Trauma brought to life in powerful Globe essay
The story comes crashing in with all the page-turning drama of a gripping work of fiction.
An opening scene of the 15-year-old protagonist pointing a gun to his mother’s face. A rewinding of the story to a scene of him as a boy of 6 or 7 holding a brick menacingly over another boy’s head after first having pegged him in the leg with it. Years later, he’s a hardened street player, meting out violence or the threat of it without a second thought, nearly dying himself with a bullet in his neck, but pulling through only to go on to catch a 15-year federal prison sentence, where he now spends days writing, trying to make sense of who he is, a dangerous felon who once gave himself the moniker “Death.”
Despite its literary feel, the powerfully told story is no novel, but an 8,000-word-plus piece of narrative journalism that appeared on the front-page of Sunday’s Boston Globe.
Longtime Globe crime reporter Evan Allen explains in the piece that it resulted from her quest to find an example of “what the Boston police used to call ‘Dynasty Families’ — families that seemed to pass violence like an heirloom from one generation to the next.”
“Anthony’s great-uncle killed his best friend,” she writes. “His mother went to prison for robbing a bank. His father was a gang member and a drug dealer. Two of his brothers were serving life for murder, another had been murdered while awaiting trial on gun charges, and a fourth had been shot but lived. Anthony himself was a dangerous and brutal man a little more than halfway through a 15-year stint in federal prison.”
Allen says she sought to answer one central question. “I wanted to know if this was inevitable,” she writes of Pledger’s life trajectory.
Pledger was not only shot as a young adult, but the victim of violence as a boy at the hands of a belt wielded by his mother – running away at least once to escape beatings. But it is the pleasure he says he got from visiting pain on others that jumps out most chillingly in the story.
“Something astonishing had happened to him out there on that patch of sidewalk, with the brick in the air and his eyes locked on the terrified boy,” Allen writes of Pledger’s encounter at age 6 or 7.
“That there was the first time I shared my pain and felt the soothing pleasure in inflicting it,” she says he wrote to her in one of his many letters. “Violence became ventilation,” Pledger said.
“What I find in inflicting pain is company in my dark place,” Pledger wrote to her in another letter. “I needed for the victims to feel how it feel to hurt.”
Allen’s powerful essay unpacks the tale of one Boston “dynasty” family, but it is also very much a story of our time. The level of trauma and chaos in Pledger’s life may be hard for most to fathom, but the idea of mining the past to understand some aspect of how someone is broken today has become the everyday story of modern life.
Sehgal suggests we are being barraged with stories that find PTSD under every rock – or as the backstory to too many narrative offerings. “The invocation of trauma promises access to some well-guarded bloody chamber; increasingly, though, we feel as if we have entered a rather generic motel room, with all the signs of heavy turnover,” she writes.
The idea of traumatic memories is actually a relatively new idea, she explains, first given expression in the 1860s by a British physician who chronicled reports of “confusion, hearing voices, and paralysis” among victims of railway accidents who had experienced no physical injuries. The idea attained broader reach with the introduction of the idea of being “shell-shocked” from service in World War I. Fast forward to the present and tales of trauma are everywhere – from the toll of COVID on school children to the lingering effects of the Capitol insurrection a year later on those who experienced it.
Trauma narratives seem to have become the literary piñata of the season. Sehgal’s essay follows an equally harsh assessment by Will Self in the December cover story of Harper’s Magazine – “A posthumous shock: How everything became trauma.”
While clunky invocations of the all-encompassing power of trauma may be overrunning modern culture, Allen’s essay hardly seems to conform to Sehgal’s generic motel room putdown.
Indeed, a central tension of her piece involves wrestling with the question of how much of Pledger’s violence and cruelty sprang from having had those things visited upon him.
“Sometimes, he seemed to consider the idea that life drilled the violence into him,” she writes. “But in his answers to my long, probing letters, he came back again and again to the notion that his inflictions of pain, which grew more cruel and calculated with every passing year, were not creations but revelations, each turning back another cloak shrouding the truth of what he already was. ‘A birthmark,’ he wrote to me.”
Allen breaks with journalistic conventions by bringing her own “birthmark” story into the essay, bravely sharing her struggle with mental illness – and the long line of family members with such history that point to a genetic predisposition. Most poignantly, she wonders what it could mean for her own young daughter.
Just as she shares her fervent hope that her daughter doesn’t “inherit what I did,” Allen desperately wants to believe Pledger can find some version of redemption.
But unlike the canned quality to trauma narratives that Sehgal and Self are so disparaging of, she seems resigned to the ambiguity of his story, and the understanding that things don’t move ahead in a straight line.
Two from Western Mass.: Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow jumps into the race for lieutenant governor, joining three other candidates, including another senator from Western Mass, Adam Hinds of Pittsfield. Western Mass. issues are sure to get attention in the race, but it’s also possible two candidates from the same region could cancel each other out. Read more.
Police chief placed on leave: Boxborough Police Chief Warren Ryder is placed on paid administrative leave by the Select Board, apparently in connection with an FBI investigation of improper educational stipends paid to members of the police department. The Select Board voted 3-2 to ask the FBI to investigate in October. Read more.
Island support: Boston Mayor Michelle Wu tours Long Island and says the facilities there could be useful in the long-term effort to deal with homelessness and substance-use disorder at Mass. and Cass. Read more.
Wows the crowd: A high school junior called in at the last minute wows the crowd gathered for the inauguration of City Council and School Committee members in Lawrence. Gov. Charlie Baker calls Allison Castillo’s rendition of “God Bless America” – which she had never sung before – “very, very special.” Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
The Boston Herald says pay increases and other add-ons have sent salaries for most legislators “north of six figures.” The paper says Sen. Cynthia Friedman of Arlington is the top-earning lawmaker, pulling in $220,544 last year, but her office disputed that figure. (Boston Herald)
Sen. Eric Lesser, whose committee is examining sports betting bills, says he hopes sports betting will gain traction in the coming months and can be legalized by November. (MassLive)
Marblehead town administrator Jason Silva resigns suddenly without giving a reason why. (Salem News)
The nation’s first Cambodian-American mayor takes office in Lowell. (GBH)
Major hospital systems in the state are moving to now require employees to get booster shots. (Boston Globe)
It’s nearly impossible to buy at-home COVID tests right now. (MassLive)
Sen. Adam Hinds, who chairs the Revenue Committee, says lawmakers will consider using federal money to boost testing capacity during the surge, echoing a statement made by Speaker Ron Mariano earlier this week. (State House News Service)
With Sen. Eric Lesser announcing a campaign for lieutenant governor, candidates are already thinking about running for Lesser’s state Senate seat – among them, State Reps.Angelo Puppolo and Jake Oliveira. (Western Mass Politics & Insight)
Gubernatorial candidate Danielle Allen raised $91,000 in December, while Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz raised $116,000. (MassLive)
Business groups are calling on government not to move forward with stricter COVID restrictions, and to provide more financial relief for struggling employers. (Salem News)
Schools in the state are struggling to maintain in-person classes amid a wave of teacher absences, mostly due to COVID. (Boston Globe) Weymouth High School closes Wednesday due to staffing issues. (Patriot Ledger) CommonWealth wrote about the problem of school staff shortages on Monday.
In Chicago, in-person learning shuts down for at least a day as the teachers union votes to go remote. Chicago education officials are calling the union action an illegal work stoppage. (NPR)
Legislators are considering a bill that would extend the state’s mask mandate in schools through June. (Gloucester Daily Times)
Hampshire College, revamping its curriculum, receives a $5 million gift. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)
USA Today provides an update on the status of the legal cases against a number of Jan. 6 rioters from New England.
A special commission grapples with rising spending on corrections even as the prison population is dropping. The mismatch means the average cost per inmate has gone from $59,535 to $92,368 in four years. (State House News Service)
The Hampden County sheriff’s department says 85 staff and 29 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. (MassLive)MEDIA
Ben Smith, the media columnist for the New York Times, is leaving to start a new media organization with Justin Smith, who is stepping down as chief executive of Bloomberg Media. (New York Times)