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Free Will and Determinism at a School for Disturbed Children photo

One day at the school for disturbed children I attended, a boy lit his pubes on fire. He was sitting one desk over when I noticed his fly was open, pubes bulging out. He seemed quite nonchalant about this, so much so that until I saw the BIC lighter in his hand I thought maybe he was combing them (not having pubes myself, I wasn’t sure how they worked). For several minutes, I watched him hover the lighter over his scraggly 8th-grade bush until embers ignited, which he’d then wipe away using the heel of his palm. He did this over and over. Hover, singe, wipe.

Later that night, I’d ponder whether he’d done this of his own free will. I mean on a philosophical level: had he truly and freely willed himself to light his pubes on fire, or was he puppeted by some force, some shadow? I’d been obsessed with free will ever since reading about it in the Encyclopedia Britannica, the one I found moldering on the shelf in Mr. Allen’s 8th grade English class. Sometimes, when doing something automatic – peeing, washing the dishes – the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up, and I’d remember that the problem of free will was still unsolved. But I’ll get back to that later.

Philosophical issues notwithstanding, this kid was lighting his pubes on fire. Not that such a thing was out of the ordinary. I could think of twenty things I’d seen at New Beginnings that were worse: the time Colton, an autistic kid with pica disorder, emerged from the bathroom with a “Got Milk?” mustache of shit on his upper lip, or the time Kenny got upset and started crying because a game of Jenga reminded him of 9/11. 

No, this didn’t rise to those lofty ranks. Maybe if the pubes had actually caught fire. But the Pledge of Allegiance came over the loudspeaker, and Mr. Allen led the class in a murmurous singalong of “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and the kid with the lighter joined in with patriotic fervor. This was just a few years after 9/11, so even pubic arsonists loved their country.


Back then, the word “freedom” functioned as not just a noun but an adjective. It modified potentially anything to mean, basically, “more American”: the Freedom Tower, “freedom fries,” Operation Iraqi Freedom, etc. All of this was ironic, since freedom meant nothing to me. Two years previous, I’d been sent to New Beginnings after getting expelled from my previous school for chronic truancy. Situated on the outskirts of Woodstock, Illinois (pop, 32,000), in a dour square of fenced-in government architecture, New Beginnings was sort of a hybrid between a school and a prison. Like a Pizza Hut/Taco Bell of youth services. The teachers all spoke with a combo of solicitude and lawyerly cunning, like they were trying to lead you into a trap but simultaneously real sorry about it. Stepping inside, you would be immediately waved down with a metal detector. I used to imagine my body was a minefield, a pubescent IED. Which, in a strange way, was appropriate.

My only goal in life was to escape this place. Therefore, determinism, the thought that control might be inescapable, terrified me. It took on an urgency that only happens when you’re thirteen, the age when ideas and “real life” – career, relationships, taxes, etc. – are all equally speculative and therefore equally real. So, I decided to prove that free will existed. After reading the Britannica entry, I very slowly read the relevant entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, looking up words that I didn’t know as I went. I learned that the ancient Epicureans believed free will was the result of random movements of atoms. I learned that Kierkegaard believed each human action was a miracle in which God personally suspended the Newtonian laws of reality in order to bestow upon man the dignity of choice.

None of these arguments really gave me peace of mind, though. The problem was I was starting to become aware of a contradiction between free will and freedom. I couldn’t quite articulate it yet, but I could feel it lodged inside me, like detritus clogging a dam, the water building, building, building.

The kids I went to school with demanded labels. Their individual existences were so broken and idiosyncratic that you couldn’t stand to look at them without the camouflage of general categories. The Special Education District of McHenry called us “Emotionally Disturbed,” an umbrella term encompassing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. In my experience, though, there were really only two types of kids at New Beginning: the Pleasure Junkies and the Space Cadets. 

The Pleasure Junkies were addicted to entertainment. Sharing our campus was a program called “Great Expectations,” for kids with intellectual disabilities. They had a special bathroom, equipped with a shower and an emergency call button, to which spittle-covered kids would be wheeled or led. The only New Beginnings student who got to use it was a boney (in more ways than one) 8th-grader named Trevor. Supposedly, this was because Trevor had some medical condition that necessitated the call button, but rumor was Trevor had faked his condition so that he could masturbate in the private comfort of the retard bathroom. One day a teacher’s aide opened the door to find Trevor with his pants down, pleasuring himself over a toilet with a motorized seat for lifting the asses of crippled children. “HELP, MY MEDICAL CONDITION!” he shouted while continuing to jerk himself.

Space Cadets weren’t necessarily destructive or rowdy. They were just lost, in fantasy worlds that left them too strange for general circulation. Often, they were autistic. Shawn was a kid with a near-genius IQ, albeit channeled pretty much exclusively into talking like a 1920’s gangster. He had that shit down: his accent and locutions were straight out of a James Cagney movie. Not all Space Cadets were autistic, though. Jelly Roll (I don't know where the nickname came from) was a wannabe gangbanger with manboobs that smiled from under his wifebeater. He would often refer enigmatically to his “charges,” as in: “Yeah, I would’ve fucked her, but my lawyer says I shouldn’t go out after curfew cuz of my charges.” Watching him and Shawn interact was like watching a fight between two people who both believe they can shoot fireballs out of their hands. It would usually go something like:

“Aye Shawn, lemme get a pencil boi.” 

“Say, what’s the big idea in calling me boy, see? The name’s Shawn, see?” 

“Man you trippin.” 

“Listen, bo, make tracks or you’ll be going home in a meat wagon, see? I’ll be buying you a one-way ticket to Dirtsville, see?”

“Nigga just gimme a pencil.” 

Ultimately, the Pleasure Junkie and the Space Cadet were two sides of the same coin. The Pleasure Junkie craved entertainment, while the Space Cadet had crawled inside the warm cavity of TV and video games to gestate as a perpetual fetus. There’s an interesting correlation between ADHD and childhood autism on the one hand and, on the other, the growth of the entertainment industry. The two disorders first became widely diagnosed in the 70’s, right around when the first generation of kids reared on television came of age. Both disorders have been increasing steadily ever since. Whether this has anything to do with the proliferation of entertainment media – video games, the internet, smartphones, etc. – isn’t really demonstrated by any research, but I’m more or less convinced it does. Realizing this was disturbing to me, since it meant that the freedom I wanted was, well, manufactured. Just another string with which to puppet me.


That realization didn’t come until years later, though. By that time, I’d already been mainstreamed out of New Beginnings, starting from my Freshman year of High School, and had attended college, where I majored in philosophy and asked questions like, “What is free will?” After college, I asked questions like, “Can I sell enough plasma to pay for my antidepressants?” Despite keeping an open mind, I didn’t find these questions as interesting, so I eventually turned my career ambitions to the one subject I was an expert on: disturbed children. I became a special education teacher.

Last year, another teacher came to me before the first period bell, crying. The story tumbled out in cubistic pieces. He had been, or they thought he had been – Diego, that is – in, or possibly near the crosswalk; there had been a red truck, or maybe it was black – they weren’t sure – doing thirty or twenty in a school zone; the driver was definitely, probably at fault; Diego, critical condition; hospital, crosswalk. 

Another teacher once told me, “The kids we’re teaching are future serial killers. Our job is to turn them into mere future burglars.” Diego was… no rocket scientist. I pictured him one day working with animals, possibly shooting them when they needed to be euthanized. But I had a certain fondness for the kid, if only because he reminded me of myself at his age: a total Pleasure Junkie, obsessed with video games and his phone. 

When I visited him in the hospital the next day, the first thing he said was, “Did you hear about the accident?” Miraculously, he’d escaped without any broken bones. His only apparent injuries were a cut across the bridge of his nose and a bruise covering the entire right side of his face. Even this seemed minor in light of his demeanor, exemplified by a goofy, medicated grin. 

“I’ve barely got a scratch on me,” he boasted. “They said the truck was all fucked up, though. It’s sort of like, like I won.” He seemed to ponder this for a moment, before a burst of adrenaline overwhelmed whatever other chemicals were in his brain. Punching a pillow, he yelled, “I kicked that truck’s ass!” I was relieved to see that the most important part of a fourteen-year-old boy – his douchiness – was unscathed.

We talked for a while. He worried that the hospital gown made him look gay, but quickly added it had exposed his penis to the nurse earlier, so it wasn’t all bad. All things considered, he said, getting hit by a truck was pretty cool. The only bad part was that it might leave him with a scar. “Nah,” I reassured him. “Like you said, you won the fight.” He didn’t say anything, and for a moment I think the prospect of no scars disappointed him. He seemed to become distracted by his own hand, staring at it like it was an exotic jellyfish.

“Well,” he replied abruptly, “the doctor said I might have one scar.” He unbuttoned the top buttons of his gown to reveal a wad of gauze, which he yanked open brusquely.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. There, emblazoned in livid lines upon his chest, was the perfect outline of a rectangle, roughly three inches long and six inches tall. From the bedside drawer he produced a shattered iPhone. “I don’t remember, but I guess I was holding this when it hit me.” As though to illustrate, he laid the iPhone on his chest, fitting it perfectly within the lines of the bruise – his smartphone stigmata.

For reasons I couldn’t articulate, this knocked the wind out of me. I became unexpectedly emotional.

Later, on the drive home, I’d think back to the summer after 8th grade. This was my last summer before I was mainstreamed into a regular high school, thus making it my last official summer as a disturbed child. 

I spent it playing video games, watching TV, and, fueled by a recent Adderall prescription, jerking off for hours on end. My family lived in a suburban town house, with walls so thin that I could hear the front room TV as clear as day from my bedroom, and we were the kind of family that always left the TV on. For the purposes of masturbation, this was disastrous. I was interrupted constantly by the sound of Dr. Phil, Bill O’Reilly, and commercial jingles (in America, not even masturbation fantasies are commercial-free). 

The easiest show to tune out was the news. This was dominated by the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and nothing fades into the back of the mind easier than an American war. I vividly remember masturbating to a news report about a deadly IED attack — OK, not to it, exactly — on a marine convoy outside of Baghdad. The spotlight of the story, its main course, were the two American soldiers killed (a dozen or so dead insurgents were served as a side dish, an unnamed number of civilians as garnish). The Americans had been killed by a roadside bomb. It seemed that the Iraqis had been studying the infidels’ psychology: they’d given their bombs drive-thru lines.

This is when it happened. When I had my epiphany about freedom. As a child, all I knew was control. Hearing politicians exhort freedom felt like being deaf in the Vienna of Mozart and Haydyn: everyone was raving about something I could never understand. But there, at that moment – hopped up on Adderall, masturbating to two American soldiers blown up on a dirt road outside of Baghdad – I realized that the disturbed child understands freedom better than the average person. They see it for what it is. They’re like those deaf people who are able to watch a piano recital and appreciate it purely as movement, as the weaving of kinetic patterns by fingers dancing on ivory.

I stared at the outline of an iPhone branded on the boy’s chest. “Yeah, looks like you’re going to have a really cool scar,” I said. “You can tell people about it when you’re my age.”