The Four Stages of Cruelty

A Novel

Keith Hollihan

Thomas Dunne Books

I can think of no gentle way to begin.
I need to explain why the biggest mystery for me was not how an inmate could go missing inside a maximum security penitentiary, nor what the drawings meant, or even who was involved in the murders. The thing that stays with me, like the memory of a limb now gone, is the mystery of human compassion. The twisted variations of it, the love and the hurt, the obsession and the neglect, the abuse and the need, all commingled and bound. Although I am as cynical and skeptical as can be expected, given my experience, I am not one to deny that genuine relationships can form between inmates and corrections officers. I do know, however, that those relationships are almost universally based on some form of trade, a commerce of getting by. You need them as much as they need you, and I will admit that debts accumulate and sometimes must be paid off in ways that compromise what you think is right. This can happen to any of us.
My name is Kali Williams. I doubt that my parents, when they changed a few letters in the more conventionally spelled Kaylee, knew they were naming me after the many-armed Hindu goddess of darkness and destruction. But out of that dull midwestern instinct to be safe but slightly different, I sprang: a personality of sharp edges and bruising elbows.
If this were just a story about Ditmarsh Penitentiary and my work within it, I would probably start by discussing the routine and even the incidentally interesting aspect of being a thirty-nine-year-old female—one of only 26 women on a corrections staff of 312—providing daily operational security over 950 (plus or minus) hard-core assholes, sex offenders, addicts, liars, serial felons, white-collar dick suckers, gangbangers, and relatively honest murderers. I enjoyed my job. I liked the bang and clang of the cellblocks, the armored ease you needed to show in getting by, the acute attention to psychology and mood. For the most part, the bullshit bounced off me, the rat-a-tat routine of jokes and looks, the subtle grind of male criticism disguised half-assedly as helpfulness. I never questioned the right and wrong of the work—it was pretty goddamn clear to me, and still is—but there were times when I got stuck wondering how I’d become this person who wore the belt and jangled the keys and relied on the way the quick decisions got backed up by the remorseless rules. Nothing good came of those moods, however, and I avoided them as much as possible. I have an irritable impatience for the overly steeped, self-pitying emotions of anyone with too much time on their hands, including, and perhaps especially, myself.
This is not about my job, though, or about me; it’s about what happened, and all those mysteries I mentioned, and the mystery of compassion most of all. Even when I found the body dangling from a door in the abandoned cells beneath the prison, so terribly abused, it was the absence of compassion, the lack of pity in the place, that hit me hardest. Though surrounded by the dark output of violent lives, I had never before seen the ravages of such unrestrained brutality. I forced myself to edge past, pressing up against the cold wall where the scrawled drawings were most tangled, in order to see the face. In that dead gaze, was I the delayed rescuer or another tormenter? I’m not sure I can answer without sorting through the events that led up to it. As I said, I can think of no gentle way to begin.

Copyright © 2010 by Keith Hollihan