Guest Blog from Curtis M. Lawson
I was one year out of high school when the tragic shooting at Columbine happened. I remember seeing the various news reports, often contradictory and always confused, and seeing grainy footage and photographs of the two boys they were calling the Trench Coat Mafia. The media called them outsiders—black-clad misfits obsessed with heavy music, violent entertainment, and ostracized by the rest of the student body. Reports began to roll in about how badly the two boys were bullied (though this seems to have been exaggerated according to most sources).
While most of the country reeled in horror at the terrible crimes those boys committed—at the lives they extinguished—I found myself facing a horror of a more internal nature. I found myself asking, could that have been me? Had I been a few bad days away from that?
To explain why such a thought would occur to me, and why it still haunts me to this day, we have to go back a bit. I was a nerdy sensitive child, and I never quite fit in at school. I grew up in a troubled home. My parents fought more than they didn’t, and they both suffered from substance abuse problems. When the time came to start kindergarten, we were living in a pretty bad neighborhood and I was stabbed in the eye with a pencil on my first day. The next day I was beaten up in the bathroom by second graders. This set the tone for most of my academic experience—a constant barrage of bullying and abuse at school.
Going home offered little respite. As I said, my parents had a troubled relationship and things were bad more often than they weren’t. When my parents weren’t fighting, they were partying, and the partying always turned back into fighting.
Music was my first escape from all the problems I faced at school and at home. When I was years ten years old the one friend I had at school gave me a dubbed cassette of Appetite for Destruction, and everything changed. The music was magic. It was louder than my parents fighting. It was more powerful than the kids who called me names and beat me up. Most importantly, it was angry, and it made me realize how angry I was.
From that point on I sought out heavier and more aggressive music. From Guns N’ Roses to Metallica. From Metallica to Slayer. From Slayer to Morbid Angel. And so the trend continued.
It wasn’t just about losing myself in music that was louder than my pain. Heavy music was a transformative force in my life. I fell in love with the myth and the legend around it. The fuck you attitude of The Sex Pistols. The satanic power of Slayer. The raw violence of Samhain. I saw a strength in the iconoclasm and the darkness that so many of those bands radiated and I decided that I would emulate that. By the time I was twelve or thirteen I had a clear image in my head of the person I wanted to be—an angry, dangerous young man who embraced darkness and anger. I was in hate with the world, and I wanted to be the bad guy. I wanted to be the monster.
Instead of crying over kids jumping me on the way home from school or for how they made me feel stupid and small for the things I liked, I began to fantasize about hurting them back. In my mind, I would run them down with a burning Plymouth Fury or summon hooks and chains from puzzle boxes to flay them. Instead of cowering in my room wishing my parents would sober up and stop fighting, I dreamed of burning down the liquor store where they bought their booze and murdering the drug dealers they hung out with.
By the time I reached high school, I was on my way to becoming the monster I wanted to be, at least in my own mind. The nerdy, sensitive kid who let himself get pushed around was gone, and an angry, black metal teenager, ready to set fire to the world had replaced him. My heroes had gone from Stan Lee and Albert Einstein to murderous Scandinavian musicians like Varg Vikernes and Jon Notveidt. I walked around in black leather, reading books on satanism, occultism, fascism—anything I was told I shouldn’t read—trying to make sense of a world that seemed sick and decayed. And I made sure everyone saw me doing so.
I was fearless and unapologetic about my unusual ideas and interests, which caused other kids of similar natures to flock to me. There is a certain charisma that comes along with a “no fucks given” attitude, and a magnetism that radiates from arrogant young men who are convinced they have all the answers. I had mastered both of those things.
Life was a little better during those years. I still didn’t get along with most of the kids at school, and my home life was messy at best, but I had friends that looked up to me as a leader. I had an identity that I took pride in. Girls who were attracted to the whole bad boy metalhead thing were always nearby and I never wanted for female attention.
This didn’t keep me from getting picked on of course. If anything, I made things harder on myself, accentuating how different I was. Everyone else liked rap, so I made damn sure they knew I was into metal and punk. Everyone else partied and smoked weed—I walked around with X’s on my hands. So, of course, the bullying from certain circles intensified. The difference was I fought back now… well, mostly.
You see, the thing is, I was still something of a coward, for all my bluster, and I had become something of a bully in my own right. If I thought I could take someone in a fight, or if there were more of my friends than theirs, I would not only stand up for myself, I would do everything in my power to make that person feel as small as they had tried to make me feel.
But if I knew that I couldn’t win? I backed down like the nerd I had always been. And that right there— that fear and that feeling of cowardice—bred a deep, dark resentment within my heart. When the toughest kid in school set fire to my hair, I didn’t fight him. Instead, I fantasized about his death a dozen times a day. When he stole the batteries from my Walkman or threw chewed up candy at me, I didn’t stand up for myself. No, I silently pondered ways to murder him.
I never actually tried to kill this boy, nor any of the other people who tried their best to make me miserable during high school, but I remember dreaming about it vividly, each and every day. I wanted to end their lives, and I remember considering acting upon that urge. Now as an adult, I wonder how much, or perhaps how little more resentment needed to grow in my heart to push me over that edge.
Worse still, I had no real guidance on how to deal with the resentment I felt for those kids at school, for my parents’ shortcomings, and for society at large. Not a single adult seemed capable of offering me any advice beyond bullshit platitudes and I found myself becoming increasingly enraged with the world and increasingly detached from it.
So, when Columbine happened, yes, I found myself with a case of sympathy for the devil, and I still do, to a certain extent. I can not express my disgust at the senseless loss of life that occurred at Columbine and the plague of school shootings that have followed, but I also understand the sense of isolation, resentment, and rage that leads young people to do terrible things. I understand the allure of the darkness, and how much easier and more romantic it might seem to go out in a hail of bullets, dragging everyone who has mistreated you down to Hell.
For many young people, the world is a place without moorings. They are ships lost at sea, battered by a storm that never ceases, in a night that never ends. The old sea captains never taught them how to navigate, because they themselves are just as lost. Eventually, the storm and darkness become home. That was the case for me, at least, and I know I’m not alone.
And that is why I wrote Black Heart Boys’ Choir. Not to romanticize violence, or to make martyrs of shooters, but to examine the terrible circumstances that can lead troubled young people to commit monstrous acts. Why do so many young men feel so isolated and resentful? How do they fall through the cracks?
I firmly believe that no law or legislation will fix the plague of violence that has beset our society, not until we sit down and address the root of the problem. Do I have all the answers? Of course not. I’m not saying I have any, but I hope I’ve asked some of the right questions and nudged the conversation forward.
And if you’re an angry young person reading this—if you are in hate with the world and filled with resentment—I promise that you aren’t as alone as you think you are, and things will get better if you give them time.