Secrets and shame

Prison promotes a culture of secrecy.

A snitch, a rat, is the worst thing a person can be labeled in that world, and the code extends not only between inmates, but also toward the authorities. Perversely, it protects the “protectors” who abuse their positions of power. The secrecy is enforced by violence. And if all this fear weren’t enough, there is the overwhelming shame that keeps inmates from talking.

Such is the world Doug Abbott grew up in, and lives in still. At the tender age of 9, Abbott was sent to a juvenile detention center due to an aunt’s negligence after his parents were injured in a car accident. He had committed no crime, yet immediately upon entering California’s system for wayward youth he was beaten, raped and treated like human refuse. Thus began his terrifying education. Abuse lead to more abuse. Repeated assaults and molestations by counselors and by other children, all of it shrouded in secrecy, buried deep in this boy’s psyche waiting to explode.

Eventually it did.

Monsters aren’t made overnight. It takes a lot of work to build one. Abbott, with an assist from co-writer Jack Carter, recounts, in a style as clear and sharp as broken glass, how over and over again he reached out for help, for understanding, and had his trust shattered by those the state had appointed to be his caretakers. With a tone of scouring self-examination, the kind honed through thousands of hours in solitary confinement, he records his impressions and emotions about the years of his youth: The brutal fights for survival and status that counselors supervised instead of breaking up; the repeated escape attempts that always ended when, fleeing back to his parents, he was caught and sent back to even harsher treatment.

The only thing that keeps I Cried, You Didn’t Listen from being a mere laundry list of horrors is the humanity of its narrator. He doesn’t attempt to make excuses for the behavior that kept him going back to the California Youth Authority. He doesn’t need to—putting it in context with the way he was treated, it is perfectly logical. Abbott simply had adapted to his environment, one where physical violence is the basic, ordering principle of daily life.

The book’s most haunting moments vividly illustrate the reality behind those statistics. When he was 14, Abbott and a fellow inmate escaped from one facility where they were being molested on a daily basis by older wards. Abbott recently had witnessed a ward being stabbed by one of the counselors during a riot and lived in constant fear, both of the counselors and his fellow inmates. After escaping, the youths hotwired a car and drove aimlessly, breaking into houses for money and food. They swiftly were caught and Abbott was found with, among other items, a rabbit. “I hadn’t liked seeing it in a cage so small it could barely turn around,” Abbott wrote. At another institution, Abbott and other wards were put hard at work: moving dirt. Laboriously, with shovel and wheelbarrow, they moved dirt from one large pile to another, for no purpose at all other than punishment.

Abbott, now serving multiple life sentences in Salinas Valley State Prison, has written a tale that is a stunning indictment of a brutal and backward system. It’s difficult to shake the feeling, reading I Cried, You Didn’t Listen, that if a child was sane and healthy upon entering the CYA, it would be impossible for him to leave that way. Recent scandals have prompted the renaming and reorganization of the CYA into the Department of Juvenile Justice, and one hopes those responsible for reforming it will take stories like Abbott’s seriously. His tragic testimony remains all too relevant. To understand, first we have to listen.