Understanding Choices that are not Choices – Delinquency Story 1 – Part A (1981-1984)

Delinquency Story 1 – Part A (1981-1984):

I am Carter Gallo.

I share the story of my childhood and adolescence not because it is special or has some significance that others do not. In fact, the significance of the story is that it is mundane. The facts of mine are different, yet the arc of the story is similar to millions of other children that grew up at the same time and under similar circumstances. Like most children, I made the transition through adolescence into adulthood and am considered a well adjusted adult. But to say this is hardly telling the story behind it, as just like mine, childhood for most is fraught with significant and (sometimes traumatic) events, encounters, and turning points that provide obstacles and opportunities that shape a child’s course of development. It include the intertwined experiences, decisions, and lives of other children and adolescents. I use my own story, since I know it at greater detail and depth than any other, to highlight how these various turning points can shape the course and outcome of childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood.

I was born in September of 1981. Demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe would go on to call me, along with other children destined to graduate from high school in the year 2000, the first children born in the Millennial generation.

The first important thing to know about the stage set for my life is that eight months after I was born my father died. For his entire life he unknowingly lived with a small hole in between the two chambers of his atrial wall – a congenital condition known as an atrial septal defect. This hole continually leaked oxygenated blood into his lungs which, through a process not worth explaining for this matter, led to early onset heart failure. My mother, Lydia, recounted that he had seen multiple doctors who misdiagnosed his weakening for months leading up to this event. He walked away from these visits being told his failing lungs were pneumonia and his lethargy was psychological. The day he died she walked him into the hospital and he smiled at her before the porter wheeled him into the examination room. He said not to worry and to go home to be with the baby. Within that hour, at the age of thirty years, he was gone from this Earth.

In adulthood, I’ve given a great deal of thought to what would have been if that tiny hole in my father’s heart would have healed on its own during his childhood without complication, as many do, or have not existed as all, as is in the case of my own beating heart. First, our family was on the trajectory to the upper-middle class. My father graduated with a degree in broadcast and print journalism from Pennsylvania State University in 1972. He held several positions as a radio broadcaster and newspaper journalist in  throughout the Pittsburgh area as well as working in marketing and advertising. By all measures before his death, he was well liked and had been quickly rising through the ranks of the regional mass media industry and had the trappings of an early successful career – we had a new car, a starter home, and he was sole breadwinner. If this trajectory had continued, our family would have lived comfortably among our upper-middle class peers.

Instead, Lydia at thirty-one was now faced with the challenge of dealing with the grief of her sudden and tragic loss, with a new born to care for, and no career. Although I do not remember much, these early years as I recall were quite somber.

I grew up in a small 25′ by 30′ 3 bedroom ranch-style house located on a cul-du-sac at the end of a housing plan in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. The small city of roughly 5200 households and 13000 people came into its own as a result of the post-war development boom in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Our house, along with all the others in our plan of around 200 homes – and much of the rest of the city – were built in a similar fashion by a developer named Asa Speck.

The earliest clear of memory of my childhood is in the fall of 1984, when I was 3 years old. I was standing in the third bedroom with my mother looking at some of the decorations she had placed on top of the Yamaha electronic organ my father had purchased her before he died. As I pointed to items asking “what is this?”she explained them to me in detail. “This is clay and glazing from the bottom of your uncle’s pottery kiln. I thought it looked interesting so I kept it…That is a glass fishing float which the fishermen use to keep their nets from sinking…That is a piece of driftwood.” At this point I asked her “what is driftwood?” a powerful lightening bolt streamed down from the sky simultaneously connecting large oak tree in our back yard. The strike was so powerful that the tree split down its center, shards of foot-long splinters were sent flying at damaging speed across the neighborhood, the brunt of the impact along the rear of our home. The force of the shards striking the outside of the house shattered the windows and chunks of plaster in the adjacent bedroom blew off the walls traveling and ricocheting as far as the other side of the house. I can remember my mother’s legs trebling in shock as we knocked on the neighbor’s door for help, the arrival of police and fire departments, and the relief on my mother’s face when the fire chief gave an “all clear” for us to return to the house.  For the longest time afterword I feared saying the word “driftwood” thinking that it somehow was linked to lightning.

As a result of the lightning bolt the tree was now ruined. The yawning split down its middle now posed a new danger of the tree falling onto the house – the oak’s size large enough to destroy the tiny dwelling. The insurance company insisted that the tree be removed immediately along with the restoration to the damaged siding, windows, and plaster inside the house.

A small crew of laborers showed up at our house a week later to do the work. One of which was a young man, Floyd, from the neighboring community.  Floyd was much younger than her at only 21 at the time they met; she was now 34. Different in most ways including age, education, upbringing, and moral values they had a source of attraction and connection in each other’s grief and tragedy. Floyd’s mother died from cancer during his teenage years. He bore the psychological scars of the difficulty with his father who remarried a woman uninterested in having a relationship with his children. She wanted Floyd out as soon as possible.

Floyd also bore large physical scars along the left side of his face and on his left hip. They were from the surgery to reconstruct his jaw and face which shattered several years prior when, after a night of heavy alcohol and drug use with his adolescent friends, he staggered to the edge of a small girder bridge and then fell backwards off it into the dry creek bed below and was at death’s door before he was rescued. Despite his brush with death, Floyd continued to lean on a dependency on alcohol for emotional control and relief from his loss of a mother and then his family.

Floyd saw a sympathetic and caring person in Lydia – a mother. Someone which he longed for in his own life. Lydia saw in Floyd a person who could take on the role of breadwinner – a husband and father. Someone that was missing her own life. They were perfectly broken for each other. Both blinded by their own desires for what they wanted to see in the other that they were unable to see how they themselves could not fulfill the other’s needs. A man as young and inexperienced as he would not be able to stand up as a breadwinner for a struggling widow and her child – who recently fell from the precipice of an upper-middle class life-course trajectory.  Just as a 34 year old widow with a toddler would not have the ability to stand up as the missing mother in his life – while he had already began his descent into alcoholism.

After the work was completed on the tree and house, Floyd asked Lydia on a date and she said yes. A few months went by and he, suddenly and unexpectedly, moved into our home. For the next decade, Lydia and Carter would daily face Floyd’s struggle of full-blown alcoholism and its effects on their family, friends, and livelihood.

We often give consideration to how the people, environment, and  events are tied to the cause of family problems, yet it is more typical than not that we misdiagnose the amount of agency people have in how environments are created and events unfold. We often think about the choices that parents, adults, and children make (or don’t make) that lead them down the path towards delinquent behavior.

Lydia, why didn’t you see Floyd’s alcoholism it coming down the tracks? Weren’t you able to tell that he would not be able to help you the way you needed?

Floyd, how could you think that a widow with a toddler would be able to handle your epic problems? Couldn’t you figure out that you needed more help?

It is easy think of the choices that people make as if each one can be as easily made as the next. At times this is true, but what also happens looks a lot more like the story above. This is a more difficult way to think about the reality of our choices and their consequences, which are made within a set of conditions whereby some choices will “unfold” easily while others choices could only be made with great emotional, cognitive, or material cost. Tied to this story are several events – or turning points – where the actors that have very little to no control over what happens – an undiagnosed birth defect, two deaths, a remarriage, an act of god, an insurance claim – but yet they are the main drivers that set the stage for Floyd and Lydia (little Carter too) to come face to face, interact, and begin a tragic relationship which will have negative consequences for everyone.

If you are interested in working with juvenile delinquents, or their families, it can be really easy to get frustrated when face with types of “choices which are not choices.” Although there is no way around this frustration, asking clients about their lives may bring a greater understanding about why they are in the situation that they are in. It may even help you as a clinician to find creative solutions for what may seem to clients as intractable problems.