How do we protect our children?
In the end, can we?
These terrifying questions have been lighting up Broadway and Off-Broadway this season in very different plays: The Ferryman, by Jez Butterworth; American Son, by Christopher Demos-Brown, which recently closed; and Sea Wall/A Life, an evening of paired monologues by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne that just recently opened.
The answer reached by all, pretty much unanimously, is not merely no, but no way; no chance.
I am not entirely persuaded that this is so, and will explain why in a minute, but we do live in an age when to argue otherwise almost seems an act of deranged blindness. Life is random and ruthless and then there is the internet. Children are so vulnerable. You do what you can but what chance have we got?
The Ferryman ventures back to the year 1981 and Northern Ireland at the height of its “Troubles,” laying before us a teeming, extended Irish family and one indomitable protective father, a former soldier in the IRA, as we come to learn, who chucked that life to live in solitude and relative safety, secluded in a remote farmhouse with his exhausted wife and their brood of seven kids, two aunts and an uncle, as well as his departed brother’s wife and son; a brother who long ago went lost but, as the play opens, has just been found — a corpse in a bog.
The fact that the brother was “disappeared” by the IRA brings the IRA back into the father’s protected realm, threatening to silence him should he harbor any thoughts of avenging, or even discussing, his brother’s death. Butterworth’s sprawling, yet exquisitely tooled, drama grinds its expansive gears relentlessly toward an ending that is both inescapable and still shocking. Its brutal message is clear: no child is ever safe. No child can be insulated from mayhem by any parent.
American Son delivered the very same message, updated to our present racially divisive moment. As bluntly focused as The Ferryman is discursive, American Son gave us one lone divorced mother, black, arriving at a police station somewhere in Florida in the middle of the night seeking word of her only son, a teenager who has been involved in a traffic stop. His whereabouts are not readily confirmed or unconfirmed by the seemingly solicitous white cop, whose submerged racism peeks out in spite of himself. The woman’s ex-husband, also white, eventually arrives. The wait they endure is excruciating and the fault lines in their relationship increasingly apparent. The play’s destination is telegraphed within an inch of the absent son’s life. The playwright’s formulaic dissection of his blatantly obvious subject was…well, blatantly obvious, and left me cold, but the audience all around me roared and gasped at the peregrinations of American Son. It clearly touched nerves, as intended. Again, the ending was inescapable and shocking and clear: no child is ever safe. Especially not a black child in America.
Sea Wall is one desolate young father’s testament to having witnessed his own eight-year-old daughter’s death from a distance as she accidentally slips on a jetty of rocks on the beach while the father floats in the sea. The child’s grandfather sits but a few steps away, reading in a beach chair, missing the accident until it is too late.
The impact here is visceral. We are powerless witnesses to our own children’s peril. There is no God who will intervene. Prepare to mourn now.
A Life hands us a different young father’s pain, fear and guilt, as he mourns the death of his own elderly father, from heart disease, while becoming a father himself for the first time. When the new father’s ambivalence about fatherhood tips toward malevolent self-loathing, his newborn child suddenly seems very much at risk. Until — in a not entirely believable shift of last minute sentiment — it would seem that, perhaps, the baby and the father both may be safe after all.
What does it say about our lives today that four of our top playwrights in one season share such a fraught view of child safety? That our times are desperate? They are. That our sense of a safety net is gone? It is. That our powers to protect have been vacated?
Uh, no. Not necessarily.
Which brings me to a story. All true. About a child I know personally.
I will call her Kayley. Kayley was 16 when she met my daughter Lea at a high school volleyball game a few months ago. Though Kayley does not go to Lea’s school, she and Lea hit it off. Soon Lea brought Kayley home for a Friday evening. They proved remarkably alike in spirit and in physicality too. They could have been cousins.
Here and there, Kayley let drop, in her hyper-effusive way, tidbits that felt troubling to me about her father, with whom she lived. Kayley’s mother, long-divorced, was way down South, where Kayley had been born and grew up. In fact, Kayley explained, she had never before met her father until coming up this past summer and deciding, on a whim, to stay.
A few weeks later, another Friday night, Lea turned to me, from her phone, and asked if Kayley could come over. Her father, Lea said, had been physically and verbally abusive towards Kayley. Now he had thrown her out.
What else could I say, but yes? Soon Kayley was again in our living room.
She would stay for almost a month. Once Kayley detailed how her dad had smacked her, yanked her by the hair from behind and generally manhandled her, I couldn’t send her back. Kayley continued to attend school near her father’s place but Kayley slept at our place.
We alerted her father immediately, though, that Kayley was staying with us, and he acquiesced, for a while. When one week stretched into two, and then three, Kayley’s dad did begin to squawk in increasingly heated texts. I, in turn, tried to make Kayley understand that she had to make a choice. Staying on with us indefinitely was not an option; we could not adopt her. Kayley could call her mom down South and return home (we’d already reached out to her). Kayley could return to her dad. Or we could contact social services and Kayley could enter “The System.”
None of these options were appetizing. Returning Kayley to her mother seemed to me our best bet. Phoning and texting Mom, however, brought little response in return. At first Mom wouldn’t answer at all. When she finally did, Mom informed us, by text, that Kayley’s dad was in charge. Kayley tried to explain to us that she had other, older sisters, none of whom had any great affection lost for their youngest sibling. Kayley’s mom was worn out.
Kayley celebrated Thanksgiving with my extended family at my brother’s place. Neither of her parents kicked about this especially. In Thanksgiving’s aftermath, however, Kayley’s father began texting ever-more ominously. By the ensuing weekend, I finally made it clear to Kayley that, despite my protectivist proclivities, she had to make her decision. By Sunday. We texted this to her father and mother. Monday A.M., we said, Kayley’s stay with us would end.
Sunday evening arrived and a call came in, a voicemail message from a police officer at the local precinct closest to Kayley’s dad’s apartment. Kayley’s dad had been in asking for help returning his daughter, the officer informed us. Would we please call back?
I did. The daughter is here with us, I informed the officer and will be returning home tomorrow. The dad had been informed of this. “Good,” the officer replied. “Did we need to come in?” I asked the officer. “No,” he said, “this is just a courtesy call.” And hung up.
Odd, I thought. Very odd.
I headed for my daughters’ room. Where I sat down with Kayley.
“It’s time,” I said. “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” Kayley said.
“I understand that,” I said. “It’s a terrible decision. But you have to make it, or your dad will.”
Kayley looked miserable.
“How about filing a report with Child Services,” I tried one last time.
“Okay,” Kayley said suddenly.
“Really?” I said, more than a little surprised.
“Yes,” Kayley said.
I found a Child Protective Services Hotline number online and we called. A young female voice answered and soon was taking down Kayley’s particulars. The female voice read each question out to me and I repeated each question to Kayley, who sat on the floor nearby. Kayley answered each question and I repeated her answers into the phone.
This took us a while but at last Kayley’s data was fully recorded and in the system. We were given a case number — critically, as it turned out. And the young female voice informed me that this case would be expedited. We would be hearing from a caseworker assigned to Kayley before the end of the evening.
Good thing too.
Less than an hour later the police broke down my door.
Not entirely. A frightening pounding suddenly threatened to bring down my apartment’s rear service door. The hinges began to rattle. I ran to the door, fearing it was Kayley’s dad. “Who is it?” I hollered, through the banging.
“Police!” came the reply.
I pulled the door open and at least a half dozen cops, dense and immense in bulletproof-vests, hands on holstered guns, filled my hallway. Behind them, I spotted, lurking, a very big, very angry-looking guy, I assumed was Kayley’s dad. The cops piled into my living room. They were impressively multi-ethnic, I noticed. The one in charge, an Asian officer, barked one straightforward question: “Is the girl here?”
I said she was, yes. In the bedroom.
“Listen,” I also said. “We’ve been in touch with her father, in fact with both her parents, from the beginning.” I pulled out my phone and quickly showed him all the texts. “They always knew she was here.”
The officer studied my phone closely.
“We also reported this to social services.”
The officer looked up.
“Yes. I have a case number.”
“You have a case number?”
I watched him visibly began to disengage from crisis mode. His neck muscles slackened. His hand left his gun.
I gave him the case number,
“I still need to see the girl,” he said.
I went and got Kayley.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“She’s coming with us.”
I knew it was futile to say anything else.
I watched this all-male armada of cops escort this single 16-year-old girl out into the night. It was a gut-clenching sight. Couldn’t they have sent even one female officer? I mean, they knew they were coming for a young lady.
The cops brought Kayley to a nearby hospital to be evaluated. Both parents had been insisting, by text, that Kayley had “emotional problems.” They’d even shared a diagnosis with us, including online links, to something called O.D.D. — Oppositional Deficiency Disorder. When I read the linked definition, O.D.D. sounded to me like a laughably broad psychosomatic handle for the clinical condition of being a teenager: “a condition in which a child displays an ongoing pattern of an angry or irritable mood, defiant or argumentative behavior, and vindictiveness toward people in authority. The child’s behavior often disrupts the child’s normal daily activities, including activities within the family and at school.”
Are you kidding me? That is a teenager.
Kayley, I would later learn, balked at entering an examination room at the hospital with her father, though her male cop entourage had insisted. In the end, Kayley prevailed. A female social worker appeared and escorted her. Still, after a long night, Kayley was finally returned to her father.
But that wasn’t the end. I called the case worker assigned to Kayley the next day and regularly for days after. She assured me that Kayley’s case was still open and the investigation ongoing.
Two weeks later (a Friday evening again), Kayley appeared at our door. Some of her schoolbooks and clothes were still in Lea’s room. She had left her father’s home, Kayley told us, and was not going back. Kayley grabbed her stuff and disappeared into the night.
A short while later, two detectives turned up at our door, merely knocking this time. Had we seen Kayley? We had, we told them, but she was gone.
It was painful to imagine Kayley now on the streets. In fact, it was goddamned woeful. We had failed her.
But this wasn’t the end either. A week or so later, Kayley contacted Lea. Her dad had confiscated her cell phone, so this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Child Services had come through, Kayley said. Her father had lost all custody. At first, Kayley had been placed in a temporary shelter of some sort on the Lower-Eastside but now she’d been moved to a group home in Brooklyn that Kayley really liked. She shared a room and had to be in by midnight. Otherwise, Kayley was free.
The system had worked.
Had one child, at least, been protected?
I’d like to think so. Theater, of course, is predetermined. Life, for better and worse, is not.