A Child Like This


by Von Rowan


“Your son’s life is at stake, Ms. Rowan. I need you to tell me everything you can remember.”

I don’t want to remember, an inner voice screamed. For half a lifetime, I’d practiced not remembering. Now, with the telling, how would I ever forget? I gazed blankly into the intense blue eyes of the investigator sitting at the other side of the table—a stranger’s eyes asking, needing, demanding. Finally, I struggled backward into mind depths long untouched….


Jonathan Livingston Seagull was Gene’s favorite book. Perhaps it was because he related so well to the little bird. Like Jonathan, Gene was always different from the rest of the flock. Like Jonathan, Gene often faltered, stalled in the eyes of others. Like Jonathan, Gene reached to a higher vision, striving to be more than society claimed he was, and was misunderstood for his efforts.

The best memories I have of my son are of him as a child. I will always remember his childish laughter—so unrestrained and infectious as it rushed up from deep in his round Buddha-like belly, his head thrown back, his white-blond hair tousled every which way; his unrelenting energy; his curiosity that was never, ever satisfied; his ever-present pencil as he sketched whatever captured his imagination—mostly hearts (which, later, would always be bound in chains) and roses. His honesty: I don’t believe he ever lied to me about anything. He always told me the truth, even when he knew it would get him in trouble. His love of nature: he spent as much time as he could in the woods enjoying creation. His thoughtfulness and loving consideration for others: these arose partially from his life-long faith in a God who takes a personal interest in us.

Gene was a gentle, compassionate soul. His reluctance to harm any living thing made him the object of ridicule and bullying. Though he refused to defend himself, he was always quick to protect any creature too small or helpless to defend itself. His friends always tried to sneak their BB guns off into the woods without him, because he invariably prevented them from killing the birds and other small animals they hunted. Sometimes, at the precise moment they were about to pull the trigger, he deliberately bumped against them, throwing their aim off. Sometimes he simply grabbed the gun or looked for opportunities to hide it from the would-be hunter. Gene hated hunting. He was even known to rescue insects, picking them up and moving them out of harm’s way. For those who knew Gene well, his words, “Don’t kill it!” echo in our memories with a hollow irony.

His biological father was an emotionally distant, abusive man, diagnosed in his own youth as borderline psychotic —and the cause of one of my most vivid memories of Gene: A chubby little three-year-old sitting in my lap, tears streaming down his face, struggling to understand, pleading for answers. “Daddy doesn’t love us, Mama. Why doesn’t Daddy love us?”

And later, Gene waking in the night, screaming, clinging to me, begging me, “Daddy’s going to kill you, Mama!  Please make Daddy leave!” Ah, if only it had been so easy. Those were the days when you couldn’t make your husband leave unless he wanted to. I called the police for protection, once. I was told, “He’s your husband, Ma’am. There’s nothing we can do unless he kills you.” Oh, yes, those were the days.

So I looked for an opportunity, hoping my husband would let me live long enough to take advantage, and one day it came, and I ran. We made our escape, my children and I, in the middle of the day with little more than the clothes on our backs. My husband found us and expanded his abuse to include Gene, provoking an inner strength I hadn’t known I had. A year after I was finally able to get the man to leave our home, he didn’t even remember the children’s names.

I enrolled in college, and one day I was called out of class by a call from the day care. Gene, a classic asthmatic, had had an asthma attack. He stopped breathing and was turning blue. By the time the doctor saw him, Gene’s heart had stopped beating. The doctor injected adrenaline directly into his heart and revived him, but his young brain had been too long without oxygen and suffered permanent damage. And life for Gene became even more challenging. After he started school, it was found that his IQ was 72, creating a whole new set of problems for my once-bright little boy. But that wasn’t the worst.

I don’t know if the worst was the intense confusion that settled into and tortured his mind, or the compulsive thievery that took control of his behavior. I do know that both frustrated him fiercely.

The confusion prevented any self-definition. Compassion for others, understanding and tolerance for others— those things were second nature to him. No problem. It was understanding himself that was beyond his grasp.

His thefts tortured both of us. After stealing something, he often came to me crying passionately, “Why do I do it? I don’t WANT to do it! Why can’t I stop myself?”

And there were the voices in his head. “Please make them stop, Mama! Please, make them stop!” he pleaded with me. When I couldn’t, he punched his head frantically with both his fists or literally banged his head against the wall. He wanted to beat the voices out.

My heart wrenched for my son, the thief; for my son, the confused; my son with the voices in his head. My frustration, disappointment, anger were as great as his. I searched frantically for answers. I did research, I talked to people, I asked questions and made appointments. I had no answers. Nothing helped. At times I wanted to give up on him, because I felt I was fighting a losing battle, like nothing I could do was ever going to be good enough. But how do you give up on your kid? Especially how do you give up on one like him—one with this enormous loving, compassionate heart and totally confused mind and compulsions he can’t control. There were times I was so physically and emotionally exhausted from dealing with his problems and the backlash created by his stealing that I wanted to crawl into a hole and pretend it wasn’t happening. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t turn my back on him, because I knew HIM. I KNEW what he was going through; I saw it every day. Maybe it would have been different if he’d been mean and hateful and wanted to cause problems. But that wasn’t Gene. And no matter how tired, frustrated, and angry, I couldn’t abandon him like everyone else had—even though there came a time when the only thing I could do for him was to love him and not turn away.

We made the rounds of counselors, psychologists, guidance centers, to little avail. One day I introduced him to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Gene found a piece of himself in those pages, a piece he clung to with desperate hope. But it was not enough.

His thieving continued, and he developed a relationship with law enforcement that shadowed him the rest of his life. It was a relationship that mirrored those with his father and two stepfathers, one in which Gene was blamed and punished even for things he didn’t do, one of abuse and mutual distrust. He learned from that emerging relationship that even when he told the truth, he was not believed. His mind was not sophisticated enough to deal with such issues. His only source of self-defense was withdrawal and avoidance.

When he was ten years old, he broke into a man’s home, and juvenile court declared him uncontrollable. I found a Christian school and group home I felt could help him and notified the judge of my arrangements. Taking Gene to his new home was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. We both cried throughout the one-hour trip; I cried all the way home, feeling as though a part of myself was missing, as though I’d left a piece of my soul behind.

As a young adult, theft got him into prison. His confusion and distrust deepened, as did his mental and emotional struggle with himself. But it still wasn’t as bad as it was going to get.

My journal entry for September 3, 1994, begins: “My mind exploded today. It started with the usually innocuous ring of the phone.” The FBI was looking for Gene. Four people had been murdered across a three-state area, and they said Gene was traveling with the kid who had done it. Suddenly my mind was full of cotton, and my heart tried to remember how to beat. I did my best to understand what was being said to me, but the words just kept bouncing off all that cotton cushioning in my head. For the next two years, I floated around in shades of shock. I felt like my brain had been scrambled and nothing was where it was supposed to be. My memory from that time has huge gaps with nothing there, black holes of incomprehension.

But some things I do remember. Like the defense investigator sitting across the table from me, needing me to remember, for my son. Like the plague of reporters haunting the street in front of my house, because it was a national news story, replacing the O.J. Simpson trial as the top story for two weeks. Like asking three of my closest friends and family members one day if I was “losing it,” and none of them answering me, only staring at me with deep, unspeakable compassion in their eyes. Like agreeing to do an interview for a national program because Gene asked me to so I could tell his side of it, and then regretting it because I was so much in shock that it wasn’t me giving the interview, but some stiff, controlled, terrified, mindless robot on auto-pilot. Like my friends and family staying with me round the clock in pre-arranged shifts for weeks, because they didn’t want me to be alone. Like someone asking me if I’d eaten that day, and I couldn’t remember.

I remember the news media painting my gentle giant of a son as a brutal, “natural-born killer,” as the leader— even implying that his companion was his hostage. I understood why they did. Gene was physically the larger of the two, and chronologically, he was the older of the two. The media didn’t understand that mentally and emotionally he was an eight-year-old and as incapable of committing murder as he was of comprehending Einstein’s theory of relativity.

I remember Gene, stunned beyond belief when his attorney told him prosecutors would seek the death penalty. With a total lack of comprehension in his voice, he told me, “They want to kill me, Mom! How can they do that? I didn’t kill anyone!” I knew that he hadn’t. Gene was incredulously upset and angry with the other kid for killing those people. All the evidence being revealed pointed to his companion as the murderer, and as pieces of the puzzle fell into place, I understood how it had happened. Theft had been Gene’s only intention; his companion had taken it upon himself to commit the murders when left alone with the victims.

People asked repeatedly why he simply didn’t leave his companion and report to the police. How could I explain that? For Gene, turning to the police would have been like turning to his cold, abusive father for love and protection—for him, there was no difference between them.

He lived in an impenetrable fog of confusion, his thoughts a tangled mess that turned any linear thinking into a struggle. One of his many disorders made him incapable of even recognizing options, let alone choosing one. For you or me, the solution was clear, plain, simple. For Gene, it was like thinking his way through mud. For him, there was no solution.

At his trial, even the jury expressed their belief that Gene had not been the murderer and were reluctant to find him guilty. But because the murders occurred during the commission of a felony, and because Gene was involved in that crime, the law tied the jury’s hands concerning a conviction. According to the law, he was as guilty as if he had pulled the trigger.

I remember being told that the jury three times sent a message to the judge that they were hung on the sentence— equally divided and unable to agree. The third time was after midnight, and the judge sent a message back that they could not go home until they agreed. I remember collapsing, crumbling in on myself, when they announced “death, by lethal injection.”

And indelibly, wrenchingly, my memory of my son reverberates with the echo of his countless cries of, “Don’t kill it!”

Gene was drawn into a difficult path in this life. Through those times when, whether through peer misguidance or self-confusion, he was incarcerated, there was always his journey for self-understanding. How many times did I hear, “Why? Why am I different? Why am I like this? What is wrong with me? Please, fix me!”

Even when not physically incarcerated, he was never free. He spent those times hitchhiking across the country, searching desperately for the freedom that his soul longed for. There had to be a reason for his being here. Like Jonathan, he believed there HAD to be freedom, understanding, a way to fly above it all. But he didn’t know how.

Yet at the end, his concern was for those he was leaving behind. We were the ones he prayed for. He spent his final years ministering the Word of God to his fellow inmates, reaching out to all who would listen. He often needed someone to read the Bible to him and explain what some of the words meant. But he didn’t need someone else to explain hope, or relief, or freedom—or love.

In the days prior to Gene’s death, his spiritual advisor created a form consisting of sentences Gene could complete, so that he could express his final thoughts. Among them was: “I have a great many things to be thankful to God Almighty for in my life, but more specifically for….”  Gene finished it with “showing me the way home.”  He was forgiving; he was loving; he was at peace; he was ready.

He was executed at 6:00 P.M. on July 1, 2003.

Now he flies. Fly, Gene. Fly and be free.