When I was 18 years old I met a monster. His name was Adam*. He was a few years older than I was and had an apartment with his girlfriend Amy* near the University of Oregon campus. He was charming and funny and he convinced me to take my first shot of straight everclear and one time, when he was beating up Amy, he broke her arm.
I met Adam through a Werewolf: the Apocalypse role-playing game group run by an old friend of mine. I’m pretty sure I was told that Adam and Amy joined the group through an ad at Emerald City Comics or maybe they were friends of someone else that saw that ad or maybe there’s some other sequence of events. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but I got along with Adam and Amy and they invited me to other games and other events at their apartment and pretty quickly I started spending most of my free time there. Adam and Amy’s apartment was a hub and most times there were a bunch of different people there. I was new to the city and new to living on my own. Adam and Amy were my first new adult college friends. They were both smart and nothing like most of the people I’d ever known in my small town growing up. Amy could speak a little bit of Japanese and Adam had stories about going to a small liberal arts college in Vermont where he met Chloe Sevigny, a story so oddly specific and obscure that I’ve always assumed it was true even though there’s no reference to Chloe ever going to a small liberal arts college in Vermont on her Wikipedia page.
In the months that followed I developed the kind of close intense friendships with both of them that only seem possible when you’re 18 and staying up all night talking about video games or vampire clans. Amy was the first grown up woman that I’d really gotten to know very well that wasn’t a parent or teacher. She was creative and just needed to get a few things sorted out so she could get enrolled back at the university. She made ramen noodles with all kinds of different ingredients and she smoked just enough pot that it seemed casual and contrary to the horror stories spread by drug abuse pamphlets. I remember that Amy had great taste in music and I remember thinking that someday I would like to date a girl like Amy, someone that seemed so fully-formed and so independent. Adam meanwhile fit into the role of proxy older brother. I looked up to him and, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, I mimicked him. When he teased or made mean-spirited jokes about Dave*, a friendly, sincere mutual friend of ours who had done nothing to deserve it, I teased and made jokes too because Adam was cool and I wanted to be like that. All these years later when I look back on it I see myself following Adam around like a lost puppy and it makes me sick and ashamed.
The signs of Adam’s abuse were always there. If anything, they were too obvious, and because they were so on-the-nose, I presumed they were bullshit. One time Amy had big visible bruises and she said she got them falling down the stairs from their loft bedroom. It was like a line right out of an after school special. I joked about it. Sure, Amy. Fell down the stairs- onto Adam’s fist. And she joked back. I don’t actually know for sure that Amy falling down the stairs was a cover-up. She might have literally fallen down the stairs that time but in context with everything else, everything that followed, it sure seems suspicious and I wish I’d done more than make jokes about it.
One time a few of us went to Amy when she was alone and asked her sincerely if she was okay. We asked her if Adam hurt her. She insisted that he didn’t and that she was okay and she was convincing and we believed her because she was Amy and Amy seemed so fully-formed and so independent.It’s easy in a situation like that for everyone to just lie if the lie feels better than the truth. I felt consoled by Amy’s insistence that there was nothing wrong. I felt like I’d done the right thing and there was nothing more I could do and if there was something more to it, that was on Amy and my hands were clean. That’s the lie that makes me feel better.
Adam was, to put it generously, a dominant presence in any social setting. To put it less generously he was a bully. He was a massive guy, standing several inches taller than me with plenty of muscle. He had long dark hair that he pulled back into a ponytail and a beard. He had dark eyes and sometimes he would just glower at you with this displeased intensity that would make you feel really uncomfortable. He had a potent combination of charisma, confidence, wit, and physical presence that made him difficult to resist. He also had a temper, a temper unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
In our Werewolf: the Apocalypse game we were all playing a pack of eco-warrior werewolves defending our territory in central Oregon from evil. At some point our pack needed a new designated leader, or alpha. I had been playing in this game for the better part of a year and had been engineering my character to have an arc that led to him becoming the pack alpha so when this opportunity presented itself, I volunteered to take it. Adam, who had joined up very recently, decided he wanted his character to be alpha. He picked up his dice and locked me in his glare and he rolled and he beat me. His character was the pack alpha and I don’t think he even really cared about it. I think he did it because he knew I wanted it. I think he did it to show me, not my werewolf character but real life insecure 18 year old me, that he was the alpha.
Adam seemed to pick favorite people and for a while that person would always be on Adam’s good side. He would say flattering things. He would make little gestures or give little gifts. He would plan things around you. He’d call to check on you if he hadn’t seen you in a while. He would talk about you when you weren’t there and make everyone else feel insecure. After he took pack alpha, I was his favorite person for a couple of months. But Adam’s favor didn’t last and he would take it away just when you were getting used to it, just when you were feeling special to him.
The first time I really saw Adam’s temper I was already drifting out of his limelight. I had made some other friends that I spent time with away from him and Amy and pushed back a little harder on some of his behavior. One time when I wasn’t at Adam and Amy’s, Dave stood up for himself one time too many and Adam roared at him to get out. Not long after that I was over at their apartment, walking on egg shells to avoid making Adam mad. Sometimes Adam had bad days, Amy explained to us. It was low blood sugar or he had a headache. Those days he was mean to just about everyone just about all the time and it was a bad idea to be around him. Amy told me to leave once because Adam was in one of his moods. That day Adam must have had low blood sugar or a headache or some other explanation that Amy would rattle off. He was impatient and snippy. I was supposed to just be there for a couple hours before Adam had to go to work but he decided to call in sick and that we would all spend the day together. The afternoon didn’t really go the way Adam wanted it to – I can’t even remember why because it was pointless then and even more pointless now. He started snapping at people for ruining his day and reminding them that he had called in sick to work to spend time with all of them. Everyone was quiet and miserable and Adam kept jabbing. Finally, I told him that no one had done anything to ruin his day and that he had made the choice to call in sick to work and we didn’t ask him to do it. Adam stood up from his chair and stepped toward me, furious. Amy shouted out, “don’t you hit him, Adam!” and I realized that’s exactly what he was going to do. It had never even occurred to me that he might just hit me for talking back. Adam was a giant and he was angry and he wanted to hit me for having the temerity to question him. Amy’s intervention stopped him. Instead of hitting me, Adam shouted that I needed to get out of his apartment and I got my things and left. I found Dave and we kind of laughed and felt like we were in a club of people Adam had thrown out. We shared horror stories about Adam’s shitty temper and we walked around the neighborhood and I almost felt energized by it, I almost felt good about myself. After months of being timid, I stood up to him. I poked the bear and the bear was ultimately toothless. Of course the bear wasn’t toothless. I know that now just like I know that it must have been terrifying for Amy to be left alone with him after my valiant social stand. A day or two later, I found Amy and asked her if it was safe to return, if Adam had calmed down. She said he had and I came back to the apartment like nothing had happened.
When the summer came I had to move back home and fell out of contact with Amy and Adam. I saw them once or twice on weekends but the longer I was outside of the circle the easier it was to just not go back. I got a new apartment only a half dozen blocks away from theirs but Adam and Amy never came over. Adam seemed reluctant to go anywhere outside of his apartment or his job at the campus convenience store and that made it simple to avoid him. Dave, to his credit, never went back after he was thrown out the first time, and that Fall I started spending a lot more time with Dave and Dave’s friends. When I did go back to Amy and Adam’s I wasn’t a favored son anymore, I was just a visitor. Adam wasn’t mean to me but he wasn’t kind either. I felt anonymous in the crowd of new kids at their apartment and, passively as possible, I just detached and we weren’t friends anymore.
I had a friend or two that still went over there and sometimes I would get gossip about what was happening at Adam and Amy’s. It was through that gossip that I found out when Adam broke Amy’s arm. The story that was I told was that he just grabbed it and snapped it, like he was breaking a twig. I believed the story immediately and remembered every sign, every hint, that anticipated it. The days Amy just seemed scared. The way that she knew what Adam getting up to hit someone would look like. I don’t know if he hit her often or rarely. I don’t know exactly how Amy’s arm was broken. I’ve seen police reports online and saw Amy once, fleetingly, in a supermarket with a cast, so I know her arm was broken and cops were called but most of it is just terrible speculation. Even if Adam didn’t hit her regularly, he controlled her like he tried to control the rest of us, like he succeeded for a while in controlling me. When I saw Amy that one final time she said she had moved out and she seemed happy like I hadn’t seen her before. I realized that the Amy I had known had been dimmed the whole time. I can’t even really imagine what that was like for her. I totally understand why she dated Adam, why she moved in with him. Most of the time he could be a great person, he could make you feel like a great person. For years Adam groomed her to accept his episodes, to cover for him and advocate for him. He gave her a giant spotlight and then shattered it and came in to help her pick up the pieces.
When I was 10 I had to stay with my uncle and younger cousins for a little while. While I was there my uncle talked to me and showered me with me praise until I upset him right after my cousins went to sleep for an afternoon nap. He chased me down the stairs and knocked me to the ground. He grabbed a wooden chair and held it over me menacingly, his face red and terrifying. He shouted things at me that I couldn’t really hear or process. I hyperventilated and felt dizzy. He put the chair down and told me to go upstairs to his room. He explained that we were going to take a nap. He put out a cot and started to undress and then the door bell rang. He went downstairs and I stayed behind in his bedroom, shaking, sobbing, terrified. I looked across the hall to my cousins and they looked back at me, awake but frozen. I looked out the window and imagined jumping out. I wondered how much it would hurt to land from the two story drop and if I could climb over the wrought iron fence and get to a pay phone to call for help. I was so paralyzed and so afraid. I knew something awful was going to happen to me if my uncle came back. Finally, I decided to go down the front stairs and see if I could get out the front door. When I got to the bottom of the stairs my uncle called over to me, sweet and kind as he had been ever other moment. He was sitting with his priest and asked if I’d like some lemonade. When I told my mom about what happened on the phone later, I explained it was all a misunderstanding. My uncle hadn’t knocked me down. I tripped on the rug. He hadn’t threatened me with the chair, he had moved it to stop me from hitting my head. My mom did not believe me or the stories my uncle convinced me were true and made sure I was immediately taken out of my uncle’s house.
Adam is what an abuser looks like, it’s what an abuser acts like. Funny, social, likeable. The kind of guy who could convince you to take a shot of everclear and laugh with you when it came out your nose and you couldn’t stop crying. The images I’d seen of abusers before Adam were all scary looking greasy men that may as well have been carry signs announcing their villainy. Adam was more complicated. The scariest monsters always are. I’ve wondered if he struggled with mental illness, if maybe his mood swings were a manifestation of a mood disorder or other chemical imbalance. I’ve wondered what his life must have been like to make him into what he was. And I’ve wondered if things with him and Amy maybe weren’t so simple, if maybe her arm was broken on accident or if she had been violent with him too. Most of me hates him without reservation, loathes him for what he did to Amy and also, selfishly, for what he did to me, for making me feel so stupid, for tricking me and making me complicit in his abuse. But a tiny part of me misses him. That’s the worst part of an abuser. To be really hurt, you have to really care and caring lingers even if you don’t want it to.
While I was friends with Adam, I started running my own role-playing game, a Vampire: the Masquerade game, and Adam played a character in it named Uriel. Adam knew the mechanics of the system very well and carefully constructed this character to be a nightmare. Uriel was, on paper, sickly and small, but Adam had given him vampiric super powers that allowed him to instantly become an impossible force. Uriel wore heavy kevlar armor and carried around double-barreled shotguns that he could fire one-handed. He was virtually unstoppable and for every absurd feat Adam could point to a line in a rulebook that said that’s how it was supposed to work. Uriel intimidated everyone in the game. He intimidated the other players to the extent that people told me privately they didn’t want to come anymore. After I stopped inviting Adam to come to the games, I took over Uriel and made him into a villain for the other players to fight. I played Uriel as cold and cruel and simply evil. I made him an avatar for Adam. I made him simple and terrible and when he was defeated heroically it felt like catharsis.
I never saw my uncle again after I stayed with him when I was 10 but I did hear that several years later my cousins ran away. They went to the police and explained that they had been beaten and sexually abused for years. Now when I know people who are going to Kentucky, I always joke that they should find my uncle and beat him with a baseball bat, beat him bloody, beat him broken, beat him until he can’t move, and he feels a fraction of how scared it feels to be a kid trapped by him. It’s not as much of a joke as it should be.
Some time after Amy left Adam I ran into Adam once and it was the last time I’ve seem him. He rode by me on a bicycle and made some token motion of recognition but kept going. I never got to confront him. I never got to be the white knight that said, “don’t fucking touch Amy, you piece of shit!” For years I’ve stewed in the guilt and the shame and the speculation of what I could or should have done differently both to help Amy and to be more like the strong person I envision myself to be. Seventeen plus years later and I find myself Googling Adam, trying to find signs of him. Maybe he’s a grocer in a Portland neighborhood now. Maybe he went to high school with a colleague my wife used to know that I’m Facebook friends with. I remember exactly what he looked like, the kind of shoes he wore even, and I remember his middle and last name and details about his background, where he grew up, stories about his mom. I remember much less about Amy. I have to admit to myself that despite these vivid surface details, I hardly knew the real Adam, and looking for him on Google isn’t about confronting him about what he did or who he was. It’s barely even about him at all. It’s about me wanting to turn this story into something that makes sense, into a narrative where there’s a hero and a villain, where I’m a hero, and not a dumb kid that should have known better, a dumb kid that believed his uncle more than he believed his own memories, that believed Amy fell down those stairs. It’s about a lie that will make me feel better.
(*These names are changed but the story is as true as my memories)