Take Me As I Am

The first time I met Chris was at a rehearsal for the Catholic choir. Chris was from Kentucky. I figured maybe he was a lapsed Baptist or Methodist - definitely not a Catholic. But, most of us in the choir weren’t Catholic. We just wanted to sing and the choir was a respite from the daily grind of prison. Chris was tall, had a boyish face, wore an easy smile and spoke with a slight lisp. There was a childishness to his manner and an impish gleam in his eyes.MusicNotes2

Most of the guys in the choir were in for sexual offenses. I heard Chris had molested a five year old boy. I’m not sure what had brought him from Kentucky to New Hampshire, or what had led to his crime, but by the time he was arrested in the middle of winter, he was living in his car. He used to joke that coming to prison was a relief. But, in prison, child molesters are the lowest of the low. And victimizers of young boys are somewhere below that. Every emotionally wounded prisoner or guard sees in them the image of his own childhood abuser. Prison life for these guys is hell. They get beat up. Their stuff gets stolen. They get doused with urine and feces. Everywhere they go they get called “skinner”, “ripper”, “pervert”, “baby rapist.”

It is incredibly difficult to make the mental transition from likeable guy on the street to monster in prison. Sex offenders search for ways to cope with the shame and self-loathing they feel. Some remain firmly in denial, inventing convoluted stories to explain their innocence. Some retreat into isolation. I know one guy who, after being brutally beaten, never left the 48-man pod on which he lived for 10 years except for a once-a-week trip to canteen to buy food he prepared in his cell. Some of us worked hard at our prison jobs, rising to the top, winning at least the approval of a supervisor, if not our peers. But there are some who mocked their abusers, embraced the deviant label and wore it with a perverse pride. 

Chris turned to cartooning with a schoolboy’s mischievousness.  He invented a character called “Rippy” and drew him in outrageous satires of prison life and the absurdities of the prison sexual offender program. One day he tried to mail a copy of his work to his sister in Kentucky. The mailroom intercepted it. He was called to the office to meet with the director of the sexual offender program.  She told him this kind of mockery proved he was unrepentant and would guarantee he stayed in prison until his maximum. She recommended transfer to the Berlin prison where there was no sex offender program available.  He got a disciplinary write up and a punitive transfer to Berlin where he became the target of a new group of tormentors.  All his stuff was stolen yet again.

Chris knew nothing about legal procedure, but with paper and pencil he wrote a letter to the New Hampshire District Court. He told the court about his cartooning and how he had been treated by the prison staff. The federal judge gave Chris the benefit of the doubt and held a hearing. The judge seemed amused by the exploits of Rippy and found that the prison had violated Chris’s First Amendment rights to free speech.  He ordered the D.O.C. to return Chris to Concord and replace all his stolen items. 

When Chris got back to Concord, he joined the choir. The choir director, Nick, was an accomplished musician doing seven years for inappropriate contact with a teenage actress. This particular day he handed out copies of a new song. It was a short piece written by John Bell, “Take, O, Take Me as I Am,” 

“Guys,” said Nick, “this is a really easy piece and there are no harmonies to learn. Here’s how it goes.”

Nick played through the tune on the chapel’s electronic piano. I followed along, singing the words in my head. “Take, O, take me as I am.  Summon out what I shall be. Set your seal upon my heart and live in me…” It had a simple, flowing melody ending on a hanging note that led back to the beginning - one of those songs easily sung over and over.  I liked it.

After the choir learned the tune, Nick announced, “Okay, I want the whole choir to sing it through twice and then I would like someone to sing it through twice as a solo.”  He looked around. “Chris, why don’t you try it?”

“Okay,” Chris said, hesitantly.

When Chris’s turn came, he began tentatively, “Take, O, take me as I am.” Gaining confidence, his clear tenor voice soared to the high notes of “Set your seal upon my heart, and live in me.” He started into the second verse, but his voice began to quaver. Before the last line he choked and then collapsed into sobs. Someone put an arm around him.

“I’m sorry, guys, I’m sorry,” Chris whispered. The rest of the choir sat silently with our own thoughts.

“That’s all right,” Nick murmured.  “We understand.”