When Dad and I went on our long drives and he was in a good mood, it was safe to ask him about his time in San Quentin as long as I didn’t specifically bring up the reason he was there. If my questions had anything to do with the night that led to his conviction, he’d get angry and shut down. He might stay mad at me for days, so it was crucial for me to be careful and know exactly what to say.
From Thurston Crow:
First Time in the Yard
When I walked into the yard for the first time, a vicious lifer con decided to test me. He wanted to make me his punk. Ugly son of a bitch. He asked me if I was married and where I was from. I was naïve—I told him my wife and I were from Texas.
In his nastiest voice, he said, “I’ve screwed every woman in Texas, and their twats are stretched wider than an ax handle because they’re all whores.”
I crunched the guy’s jaw so hard it knocked him down. Then I jumped on top of him and pounded his head into the concrete. His teeth went flying. I smashed his face into a bloody pulp.
Three more seconds, I would have killed him, but two of his buddies pulled me off. One told me to get up slowly and begin moving. Another handed me a handkerchief. Several small groups formed. The cons pushed me from group to group as we steadily walked away until it was impossible to identify me.
In the code of the cons, I’d been challenged and won. You can’t let anyone push you around in the Big House or they’ll own you.
But one of the con’s friends told me that if I ever did something stupid like that again, he’d push me into the center where the armed guards up in the tower would have a clear shot.
I didn’t care. I did what I had to do. I passed the test. I could get smokes from anybody, and no one confronted me again.
The IQ Test
My first and biggest break was my IQ test. They gave it to me three times. My instructor wanted to know why I faked being stupid on the first two tests. It turns out they used an abacus. Once the abacus reaches 100, it drops back to zero, so my test showed an IQ of 80. The abacus rarely went beyond 100.
On the third test, the instructor realized what had happened. He told me the test showed that my IQ was 180, above the 98th percentile.
My instructor immediately sent my chart to Dr. Yarkin, the chief prison psychiatrist, who reported to Dr. Leo L. Stanley, the chief physician. Their offices were right next to the warden’s, the legendary Clinton Duffy, who served as warden of San Quentin from 1940 to 1952.
Since my crime involved violence, the chief psychiatrist would have examined me even if my IQ was 80.
After all, violent criminals show the least remorse and create the most problems in all prisons, so evaluating them is especially important. The most violent and unrepentant are sent to the Adjustment Center on the fourth floor, and the very worst of those to the psychiatric ward where no one turns their back on them for a moment.
Dr. Stanley believed that criminals with high IQs, particularly young ones like me, had a far greater chance for rehabilitation. Since I was only 20 years old then, he took a special interest in my case.
Stanley asked me the usual questions, including, “Other than the offense that got you here, have you ever been arrested for a crime of violence?”
The right answer to that question was no, of course. He was examining me like a bug under a microscope, so I fed him all the right answers.
Then Dr. Yarkin, took over. He verbally attacked me in a way that felt worse than any profanity. He used the word “disgust” as if worms were falling from my belly.
He asked, “Do you know that a perpetrator of crime of violence is the lowest form of human life on the planet? Violent criminals are vile, disgusting, deranged, predatory, sickening animals. Are you aware of that?”
Yes, but of course.
Yarkin had the carriage of a man in the boxing ring. I’d seen it many times. He was very tough and would become violent if attacked. He kept the verbal assaults up for what seemed like hours and he did it for several days. I realized he was trying to provoke me into a fight. He succeeded in making me want to smash his face, but that would have been the purest of insanely suicidal acts.
The veins in his neck stood out on his face and arms. He was red in the face and sweated profusely. I was stunned by the repeated verbal attacks by this brilliant psychiatrist. No matter how angry I became, I needed to “dummy up,” a favorite prison expression for keeping quiet.
Any aggressiveness would count against me for years to come. Of all the decisions I made in my lifetime, this one was most crucial. He hated violent people and wanted to know if I agreed. But of course, I did, even if that’s the reason I was in the Q.
After he felt certain I wasn’t going to hit him, he wanted to know all about my childhood.
I told him we were Cherokee Indians who lived in dire poverty and extreme prejudice. We stole food and lived under bridges, in empty shacks or any dwelling where someone would let us stay for a while. That I didn’t go to school because my parents made me pick cotton all day, every day, from four years old on.
“How did you get so smart?” he asked.
“By reading every chance I got, books we stole, borrowed, saw in the occasional library. Learning was easy. You didn’t need to study arithmetic. Just look at it awhile and it explains itself. Science was easy too because it all made so much sense. The classics were brilliant lessons in life, but I didn’t know how to pronounce the words. Learning was simple but life was hard, nearly impossible for a poor, unloved Cherokee boy whose mother poisoned his father when he was only 10 years old.”
Then he became friendly. I had become what, or who, he wanted around. He’d never known another inmate like me, ever.
“Did you know your IQ is the highest I have ever tested?” he asked.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Is your sentence for savagely beating a man to what I could have been his death really true?”
“No,” I said. “I was defending my wife who I believed would be raped by this man.”
“Would you do it again, if the choice presented itself?”
“No, I learned my lesson and would take my grievance to the proper authorities.”
My next post: Dad’s job in the hospital.
Read more about my larger-than-life father in my award-winning memoir, The Pale-Faced Lie. Find out how he groomed me to be his partner in crime and what happened when I finally stopped helping him.
“Cinematically gripping.”—Kirkus Reviews