It's hard to even talk about those months, years later. I did the best I could. I spent so much time afraid, for myself, for Ada, of hurting Aaron. I can't
say what I would have done for that man; in our time together I never found that limit. But betraying each other by accident was a daily peril, and neither
of us knew how to manage it. I know how I would do it now, I understand them better now. I would not be such an easy target. But I am trapped in the
future, not able to help that previous me, stuck in the shape these events gave my life.
The last day I saw Aaron was two weeks before he died. We spent the morning talking, catching up. We'd become friends again, though slowly and imperfectly, and painfully. We were just friends now, with separate lives. I was dropping my daughter off to spend her Christmas break with Aaron and his girlfriend while I went to cover a conference in Europe. I drove them to the train station, and he caught me while I was unloading their bags from the trunk. He held me for a long time, blocking traffic. He told me he loved me. Then he took my daughter's hand, and walked away forever.
Quinn Norton was never quite able to obey her lawyer's orders to not write about what was happening. She wrote these two pieces during the investigation. The first describes the connection she saw between how her father was treated and how Swartz was treated. The second, on the following page, is a letter she wrote to prosecutor Stephen Heymann, which, after being told she couldn't send it to him, she left for him on her Dropbox account in case it was ever subpoenaed.
Nearly a month into all this. I have downloaded Kafka's The Trial in my
ongoing misguided attempt to get life advice from literature.
I am in New York. I am watching men in hardhats, lamps in hand, working
on the MTA at 2am. Their lamplight is up against black of the tracks, no
reflection. Just a feeble warm light eaten by the sooty black of the
i-beams that make up so much of the subway that they are the
mise-en-scène of getting around the city. I am walking around Manhattan
on a perfect night, watching the bikes in Union Square. Clear, crisp,
first day of the year in New York that didn't require a coat. Free.
I think a lot on how to explain incarceration to Ada. It's different
than it was with my father, and like all parents, I'm determined not to
make the same mistakes. If it's to come, she'll know what's coming. I'll
help her think about it. She might still be scared and confused, god
knows I am. But she won't be ashamed and disassociated. I will stop the
terrible numbness that took me from taking her.
Dad wrote me letters from San Quentin, telling what he saw, how he
survived. He described men moving from cells to the yard as a sea of
soulless eyes. Until those letters, his grotesque and evocative
descriptions of prison, I didn't know how poetic my father could be. I
think SQ would have killed him if he'd had to stay there. He didn't want
to be with the white supremacists, he had to fight to stay away from
them. Until he found some Latino friends, my fat red headed dad lived in
Aaron tells me Club Fed is nothing like that. I said good, I didn't know
where jews end up in the prison hierarchy. My dad explained a lot of it,
but he never mentioned jews. I don't think he encountered any in SQ or
Chino. He wrote me and still, I feel like maybe I don't know the
smallest part of what happened to him. I will never know what my dad hid
from me about prison. I was 17 when he went in; he died when I was 23. I
never got to a place where I could ask him. I never knew I had so little
time to get there.
I sleep very badly most nights, dream fitfully, and argue with imaginary
agents of criminal justice system through my days and nights. They take
on monstrous proportions, the psychic size of my personal history, the
size of my pain and my fears. In my dreams i'm arguing with a judge,
with the prosecutor, agents, men of suits, dressed in formal darkness.
Even my own lawyers-- all about the concepts that have haunted me since
I opened the first of the little cards cut from a manilla folders that
my father used to send me from prison. I am arguing about the monopoly
on the use of force and the moral responsibility of it. I am explaining
the nature of motivation and memory. I am arguing about the drug war. I
am trying to explain to stone faced men the nature of addiction, and
they are remaining thick and distant. I never talk about copyright.
Some days I feel I can barely breathe, that the weight of this system is
compressing my lungs into a thin space where only short, shallow
breathes can fit. Like my body is a cell for the air. Sometimes it is
1996, & I am at the Washington Monument, gasping, almost unable to
physically cry for how hard the sobs are trying to break free of my
lungs. I am kicking the monument, and I am trying to scream. Sometimes I
manage to scream, sometimes the air and the tears and the terrible
compressed emotion are trapped, too big to get out, too big to stay
inside my little body. I am kicking and screaming and gasping. My
friends are standing by me, taking care, bearing witness, reaching out
to steady me and hold me as I need it. I am screaming at America. Beside
me Amity says "America ain't shit" with such bitterness that I startle a
little. Behind me is the Vietnam Memorial, where I have carefully spread
a thin line of bone white grit along the top of the monument, just on
the soil side. It is the second of four places I will eventually spread
my father's ashes, until finally I will release him into his beloved
Pacific 12 years after he died. I will do that 11 years after kicking
the Washington Monument, after it occurs to me that the first tip in
getting over the death of your dysfunctional dad is to not carry him
around for 12 years. My father was thrown away after a war shattered
him. The state that did this took no notice or care of him until they
locked him up, sick, old, drug addicted, screaming in his sleep every
night night because of the things that followed him back from Vietnam.
Aaron asked me if I could think of anything nice he'd done, someone that
could give an affidavit about some orphans he'd adopted or something.
Apparently, "That sort of thing helps," he said. The best thing I could
think of off the top of my head was the crime they are accusing him of.
That probably wouldn't help. Instead, I told him, "I'll think about it."
He is so delicate, so haunted by little things. He stays so far away
most of the time. A sadness and a silence hang on him, and even people
that don't know him well can feel it. He never wants to tell, which I
guess is the part people find unimaginable. It's so strange that the
world is prying in to discover that he never tells. Prying at the
stretches of time when I would lie beside him, or hold him, or hug him
goodbye and say "I love you," and he'd look at me with his mouth shut
and his face tense, until I'd say, "You love me too." and he'd kiss my
cheek. How could I testify to that? I told him not long ago, when all
this is done, you have to finally tell me what you got for Reddit. He
grinned and said "Nope!" How could anyone understand him and me? We are
strange, even to ourselves. Neither of us fit well and comfortably in
this world, like alien scouts doing a lifetime patrol. I used to tell
people when we were together, "We're not from the same planet, but we're
sure as hell neither of us from this one."
I am trying to imagine who he should make friends with if he goes to
prison, who will protect him. I imagine writing him letters, sending him
books, snatches of songs, bits and things, the poesis of everyday life.
I imagine sending him a thousand little life preservers, and waiting for
him to make his way back to me. I imagine that it could go horribly
wrong, but I can't imagine who I would be if it did.
The letter to Stephen Heymann:
I can't stop thinking about the last moments of yesterday, when I asked
you why and you said you couldn't give me the answer yet.
You are invested with the power to change everything about a person, to
destroy lives, to inflict such harm as ripples through years, through
people, through communities. Each time this power is used it leaves its
small, but indelible, mark on history. I have this too, to a lessor
degree. I also have the happy power to elevate, and leave ripples in
history that way. This is as close as anything can come to sacred in a
secular world. Using it should humble us both, which is something I try
to keep in mind every time I write a story.
Over the last few years I've seen so many stories that gutted me. The
loss of New Orleans, the oil spill, my own government openly admitting
to torture, the erasure of nearly half of the world economy, taking
countless quiet lives. All of these with their ripples, stories of lives
destroyed that won't ever be told. I have what they used to call a
melancholy temperament. Sometimes I just think of these things, and I
rock and cry. The entire time I've been surrounded by lawyers. I've
badgered them about why there have been so few or no cases related to
the truly major crimes that have been tearing down society. I always get
the same answer: that these things are simply too hard to prove, too
politicly tainted, that law enforcement doesn't like to take cases they
I can't tell you how disappointing this answer is. It's too hard? You
might lose? Then do hard things and risk failure. What else are we on
this earth for?
I've been living through the collapse of my industry as well over the
last few years. After so many barrels of ink have been wasted on media's
navel gazing (and my god can we navel gaze) I have talked to may of my
colleagues, and read much of the studies and analyses of the public
consumption of media and news. For all of our gnashing teeth, it turns
out either we're doing our job, or someone else is. The public is more
well informed than any other time such things have been studied in
history. Yet scandals don't carry the weight to reform they once did at
anything but the most local level, and maybe even then only rural, where
prosecutors still follow up. I have worried for some time that part of
the public apathy we see is this: your profession has stopped taking the
baton from mine.
Then there's the matter at hand; you have accused Aaron of downloading a
million journal articles. You've said you can prove this. You've asked
me to contextualize this, and I've given you the only context that I can
imagine-- giving the global poor tools to better their state. I believe
it's the only context you have. I am still wondering how, in all a sea
of troubles, that can really be worth your time and energy, how that can
be worth the awesome and sacred destructive power you've been given. If
you can tell me how spending your precious time on that, time you will
never get back, time that can never be given to so many unaddressed
oppressions on the human spirit, makes the world a better place, I will
rest. Even if I disagree with you, I can rest. But I think I will know
if you're lying. If the actual answer is the other things are too hard,
that you might fail, then you are already part of a grand failure. A
failure so great and so close to us we can barely see it, mistaking it
for the sky itself.