Dear Judge Adams: No, it was worse than it looked
“He who spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes.” (Proverbs 13:24)
“Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell.” (Proverbs 23:13-14)
By now, you’ve probably heard about the video of Texas judge William Adams beating his disabled, then-16 year-old daughter, Hillary, with a belt. You may even have seen the video. If not, a caution: it’s every bit as disturbing as reports would lead you to believe. We’re not used to seeing this kind of domestic brutality on YouTube, especially when it’s punctuated by lines like “lay down or I’ll spank you in your fucking face.”
I initially ignored this story. I heard the headlines, made the same assumptions as a lot of people probably did and moved along. But today the story hooked me back in when I saw that Adams, in the process of blaming the victim (she only released the tape because he was cutting her off and taking away her Mercedes, he says), suggesting that the footage looked “worse than it was.”
What we see on the tape is prima facie evidence of a crime. It’s either child abuse or assault, depending on the victim’s age, and it sounds like the facts in this case are that she was old enough to make it assault, but the statute of limitations has run out. I would say lucky him, but I suspect that the worst the law could possibly do to him pales to what YouTube has in store.
I don’t know Adams. I don’t his daughter. I have no first-hand evidence whatsoever of the internal dynamics of the family, of whether or not she’s acting out of concern or spite. There’s one thing I’m pretty sure I do know, however: no, Judge, it’s worse than it looked.
I have some experience with what Hillary suffered that night, because it’s similar to what I endured growing up. I was routinely subjected to whippings, either with a belt or a hickory switch, that if they happened to a child today would result in the child’s immediate removal from the home by protective services and the arrest of the offending parent. On multiple occasions I was beaten as badly, or worse than, Hillary Adams.
But – and here’s the sticky part – it wasn’t child abuse. Not by the standards of the day, and not by the standards of nearly all of human history. I was taken in by my paternal grandparents when I was three. My parents split and, well, I’ll spare you that part. It was deemed best for me if I went to live with them. In many respects this was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
My grandparents, though, were old school Southern working class Baptist, born and bred to the wisdom of the Old Testament. To the modern ear, the idea of beating a child because you love him sounds counter-intuitive, but to people of their generation (born in 1913 and 1914, respectively) you had to administer corporal punishment if you loved a child. Failing to do so was to fail as a parent and to literally risk the child’s eternal soul. The swats with their hands were no big deal. Call those attention-getters, if you like. But when I’d do something they deemed serious, the results could leave welts for days.
There is no question that they loved me. Totally and unconditionally. And I loved them just as completely. I have published poetry honoring my grandfather and in 1989 I took the step of changing my name to his legally (I was not born Samuel) because he was the only real father I had ever had. And just the other day, I described my grandmother as the single most important person in my entire life. I have said many times, and I mean it, that without them I have no idea where I’d be today, but it’s not likely I’d ever have amounted to much. A big part of me feels like I’m betraying their memories in writing this, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that if I can say something that helps, then it’s worth it. I also do not blame them. I’m 100% convinced that my grandparents were purely the products of their context, and that if they were young parents today they’d die before they’d hurt their children.
All that said, violent physical discipline leaves psychic and emotional scars that may never heal. For starters, one comes to accept that love and pain are inextricably connected. One also can’t help seeing violence as a logical and normal solution to problems. Rationally speaking, I know that violence is sometimes necessary and perhaps even appropriate, but if you grew up like I did there’s the uncomfortable tendency to see it as a first resort instead of the last resort.
Those who know me the best probably wonder where this streak of mine comes from. I’m not a violent man, but I suppose you might say there is a great deal of turbulence in my soul. To the consternation of many of my more enlightened friends (and in truth, most of my friends are more enlightened than I am) I have no issue with the death penalty in principle. I have been known to find satisfaction when brutal justice catches up to genuinely bad human beings. I’ve never said this before, but I’m disturbed when I reflect on the kinds of fate I wish for people like Michael Vick. There’s an irony in it, I suppose: in my mind, the worst criminals are those who abuse the helpless. The retribution: render them helpless and visit upon them the same abuse they inflicted.
I hate abusers and always will, but I cannot stand the feelings they arouse in me. Even in pondering justice, the abuse I suffered as a boy fosters an enduring rage that thrives at a deep, inescapable emotional level.
Of course, it isn’t just me. How many millions of people across this country and beyond would read this and understand exactly what I’m saying? How many people think, as did one friend of mine some years ago, that he owes who he is as a human being to the fact that his father beat the hell out of him? And what implications does this have for his children?
I don’t have anything to say here that a legion of child psychologists haven’t said more compellingly, I suppose, but I find myself wishing I could talk to Judge Adams. While those watching the video linked above are absolutely seeing what they’re seeing and I’m hardly absolving the man, I find it perfectly plausible that he loves his daughter and that he was genuinely, honestly doing what he thought was best for her. He doesn’t act like it’s hurting him more than it is her (that line may well have been my earliest education in the art of irony), but part of me suspects that you simply have to slam the door on the part of you that empathizes with your loved one in order to “do what’s best for them.”
It’s pathological in the extreme, but maybe his generation, and some of mine, and certainly every generation that came before suffers from a sort of collective post-traumatic stress disorder. To note that this particular beast is self-replicating seems almost too obvious to mention.
William Adams says his daughter released the video to get even with him. Hillary Adams says she did it so that he would get help. I don’t think the rest of us have any way of knowing who’s right. Regardless, my advice to Judge Adams is to get help. Also, I hope Hillary Adams gets help, because the beast is alive in her. Probably always will be.
This is an ugly case that nobody would ever have known about before the advent of social media. And as banal and pointless as channels like YouTube can be, today it presents millions of American families with an opportunity to learn and heal, and most importantly, to begin putting the wisdom of the Old Testament behind us for good.