Monday, December 14, 2009

What happens when one listens to bad audiobooks.

When I was growing up, our home was located on the preferred route for escaped convicts to travel from the Utah State Penitentiary to Mexico. I imagine this had something to do with the Jordan River running between The Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake. The river was kind of remote and undeveloped back then and all of the swamps and marshy places probably made it harder to track the escapee. (Since then, someone let their pet piranhas loose in the Jordan River and it turns out that they flourish in that environment, so I don't think it's a preferred route anymore. I could be wrong about the importance of the Jordan River, piranhas and development in the planning of prisoners. I don't run in those social circles and I am not up on their latest travel preferences.) Anyway, that fact was significant only once, which incidentally was when I learned about it. A serial rapist and murderer escaped and for about three days, the manhunt swarmed near my house. A pair of unexplained footprints was found one morning outside of a window at my cousins' house next door and our teenage minds went wild.

There were six of us who were teenagers and we lived on a long, dead end road. We had to walk nearly a mile to the school bus stop that was at an intersection by the home of our nearest neighbor. It was the closest spot where the bus could turn around. We lived in between two towns, and were incorporated into neither, though both towns sometimes wanted us. As a result, we could attend the junior high and high school of either town and between the six of us, we attended all four schools. We usually walked or ran separately to the bus stop depending on how late we were running. I think my cousin John could do a mile in about 5 minutes and he always cut it close. I carried 23 pounds of books in my backpack and I tried to leave a bit earlier.

That morning, we all got ready early and walked together. After a few minutes, Marie started yelling as loudly as she could "HEY! Keith baby! Come and get me because I really don't want to go to school today!" No one else said anything or smiled, and finally as the closest relative closest in age it seemed to become my duty to say "Marie, he might actually be able to hear you." She replied that she was glad about that because she didn't want to go to school and then someone else chimed in that he was a serial rapist on top of being a murder. Marie hollered "Never mind, don't come get us after all." We continued on in silence. As we went along, I was calculating our odds of survival should Keith actually make an appearance. John was a senior in high school and had been suspended twice for fighting. He was strong. Assuming Keith had no weapons at that point, John might be able to take him out alone. Tom was there and I already knew I could trust him with my life or anything else, but he was only 13 and my younger brother and I didn't like the idea of him fighting. I looked for large rocks that I could help out with if it came to that. I wasn't sure if Natalie or Eileen would be able or willing to get involved and I was pretty sure that Marie would come up with some brilliant way of saving everyone because she always comes up with amazing solutions to just about everything. All of my planning was really a backup in case Marie didn't pull off an amazing solution.

Marie's bus arrived first. We all knew it would, but a very small part of me wanted it to arrive last, so that she could stand out there alone and maybe get a little bit scared. She never got scared. I was always scared. Then came Tom's and I was glad my brother was safe. I hoped Natalie's would arrive next; she was the youngest and would have to wait alone. No luck. As we saw the bus that would take the rest of us away, we all had advice for Natalie.

John: "You are close to the Hunsaker's house."
Eileen: "They are usually home in the morning."
Me: "Drop your books and run if you have to."
Natalie's response: "I thought of all of that already."

As we left Natalie standing alone out there, I gave the death penalty some serious thought. I agreed with it. It wasn't so much a matter of punishing the guilty, but that if prisons couldn't keep murderers locked up, then the murderers needed to die so that they couldn't get out and kill more people.

As we were driving away in our bus, we saw Natalie's bus round the corner and we all felt much cheerier.


When I went to college, I didn't have a scholarship. I was the only one from my extended social group who didn't have a scholarship. My grades were good, but not perfect. I hadn't known what I was doing and I had missed lots of extracurricular opportunities. It ended up being okay though because I got a two year neuroscience research fellowship and since I graduated in three years, I got paid enough to cover my tuition and books. I ended up in a lab studying the immune system and myelin. I pieced together a project about the immune system and epilepsy and came up with a model of how the immune system caused seizures. It all made sense and we were able to stop seizures and my advisors wanted me to stay in their lab for graduate school and they thought I was a genius. There was a problem with all of that though. I hated killing rats. I don't know what I had expected when I joined their lab. I had known that they killed rats. Once I inhaled a bunch of ether in high school and I nearly hit the floor. I had always thought death was something like that, a whoosh and a thud. I learned it wasn't the first time I loaded a rat into the gas chamber and turned on the CO2. It became absolutely frantic and tried to claw its way out and then, I had to snap its neck, just to be sure. (Shudder!) I hated the smell of rat blood and my hair and finger nails always smelled like it after a day of dissections. I hated hooking up electrodes to rats heads and shocking them to induce seizures. And then, once when I was sucking blood out of a rat's heart with a syringe, I missed the heart, ended up in the liver and it woke back up and started screaming and trying to bite and claw me. I think I would have been done with animal work anyway after that, but the absolute clincher was when I had to dissect out the testes of a baby rat and the mammary tissue of its mother. She was looking for him in the wood shavings the whole time I was chopping him up. After that, when I took out her mammary tissue, a stream of milk ran out of it. I cried for hours that night. The next day there was fungus in the cell cultures, which meant it was all a waste anyway. Later my advisors wouldn't publish my epilepsy work because we couldn't get a patent out of it, and that had been a waste too.

I was completely traumatized by killing rats. It was because I realized that death is more than a whoosh and a thud. It takes quite a lot to kill a body that is healthy, and that has been programmed in nearly every way possible to survive. Death is not painless for the sufferer of it or for the ones who love the dying/dead individual. A heart may go whoosh and thud when a loved one dies, but then there is the long while of wanting to share stories and not being able to, wanting advice and not being able to ask for it, just wanting to be close and not being able to. Even rats desperately miss their loved ones. It seems like it is so much harder for humans. September 11th mopped me up for 6 months. (It did that to lots of people around me too. There wasn't much smiling by any of us until the spring came.) I only went to ground zero because I needed to stay with the group I was with when we were in New York. I felt the same way when Carl wanted to go to a German concentration camp with me. I especially hated the gas chambers. I have a feeling that it wasn't a whoosh and thud sort of experience for the people who died in them.


I made the mistake last week of listening to a short story from Ford County by John Grisham which is out on audiobook. I don't actually like John Grisham but his audiobooks are abundant, readily available and cheap and I had a lot of driving to do. The second short story was about the death penalty and it ended cold after a description of the convicted dying as he inhaled sulfuric acid fumes and cyanide. The description matched the deaths of rats in a gas chamber and left me with unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and memories (many of which are unloaded above). Maybe that was the point of the story, or maybe the author was trying to create unpleasant thoughts, emotions and memories because he thinks we (the audience) are lacking our own.

To brighten my mood, I put on some old conference addresses and started thinking about getting my house ready for Christmas. I listened to Pres. Hinckley talk about the power of forgiveness and Elder Nelson talk about the healing power of Christ. Somehow those two talks mingled with the sense of Christmas and it occurred to me that the real reason for celebrating Christmas is because we can forgive. Everyone always emphasizes giving, or being forgiven, but I think that better than either of those is that because Christ was born, we can forgive. That said, I am not sure what forgiveness really is. Once I was mad at a sibling and I wanted to not be angry any more and it was hard to stop. I was reading Leviticus one night and as I read about a sacrifice where a goat gets chased over the edge of a cliff, I felt all of my anger fall off the edge of that idea of a cliff. I have been able to let anger go ever since even if the situation that makes me angry hasn't stopped. I think forgiving is also being able to let go of hurt and that has been harder for me. But as I felt the Christmas spirit come upon me, I felt like I could let hurting go as well and I think I can stop feeling traumatized by death.


Carroll said...

Good writing. Sorry you had to kill rats. I think you might have post traumatic syndrome. I truly am sorry you had to go through that. Your experience shows the power of the Gospel of Christ in comforting and healing. Thanks for your stories, I enjoyed them. Good writing.

mim said...

Maybe I do have PTSD. I think I'll be okay though.