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

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