How many police does it take to calm my son down? One? Two? Three? The answer is nine: four pairs of officers and one detective. The scene unfolded one Friday afternoon on a slow-crime day in the suburbs. On a busy street, a group of strangers with cell phones saw a 16-year-old boy strike a 50-year-old man and felt compelled to respond. They didn’t know that this father and son could work out their differences. They only saw violence and wanted it to end.
That day, I’d suffered a blow to my back, a smack to my forehead, and a litany of insults. In my moments of blind fury in the past, I’d told myself that someday I’d give my son the ass-kicking he deserved, certain that the remorse I’d feel afterward wouldn’t diminish the gratification of causing him pain. I know how awful that may sound, but that’s how crazy he’d often made me.
Even though he looked fit, my son was actually in lousy shape. Cigarettes, drinking, and too much ice cream after midnight will do that to a person, even if he’s only 16. So I had these fantasies, a Technicolor array of revenge sequences—a blow to the midsection, a massive uppercut, and a well-positioned fist to the jaw. In my mind, I saw my son doubled over on the ground, unable to return my punches. But I could never hit him. I wouldn’t. Not then, not ever. Instead, I had to remind myself that my son was an emotionally troubled boy.
That hadn’t always been the case. When we adopted him at birth, he was perfect, a gift from God at a point when the anguish of infertility was becoming unbearable. As he grew older, he was charming, smart, and precocious, adored by everyone who knew him. Then over the years, for reasons my wife and I and the mental health professionals never quite understood, he grew increasingly volatile and unpredictable, given to sudden explosions of anger that slowly turned our love into pain.
Why does a boy strike his father? What makes him have fits of uncontrollable rage, then cling to his blanket like an infant, rub my back, and call me Daddy? How couldn’t he see that he loved me? How couldn’t he appreciate or understand my love for him?
At 6 p.m., I’d picked him up from his job. He’d been working at the carwash for two months and seemed to like it. It was a Friday night. He got in the car, handed me his paycheck, and asked me to cash it for him. The check was for $122. I took it and gave him $102 in return, knowing he’d never repay the $20 he’d borrowed from his brother, but failing to recognize the trigger a loss of $20 would become.
“What the fuck?!” he said.
“You owe your brother $20. I’ll give it to him for you.”
“No you won’t,” he snapped.
“Yes. I will,” I answered. “You agreed to this, remember?”
“Fuck that! Gimme the rest of the money,” he screamed.
I calmly said, “No. You have $100. What’s the problem?”
“It’s my goddamn money! Just give it to me!”
“If I don’t pay your brother, he’ll never get his money. It isn’t right that you take advantage of him.”
“I’ll fucking pay him!” he yelled.
“I’ll do it for you,” I insisted as his transformation began. I’d seen it happen so many times before: the cursing, the name-calling, the punching of the dashboard, and the kicking of everything within range. It was out of all proportion to the situation at hand. The Monster was back.
I pulled into the nearest parking lot and got out of the car. I tried to walk away, but he was on me, assaulting me with a barrage of insults and threats and, yes, a few blows. I continued to walk away.
After 15 minutes, when he saw me take out my cell phone, he yelled, “Did you call the cops?”
“No, I didn’t,” I answered. I didn’t have to; the drive-by witnesses had taken care of that.
Five minutes later, two officers arrived. Within 10 minutes, nine of them had surrounded us. The first to approach was a stocky young man with a shaved head and dark, narrow sunglasses. He looked like a polar bear with a buzz cut, and I’m sure that responding to a fight between a 16-year-old boy and his father was hardly his dream case for a Friday afternoon. This was no gang of criminals doing really bad stuff—just a nightmare situation for me.
“What’s going on?” asked the officer.
“My dad is being an asshole,” said my son.
“Whoa! Shut up and sit over there,” the officer said, pointing to the curb. “And if I hear another word out of you, you won’t have to worry about your father anymore.”
“He wants money,” I said, “but he owes his brother 20 bucks, and I’m not giving it to him. He started losing it in the parking lot at Dunkin’ Donuts. He punched my car. It’s new and I didn’t want it damaged, so I just walked away. And then he started threatening me.”
“Did he hit you?” asked the officer.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”
“Did he hit you!?” he asked again.
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“Look,” said the officer. “We’re not going to do anything you don’t want us to. We got a call. We have a witness who said he hit you. I just need to know for my report. Did he hit you?”
“Yes, he hit me,” I admitted, embarrassed that I’d raised a son who had no compunction about striking his father. “Can I just take him home? Usually you guys showing up is enough to calm him down.”
And then the litany of questions came: How old is he? Has this ever happened before? Is he on any medication? Is there someone he can stay with? Any siblings? Where’s his mother?
I said, “He’s 16. Yes. Yes. No. Two younger brothers incapable of anything like this. She’s on her way.” I also volunteered that my son had a probation officer.
“For what?” he asked.
“Assault,” I answered, scoffing because the probation was a joke. He had a curfew that he never made, a therapist he never saw, and a house he barely lived in.
At this point, I heard another officer ask my son, “What’s your problem?” But I couldn’t hear my son’s response. He wasn’t sitting on the curb anymore; yet another officer—I guess they all needed something to do—was escorting him into a police car. I glimpsed my son through the cruiser window. He looked nervous. Good, I thought.
Two years earlier, when my wife and I had accepted that we’d done all that we could on our own, we’d sent him to a therapeutic boarding school. After 15 months, they’d thrown him out. Now his old ways were returning. First it was the smoking, then the never coming home, then the drugs and the stealing and the relentless verbal abuse. He was putting us through hell, and we were out of money. Jail wouldn’t be so bad, I thought, besides, it’s free. I did a quick calculation in my head, a form of financial self-flagellation I liked to inflict on myself. We’d already spent over $100,000 on him. Yes, jail was looking like the fiscally advantageous option.
When my wife finally arrived in her SUV, she immediately began talking to one of the officers. Although there were a dozen people at the scene, I felt alone. I was frozen like a mosquito trapped in amber, looking out at a world I could see, but couldn’t control. The cars passed slowly, drivers and passengers craning their necks to get a glimpse of the spectacle that was the wreckage of my family.
My wife approached me. My anger had abated when the police arrived, but hers was palpable. She made it immediately obvious that she wanted our son to be arrested and taken away. If we brought him home, this would only happen again—that much she knew. We’d been through worse with him, but more often than not, we’d done nothing. “Go ahead and call the fucking police,” he’d say with a smirk on his face. “They won’t do shit.”
Of course, he was right. For years, he’d teetered on the edge of criminality, and the sluggishness of the justice system only empowered him to abuse us more. On more than one occasion, he’d threatened to kill me. But when I recorded one of his threats and played it in court, the judge simply ordered him to clean his room. We were his only victims, after all; society had yet to experience the full measure of his mental illness.
Over the years, the bigger he got, the more worried my wife became that he might hurt her or one of his brothers. There were times she’d have to lock herself in her room, crying and frightened as he pounded on the door, demanding whatever he wanted that she wouldn’t give him. Then I’d get her phone call, and eventually one of us would call the police before he started wrecking the house with his raging fists.
His growing sense of entitlement was coupled more and more with dangerous episodes of anger and violence. But today was the day of reckoning.
“Mr. Reiss,” the polar bear said, “what do you want to do?”
“Take him home,” I repeated. “Can I please just take him home?”
“I don’t want him in my house,” my wife yelled. “You have to press charges! Why won’t you press charges?”
I said nothing and walked away. I looked over to the police car where my son was sitting in the back seat, waving his hands like a person trying to flag down a car in traffic. He shook his head from side to side and mouthed the words no, no, no. He knew what his mother wanted, and maybe he knew what I’d been thinking. He was scared.
But I just couldn’t do it—I couldn’t have him arrested. How would I explain to his brothers that I’d locked him up? They wouldn’t understand. Despite what they’d witnessed in our home, I still wanted them to believe that their older brother was a good person.
So I walked back over to my wife: the woman I loved, my life partner, the mother of our children. She deserved so much more than this, so much more than me or this family, and I felt I’d let her down. Still I told her, “I can’t do it. I can’t have him arrested. Not for this.”
“Why not?” she asked, angry and pleading. “Why can’t you?”
“I just can’t. I won’t do it,” I said.
I saw the disgust on her face as she turned and walked away. I watched the policemen enter their respective vehicles and drive off. One of them had our son, but he wasn’t taking him to jail. He was taking him back to the Dunkin’ Donuts, where it all began over $20.
The truth is that I didn’t have any more faith in my son’s redemption than did the police or my wife. Maybe I should have allowed them to lock him up. Let him sleep on a cot or the floor. Let him know that his fist wouldn’t penetrate a cinder block as easily as it did sheetrock. Let him know that he wouldn’t set foot in my car or my home or my life again until love, respect, and kindness were his daily mantras. Maybe the message that day should have been absolute: violence is unacceptable. Violence has consequences. Violence means jail time.
Yet, with the choice before me—my son’s freedom or his captivity—I opted for freedom one last time, hoping that this memory of absolution might be a turning point toward a new direction. On a hot day in June, surrounded by anger and confusion, when my son’s world seemed to hang in the balance, I decided to give him the gift of forgiveness one more time. In spite of all my memories of the times he’d disappointed me, I prayed that my love and understanding would somehow sustain him through his troubling and unpredictable world, and that one day, in ways I couldn’t yet imagine, my faith in him would be rewarded.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz
Richard Reiss is the author of Desperate Love: A Father’s Memoir, published by Serving House Books.