Matthew Levine and Robert Haydon Jones

Matthew Levine
The Professor

In the Aftermath of Terror
A Brief Case History
By Robert Haydon Jones

Inspiration piece

I am an expert on what happens to people in the aftermath of terror. I know that sounds strange and I know it is strange. But the fact of the matter is everything most people know about being terrified is pretty much theoretical. What about you?  Are you well acquainted with what terror leaves in its wake?

Thankfully, most people aren’t. What’s more, those who have been terrified usually keep very, very, quiet about it. It’s like a dirty little secret they hold and hold. Sometimes the pressure of the dirty little secret is just too much – and they blurt stuff out or they act out. But mostly they just hold their terror close and suffer. They suffer intensely.

The best relief for these folks is for them to tell their terror secret out. But shame is almost always immediately locked arm-and-arm with terror. So telling is extra hard and then incremental shame almost inevitably floods in with the telling.  It gets worse before it gets better. It gets a lot worse. And sometimes it never gets better.

That’s the nature of this beast. You’re rolling along a regular person – and then WHAM – suddenly you’re drenched in totally pervasive terror – and your life is never the same.

For quite a few years now, I’ve been there for men and women (mostly men) who have been messed up by terror — who are seeking to talk to someone who seems likely to understand what they are going through.

My key qualification is that I am well acquainted with terror.  Although I am years away from my primary incident, I acknowledge I am actively working a program to live life as best I can. Some people in the field (and some of my clients) refer to me as “Violent Victor.” (Of course, they don’t say this to my face.) It is an affectionate nickname that is grounded in a back-story on me that’s out there that is so studded with bizarre fictions that even I have to laugh.

I work on a volunteer basis. I started out more than 20 years back as a Blue Coat at a university hospital nearby. Nowadays, most of my clients come to see me in a nifty little shack in a wooded grove in back of my house here hard by the west bank of the Connecticut River.

Jim S. drove out from New York City to see me a week ago today. Bill Kelly, a retired DEA agent and a fellow former Marine and old friend of mine, suggested Jim talk  to me. We sat out in the golden Indian summer day on the little deck that rings my shack and lunched on sandwiches I had brought from the deli in the village.

Jim (not his real name) is a well-known college professor. Year after year, Jim’s course on Shakespeare is chosen “best course” by the kids at his university.

Jim is in his early fifties. He has the soft, cultured voice of a long time Manhattan academic. He’s a tall, angular, almost wispy fellow, with a surprising shock of gray hair that makes it seem he’s about to go up in smoke. When we shook hands, he just offered me his fingers.

Jim tells me straight away that he has heard great things about my work with veterans and cops.  He says he has quite a few vets among his students – and that he knows several of them are in treatment. He tells me PTSD often comes up in class discussions. (Hey, if you look again at Shakespeare, you’ll see it everywhere.)

Of course, these days, PTSD is part of the national parlance. He tells me one of his fears is that his students will somehow become aware of his problem.

I tell him we can deal with that later. The first thing is for him to tell me his story.

So he drains his Diet Coke, sets the can down and goes off non-stop.

He was jumped by terror suddenly in the subway in the mid-morning on his usual route to the University. The suddenness of it is still shocking him. Like they say in the Marines, “Everything changes the moment you see your first dead Marine.”

He was walking in the passage under Grand Central that takes you to the Shuttle subway to Times Square and all the West Side subways. It was mid-morning, the rush was over and as he rounded a corner, suddenly there were two rough looking young men facing him. One of the men was an enormous black man. The other man was a wiry Latino with a pocked face. The Latino was pointing a nickel-plated automatic pistol at him. “Give me your wallet or I’ll blow you away,” he said.

Jim froze. He remembered his cop friends had urged him to be an easy mark if he were ever stuck up. So, he tried to smile reassuringly. Then he tried not to smile because he was afraid it might seem he wasn’t taking the threat seriously.

He noted that some of the pocks on the Latino’s face seemed to be actively oozing pus. He noted that the enormous black man had moved in closer to shield them from view and had balled his huge fists. They looked like big black rocks attached to his wrists.

“Do it now. Do it now or I will shoot you in your fucking eye,” the Latino snarled.

Jim was entranced with the pistol –he was fixated on the opening at the end of the barrel. It was ugly like a venomous snout. In his mind’s eye, he flashed back to the film footage of D-Day he had seen – in it, two men had crumpled and fallen dead. They had been killed by bullets that had shot out from the same sort of snout that was seeking him, a death-dealing curio that was now the center of his universe.

This had taken milliseconds. His smile had frozen and collapsed. He leaned forward and fished his wallet out of his back pocket. As he did so, his guts suddenly roiled, he felt the cramp of a massive diarrhea attack coming on. Simultaneously, he was hit hard by a horrible thought.

His cop friends had told him that sometimes street thugs got pissed-off with slim pickings. They would kill you if they thought you were holding out. Or just kill you because you were a disappointment.

He handed the wallet over. “There’s not much money in there,” he heard himself say. “I’ve got some more in my pocket.”

The Latino snatched the wallet and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. “Give me the rest”, he said. He moved the pistol slightly. It was pointing at Jim’s pubic area. Jim dug frantically in his trouser pocket and pulled out $94 in a roll of bills. It was his “walking around” money; he always carried it loose. The Latino snatched the roll.

“Is that it?” said the Latino. The black giant stepped closer to Jim and raised his arm.

Jim cringed. “That’s all, I swear. Please, don’t hurt me.”

“Okay”, the Latino said. “Walk straight on and go on down the stairs and get on board the Shuttle. If you look back or talk to anyone, I will kill your ass.”

A foolish, crazy, loony, thought bubbled up and out of Jim. He was thinking he needed his wallet and his credit cards. “Can I have my wallet back?” he asked. The minute he heard his own words, he knew they were insane. His assailants laughed as if Jim had just told a great joke.

“No,” the Latino said, mocking Jim’s voice, “You can’t have it back. Get the fuck out of here before I put a cap in you.”

So, Jim ducked away and down the stairs and right on to the Shuttle. Amazingly, it was full. He had been robbed while scores of people scurried by him. Jim had to stand. Almost immediately the doors shut and the Shuttle made the two-minute run to Times Square.

Jim was lucky. He made it to the unisex bathroom at the Times Square Starbucks just in time. Afterward, he cleaned up and washed his hands – then suddenly a wave of nausea surged through him and he vomited into the sink.

He hurried out of Starbucks – two cops were standing there a few doors down. Jim ran up to them. He got only a few words out before one of the cops signaled him to stop. “You need to report this to the Transit Police,” the cop said. He talked into his radio. Then he directed Jim to report to a transit cop back in the subway at the change booth.

Jim ended up telling his story six times. On his last go round, he was deep under Times Square in a cavernous, noisy, room teeming with cops, detectives, clerks, and a handful of men and a couple of women being questioned, or just sitting there, handcuffed to loops in the wall.

There was no sign of the stickup men at Grand Central. Then the cops were telling him the thieves had used his Credit Cards to buy MetroCards from the vending machines. Jim found this confusing. Why did bad guys need subway passes?

“They knew they could get your cards through the machines before you called to report them stolen,” a cop said as if reading his thoughts.

“Would you know these men if you saw them again?” Jim said he sure would. So the cops started him looking through mug books. First he looked at a bunch of evil, angry, black faces. Then he looked at evil, angry, Latino faces. As much as he wanted to, Jim couldn’t make an ID. Some of the photos were close – but he couldn’t be sure.

“Listen,” a cop with Sergeant’s stripes on his blouse, said. “You don’t have to be 100% on this. These are all certified bad guys. We know they are out there doing bad things to good citizens like you. Pick one of each – one black – one Latino – and you can make something good happen out of your misfortune.”

Jim said he couldn’t do that. The cops pressed him. “Keep looking professor ”,  a fat, black, cop said. “Some times it can take a while to do the right thing.” Jim kept looking for almost an hour. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” the Sergeant said.  “Did they take your balls along with your wallet?”

A month later, Jim saw the Latino in handcuffs on the front page of the Daily News. He had been arrested for murder. He had shot a young clerk at a liquor store.

Jim called the transit police at the number he had been given. “That Latino who’s just been arrested for the liquor store shooting – that’s the guy who held me up.”

There was a pause. “Now you tell us. Too bad you didn’t have the balls to tell us before he killed that poor clerk. We had him in those mug shots big as life.  Too bad you didn’t do the right thing.” Then the cop hung up.

“So that’s my story,” Jim concluded.  “I do replay maybe 20 or 30 times a day on the hold up. I can’t help it. You would think I would be focused on the Latino with the pistol but the thing I’m afraid of most is the black guy crushing me.

I also fantasize a lot about pulling out the Latino’s nickel-plated pistol and doing the transit cop Sergeant and his pals. Frankly, it gives me a warm rush sort of like sex.”

I told Jim I understood. I told him it would take a while but I could help him through.

I honestly think he has a good chance for recovery. He has told a lot of his story out and that is the key.

Jim will be telling me his story hundreds of times before we are done. In case you are wondering, I am highly confident that it won’t be long before he gets to the dead young liquor store clerk.


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  1. Posted March 3, 2011 at 1:53 pm | #

    Again, Jones’s nuances pick up the details available only to fiction. You don’t have to ask whether these incidents are “real.” They’re not. They’re more than real. I felt the crime victim’s terror intimately.

  2. Posted March 3, 2011 at 1:55 pm | #

    Great Painting Matthew.

  3. Posted March 4, 2011 at 9:22 pm | #

    The only problem I have with this piece is that it ended too soon. I wanted more, much more, of this story. What happened next? You can’t leave us hanging like this.

  4. Posted March 5, 2011 at 11:26 pm | #

    Very interesting piece, RHJ. I found the comment about the violence in Shakespeare to be right on the money. And I really like the painting as well.

  5. Posted March 7, 2011 at 8:32 pm | #

    Trauma survivors will get this story right off. First, there is the trauma. Then, 9 out 10 times, one is traumatized again, or what’s called secondary trauma. Leaving one more isolated and alone, as this story portrays. And the overwhelming emotions of guilt and shame that engulf — almost unbearable. Moving story. Haunting painting, too.

  6. Posted March 10, 2011 at 5:43 pm | #

    Fluid,warm and exhilarating at the same time. Almost all that was in Freud was in Shakespeare, but one consistent theme in Freud’s work was his view on trauma. It remains the single most consistent aspect of his theoretical edifice. What makes that possible for Freud is the idea that trauma does not come only from the external world, but more often as not it comes from the internal. Jim is shown to have experienced both, it is the internal that will hold longer.

  7. Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:47 am | #

    What a great stunning tale .I lived that hold up having faced a black gun barrel years ago and calmly wondered what it would feel like to have a bullet tear through my brain Terror indeed is the word

  8. Posted March 31, 2011 at 4:08 pm | #

    A very interesting,disturbing and entertaining story—put me in touch with a couple of my own “dirty little secrets” that I’ve been carrying around way too long,,,well done!

    A haunting painting that I look froward to seeing “Up close”

  9. Posted July 7, 2011 at 12:24 am | #

    Brought me back to many a tale of terror I escaped in the caverns of the streets I ran through. Thank you Jonsey for allowing me to feel my humanity.

  10. Posted January 12, 2012 at 10:48 am | #

    Matthew, Your work is powerful, evocative and I respond from unspeakable places! Fantastic!