“After working with suicidal kids for a while,” said Daniel Stoddard Gruber, “I have these ridiculous ‘Why Not To Kill Yourself' spiels.”
“Let’s hear them,”
“I’m in the back of a pick-up truck, driving up a mountainside in Southern Cameroon. We’re driving up to these crater lakes—lakes that are created by asteroids— so they’re deep and bizarre-looking and gorgeously colored. We’re going up this mountain plateau and I’m holding onto the back of the truck and I look up and there’s a full circular rainbow around the sun. A full circle.” He held up his index finger and thumb in a small circle. “And around that there’s another full circle. So it’s two double circular rainbows around the sun. Perfect. All colors. Full circles. I had never seen a circular rainbow. I didn’t know they existed. And the kids”—he means the suicidal ones—“are like, ‘So what? What’s the point of your story? Rainbows are good or something? That seems kind of gay.’ ‘No,’ I say. ‘No matter how depressed I was before, all of it is worth being able to see those two circular rainbows.’ Then the kid usually says”—Daniel deepens his voice—“ ‘What do you mean? Expect me to go to Africa?’ And I’m like, ‘Sure.’
“What?" Daniel roughened his voice again.
“How old are you?” Daniel, talking to me, looked over his right shoulder at an imaginary kid, then turned back to me when the teenager responds.
“Yeah, you can go do this stuff. Join the Peace Corps. Join the military."
“Sometimes if it’s a boy you get more into the future. There’s only one reason to stick around: to see all the cool stuff that’s going to come out in the next fifteen years. I tell them about the future in artificial intelligence and the crazy virtual reality computer games they’re going to be playing. Even if life sucks, you should at least be around to see what’s going to happen next.”
When Daniel was a boy he thought it outrageous that killing yourself could be illegal. “How could anything be so ridiculous? This is your body.” Now he disagrees. Recently he said to a kid, “I don’t think you have the right to commit suicide. And one of the more basic reasons is you didn’t create your body. It isn’t something you made. You can make a cup and smash it on the ground. But you have nothing to do with your creation.”
To me he said, “That person is pulled out of society, gone.” He snapped his fingers. “Just because they felt like dying that day? We’re all going to have days when we want to die. And anyone who says they don’t is probably lying, or kind of shallow.”
* * *
Daniel feels he is both the smartest and the dumbest person in the room. He is arrogantly doubtful and selfishly selfless. The last two words hold each other in them. To pretend they are opposites is like trying to pretend you can tack “un” onto the beginning of a word and negate its existence. This is not a story about negating existence. It’s a story about verifying it. It’s a story about what it means to witness: that is, to bear testimony. “To affix one’s signature to (a document) to establish its identity.” From witness (n.) (Online Etymology Dictionary). As if a look could sign something into existence. As if it needed an official stamp. Like the signatures that certify a marriage, a death, a birth; business letters; grocery receipts stuffed down the side of a car door, a dustbin, a back pocket.
But witnessing is not a one-way process, and I am more interested in the signatures left on Daniel than what Daniel has scrawled onto the world: in how Daniel reads these signatures.
I am interested in why witness (n.) was the literal translation of Greek, martys, martyr, and if it means the same thing.
* * *
Jolicoeur School, run by Easter Seals, is a melting pot of some of the most difficult kids in the Northeast. The worst, Daniel says: boys and girls, men and women who are still being treated as boys and girls, nine-year-olds and nineteen-year-olds who will leave at twenty-two, people who have been kicked out of five or fifteen institutions, those who have nowhere else to go. Jolicoeur—it means happy heart—is the end of the line. Daniel worked there for almost two years as a paraprofessional and substitute teacher. “The great thing about these classrooms is that you have diverse diagnoses. So you would have a kid with oppositional defiance disorder next to a kid with PTSD next to a kid who is hypersexual next to a kid who has borderline personality disorder. Then the fifth kid would have all four of those diagnoses.”
When Daniel laughs he bobs his head. “When I first got hired I loved the place. So amazing, no reject, no eject.” Easter Seals accepts everybody and expels no one. “After a couple years of working there I’m like, ‘Oh my god. Can’t we just reject this person? They’ve been killing all their neighbor’s cats.’ ”
At first I thought Daniel was joking. He wasn’t. “The neighbor’s animals had been disappearing. And he had sexually assaulted both of his younger siblings and showed up at his stepmom’s with a backpack full of—literally the file said—‘murder supplies.’ He was fourteen. I read his file and I’m like, ‘Wow, this guy sounds like a serial killer. I’m going to be really nice to him.’We got along great.”
The kids—that’s how Daniel refers to them—called him Shaggy-Haired Man. “I look kind of dorky—button-up shirts, glasses, lame hair—but if I joke around they can tell I’m on the—on the down low.” It sounds like he had to urge himself to say it. “I can’t believe I said that. That I’m chill.”
Daniel has dressed in khaki slacks and leather shoes since middle school, when everyone else wore jeans and sneakers. His haircut has lasted almost as long. He is twenty-seven and he wears a bowl cut. His thin, sandy-colored hair borders on ginger. “I actually trimmed my beard before I showed up to look nice for you,” he said. When Daniel laughs you can see most of his teeth. The front teeth bend slightly inwards. He has a small spot underneath his left eye. He wears a grey hoodie over his button-up shirt, and nearly always, a green baseball cap with a Bass Pro Shop logo: a bass, mouth open, jumping into a yellow circle. His black rimmed glasses are similar to the four other pairs he says kids at Jolicoeur broke off his face.
“The first one was in the principal’s office. A kid I was close to barged in. I was trying to explain expectations and she got mad so quickly she slapped me across my face so hard”—in smooth slow motion Daniel slapped his cheek with his left hand, and as it connected his right hand swept his glasses off in an arc away from his face—“so hard that my glasses broke as they flew across the room.” He crossed his arms, frowned, playing principal. “I was really close to that kid. Sweet woman. Crazy woman. Low functioning. She was really clever.”
Daniel has a different gesture for every couple of syllables, his own sign language. Even when he drives, his hands move with the story. They fold and unfold, make shapes, break shapes, arc, halt. Sometimes he forgets to put them back on the wheel. He talks like he’s changing the shape of his words. He stretches them out, chops them up, and distorts them with his laughter.
“I got this older kids’ class, seventeen-year-olds, a class of six. Three of them had stabbed someone.” He held up his right hand up and counts off on his fingers. “One of them stabbed their dad, one of them stabbed a taxi driver, one of them stabbed a peer. No one died. Fourth one set his school on fire. One kid had just come up from the Deep South and within the first ten minutes he told me he was going to tie me to a chair and use a bolt and a hammer to smash out all my teeth. He said he had seen it before, in person.
“Mostly they do it for the reaction––to see if they can get you. They’re going to try to do everything to get you. They start insulting you. So you”—he scrunched up his face and studied me. “Your eyes look like poop,” he said. “Your nose is too long. Your hair is greasy. Your shirt, what is it, spring time?” He glared at my loose, white blouse. His eyebrows drop into a “V” with calligraphy curls.
“So they wait for your reaction and they find it. ‘Your mom is stupid.’ And maybe your mom died in a car accident or something. Then they latch onto that and use it every day. Or they would be really nice to you but if you piss them off they remember that one thing you were sensitive about. If they knew you had kids they would remember it, and a year from then, or six months from then, when you upset them they would use it. ‘I’m going to find your kid and run over them with a car.’ ”
* * *
Daniel cares about these kids. It comes through. Maybe it’s the frankness you only use with a sibling or a close friend, when there’s intimacy in the mocking. Maybe it’s the energy he gives to the stories. His mother, Patience, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley, says he was disappointed when assigned to the older kids’ class. He prefers working with teenage girls and children. Daniel describes himself as maternal: “I was going to say paternal but I’m more maternal when it comes to people who are having a hard time.” Patience says he didn’t like the older boys at Jolicoeur. He hated the way they talked about women. He hated the way they talked about sex. He thought them sexually aggressive. Racist. Horrible.
“They ended up loving me,” said Daniel. He meant the older boys. His voice rose on “loving,” a triumphant jump. “I got moved to elementary, and when they announced I was going to leave, the kids ran up and picked me up, and locked me in the bathroom. Then they berated the poor young woman who took over from me. She only made it a month.”
I asked Daniel what would be that one thing for him, the thing kids could latch onto and use to get a reaction. He said he had been an oblivious kid, the type who would worry about his bully’s family life. Later I learn that threatening his sister, Allison, might be that one thing. She’s his only sibling, his only explanation as to why he prefers working with teenage girls, and the only reason I’ve ever heard him give for threatening to hurt someone.
When Daniel’s alone, he either thinks negative thoughts about himself or tries to distract himself. Music used to be distracting. Now sugaring works, sometimes. Making maple syrup: stoking the fire in a little, wooden shed with his red oven gloves while smoke circles through the shaft of light in the ceiling, sweet and woody, and the syrup bubbles thicker and darker with each passing minute. Daniel taps it off before it burns.
He wants to be influential. At a national level, a global level. When he was in 3rd grade, Daniel stayed up to watch the Republican National Convention. He majored in political science at American University, interned at Capitol Hill, and by twenty-one was responding to letters addressed to his congressman, Paul Hodes, with a lot of words that felt like they meant nothing. He cut and pasted bits of approved language. In response to a concern about too many trees being felled he wrote things like, “As a congressman from New Hampshire I take the environment very seriously. I’ve enjoyed the outdoors throughout my life. I will continue to work tirelessly to protect the environment and everything in it.” He fed lies through phone lines, lamented the bad politics of it all—more than immoral he thought it stupid to try to please everyone by pleasing no one—made the most money he ever has, spent the most money he ever has, was miserable, depressed, and on occasion, broke.
At the end of a bad day Daniel would walk through the tunnels connecting his office to Capitol building, stride under the painted gods of the rotunda, and exit the front steps, “You know where you see the President swearing in?” At least he got to walk down those steps.
The eight-story building he lived in had an unlocked door to the roof above his apartment. He would sit on the gravel floor next to the old elevator’s open motor and listen to its exposed cables move and its wheels turn as he looked across at Washington National Cathedral.
There were five months when Daniel stopped going up to the roof. Five months when he always stood three steps from the edge of the metro platform. Three steps he trusted himself not to take. One, he wasn’t so sure. “If I had a momentary lapse in reason or a moment of insanity, or if a neuron misfired,” he said, “I knew I wouldn’t be able to talk myself out of it quick enough.” It was as easy and as hard as one step.
When Daniel is fishing at his family cabin at Brant Lake, steps become irrelevant. He visualizes what’s underneath the boat, or at the end of his line. His fingertips wait on the fishing twine for a tug. A nibble. A bite. On the lake at four o’clock in the morning, when the mist rises, he is enveloped in calm. One night, as a child, unable to sleep, he told his mother he didn’t believe in God. “I think fishing is his church,” she says. “It’s where he feels the most at peace.” It’s where he’s not the martyr but the martyr-maker, and if he’s saving something it’s because he was the one who put metal in its mouth and hauled it to air.
* * *
Daniel quit his job at Capitol Hill to volunteer in Cameroon as a medicine deliveryman on a motorcycle. He stayed in the small town of Belo, in a little yellow house whose floors were patterns of cracks. The door handle didn’t work, so Daniel locked himself in at night, unable to leave until the cook came in the morning. At nightfall a pack of stray dogs, sometimes five, sometimes twenty, gathered at the back door, drawn by the butchery behind the house. Their fights and scavenging became the sound of dark.
In the morning Daniel would pick up antiretroviral drugs from the local hospital, along with malaria medication, dysentery drugs or whatever assortment of pills patients needed that day, and deliver them to villages around Belo. One of the boys he visited everyday was Stephan.
When Daniel called on Stephan near the end of his stay Stephan's grandmother was poking at the fire with a stick. She greeted him and motioned with her head inside the square, mud-bricked hut with a tin roof. Inside was dark and stuffy. In Cameroon it is common to build a fire in the house. The windows were covered with plastic. “I can almost smell the smoke of that hut,” Daniel said. Stephan stood naked by the window. Sweat dripped off him. A stained, yellow mosquito net was draped around his body.
A doctor told Daniel Stephan’s t-cell count was so low he was walking dead. Another boy whose house Daniel visited that day, Rickson, was the same. Daniel went home and poured himself a glass of whiskey. He thought about Precious, Rickson’s ten-year-old sister, and the look he’d seen on her face as she stood outside the door of their hut, then followed him to the bed in which her brother lay dying. “I don’t know if I’ve seen that look since then,” he said.
* * *
When I asked Daniel what he likes about himself he said he should be lying down on the couch, I in the leather chair with my notebook. “What is this, a therapy session?” he said. He found some things: He likes that he’s good with kids. He likes that his impulse is to be kind. He likes that he doesn’t hate anyone other than himself. He likes that his instinct is to run towards the noise. He’s good at deescalating people, bringing them out of flashbacks and back to the reality of Jolicoeur’s cold rooms. There were points at Jolicoeur when Daniel averaged five to ten “restraints” a week. A “restraint” is holding someone still until they are safe enough to be released, safe enough from themselves, safe enough to be around other people. “We were trained not to talk to the kids but I would always talk to them while they were restrained. While they were screaming. Sometimes while they were spitting in my face.” Laughter rose to the surface of his words.
“The other reason I thought it was important to explain verbally to kids is: Imagine a girl who has been sexually assaulted being restrained by three grown men. I mean, talk about traumatic. So I would talk with them in a very calm––it sounds so funny trying to explain this––very calm smooth, tone, just like I’m talking right now.” His voice was soothing. He became still.
“And as long as you keep an even tone, repeat some basic things like, ‘It’s okay. You’ll get through this,’ you could cut the restraint time by half or by ninety-five percent. We had two ex-NFL players on our staff and they were wonderful. One of them was 6′5′′, arms the length of this building, used to be a receiver. He would be in restraints all day long and I never saw him injure a kid. Thing is if you’re really big and if you know what you’re doing, to restrain someone all you do is hug them.” He wrapped his arms around himself. “So you can either be physically big or you can be the opposite, and I was the opposite.” Most of the boys were bigger than Daniel, but he’s not as scrawny as he made himself sound.
“The screaming. You get used to the screaming.”
I asked Daniel why he was so flippant in his telling. He said, “People get a callousness to them after they’ve seen this stuff for a while but you can’t ever do that, even if you’ve seen it a million times. You can’t become callous.” He said kids with trauma like to test you. “ ‘I was raped by my brother.’ That would be a good test.” Girls had whispered things like this in his ear. “They look to see a reaction. And the usual response is, ‘I’m so sorry.’ ” His voice thinned and he patted my shoulder. “Broken leg syndrome will turn kids off in a second. They’re not a wounded bird that needs to be pooh-poohed. They’re a human being that has lived with that for much of their lives. So you acknowledge it. You say, ‘I’m really sorry that happened to you. You are not alone in this.’ Later I tell them, ‘If you can make it through this, think about all the people you can help who have gone through the same things.’ ” Pity, he believes, doesn’t go well with troubled people. They’ll manipulate to get it if it gets them somewhere. The tricky thing, especially with younger kids, is to figure out if they are manipulating or if they’re actually dealing with something.
“In my first class a freshman came in, and lay down, sobbing, shaking with sorrow. I went in to try figure what was going on and he kept mumbling something. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Eventually I heard it: ‘Wilson, Wilson.’ ” Daniel sobbed, rocking. It seemed like he was mocking the kid but he wasn’t. “We had no idea what was going on and ended up calling his home to ask if there was a death in the family. Because we had got out of the midst of things that someone had died. Wilson had died. His parents said it was his little fish, named Wilson.”
Daniel compared this to another child on the autism spectrum who told how someone burglarized his house, killed his bird, then came upstairs to kill him. “The burglar shot at him with a machine gun and his cat jumped into the air, taking the bullet to save his life.” Daniel laughed lighter. “He was doing anything he could think of in his little mind of how to get some pity out of me so I would play games with him instead of making him do work. His bird died, cat died, he got shot at. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. He was totally beside himself, sobbing.”
* * *
After Jolicoeur, Daniel worked as a program assistant at Brattleboro Retreat, a mental health and addiction treatment center. At Jolicoeur, at Brattleboro Retreat, in Cameroon, Daniel witnessed. People. His gaze became, for him, the evidence of their experience.
“We had a female pedophile who would shake you in a second. In a wheelchair, her legs didn’t work. She wore a ghetto hat, short hair. She was a predator. She would go after the young girls. And she manipulated staff so she would get the hot young staff. If you came in and she would try to get you to push her around in a wheelchair. Most people, when you present them with a pedophile––they want space. It’s natural. But those people are still human even if a lot of their humanity isn’t in them anymore. So an insane person—the girl who ripped her face off—how are you supposed to deal with somebody like that? With care? Dare I say, love?” He pronounced “love” like something dark and heavy.
Daniel didn’t report the older teenagers who lit up cigarettes when they walked outside. “If any of the kids I worked with died of lung cancer that would be a success. In the next ten years most of them will be in jail or dead from overdose. Or suicide.”
He said even if two out of a hundred clients didn’t end up dead or in jail, it was worth it. “But that’s a narrow definition of success.” He taught a child to find wild grapes and twigs that tasted like mint and about mica. “For the next two weeks he was teaching every kid he met about mica. ‘Look that’s mica.’ ” Daniel pointed to the ground, his finger touching the dirt. “That’s a success story. It does matter if they don’t graduate high school. It does matter if they don’t ever go to jail. But that shouldn’t be what success is. You know the pipeline to jail? We’re part of that pipeline. Success stories are not the norm, they’re the outliers. So very early on your expectation wasn’t to save anybody. There’s no saving people. You can pull somebody out of a river but they have to still breathe.”
He said of a girl who banged her head against the wall—“a giant head, the size of both our heads together”—“maybe she bangs it a little less.”
There was a boy with Tourette’s syndrome who had a compulsion of saying “nigger.” Over a hundred times an hour. Daniel took the boy fishing. It was the first time he stopped saying the word. The first time they had something you might call a conversation. Daniel gave him a little fishing box with bright lures, a rod, a card, and his favorite childhood Guide to Fishing.
Daniel believes in Freud’s pleasure principle, that we are driven to seek pleasure and avoid pain. He believes in psychological egoism, that everything we do is out of self-interest. “I’ve never had any illusions that being a humanitarian is anything other than selfish,” he said. He believes that true altruism does not exist. “Take Jesus,” he said, “the traditional Western example of pure altruism. Say somehow I knew I could save every single person on earth and all I had to do was suffer an extraordinary amount and then get killed. I couldn’t imagine anything more selfish. I would be hurting but man, right before I died, I would feel so wonderful. I’d be like, ‘Wow, I just sacrificed everything. Well done.’ ”
Daniel does not believe he is God. He does not believe he can save anybody. To save is a person is to rob them of their agency. Only God can do that kind of plunder.
* * *
It’s the little things that trip Daniel up. The stuff of sticky notes. To-do lists, people whose names become to-do lists, copied and pasted forward to another day, another month, another year, another time in which he hopes to become someone different.
It’s the little productive things. The emails that don’t seem important enough to write. The emails that become too important to write. The ticket he got for having an outdated registration, the one Daniel put on his windshield, the $50 ticket for which he wrote the check but for which he didn’t buy a stamp, the one he never mailed, the one that became a court case for driving on a suspended license. It’s the small, productive things that get him down.
Daniel feels he has five thoughts per one thought of everyone else, but that their one thought is more productive than his five. He can’t deal with life on life’s terms. That’s an expression he learnt in Alcoholics Anonymous. He stopped drinking when he returned from Cameroon.
When he’s in a high stress classroom or a residential unit, Daniel can focus. He can show up to the world, present, his mind quiet, the numbness lifting, able to feel the sharpness of the needlepoint that is the positive. “He has to be summoned by the experience,” says Patience. Interacting and reacting to people is instinctual for him. He doesn’t have to think. Pacing a unit feels lighter than strolling alone.
The hardest person he had to deal with was an woman with borderline personality disorder. For the first six months Daniel was careful, but over time they ended up getting close.
One Thanksgiving Daniel was assigned to her one-on-one. “She’s so severe in her behaviors that a staff member is with her at all times. She’d do things like swallow pins to go to the hospital. Or run into the street trying to get hit by a car. Horrible shit. Attack people. I saw her once lunge, jump on top of—like you see a lion jump onto a wildebeest and go for the neck—she jumped onto a girl and started pulling out her hair.”
Daniel said that she ran out the building that day. He managed to get her back in. She escaped again, through the one window in the administrative wing. He jumped out after her. “We ended up having a couple of good times that day but she kicked me in the balls three times. She tried more than that. She was the best. I miss that girl, and I literally may never have children because of that lady.”
* * *
A few weeks after I met Daniel, he lost his job at Brattleboro Retreat. He had wanted to leave. He’d had enough clerical. He said he wanted to be with kids again, that he believed Brattleboro was slacking on safety, that he was done being screamed at for trying to fix broken rules, that he was convinced someone was going to kill themselves soon, that he didn’t want to be around to witness it, to feel that he could have done something more, to be left with a weight that couldn’t be released with the fish he hooked. He took to gardening.
* * *
We watched a cardinal preen itself in the branch above. There was a gentle rustling. Daniel sang. “Summertime, and the living is easy.” He tapped his fingers against the ends of the chair’s wooden arms. “Fish are jumping and the cotton is high.” His legs stretched out and crossed on the stool in front of us. “Your daddy’s rich and your mamma’s good-looking.” His voice was dark maple syrup over gravel. “Oh, so hush little baby. Don’t you cry.”
He let the beat carry him through the slowness of the song. It was a voice I hadn’t heard. “One of these mornings you’re going to rise up singing. You’re going to spread your wings and head to the sky. But ’til that morning there ain’t nothing can harm you. Oh, so hush little baby. Don’t you cry.”
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.