A fire. A failed reconciliation. War and hunger. And then it started echoing down the corridors of my own family history, which brought the past disconcertingly into the present. At night my mind followed the threads between memories and images, unperturbed by time or logic:
Mothers and fathers wait in a room at the
Newtown fire station to find out if their children
made it out alive
A blond boy, who looks like my brother, sleeps in
the shadows behind my building
My mother’s brother Roy lies shot and bleeding under
a streetlight on a hot Texas night
Michael Brown’s body lies shot and bleeding on a street
Scott is covered in Ryan’s blood
In his obituary photo, Ryan is dressed in a white
button-down shirt, smiling
My brother’s smile fades when the other boys move
away from him at lunchtime because he was born
missing a hand, a bird’s broken wing
My father is drinking a scotch
My father is angry, chasing me up the stairs
My father is taking a swing at his father with a two-by-
four, and the dust rises in the scuffle
I am drunk, crying on a bathroom floor
My great-grandmother is crying on a bathroom
floor, holding the body of her husband, my great-
grandfather, who’d put a bullet through his head
Scott’s mug shot flashes across the evening news while
oil spills into the ocean like ink—
I am trying to describe a feeling. When time collapses and the edges of experience and history bleed together into something that casts a shadow. For me this shadow took the shape of heartbreak. And I started writing about it because I thought writing might help me understand it, and I thought that understanding might protect me. Proust writes: Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their power to injure our heart. This was my half-formed hope.
Excerpted from THE UNINNOCENT: Notes on Violence and Mercy by Katherine Blake. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Katharine Blake. All rights reserved.