Life Lessons in the Real World

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Jason’s Story: Life Lessons from a Tragedy

Jason’s story is the saddest story I know.

I’m sharing Jason’s story only because I believe the life lessons involved in this story are worth talking about.

Before you read any further, it’s only fair to warn you that this is a long post that contains some very sad subject matter. But as with my last post, there are lessons here for those brave enough for forge ahead.

Meeting a New Friend

I met Jason in the 7th grade. I sat behind him in science class. I still remember the day he turned around and asked me if I’d seen any cool movies lately, at which point we launched into a discussion of the world’s coolest movie, a horror-comedy entitled House starring that curly haired guy from the Greatest American Hero who spent most of the movie running around with a shot-gun, shooting various demons.

“Wasn’t it cool when the flying skull popped out?!” Jason asked.

“Yeah!” I said. “And I liked the part where the main character opened his medicine cabinet and found a doorway to another dimension!”

“And then he used the…”

“Rope, and climbed way down into the darkness,” I said, finishing his thought.

We were excited about this stuff the way only 12 year old boys can be, and I guess we must have gotten loud talking about it because the teacher turned around from the chalk board long enough to say, “Gentlemen, please turn around and be quiet.”

I whispered, “Hey, do you want to come over tonight and play video games? I have a Commodore 64.”

And that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted 17 years.

Growing up with Jason: The Early Years

When I think of all those afternoons in front of my Commodore, or running through the woods playing wizards, or walking a mile to the local arcade with a pocketful of quarters pilfered from my father’s jar, why does the light in these memories seem forever golden, like images preserved in amber?

I remember the night when Jason brought over his Commodore 64 and I hauled my new Amiga 500 into the living room and we hooked them both up to the same monitor and played 2 versions of the Bard’s Tale video game all night, until the sun was filtering through the blinds and my father was stirring in the kitchen, asking if we’d gotten any sleep.

I remember the night when Jason almost came clean about how bad his life was at home. He said, “My mom smokes a lot of pot. And she’s always yelling. And there seems to be a new guy in the house every week.”

We were sitting on the living room floor watching music videos on MTV, Jason leaning back against my sofa with tears in his eyes and saying, “My step dad used to hit me, John. One time he got mad and threw me across the room.”

“He threw you?” I asked, running my hand nervously through my hair.

“Yeah, I mean he was a tall guy. Strong. Always drinking. And he picked me up and launched me across the room into the Christmas tree.”

In my mind, I could envision the scenario then as clearly as I can now. I can see Jason, maybe 6 years old, in the arms of his raging step-father, a skinny man with facial hair and beer breath. I can see step-dad screaming, heaving Jason into the tree, the tree rocking, ornaments falling in a shower of red and gold, pine needles and hard branches puncturing Jason’s skin. I can see Jason hitting the ground and lying there amidst the broken ornaments and branches, dazed and terrified as his father loomed overhead like a dark cloud.

Yes, I could see all that. But I couldn’t do anything to change it.

“Did your mom call the cops?” I asked him.

“No,” Jason said, sniffling. “That sort of thing went on all the time. But my step-dad left a long time ago though, so he’s not around to do that stuff anymore.”

But mostly what I remember about Jason is that he was like a brother to me, and we were inseparable for 3 years, between 7th and 9th grade.

It was us against the world. If my dad yelled at me, Jason was there to crack a joke and make me laugh. If Jason had a bad day, I’d invite him over and we’d head down to the creek where we’d throw stones at the water and shout funny expressions into the dark tunnels that fed the canal, listening to our voices echo and echo, as if they’d go on forever.

Growing up with Jason: The Late Years

Jason and I finally landed girlfriends in the 10th grade, and we naturally started spending more time with our girls and less with each other. Looking back now, it’s clear that our friendship died a slow death, over a period of years, wherein we consciously chose not to make time for each other until there was very little left of our friendship to hold onto.

So yeah, our relationship died a slow death, but the very end came all at once. And it is the very end that I want to tell you about today.

Precursor to an Ending

6 Months before the end. We were in our mid-twenties now, both of us parents with broken homes of our own, so similar to the homes we’d grown up in.

I was driving to the mall because I needed to buy my daughter a birthday present, and Jason was along for the ride. Neither of us said much for a long time. There was only the sound of the traffic and the wind and the motor and the swish of tires on rain-wet asphalt.

Finally, Jason said, “John, I never told you this. But my mother is schizophrenic.”

The word rang in my head: Schizophrenic.

He said, “Sometimes she was real crazy when I was growing up, John. And none of her boyfriends would stay around very long. And some of them were crazy too. And you know how she was with the drugs and walking around in her housecoat all the time. Basically, my whole life was like that. Mom was too busy being sick to ever be there for me. And sometimes I got blamed for stuff I didn’t do. And a lot of stuff went on that a healthy mother would have put a stop to.”

“What sort of stuff went on, Jason?” I asked him, looking away from the road for a moment, seeing his tired eyes, his dazed expression.

“Like that stuff with my step-dad always hitting me. And other stuff,” he said, and it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to talk about the other stuff.

And now Jason’s childhood plight became clear. He’d grown up with a schizophrenic mother and an abusive step-dad and a whole series of his mother’s boyfriends who’d stayed around just long enough to figure out how bad things were.

He’d never told me, his best friend, that his mother had been sick, maybe because he’d been ashamed, or maybe because he hadn’t known how.

He had suffered in silence. And there he suffers still.

End of the Line

I was 28 years old when I got a frantic phone call from Jason’s mother. “Jason’s in trouble, John. And you’re his best friend. And I didn’t know who to call.”

That phone call – and everything that came after – effectively ended my friendship with Jason.

I wish I could tell you that Jason had won the lottery and moved to Bermuda, some happy ending that would have taken him out of my life on pleasant terms. And part of me (an ashamed little corner of my mind) would be happy to tell you something more horrible (that he’d committed suicide or died while trying to save his sister from a burning building) because those horrible things would be easier to say than what I’m about to tell you, and ultimately would have left Jason’s reputation far more intact.

But the truth is that Jason dropped out of college and moved to Iowa to be with some woman he’d met on the Internet, a woman who left Jason at home with her two young children while she went off to work. And what Jason did there, in that house, effectively turned him into a monster.

I’m a little reluctant to tell you the whole story, but I’ve taken you this far, and I owe you the ending. So here it is.

The Tragedy

When I first heard the news from Jason’s attorney, I thought there must have been some mistake. Jason had never been rough with his own kids, so how on earth could he possibly be guilty of killing someone’s 4-year-old child?

Jason? Murdered? A small child? That sounded too crazy to be true.

Still thinking that this whole thing must have been a terrible accident, I drove up to Iowa to act as a character witness on Jason’s behalf.

Sitting there on the witness stand, my heart pounding, my ears ringing, I looked at the sea of faces, all staring back at me as if I were some oddity, some crazed animal trainer who’d elected to live with grizzly bears when everyone knew those things were DANGEROUS.

Jason’s attorney, a round man in a cheap suit, asked me questions about what it had been like growing up with Jason. I said Jason was a good friend. A nice guy. I said I would never have thought he could be capable of hurting a child.

But a few minutes later, after I was down from the witness stand and sitting back in the pews with my wife, the prosecuting attorney shocked me straight. She turned on the television, which was bolted to the wall in a corner of the courtroom. And she flashed a picture of the poor little boy’s body, covered in bruises, blood around his ear. I didn’t know how this tragedy might have happened, but one thing was clear:

That had been no accident.

I felt a strange hollow feeling in my stomach. My best childhood friend had done this. My best childhood friend had violently attacked a small, helpless child. My best childhood friend was a murderer. A beast.

I really don’t have the heart to describe how the tragedy happened, so let’s just say that Jason got mad at this poor kid for no good reason and then decided to beat him black and blue with a paddle and push him into a wall so hard that he died from blunt force trauma to the head. Does that paint the picture clearly enough? I hope so because it’s about all I can stand.

He will be in prison for the rest of his life.

Lessons Learned from a Tragedy

There is no silver-lining here. But there are lessons, always lessons. Life is full of them, and tragedies offer no exception.

1) Make sure the cycle ends with you: If you were abused as a child, you, like Jason, might feel an uncontrollable urge to do unto others what was done unto you. Since you will probably know you have these desires long before it’s too late, please do yourself (and your loved ones) a favor and get some anger management counseling. Go see a psychologist. Get yourself help.

2) Never strike a child in anger: Discipline is a necessary part of parenting. But there is no reason to ever strike a child in anger, since other forms of non-violent punishment are proven to be far more effective. The whole topic of spanking can turn nasty in a hurry, since everyone has an opinion. And no, I’m not trying to say that spanking a child is the same thing as beating him with a paddle so hard that he can’t walk. But I do want to make the point very clearly that spanking sends a very similar sort of message. It says that it’s okay for big people to hit small people, for strong people to hit weak people, that it’s okay to strike another person in anger. If you can’t figure out a way to discipline your children without hitting them, please visit the book store or library, where you’ll find a stack of information that will help you discipline far more effectively without violence.

3) If you have a friend with anger issues, encourage him or her to get help: Especially if those issues are the result of childhood violence. It might not have done any good, but I wish I had tried to talk my friend into seeing a psychologist. I wish I had talked to him about the cyclic nature of abuse.

Our family trees have deep roots that spread in all directions, and one can often trace the cycle of abuse up the trunk and through the twigs, back several generations. Be aware of the way you treat your children. Treat them with love and respect and there’s a very good chance they will grow up to treat their children (and the children of others) the same way.

But if you treat your children badly, that sort of bad parenting lives on and on.

I still remember the hollow sound of Jason’s voice in 1987 when he leaned back against my sofa with tears in his eyes and said, “My step-dad left a long time ago though, so he’s not around to do that stuff anymore.”

But was Jason’s step-dad ever really gone? Or does he live on, behind Jason’s eyes, lurking in the dark corners of his brain, spreading like a cancer? I’m certainly not trying to excuse what Jason did. Not at all. I think that much is clear.

Be good to your kids. That’s all I’m saying. If you’re going to start a cycle, make sure it’s a good one.

And as I close the chapter on this sad story, I am reminded of one of the many days that Jason and I spent down by the creek during the summer between the 7th and 8th grade. I remember the flash of sunlight on black water, the dense canopy of trees, the soft mud. I remember skipping stones. And I remember standing with Jason at the mouth of the great dark tunnel that fed the canal, shouting and laughing and listening to our voices echo and echo, as if they’d go on forever.

And in a way, I suppose they do.


35 Responses to “Jason’s Story: Life Lessons from a Tragedy”

  • Jason says:

    That is a horribly tragic story, and I’m sorry that you had to be involved, and that you had to have your memories of your friend forever tarnished by the knowledge of what he became.

    I hope that you can recover, and that this doesn’t change you in a negative way.

    PS – Spanking doesn’t have to be done in anger, nor does it have to actually hurt the child… it can be used as a last resort, and to let them know that you are serious… if you do it in anger or hard enough to seriously hurt them, then you are dancing along the line between punishment and abuse.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jason. This all happened several years ago, meaning that if it changed me at all (which it probably did not), the “me” that you’ve known all these months is still the same “me” on file now.

    This article wasn’t about spanking, but I did mention it, so I suppose I deserve this debate. :-)

    My opinion? I personally don’t believe in spanking. The line of which you speak is one that most people have no business walking, although in theory it is possible to walk it. Most of the spankings that I have witnessed throughout my lifetime were acts of anger. And anger or no, research has shown that it’s just not a very effective long-term deterrent, and other solutions (both safer and more effective) are available.

  • Chrissy says:

    Such a beautifully written and touching story. Thank you for sharing.

  • Mary Paddock says:

    Hi John, This is a powerful story with extremely important take away points.

  • Tim Brownson says:

    Very moving article John.

    The real issue to me is how in the hell do we break cycles like that? Well over 90% of pedophiles were abused themselves, in other words they were taught to be like that. It doesn’t excuse it, but it does make it easier to understand. The advice you gave is sound to somebody that is emotionally stable, but mostly these people aren’t and they view it as not being applicable to them. Trying to solve this problem really is about as tough as anything gets.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks, Mary and Chrissy.

    Well said, Tim. One person at a time I guess is how we do it, assuming we can do it at all. If this article encourages one borderline individual to seek help or one friend of a borderline individual to encourage him or her to seek help, then I guess some good, however small, has come of this. And I agree with you. Solving this problem, even on the level of an individual life, is about as hard as anything gets.

  • ZHereford says:

    This is a very sad, tragic story but one that needed to be told.

    John you wrote so well and so poignantly that I’m sure everyone who reads it will be moved.

  • Sally says:

    It is a sad story but unfortunately its a story that many children live every day. Thank you for sharing it and I hope it achieves its goal of being the example to others of how bad things can get.

    A sad but moving story, it seems the sins of the fatehrs are truly visited upon their children.

  • Carolina says:


    Thank you for sharing this story with us. While my situation growing up wasn’t quite to the level that Jason’s was I did grow up with both emotional and physical abuse. While one might think simply getting away from those that treat you like that will change the situation, it’s only the first baby step. It really does stick with you under the surface and will stay there unless dealt with.

    I have realized a very important thing to help break the cycle, especially in the last year or two. While I have no control over how my parents or others chose to behave, I have 100% control over how I choose to. What Jason did was terrible… hopefully the experience has opened his eyes to the fact that he chose to continue the cycle and he will chose to end it now.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for the comments, ZHereford and Sally.

    Carolina, thank you for pointing out a very important truth: “While I have no control over how my parents or others chose to behave, I have 100% control over how I choose to.” Well put.

  • Stefan says:

    When I was reading, I had the impression that you’d wind up talking about “suffering in silence”. I think there’s room for a lesson around that.

    As usual, great article. Feeling makes it better.

  • Little Tykes says:

    That story really affected me. Many of us intellectually understand the concept of the cyclical nature of abuse, but we often can too easily ignore it when we experience it.

    I would not beat yourself up about what you could have done as you where only a child.

  • Danielle says:

    My brother and I, with our families, just attempted to get custody of our step-nephew who is 16 and who’s “father” is text-book narcissistic. We had documentation, pictures, text messages, e-mails, etc. to prove without a doubt that this so-called man psychologically, emotionally and finally physically abused this kid. Unfortunately the courts wouldn’t even let it go to trial because we were not blood related and the birth parents have “constitutional rights”-(fyi-the boy’s mother had been out of his life for 10 months previous). Long story short, biological parents can pretty much hit, spit at, and degrade their child from birth and as long as there a roof overhead and a daily, minimal meal-they are considered parents. So what I’m saying is-We are adults fighting for a child and can’t win. You were a child yourself-What power could you have had? We will continue to fight for this kid. Loving dad and his wife (who once was our sweet sister) have put their house up for sale and are moving to Florida(without the boy!) He gets to stay with “Mom” who “Dad” fought against for 3 years and actually won custody! So that tells you what worse abuse will be in his future.
    It was like the court said-“You screwed up his life for 16 years so what’s two more?” The system is a joke. If you or anyone has any resources to help write a comment please! We fear that if this kid doesn’t run away he will do as John did except it will be done to his own mother!

  • Jon says:


    I am so sorry you had to go through this.

    You expressed this so well that every person needs to read this.

    I only have fond memories of those I grew up with.
    I can’t imagine having to realize your best friend could do something like this after so many years of being your best friend.

  • maria says:

    that was very sad. i myself was abused and molested at a young age by my stepfather and my mother an alcholic. she was also abused by my ex stepdad. but i am grown now and have children of my own. i could never harm my kids. i never had any counceling

  • Kismette says:

    I asked my Momma, after I had my own small children, why she never spanked with a belt only used her hand. Her reply has stuck with me throughout these years and rings true still today.
    She said, “I used my bare hand because I would stop when it began to hurt me… I knew my limits and if I’d used a belt, you’d have been bruised from it before I realized the damage.”

    More people, if they must use this type of punishment, should adhere to my Momma’s policy.

    As for what Jason did to that child… Parents MUST be leary of any and everyone in this day and time. Check in on your children. You are their PROTECTORS!

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

  • […] and life lessons. I hope you find these stories entertaining, educational, and inspiring. 1. Jason’s Story: Life Lessons from a tragedy — By far the most popular, emotional, and heart wrenching story on this […]

  • mary says:

    is this really true i here if you stay up past 1 13 he will come at you with a chan saw all my friends went to bed at 400 am but i didnt it would never come to me that this was true but really i still dont know so jhon is this really true you knew jason did he ever try to hurt you?How did he die did his mother and father dround him in that lake how long has he been dead for?

  • I wanted to comment and thank the author, good stuff

  • nabeela says:

    i just read ur story.. it is so sad.. n this happens with soo many ppl in the united states// most of thm are divorced hav step dads n moms n its so horrible…. omg

  • At first, I knew that Jason will do that to his children. You know why? ‘Cause his mother and his step father do wrong movements so, Jason will follow their steps too. Jason didn’t love his child. He did not. This story is soooo sad. I love it. I should spread it.

  • […] Every three months treat yourself with a small gift and once in a year have an outing with your friends (exclude your spouse, if he or she does not match this circle) and have a […]

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  • Pamela knight says:

    This storey of course brought tears of frustration , even if this storey wasn’t true, it could happen and does happen, all the time, a lot of places. I could never treat anyone the way I was treated as a child, and I have left my kids alone with boyfriends while I went off to work….dumb. thank you for your storey, so sorry.

  • Name Required says:

    I guess there is a deep part of our human emotional consciousness where the careless happiness and security of the true friendships of our youth collides with the harsher realities of life.
    I read your story and the events were different, but there is something of its essence that I know.
    I had some good friends who were growing up in broken homes. They were friendly nice guys.
    It was only later, when I heard what they became… all I could feel was the shuddering sadness of inability and misplaced regret.
    The past is who we were. We see our own smiling young faces reflected in the memories of our friends’ eyes. When they become twisted or fall into evil our hearts crack and fragment. We see our friends as we remember them: boys that we just want to protect, to help, to save. And we see men that have done something so wrong; yet it was their own choice.
    And in the end it is all sad nostalgic memories of innocence already played out to a sad bitter ending.

    May the Light of the Heaven and the Earth guide us to His Mercy and protect us from the questioning of a day when the hearts and eyes will be overturned from horror. Certainly his is the Ever Capable, the All Compassionate.

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  • Mary says:

    thank you so much for this touching and heartbreaking story.

    i think many people will be able to learn from this story and like you said end it with us and not letting it continueing on in our lives.

    if you dont mind im doing a paper on tragedies and this story stuck me most because i also had a friend in a similar situation. so is it fine if i used this?

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  • roberta says:

    wow so sorry for your friend, I used to live in Iowa.

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