Sunday, October 22, 2017

Jabali - a book review

Cults have been around longer than organized religion and will continue to exist as long as humans seek the answers to our origin. They permeate every culture and society and their impact on society is grossly underestimated. They range from Om Lovers to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, Children of God, Japan’s Aum Shin Rikyo Cult, and Heaven’s Gate, all the way up to the larger cults like Scientology, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Mormon Church. They all inject an insidious poison into the lives of a vulnerable, unsuspecting public, disguised as the truth. Many are innocent victims, others are willing participants in the abuse, and still others were victims of child abuse who unwittingly continue to repeat the abuse as a result of their trauma. Some are just simple, ordinary people looking for hope, while others are just bad people.
Slave, p. 220

Jabali was born on March 26, 1971 in North Oakland, just a few blocks south of the Berkeley line, across the street from 809 57th Street, where Bobby Seale lived with his parents in the house in which Seale and Huey Newton and others had formed the Black Panthers a few years earlier. Jabali was the fourth child born to Marilyn Ornelas, whom he describes as “a revolutionary, an intellectual, a Buddhist, hippie, an occultist with a love for black men.”  When Jabali was six years old, Marilyn would turn him and his fourteen-year-old sister over to a cult leader whose real name was alternatively William Brumfield or Richard Thorne, but whom Jabali and other members of the cult knew as Om. Om would keep him for the next six years in captivity, mostly in Mexico and later in Nevada and Southern California, brainwashing him, physically abusing and terrorizing him, and preventing him from learning to read and write. Their day would begin with Jabali, along with two of Om’s own children, watching his sister, as well as Om’s other “wives” engage in a daily “fucking ritual.”

Jabali is unaware growing up that his mother has effectively abandoned him. He remembers the love and warmth he received from her the first years of his life, and dreams of the time his mother will come rescue him and take him back to Berkeley. She never comes. Instead, the cult members eventually leave Mexico, always on the run from the police and the FBI, first to Las Vegas, then Los Angeles and San Diego. Eventually, they find their way to Richmond, in the Bay Area. After six years, Jabali finally finds the courage to make a run for it. He finds the 72 bus that will take him down San Pablo Avenue to Berkeley and makes his way back to the Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue where his mother used to hang out with him and his siblings.

Luck is with him. When he walks into the Med he runs into a family friend, the man who introduced his father to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eventually he finds his mother and others willing to take him in and he is able to begin the long journey to find the life he lost as a small child. His problems are far from over, but he is able to begin school, learn to read and write, and eventually come to recognize that reconciliation with his sociopathic mother was not in the cards. He would have to go it alone, with the help of friends he meets along the way.

I met Jabali when he was a classmate of my niece at Berkeley High School, almost thirty years ago now. She was quite taken with him, described him as a special friend and hinted that he had come through some hard times. But even she didn’t know the full extent of it, and he remained pretty much a man of mystery. For many years Jabali played his cards very close to his chest, too ashamed to share more than the basic outline of the gritty story of his childhood with anybody outside a small circle of intimates. But last Saturday night, my niece, who had flown in from her job in Denver for the weekend, got right to the point of her trip. “Remember Jabali?” she asked. “Very well,” I said. “Well, come with me. Jabali has published a memoir. It’s called Slave: A Human Trafficking Survivor Finds Life. He is having a book launch in Oakland.”

Several hundred people showed up for his talk. He has become an articulate and charismatic speaker and is today the founder and executive director of The Well Child Foundation, a group dedicated to “creating an environment that fosters health, growth, and transformation for foster children and inner city youth who have experienced abuse, as well as for victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.”  After reading about a hundred pages I had to put the book down for a couple days. I couldn’t bear to take the relentless account of brutality. I knew that I would finish it eventually; it’s far too compelling. But it was going to take some deep breaths.

Some months ago I came across a best-seller about a young boy growing up in France, also under far less than ideal circumstances. The End of Eddy, it was called. I stumbled through about four-fifths of it before I put it down for good. The same problem – relentless misery. With Slave, however, I made it through because I had met and talked to the happy ending in person. Jabali climbs up out of the almost unimaginable misery that is human trafficking and ends with an uplifting suggestion that things are going to be all right. His last three subsections are entitled, Love, Forgiveness and Compassion.

How is one supposed to approach a narrative of such pain and darkness? Do we take the happy ending as the purpose, a lesson-in-life, proof that whatever burden we are carrying things will work out all right in the end? It sounds like the great American cultural bias, the Hollywood view that we all have the right to be happy in the end, and one selects stories that give evidence to that effect. Or is it a cautionary tale, a warning that we should pay more attention to what our children are up to, and get our heads out of the sand when it comes to our neighbors’ children, as well. It can, and maybe should be read as a sociological study of how badly America went off the rails in the 60s, with the Vietnam War and the pendulum swing from the up-tight hypocritical fifties to the overindulgent 60s. 

Jabali takes note of the fact that many of the kids in his life are like him. They come from black fathers freed from the fear of lynching to find themselves a once unobtainable white girl and white mothers who want to prove to themselves and others that they are with it by finding themselves a black man to sleep with. It's a tale of America working out its race problem. Jabali brings the sexual revolution home in the quotation, which he attributes to somebody named Piero Amadeo Infante: “After the summer of love came the winter of fatherless children.”

And here the story takes a curious turn. I googled the name Piero Amadeo Infante and what turned up was a story in the East Bay Express published on September 24, 2003. Piero turns out to be the older brother that Jabali identifies as Pio. Piero and his sister Cybele, whom Jabali calls Isabella, apparently contacted the police in 2002. Cybele/Isabella, according to the Express article, charged Om/William Brumfield with rape and for a while it appeared that the charge would stick, even though it had taken place years before. Unfortunately, the law lifting the statute of limitations was declared unconstitutional, and Om/Brumfield is a free man. He was institutionalized for a time in the mental hospital in Napa and given shock therapy, but the effects only solidified in Brumfield’s mind the belief that he was indeed Om, the "Highest of the High, Greatest of the Great, All Power, All Knowledge and Beyond." He now lives quietly in Berkeley, still playing a lot of tennis.

In Piero’s account, Jabali is not mentioned by name. He is simply a younger brother, somebody in denial. Since Piero’s account came out in 2003, that may be an accurate description, actually. Jabali’s version of their childhood in Slave is quite at odds with Piero’s. Piero makes the cult experience a story of sexual abuse of the children; Jabali argues that Piero didn’t actually live with the cult in Mexico and that Piero’s (Pio’s) account of what life was like was actually stolen from Jabali and told in a particularly tawdry (Jabali's word) fashion.

That rivalry doesn't lessen the impact of Jabali’s story. It remains powerful. And it has a sad coda. A man named William comes across Piero’s account in the East Bay Express and realizes it involves the man who has seduced his two daughters. Brumfield’s cult did not dissolve when Jabali and his sister Isabelle/Cybele left, apparently. Jabali learns some time later that William has committed suicide in despair over not being able to get his daughters out of Brumfield’s clutches.

And this brings us to what I consider the essence of the story, the all but unbelievable tragedy that something like this could take place in modern America. The more I turned the pages, the more the questions nagged at me. Is Jabali telling the truth or is he making the whole thing up? Large parts of it up? How is it that a mother can not only abandon her children but give them over to a lover who she knows is abusing them physically and sexually? Where are the other people in their lives? Where is the father? Why is he not running to Mexico to bring his son back? Where is the grandmother? And the godmother, Marilyn’s friend Jackie, both of whom Jabali speaks of as loving caring people. Where are the police and other authorities? How could a cult living in a school bus not be picked up at some point in the six long years Jabali is being held captive?

And Jabali? “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man,” Aristotle is credited with saying. That would explain how you can capture a child at the age of six and even when he is twelve he will be too frightened to tell a soul that he is being kept enslaved. But did the beatings and the fear of impulsive random punishment really not provoke him into running earlier, if only in sheer desperation? Those I assume are in the know tell us it is entirely believable that such things happen. The only real question is what’s wrong with our society that we allow it to happen with quite such frequency. In Jabali’s final chapter he cites the work of Dr. Margaret Singer and her book Cults in Our Midst, according to which there are some 5000 cults operating in the U.S. at any time with some 2.5 million members, 20 million victims in just over the last ten years.

One in three girls are sexually molested before the age of 12 and one in five boys, more than three million reports of child abuse every year. Four to five children die every day from neglect. I had trouble accepting those figures, so I checked out the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) data myself that Jabali refers to. They corroborate his claims:
There were 683,000 victims of child abuse and neglect reported to child protective services (CPS) in 2015.
       The youngest children are the most vulnerable with about 24% of children in their first year of life experiencing victimization.
       CPS reports may underestimate the true occurrence of abuse and neglect. A non-CPS study estimated that 1 in 4 children experience some form of child abuse or neglect in their lifetimes.
About 1,670 children died from abuse or neglect in 2015.
As for how Marilyn Ornelas could do what she did, the answer appears to lie in the power of ideology. In this case, that ideology involves the 60s pursuit of freedom from the strictures of the Puritanical practices that went before, the belief in the need for revolution at all costs. Piero’s account (the Berkeley Express interview) gives a fuller picture of the lives of the adults involved in this child abuse story and despite what each may feel about the other’s version, they complement each other. Jabali chose to write from a child’s perspective. And that makes it an individual’s perspective, up close and personal, and the pain comes through with piercing agony. That’s why you may have to put the book down and take a break from time to time. Piero’s is a more sociological account of a time of free love, liberation of the spirit and expansion of the imagination. His perspective brings to mind the flower children, the tambourines, the dancing in the street, the romance and the music of Woodstock. His image of their mother, Marilyn, is of the flower child whose love is too big for just one family. Her focus is the revolution, the change that must come, the greater cause. One thinks of Rousseau, who neglected his children to write Emile, the great book on child education. But Rousseau sent his children to a foundling hospital, not a child molester.

One day, back in Berkeley, Jabali comes across a yellow school bus parked on Martin Luther King Way and spots one of Om’s wives outside. He talks his way inside and encounters Om after all these years. He finds him old, worn out, a pitiful human being. He tells him off, turns and walks out of his life permanently. It was a moment when I wanted to throw the book against the wall. “No!” I said to myself. “What of this man William who killed himself in despair? This story is not just about you! Put this motherfucker in jail!” 

But Jabali wants to move on. The story continues to be his personal memoir and he writes of love, forgiveness and compassion. I want revenge. I want justice. How do you forgive people who tie a child with an agonizing skin disease she can’t scratch to a bed and leave her there, without medical attention, for days?  Piero too, in his account, writes of looking at his mother in her later years, sees her as old, shriveled up, and lost. She too is not a perpetrator anymore but a victim herself, he declares.

I don’t believe in forgiveness, except on a personal level if somebody does you wrong and they ask you for it and you can see they are sincere. Otherwise I want justice. But I see merit in the religious notion that forgiveness does as much, and maybe more, for the soul of the forgiver. And I can see how these two boys have had to forgive their mother and dedicate themselves to moving on if they are to become free of the burden no god, if he existed, would ever give them to carry. 

I asked earlier why anyone would write such a memoir as this, with so much pain and misery, a book made for a reader to throw against a wall. Is it simply a meditation on the injustice of life? I think the answer comes in those last three subsections, titled love, forgiveness and compassion and in the steps Jabali has taken to start his foundation. A book like this is written and read so that we stop walking by recycled school busses parked on a street with suspicious-looking street people in them and look the other way in embarrassment at the risk of becoming busybodies. We recognize our duty to each other to take better care of each other. Especially if you see a lost child, stop what you’re doing. Call the cops. And while you're waiting, see what you can do to hear their story.

Jabali: A Human Trafficking Survivor Finds Life, TitleTown Publishing, Green Bay, WI 54307-12093

cover design by Mark Karis 
used with permission

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Watching the kids grow

Alastair, left; Zach, right
Don't Ask/Don't Tell advocates - eat your heart out
In addition to sending post-it notes to Jared Kushner with ideas he might put to use in his work solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the opioid epidemic, improving relations with China and Mexico, improving care for veterans, and reforming the criminal justice system, I am working on a project to improve the quality of the poop bags I carry when walking the dogs. Once you’ve had one of these suckers come apart in your hands, you’ll appreciate why.

And to make sure I keep a balanced life, I binge-watch in my free time on Netflix and Amazon Prime. They’re churning them out these days almost faster than I can keep up with, but I do occasionally catch up. Like I did the other day when I decided to extend the bingeing to a young YouTuber’s vlog.  Fascinating. Utterly fascinating. I sat for the better part of five days gathering insights into the life of a modern-day twenty-three-year-old media junkie with a need to document his every move and monetize his ramblings by collecting enough YouTube viewers to attract sponsors. He has some 134,000 “subscribers,” at latest count.

I am now ready to drop that project and go back to being a geezer, maybe reading books and keeping a cleaner house with some of that time. But not before taking a minute to consider what a firestorm this delightful young man set off in my head, about him, about me, about the vlogging phenomenon, the state of gay liberation in this country, and the gap between red state working-class culture and the yuppie world I am surrounded by, and how his story forced me to do a serious revision of my assumptions about all these things.

The young man’s name is Zachary Garcia. He comes from a Mexican-American family but is more apple pie and Dr. Pepper than tortillas and guacamole. He speaks in a deep bass voice which, when combined with his Texan and Alabaman speech patterns made me think he was putting me on, at first.  “I need all y’all’s help,” for example. ‘Can’t’ pronounced ‘caint’ – rhymes with ‘ain’t.’ Not your stereotype of a gay man.

At the heart of his four years of getting his coming-of-age events down on tape is his relationship with his boyfriend, Alec, who over time becomes fiancé and then husband. In Texas. In a military family. Alec is Alastair (not Alistair, see below) and we get to watch him graduate from West Point. We watch Zach propose to him on bended knee, after calling his mama and asking her permission to marry him. The story ends with them moving to Ft. Sills, Oklahoma and hopefully living happily ever after. You’ll have to become a subscriber to see how that goes.

Zach and Alastair’s story is, for me, first and foremost about future shock. We're talking the grandkids' generation here. I was already older than they are now when the Vietnam War started and I was marching in the streets to try and make it stop. I also marched in Washington for gay liberation and to call attention to the AIDS epidemic, events they think belong in the history books. I celebrated the really wretched movie, Making Love, in 1982, as a milestone, simply because there was a gay kiss. By the time Brokeback Mountain came out to widespread acclaim, I was already past my activist days. Zach does a video on LGBT cinema in which he pronounces Brokeback Mountain “cheesy.” To say we are not on the same wavelength would be  to understate our differences by a mile.

It’s the incongruities which kept me coming back for more. There are at least three ways you could frame his project, I think. One would be as an applied sociology study of how far acceptance of gay people has come in America, down to and including the red deep south. A second way would be to see it as a study of the uninhibited openness of the post-millennial generation, or Generation Z, as they’re sometimes called, and their embrace of self-revelation in the age of the internet. A third way might be as evidence for how wrongheaded the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy was and how badly the right wing got wrong the threat to marriage gay people allegedly represented. Zach’s is a total embrace of all the trappings of what in America is referred to as “traditional” marriage. Zach films not only his proposal on one knee to his true love, Alec, but also the phone call to Alec’s mother asking her blessing. To say nothing of the insistence that theirs will be a monogamous relationship. He’s a young romantic who dreams of his prince, believes he finds him, and proceeds to set up housekeeping and declare his undying devotion.

Another way to look at all this, of course, for the over-thirty set, might be as a snapshot of innocence and naiveté, but let’s leave that jaded view aside for now.

A fifth way of framing Zach’s video project might be as an extended interview with the kind of people Zach describes as “Cracker Barrel,” which I take to be a synonym for “Southern country.” Not your Greenwich Village gays or your San Francisco Castro clones or your sleek nightlife oriented West Hollywood types. People for whom “ain’t” and “he don’t” comes naturally, and people who view atheists, and probably democrats, with considerable discomfort.

A sixth might be the frame of thoroughly Americanized Hispanics. Zach’s family name, Garcia, and his dark handsome good looks reveal his Mexican origins. But a quick glance at the Face Book page of Alastair J. Patton will reveal that Alec is from Mexico City originally,  unmistakably Anglo name notwithstanding. He speaks Spanish much better than Zach, Zach tells us. These boys are not white bread, in other words, but part of the new world the white supremacists warn us about.  Mexicans at West Point. Gay Mexicans. And you wonder why people voted for a charlatan who promised to “Make America Great” again?

Just a moment's digression here to salute the gods of language and culture...  It's Alistair Cooke’s spelling of his name that is arguably more of an aberration than Alastair's. Both of these spellings are to be found in the English-speaking world - along with Alisdair, Alastor, Allaster, Alister, and Aleister – all corruptions, apparently, of the Anglo-Norman Alexander.  And a second salute to the both/and, not either/or understanding of cultural identity. Zack goes overboard at times with his love for Texas and his waving of the American flag - but they appear together on Alec's Face Book page behind a Mexican flag.

As the taping goes on, Zach’s infectious optimism about his lover and their future is overshadowed a bit – maybe more than a bit – by more than a few contradictions and inconsistencies. To delve into the content of the videos is to reveal that, actually, it’s Zach’s idea to film everything, not Alastair's, and they both say at some point that despite all the suggestion that they let it all hang out, they still keep most of their private life private. One has to question how much one can match up what they say with what they actually do. They also reveal that they have been rejected in Texas as a gay couple, so I really ought to backtrack on my hasty conclusion that gay lib has made astonishing progress. It may have, but this one piece of anecdotal evidence will need to be supplemented by a whole lot more evidence before the generalization can be made with assurance.

In my defense, I ask that you recognize qualitative research, if this quick five-day analyze-on-the-hoof methodology study can be described as such, is almost never to be taken as producing clear evidence for conclusions. What qualitative research does is uncover ever better things worth exploring. I’d suggest this is a great starting place, and if you have the interest and the time, it should be augmented by other stories of the kids of Generation Z putting their lives on line. If not for science, then for no other reason than to take away some of the cynicism that comes to those who believe they’ve seen it all, by providing a sense of how the young keep hope alive with unending surprises.

Before I call an end to this "on second thought" paean to avowedly Christian and (possibly) right-wing Republican Cracker Barrel America, let me give you a sample of Zach’s project which I think should help explain why he’s charmed the pants off of me. Besides his stunningly good looks, I mean, obviously, and his unabashed love for his French bulldog, Bronson.

For you animal lovers, let’s start with this recent appeal to save the animals after Hurricane Harvey:

1. Help the Animals – Aug. 31, 2017  

Then, I think, the conversation with the female-to-male transsexual, Ben, in which Zach reveals that even gay people can be astonishingly uninformed, not only about the trans phenomenon, but queer theory, as well:

2. Being Trans: A Conversationwith Ben – July 29, 2016 

The West Point graduation and the family gathering that proceeded it:

3. An Officer and A Gentleman – July 15, 2017

And Zach the story-teller:

4. Affair with a guy fromFacebook – Aug. 15, 2016

I’ll stop there. You can dig out all the ring and the engagement and the wedding stuff, if you’re into it.

5. OK, then. Just one more - their wedding tape, from which the photo above is lifted.

If you've only got time for one, make it this last one.

Skip the commentary on LGBT movies. It will make you weep.

Don’t know if this makes you want to carry a giant American flag down a country road in Alabama, or start dividing the world into gals and dudes and hanging homemade carve-outs of the State of Texas on your wall, but maybe it will add to your understanding of the complex ripples and folds of the many subcultures of this country. It expanded mine.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Not my farm, not my animals

Don't blame me; I just work here.
The death penalty is legal in over half the states in this country, thirty-one of the fifty.

The United States is not as bad as the serious killer countries. China kills way more prisoners than anybody else. We don’t know how many because they keep the number a state secret. Freedom of information hasn’t caught on in the Middle Kingdom. Followed by the Islamic righteousness bunch – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt, in that order. That was in 2016. In 2015 fifth place in that list went to the United States instead of Pakistan.

Given America’s willingness to go to war, it should come as no surprise that it finds itself among the nations that fail to hold human life sacred. All Western European nations have eliminated the death penalty, as have Canada, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and much of Latin America. But not the United States. What does come as a surprise, at least to me, is the extent to which the United States will go to defend their right to take human life.

The United Nations Human Rights Council just passed a resolution condemning nations which take the lives of gay people for being gay. Twenty-seven nations supported the resolution. The United States did not. Not our business, says the US, if you kill your gay people.

How low we’ve sunk since that unforgettable day, December 6, 2011, when Hillary Clinton addressed the UN in Geneva on the topic of human rights for gay people. I’m not a Hillary fan, but I will never forget what she did on that day as Obama's Secretary of State. Just thinking back on it brings tears of pride and joy to the eyes.

And now we get – “No skin off my nose!”

It bothered me when I read the news this morning. The gay press is howling, as you might imagine. But most press reports give the statistics only - 27 in favor, 13 against, 7 abstentions. Most fail to give any explanation for why, other than that Trump is a nasty piece of work, the U.S. not only failed to abstain but actually voted against the resolution. You have to dig a bit before you realize what’s going on. I figured it out when I noticed that Japan, too, voted no. Japan is another country that doesn’t want to criticize anybody for having the death penalty for fear their action might come back and bite them in the ass for being hypocritical.

So there you have it, folks. We demand the right as a nation these days to kill bad guys when we want to. And since we know what's good for the goose is good for the gander, we're not going to step on your right to do the same - and to define bad guys any way you want to. Speaking out to save the lives of gay people around the world is no longer on our agenda.

Got to keep one’s priorities straight.

Photo credit