A teen from inner city Boston gets Elie Wiesel’s message
A therapist specializing in trauma recalls a powerful moment.
Following a spate of homicides, a community leader in inner-city Boston blamed the problem on a generation of young people with no moral compass.
A few days later, Jason and I speak with his English teacher. The dean of students had enlisted me, a school-based trauma therapist focused on survivors of inner-city violence, to help figure out Jason’s frequent absences. His teacher is frustrated: “We’re reading Night, you know, Elie Wiesel’s book,” she tells me, her patience teetering. “If he never comes to class, how will I know if he’s read the book?”
I explain that Jason’s sister had been sitting on a bus when a man was shot to death; it was the bus Jason normally took to school. After his sister walked into the house, clothes spattered in blood, Jason decided it was better to stay home, so he did. I had offered to start bringing him to school, and we were meeting with Jason’s teachers so he could make up the work he’d missed, go to class, and get back on track.
Jason is lactose-intolerant, but he makes an exception for pepperoni pizza. His adolescent brain cannot hold the memory of the stomach pain he endures at the end of that meal. He was shocked to find out that you could order a cheese-steak without the cheese. I’d never seen him eat a vegetable.
“Fries, LisaLis,” he reminds me, pointing to his side order, as evidence that he does eat food that grows out of the ground.
“Oh right, those ARE potatoes,” I say.
“But these,” he says with disgust, “are not fries.” He looks at them as if he is an anthropologist deciphering glaring distinctions between two indigenous tribes on a remote continent. “Too thick.”
It amazes me that someone so hungry can be so particular about what he will eat. Chicken wings, hamburgers, and the aforementioned — period. Despite the grease and sauce inherent in this diet, there’s never a speck of either on Jason. He wears a gleaming white T-shirt. When we eat, he has this way of softly rubbing his thumb against his index finger, quickly back and forth, and then in slow circles, until eventually any crumbs or grease magically evaporate. I’m the “before” and Jason’s the “after” of the OxiClean commercial.
We’re at Upham’s House for pizza, and Jason’s face relaxes as the steam from the hot food rises from the table. What should I ask him that I haven’t? “What about church?” I say. I am trying to picture how it all works — this life of his.
“We used to go when I was younger. But whenever we walked in, I’d fall asleep. Even if I wasn’t tired. I don’t know what it was. I’d just sit down and fall asleep.”
“Maybe because it was so peaceful?”
“I don’t know. Maybe . . .”
“What about now? Do you ever go now?” I ask.
“I guess I’m like Eliezer the guy in that book Night and his friend Moshe. I’m having a crisis of faith.” He stops for a moment to look at me, then puts the leftovers in their aluminum tray and snaps the plastic cover shut.
Did he really just say that? My eyes fill up with tears. Jason nods like somehow he gets what it means to me. I remember the passage I’d learned by heart after my mother’s death:
“Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him,” he was fond of repeating. “That is the true dialogue. Man questions God and God answers. But we don’t understand His answers. We can’t understand them. Because they come from the depths of the soul, and they stay there until death.”
And now — at Upham’s House, in Dorchester, where the police cameras dot the streets and technology registers gunshots in real time; on Columbia Road, where they’ve stopped and frisked Jason so many times he’s begun to imagine he must have done something really terrible even though he could not figure out what it was — this Jew is thrown for a loop. I’m the eyewitness to Jason, who had been paying attention all along.
This essay is adapted from Lisa Fliegel’s book in progress, “Here But Often There: The Clinical Adventures of a Bulletproof Therapist,” about trauma transcended in Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, and inner-city Boston. The student’s name has been changed to protect his identity. Send comments to email@example.com.