Gravity of Abuse (Chapter One: Honeymoon Phase)

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on May. 9th, 2012

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The Illustrated Man

Richard might never have hit upon those tattoos as an adult if he hadn’t learned of Odin as a child.

Richard grew up in Salinas, Calif., the son of a Vietnam vet and a home day care provider. As a kid, he entertained himself with, among other pursuits, the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Diehards call it D&D. The game allows each player to embody a mythical being: dragon, wizard, giant, troll or even a dungeon master.

Players gain a deeper understanding of D&D through reference books, and one book described the pantheons of numerous mythologies. Drawn to the text, Richard became enthralled with the gods who lived in the Norse mythos: the father god Odin, the trickster god Loki, the warrior god Thor. That mythology had inspired author J.R.R. Tolkien as well, leading to his “The Lord of the Rings” series, books Richard stole from the library — and loved.

The fantastical realm of childhood suffered a dose of reality when Richard’s father split. His relationship with his mother disintegrated, and when she kicked him out, he became a ward of the state, bouncing between group homes and juvenile detention centers. He longed for the stable family he felt he never had.

In a group home one day, Richard read a sign: Witchcraft is not a state-recognized religion. “Of course they said we can’t have it,” recalls Richard, “so I got into it.” He discovered Wicca, a Neo-Pagan religion that blends respect for nature, herbal magic and benevolent witchcraft. He loved it. Together, Norse mythology and Wicca shaped his spiritual beliefs.

The restrictions he experienced in juvenile homes created a longing for freedom, which accompanied a frustrated desire for family connection. As an adult, he moved to Sacramento, to be near his mother. She didn’t want to see him. Richard hung out at friends’ places sometimes, slept on the streets other times, developing, over the course of a year, a bad heroin habit. His mother relocated near Reno, Nevada, and again seeking connection, he followed. He lived outside the Biggest Little City in the World, where he dropped his heroin habit and fell big time into meth. On a search for important family papers at his mother’s place, he stole his stepdad’s safe and found, instead, money. Once Richard had pocketed the cash, he tried to return the safe, but it was too late. He was arrested. On his 22nd birthday. Grand larceny. Five years.

In prison, life fragmented along racial lines. White this side, black that side, Latino over here, Native over there. Within these groups, more fissures emerged. Richard noticed that among white inmates, there were long-haired druggies, sometime druggies and we’re-not-druggies, and the last group, with their full beards, resembled modern-day Vikings. He gravitated toward the druggies, but as he met more neo-Vikings, he felt pulled in their direction. He discovered the group not only stayed clean, but they clung to a unique belief: They practiced Odinism.

Odinism follows spiritual principles spelled out by the Norse god Odin. His words form the body of an epic poem dating from the ninth or 10th century called “The Hávamál” or, in English, “Sayings of the High One.” The poem offers a folksy blend of divine prescriptions that touch upon topics ranging from self-respect to ethical conduct. Richard admired its principles. “If I could ever adhere to them like I’m supposed to,” he recalls, “I’d never get in trouble.”

Unlike most Odinists on the outside, those practicing Odinism within Nevada’s prison system were a gang whose members also clung to another belief: white supremacy. They called themselves the Aryan Warriors. For them, Odinism and white supremacy went hand-in-hand — and all over the body as well. The prison tattoos that decorated their skins blended pagan symbolism with Aryanism. Not that Richard’s first tattoo evoked either. On his right hand, between thumb and forefinger, someone inked a heart. Years later, he covered it with an iron cross, a German military honor.

Released from prison in 1999 and away from his Odinist brothers, Richard couldn’t make the principles of “The Hávamál” stick. He guzzled beer and malt beverages and ping-ponged between heroin and meth, addictions that opened the gates to multiple, lengthy prison terms. Eight months for carrying a concealed weapon; 24 months for possession of a stolen vehicle; 24 months for attempted battery causing substantial bodily harm; 22 months for assault with a deadly weapon.

Richard shaved his head in prison. The more time he served, the more tattoos he acquired: the words “Ladies Love Outlaws” on the nape of his neck; a D&D dragon on his left shoulder; the term “PURE BLOOD” on his left forearm; near his left eye, “SS,” the insignia for Hitler’s elite defense corps. Others tattoos decorated his neck, his arms and his legs.

By the time he left the Nevada Correctional Center in Reno in November 2008 and boarded a Greyhound to Boise, his skin had become a living canvas. A pastiche of illustrations that touched upon paganism, white supremacy, pop culture and prison life, Richard’s flesh told his life story in cerulean ink.

The illustrations also evoked an important concept to him: family. Through Odinism he’d learned that a man was a provider. In this regard, he’d failed. His teenage daughter’s name once adorned his left pec, but the tattoo artist had screwed up the lettering. So Richard covered it up with an enormous swastika. And like that messed-up script, he’d messed up with his daughter: He’d been in jail at her birth. If he ever started another family, he’d do better and be there at his child’s birth.

In Boise, Richard, 35, decided to provide for Brandy. True, they didn’t have a family together. Not yet. But no matter what Brandy needed — shelter, food, cigarettes, money — he’d provide. He’d protect her. That’s one rule he swore he’d never break.

The Lady and the Outlaw

Shortly after their bathroom encounter, Richard suggested he and Brandy always follow a rule: stay together. His Odinist principles told him a man must keep his family safe, so he left the men’s shelter to ensure Brandy wouldn’t be alone. It touched her. “He wanted to protect me,” she says. They just needed a place to stay.

They heard about a guy with an unheated house who let people crash for free. To make ends meet, Richard smashed car windows and stole cigarettes and change. He convinced Brandy to panhandle. She hated it. Together, they pooled their resources and injected meth, riding the rush, pulled by addiction.

Like any couple that spends time together, the pair forged a bond of intimacy. Richard told Brandy he wanted to leave his white supremacist past behind, even as he carried a handwritten copy of “The Hávamál.” In the unheated house or out on the streets, they talked of a future together, maybe one with kids. Christmas came, then New Year’s passed. Happy 2009.

Not long into January, when Mr. Unheated House started acting like a pervert, Richard and Brandy shoved their clothes into their backpacks and split. With two borrowed sleeping bags they trudged to the greenbelt near the Boise River, close to where they’d first kissed. Richard guided Brandy to a spot under a bridge. They inchwormed inside their sleeping bags. The temperature dropped. Wind blew. Snow fell; by morning, three inches covered the ground.

The next night, with a low in the 20s, Richard led Brandy to a multistory garage. In a stairwell, they huddled together. He gave Brandy his coat, but it barely helped. He held her close as she shivered all night.

Then Brandy cried uncle. They needed another solution, somewhere warm. The couple ran into another guy. “And he let us stay in his motel room,” Brandy says. Unlike the old guy, Mr. Motel didn’t want anything, except company. But Brandy didn’t intend to stay.

Back in Seattle, Brandy had been accepted into a Washington state program called GA-U, Government Assistance-Unemployable, that provided her $339 each month. She planned to use her January payment to buy bus tickets to Seattle for herself and Richard.

In Richard’s mind, they were a couple — a family — and he worried she might back out of the relationship. So he agreed. He’d move to Seattle.

When the GA-U funds hit her account, the pair packed up and headed to the bus station. Once again, Brandy sat on a Greyhound, this time bound for Seattle. With a boyfriend who she realized she didn’t really know. But he’d told her he’d protect her. He wanted to change his life, like she did. It seemed easier to do it together. Besides, Brandy figured, what was the worst that could happen?

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