A Life Filled with Violence

Firefighter wiping away a tear at a 9/11 memorial event.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Firefighter wiping away a tear at a 9/11 memorial event. Photo by Callen Harty.

My mind and my heart are still numb from the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Days later it continues to stay on my mind. The shooting resonated in the country primarily because of the children. They were defenseless, innocent, and if someone can go into an elementary school, a movie theater, or a temple and start killing people who are going about their business in peace, then nobody is safe. The seemingly endless violence in my country has been intruding itself upon my dreams and waking thoughts. Today a man in Colorado killed his ex-girlfriend and two of her relatives and then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. Two days ago Chicago suffered its 500th murder of the year, and there are still two weeks to go. One cannot escape the killing and violence. It seems impossible in this life to avoid it, even when striving to live a life of peace.

I am only one man, a life-long pacifist, and the violence that has intruded upon my life–not counting mass killings of strangers far away from where I live–has been astounding.

Many of my relatives and ancestors served in the military. My fourth great-grandfather on my mother’s side fought in the Revolutionary War.

There is a book on the Black Hawk War in which I found descriptions of my great-great-grandfather Absalom and his brother Halstead participating in the Battle of Bad Axe, one of the bloodiest and most violent of the battles of that war. There is one very detailed description of my great-great grandfather killing one of Black Hawk’s men. That man’s genes are in me.

Many of my uncles served in World War II. It was their generation’s calling. As I was growing up I was told that my Uncle Lyle was never the same after he came back from serving in that war. He was a good and gentle man but he had many strange mannerisms and no sense of personal space. In my memory I don’t recall him ever holding a full-time job. I remember he worked doing odd jobs around my home town. Today I believe he would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With or without the diagnosis I believe he was a casualty of war.

My father also served in World War II, in the South Pacific. One day while rummaging through old papers and military items in a box in a closet near my father’s old Brownie camera I found several pictures of dead Japanese soldiers. I was haunted by those pictures for years and even incorporated that discovery into a play I wrote that was based on a murder in my home county, a murder in which the sitting judge murdered a lawyer.

My oldest brother used to get into fights regularly, after which he or the other guy would often be bloodied and hurt. Fights were common on the playground and around town back then.

That brother later served in the Navy and his son in the Marines.

We lived in a small town, one of those places that are supposed to be free from violence and horrific death. I remember my mother telling a story of a man–I believe from our town–who had jumped off of the Julien Dubuque Bridge into the Mississippi River at nearby Dubuque, Iowa. He died in the fall. That and some words about dragging the river for his body is all I remember of the story, but the image of a man jumping from the bridge that we traveled over quite often was seared into my consciousness. I think it came back to me every time we crossed the river.

Once, while visiting friends of my mother in Savanna, Illinois, my birthplace and another Mississippi River town, her friends shared the story of a man across the street who had recently drowned his wife in the bathtub. They talked of it in hushed tones so that we children wouldn’t hear, but I listened carefully just around the corner in the next room.

Several of my friends were bullied at school. One of my friends was bullied relentlessly by one group of boys. One time the bullies made him get on his hands and knees like a dog and fetch sticks for them. He had two choices, to submit to the humiliation or submit to a beating for not doing what he was told. He accepted the emotional violence over the physical.

There were a couple kids that I bullied on occasion, too–little brothers of friends of mine–and I am still ashamed of that. I was short and a little more bookish than most and probably felt I needed to prove myself to my friends.

I remember other kids doing things like pulling wings off of flies, burning ants with magnifying glasses, and pouring gasoline down a gopher hole and setting it afire. There was no respect for non-human life.

When I was still a child, starting at ten, I was sexually abused. It included rape. To my knowledge I suffered no physical damage, but the emotional damage was intense and still occasionally gets triggered and causes issues even decades later.

I have met too many people to count or to even begin to name, men and women, who have been sexually abused or raped, and others who were victims of domestic violence.

Once in my teen years I used a bb gun at the farm of a friend. With the encouragement of the other kids there I shot and killed a sparrow. I have never forgiven myself.

There was a bully who lived not too far from me. I used to imagine standing up to him. Once I had a pocket knife and pretended that a tree was him and I stabbed at it furiously. The knife stuck. My hand slid. Fortunately I was not hurt badly. Fortunately it was a tree.

My cousin Rick served in the jungles of Viet Nam. He also died in Viet Nam after stepping on an American booby trap. His death and funeral changed me forever. It was a closed casket because the bomb had caused so much damage. There was an American flag draped over the casket and there was a three-gun salute, both of which disturbed my young heart and mind. I became a pacifist by the time I was a teenager, primarily because of processing Rick’s death and funeral.

In high school the mother of one of the kids in my school put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. She was the first person I knew of to commit suicide.

In college one of the nicest kids on the second floor of Horan Hall where I lived was found hanging in his dorm room.

A friend of mine in Platteville graduated from the university there with a degree in criminal justice. His first job out of college was as a prison guard at a federal prison. One of the prisoners there wanted to join an underground prison gang. His assignment was to kill a prison guard. He did and there was one less person in my world.

My other brother had a knife pulled on him in an alley in Madison, Wisconsin. He managed to knock it out of the person’s hand and run away.

My friend Tom picked up a stranger for sex and had a knife pulled on him. He was robbed and the robber fortunately left without inflicting any damage.

My friend Thom was beaten by several men with brass knuckles and ended up hospitalized.

One evening in Denver I responded to the ringing of the buzzer in my friend Charlie’s apartment. He lived across the hall from an apartment where an old man had been murdered at some point shortly before I had moved into the building. Charlie was the apartment manager, but was out for the night and had said I could watch football in his apartment. When the buzzer rang I couldn’t understand the person on the intercom, so I went downstairs and opened the door to a man bleeding profusely from a knife wound to his gut. I took him inside to the bathtub, got wet washrags and towels, and did what I could to stop the bleeding, then told him I would call an ambulance. He told me that if I called an ambulance he would fucking kill me. A couple hours later, with a couple other friends involved, an ambulance was called. The EMTs said that if it had been too much longer he would have died. By then he was gurgling as he tried to breathe and was spitting up blood from a puncture to his lung.

My first cousin’s wife, Eleanor, was killed in the Dane County Courthouse, along with one other, when an angry shooter entered the building and started to fire at random. He killed Eleanor, injured a man who was paying a parking ticket, and then killed the county coroner before the police shot and injured him.

I was introduced to a man one time who went by the name of Cowboy. I recall being angry at my friend for introducing him as I had seen the guy around downtown and he had always given me an incredibly uneasy feeling. Later, when I was living in Denver, I heard that Cowboy had been arrested with several other men for killing someone who wanted to join some kind of gang they had formed. They killed the man, cut off his penis, and shoved it into his mouth.

One time in the back yard of a housing co-operative where I lived, a man sat at the picnic table across from me as he was asking for a favor and told me how he had killed a man in Los Angeles. He indicated he had served time for it. I couldn’t tell if he was serious about it, but I understood the underlying threat was meant to be serious.

My friend Dan lost his father to murder when he was in high school. Dan was also abused as a child and raped as an adult. Dan killed himself by overdosing on pills and drowning in his own vomit.

I came close to killing myself three times.

My friend Earl was stabbed seventeen times and survived the ordeal, only to be found dead several months later in Superior, Wisconsin, beaten to death by someone who claimed Earl had tried to hit on him.

My friend Arno used to be a racist skinhead. He used to beat the hell out of people just because they were of a different color or sexual orientation. Had our paths crossed years ago instead of the last couple of years he might have beaten me bloody for what he now celebrates about me.

Others have threatened to beat or kill me. For being gay I have had beer bottles thrown out of car windows at me and I have had my life threatened, as well as endured other verbal violence. Fortunately I have so far avoided any followthrough on those threats.

I am one man, and a man of peace, whose life has intersected with this much violence. I don’t think that I’m the only one.

I believe that we live in a violent world and the likelihood of going through a lifetime without being impacted by violence in some way is very slim. But I also believe that killing is wrong. I believe that violence is wrong, whether it is physical, sexual, emotional, or another kind. I believe strongly that we need to find a better way.

To achieve a world of non-violence I believe that we need to start with ourselves. We need to find peace within ourselves and live and act in a peaceful way as we move through the world. It cannot guarantee that we won’t be affected by violence, but it can guarantee that we won’t be part of the violence. I have said it before, but I truly believe that I would rather die violently than live violently. If it comes down to a decision between killing others to protect myself or dying at their hands, then the others can kill me, because I don’t want to live in that world and my conscience could not survive even if my body did.

Once a person has found that interior peace then it can be extended to others. To end the senseless violence in this world we need to actively promote peace and build community. We can take all the guns away, and maybe all the knives, too, but a man with murder in his heart can find a way. Cain and Abel did not have guns. Murder has been with us since the beginning of the human race. To overcome the violence we need a new way of thinking. We need to connect with the core of our humanity.

We also need governments that lead by example, that don’t settle differences by immediately going to war. We need religious leaders who don’t just say “thou shalt not kill”, but also back it up by fighting against capital punishment, who don’t cover up for sexual abusers, who stand for peace and lead by living it. We need people to get to know each other, particularly those who are different or perceived as somehow being “other”. We need to celebrate our differences, not disparage them. We need a sense of community and a sense of family that have been lost for years and years.

A person can live in an apartment building and never know the people living next door, can go to work with the same people day after day and never really know who they are, can communicate with thousands of people online but know nothing about them but superficialities. We need to have neighborhood parties. We need to sit down with friends over cups of coffee. We need to nurture families of choice, whatever those families look like. And we need to be more empathetic. We need to think as others might think, to put ourselves in their shoes and understand how others really feel. We need to listen.

What we will find is that we are enriched by opening ourselves more fully to the human experience and the human community. We are all one under the sun. While we may be different on the surface (and we can learn from those differences and appreciate them) we all are essentially alone. We all need love. We all need friendships. We all need community. We all need peace. We can only achieve it by working together respectfully and with love. We do all have that capacity for love and respect within us, so we can get there together. In love and community I commit to work with others to get us there.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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One Response to A Life Filled with Violence

  1. Betty says:

    Callen my brother please keep working on forgiving yourself for the times you were not perfect. None of us has always made the right choices, but you do better than most. Your kind presence and courage makes the world a gentler and healthier place.

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