Main Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds

Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds

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For David Goggins, childhood was a nightmare — poverty, prejudice, and physical abuse colored his days and haunted his nights. But through self-discipline, mental toughness, and hard work, Goggins transformed himself from a depressed, overweight young man with no future into a U.S. Armed Forces icon and one of the world's top endurance athletes. The only man in history to complete elite training as a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller, he went on to set records in numerous endurance events, inspiring Outside magazine to name him “The Fittest (Real) Man in America.”

In Can't Hurt Me, he shares his astonishing life story and reveals that most of us tap into only 40% of our capabilities. Goggins calls this The 40% Rule, and his story illuminates a path that anyone can follow to push past pain, demolish fear, and reach their full potential.
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Copyright © 2018 Goggins Built Not Born, LLC

			All rights reserved.

			ISBN: 978-1-5445-1226-6

To the unrelenting voice in my head that will never allow me to stop.



			1. I Should Have Been a Statistic

			2. Truth Hurts

			3. The Impossible Task

			4. Taking Souls

			5. Armored Mind

			6. It’s Not about a Trophy

			7. The Most Powerful Weapon

			8. Talent Not Required

			9. Uncommon Amongst Uncommon

			10. The Empowerment of Failure

			11. What If?


			About the Author


			TIME ZONE: 24/7


			 				SITUATION: You are in danger of living a life so comfortable and soft that you will die without ever realizing your true potential.

				MISSION: To unshackle your mind. Ditch the victim’s mentality forever. Own all aspects of your life completely. Build an unbreakable foundation.

				EXECUTION:Read this cover to cover. Study the techniques within, accept all ten challenges. Repeat. Repetition will callous your mind.

If you do your job to the best of your ability, this will hurt. This mission is not about making yourself feel better. This mission is about being better and having a greater impact on the world.

Don’t stop when you are tired. Stop when you are done.

				CLASSIFIED: This is the origin story of a hero. The hero is you.





			Do you know who you really are and what you’re capable of?

			I’m sure you think so, but just because you believe something doesn’t make it true. Denial is the ultimate comfort zone.

			Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. In every town, in every country, all over the world, millions roam the streets, dead-eyed as zombies, addicted to comfort, embracing a victim’s mentality and unaware of their true potential. I know this because I meet and hear from them all the time, and because just like you, I used to be one of them.

			I had;  a damn good excuse too.

			Life dealt me a bad hand. I was born broken, grew up with beat downs, was tormented in school, and called nigger more times than I could count.

			We were once poor, surviving on welfare, living in government-subsidized housing, and my depression was smothering. I lived life at the bottom of the barrel, and my future forecast was bleak as fuck.

			Very few people know how the bottom feels, but I do. It’s like quicksand. It grabs you, sucks you under, and won’t let go. When life is like that it’s easy to drift and continue to make the same comfortable choices that are killing you, over and over again.

			But the truth is we all make habitual, self-limiting choices. It’s as natural as a sunset and as fundamental as gravity. It’s how our brains are wired, which is why motivation is crap.

			Even the best pep talk or self-help hack is nothing but a temporary fix. It won’t rewire your brain. It won’t amplify your voice or uplift your life. Motivation changes exactly nobody. The bad hand that was my life was mine, and mine alone to fix.

			So I sought out pain, fell in love with suffering, and eventually transformed myself from the weakest piece of shit on the planet into the hardest man God ever created, or so I tell myself.

			Odds are you have had a much better childhood than I did, and even now might have a damn decent life, but no matter who you are, who your parents are or were, where you live, what you do for a living, or how much money you have, you’re probably living at about 40 percent of your true capability.

			Damn shame.

			We all have the potential to be so much more.

			Years ago, I was invited to be on a panel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d never set foot in a university lecture hall as a student. I’d barely graduated high school, yet I was at one of the most prestigious institutions in the country to discuss mental toughness with a handful of others. At some point in the discussion an esteemed MIT professor said that we each have genetic limitations. Hard ceilings. That there are some things we just can’t do no matter how mentally tough we are. When we hit our genetic ceiling, he said, mental toughness doesn’t enter into the equation.

			Everyone in that room seemed to accept his version of reality because this senior, tenured professor was known for researching mental toughness. It was his life’s work. It was also a bunch of bullshit, and to me he was using science to let us all off the hook.

			I’d been quiet until then because I was surrounded by all these smart people, feeling stupid, but someone in the audience noticed the look on my face and asked if I agreed. And if you ask me a direct question, I won’t be shy.

			“There’s something to be said for living it instead of studying it,” I said, then turned toward the professor. “What you said is true for most people, but not 100 percent. There will always be the 1 percent of us who are willing to put in the work to defy the odds.”

			I went on to explain what I knew from experience. That anybody can become a totally different person and achieve what so-called experts like him claim is impossible, but it takes a lot of heart, will, and an armored mind.

			Heraclitus, a philosopher born in the Persian Empire back in the fifth century BC, had it right when he wrote about men on the battlefield. “Out of every one hundred men,” he wrote, “ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior…”

			From the time you take your first breath, you become eligible to die. You also become eligible to find your greatness and become the One Warrior. But it is up to you to equip yourself for the battle ahead. Only you can master your mind, which is what it takes to live a bold life filled with accomplishments most people consider beyond their capability.

			I am not a genius like those professors at MIT, but I am that One Warrior. And the story you are about to read, the story of my fucked-up life, will illuminate a proven path to self-mastery and empower you to face reality, hold yourself accountable, push past pain, learn to love what you fear, relish failure, live to your fullest potential, and find out who you really are.

			Human beings change through study, habit, and stories. Through my story you will learn what the body and mind are capable of when they’re driven to maximum capacity, and how to get there. Because when you’re driven, whatever is in front of you, whether it’s racism, sexism, injuries, divorce, depression, obesity, tragedy, or poverty, becomes fuel for your metamorphosis.

			The steps laid out here amount to the evolutionary algorithm, one that obliterates barriers, glimmers with glory, and delivers lasting peace.

			I hope you’re ready. It’s time to go to war with yourself.

Chapter One

			1. I Should Have Been a Statistic

			We found hell in a beautiful neighborhood. In 1981, Williamsville offered the tastiest real estate in Buffalo, New York. Leafy and friendly, its safe streets were dotted with dainty homes filled with model citizens. Doctors, attorneys, steel plant executives, dentists, and professional football players lived there with their adoring wives and their 2.2 kids. Cars were new, roads swept, possibilities endless. We’re talking about a living, breathing American Dream. Hell was a corner lot on Paradise Road.

			That’s where we lived in a two-story, four-bedroom, white wooden home with four square pillars framing a front porch that led to the widest, greenest lawn in Williamsville. We had a vegetable garden out back and a two-car garage stocked with a 1962 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, a 1980 Mercedes 450 SLC, and, in the driveway, a sparkling new 1981 black Corvette. Everyone on Paradise Road lived near the top of the food chain, and based on appearances, most of our neighbors thought that we, the so-called happy, well-adjusted Goggins family, were the tip of that spear. But glossy surfaces reflect much more than they reveal.

			They’d see us most weekday mornings, gathered in the driveway at 7 a.m. My dad, Trunnis Goggins, wasn’t tall but he was handsome and built like a boxer. He wore tailored suits, his smile warm and open. He looked every bit the successful businessman on his way to work. My mother, Jackie, was seventeen years younger, slender and beautiful, and my brother and I were clean cut, well dressed in jeans and pastel Izod shirts, and strapped with backpacks just like the other kids. The white kids. In our version of affluent America, each driveway was a staging ground for nods and waves before parents and children rode off to work and school. Neighbors saw what they wanted. Nobody probed too deep.

			Good thing. The truth was, the Goggins family had just returned home from another all-nighter in the hood, and if Paradise Road was Hell, that meant I lived with the Devil himself. As soon as our neighbors shut the door or turned the corner, my father’s smile morphed into a scowl. He barked orders and went inside to sleep another one off, but our work wasn’t done. My brother, Trunnis Jr., and I had somewhere to be, and it was up to our sleepless mother to get us there.

			I was in first grade in 1981, and I was in a school daze, for real. Not because the academics were hard—at least not yet—but because I couldn’t stay awake. The teacher’s sing-song voice was my lullaby, my crossed arms on my desk, a comfy pillow, and her sharp words—once she caught me dreaming—an unwelcome alarm clock that wouldn’t stop blaring. Children that young are infinite sponges. They soak up language and ideas at warp speed to establish a fundamental foundation upon which most people build life-long skills like reading and spelling and basic math, but because I worked nights, I couldn’t concentrate on anything most mornings, except trying to stay awake.

			Recess and PE were a whole different minefield. Out on the playground staying lucid was the easy part. The hard part was the hiding. Couldn’t let my shirt slip. Couldn’t wear shorts. Bruises were red flags I couldn’t show because if I did, I knew I’d catch even more. Still, on that playground and in the classroom I knew I was safe, for a little while at least. It was the one place he couldn’t reach me, at least not physically. My brother went through a similar dance in sixth grade, his first year in middle school. He had his own wounds to hide and sleep to harvest, because once that bell rang, real life began.

			The ride from Williamsville to the Masten District in East Buffalo took about a half an hour, but it may as well have been a world away. Like much of East Buffalo, Masten was a mostly black working-class neighborhood in the inner city that was rough around the edges; though, in the early 1980s, it was not yet completely ghetto as fuck. Back then the Bethlehem Steel plant was still humming and Buffalo was the last great American steel town. Most men in the city, black and white, worked solid union jobs and earned a living wage, which meant business in Masten was good. For my dad, it always had been.

			By the time he was twenty years old he owned a Coca-Cola distribution concession and four delivery routes in the Buffalo area. That’s good money for a kid, but he had bigger dreams and an eye on the future. His future had four wheels and a disco funk soundtrack. When a local bakery shut down, he leased the building and built one of Buffalo’s first roller skating rinks.

			Fast-forward ten years and Skateland had been relocated to a building on Ferry Street that stretched nearly a full block in the heart of the Masten District. He opened a bar above the rink, which he named the Vermillion Room. In the 1970s, that was the place to be in East Buffalo, and it’s where he met my mother when she was just nineteen and he was thirty-six. It was her first time away from home. Jackie grew up in the Catholic Church. Trunnis was the son of a minister, and knew her language well enough to masquerade as a believer, which appealed to her. But let’s keep it real. She was just as drunk on his charm.

			Trunnis Jr. was born in 1971. I was born in 1975, and by the time I was six years old, the roller disco craze was at its absolute peak. Skateland rocked every night. We’d usually get there around 5 p.m., and while my brother worked the concession stand—popping corn, grilling hot dogs, loading the cooler, and making pizzas—I organized the skates by size and style. Each afternoon, I stood on a step stool to spray my stock with aerosol deodorizer and replace the rubber stoppers. That aerosol stink would cloud all around my head and live in my nostrils. My eyes looked permanently bloodshot. It was the only thing I could smell for hours. But those were the distractions I had to ignore to stay organized and on hustle. Because my dad, who worked the DJ booth, was always watching, and if any of those skates went missing, it meant my ass. Before the doors opened I’d polish the skate rink floor with a dust mop that was twice my size.

			Skateland, age six

			At around 6 p.m., my mother called us to dinner in the back office. That woman lived in a permanent state of denial, but her maternal instinct was real, and it made a big fucking show of itself, grasping for any shred of normalcy. Every night in that office, she’d set out two electric burners on the floor, sit with her legs curled behind her, and prepare a full dinner—roast meat, potatoes, green beans, and dinner rolls, while my dad did the books and made calls.

			The food was good, but even at six and seven years old I knew our “family dinner” was a bullshit facsimile compared to what most families had. Plus, we ate fast. There was no time to enjoy it because at 7 p.m. when the doors opened, it was show time, and we all had to be in our places with our stations prepped. My dad was the sheriff, and once he stepped into the DJ booth he had us triangulated. He scanned that room like an all-seeing eye, and if you fucked up you’d hear about it. Unless you felt it first.

			The room didn’t look like much under the harsh, overhead house lights, but once he dimmed them, the show lights bathed the rink in red and glanced off the spinning mirror ball, conjuring a skate disco fantasy. Weekend or weeknight, hundreds of skaters piled through that door. Most of the time they came in as a family, paying their $3 entrance fee and half-dollar skate fee before hitting the floor.

			I rented out the skates and managed that entire station by myself. I carried that step stool around like a crutch. Without it, the customers couldn’t even see me. The bigger-sized skates were down below the counter, but the smaller sizes were stored so high I’d have to scale the shelves, which always made the customers laugh. Mom was the one and only cashier. She collected everyone’s cover charge, and to Trunnis, money was everything. He counted the people as they came in, calculating his take in real time so he had a rough idea of what to expect when he counted out the register after we closed up. And it had better all be there.

			All the money was his. The rest of us never earned a cent for our sweat. In fact, my mother was never given any money of her own. She had no bank account or credit cards in her name. He controlled everything, and we all knew what would happen if her cash drawer ever came up short.

			None of the customers who came through our doors knew any of this, of course. To them, Skateland was a family-owned-and-operated dream cloud. My dad spun the fading vinyl echoes of disco and funk and the early rumbles of hip hop. Bass bounced off the red walls, courtesy of Buffalo’s favorite son Rick James, George Clinton’s Funkadelic, and the first tracks ever released by hip hop innovators Run DMC. Some of the kids were speed skating. I liked to go fast too, but we had our share of skate dancers, and that floor got funky.

			For the first hour or two the parents stayed downstairs and skated, or watched their kids spin the oval, but they would eventually leak upstairs to make their own scene, and when enough of them made their move, Trunnis slipped out of the DJ booth so he could join them. My dad was considered the unofficial mayor of Masten, and he was a phony politician to the core. His customers were his marks, and what they didn’t know was that no matter how many drinks he poured on the house and bro hugs he shared, he didn’t give a fuck about any of them. They were all dollar signs to him. If he poured you a drink for free, it was because he knew you would buy two or three more.

			While we had our share of all-night skates and twenty-four-hour skate marathons, the Skateland doors typically closed at 10 p.m. That’s when my mother, brother, and I went to work, fishing bloody tampons out of shit-filled toilets, airing the lingering cannabis haze out of both bathrooms, scraping bacteria-loaded gum off the rink floor, cleaning the concession kitchen, and taking inventory. Just before midnight, we’d slog into the office, half-dead. Our mother would tuck my brother and me beneath a blanket on the office sofa, our heads opposite one another, as the ceiling shook with the sound of bass-heavy funk.

			Mom was still on the clock.

			As soon as she stepped inside the bar, Trunnis had her working the door or hustling downstairs like a booze mule to fetch cases of liquor from the basement. There was always some menial task to perform and she didn’t stop moving, while my father kept watch from his corner of the bar where he could take in the whole scene. In those days, Rick James, a Buffalo native and one of my father’s closest friends, stopped by whenever he was in town, parking his Excalibur on the sidewalk out front. His car was a billboard that let the hood know a Superfreak was in the house. He wasn’t the only celebrity that came through. OJ Simpson was one of the NFL’s biggest stars, and he and his Buffalo Bills teammates were regulars, as was Teddy Pendergrass and Sister Sledge. If you don’t know the names, look them up.

			Maybe if I had been older, or my father had been a good man, I might have had some pride in being part of a cultural moment like that, but young kids aren’t about that life. It’s almost like, no matter who our parents are and what they do, we’re all born with a moral compass that’s properly tuned. When you’re six, seven, or eight years old, you know what feels right and what feels way the fuck off. And when you are born into a cyclone of terror and pain, you know it doesn’t have to be that way, and that truth nags at you like a splinter in your jacked up mind. You can choose to ignore it, but the dull throbbing is always there as the days and nights bleed together into one blurred memory.

			Some moments do stick out though, and one I’m thinking of right now still haunts me. That was the night my mom stepped into the bar before she was expected and found my dad sweet talking a woman about ten years her junior. Trunnis saw her watching and shrugged while my mother eyeballed him and slugged two shots of Johnnie Walker Red to calm her nerves. He noticed her reaction and didn’t like it one damn bit.

			She knew how things were. That Trunnis ran prostitutes across the border to Fort Erie in Canada. A summer cottage belonging to the president of one of Buffalo’s biggest banks doubled as his pop-up brothel. He introduced Buffalo bankers to his girls whenever he needed a longer line of credit, and those loans always came through. My mom knew the young woman she was watching was one of the girls in his stable. She’d seen her before. Once, she walked in on them fucking on the Skateland office sofa, where she tucked her children in damn near every night. When she found them together, the woman smiled at her. Trunnis shrugged. No, my mom wasn’t clueless, but seeing it with her own eyes always burned.

			Around midnight, my mother drove with one of our security guards to make a bank deposit. He begged her to leave my father. He told her to leave that very night. Maybe he knew what was coming. She did too, but she couldn’t run because she had no independent means whatsoever, and she wasn’t going to leave us in his hands. Plus, she had no rights to community property because Trunnis had always refused to marry her, which was a riddle she was only then starting to solve. My mother came from a solid, middle class family, and had always been the virtuous type. He resented that, treated his hookers better than the mother of his sons, and as a result he had her trapped. She was 100 percent dependent, and if she wanted to leave, she’d have to walk with nothing at all.

			My brother and I never slept well at Skateland. The ceiling shook too much because the office was directly below the dance floor. When my mother walked in that night I was already awake. She smiled, but I noticed the tears in her eyes and remember smelling the scotch on her breath when she scooped me up in her arms as tenderly as she could. My father trailed in after her, sloppy and annoyed. He pulled a pistol from beneath the cushion where I slept (yes, you read that right, there was a loaded gun under the cushion on which I slept at six years old!), flashed it at me, and smiled before concealing it beneath his pant leg in an ankle holster. In his other hand were two brown paper shopping bags filled with nearly $10,000 in cash. So far it was a typical night.

			My parents didn’t speak on the drive home, though the tension between them simmered. My mom pulled into the driveway on Paradise Road just before 6 a.m., a little early by our standards. Trunnis stumbled from the car, disabled the alarm, dropped the cash on the kitchen table, and went upstairs. We followed him, and she tucked us both into our beds, kissed me on the forehead, and turned out the light before slipping into the master suite where she found him waiting, stroking his leather belt. Trunnis didn’t appreciate being glared at by my mom, especially in public.

			“This belt came all the way from Texas just to whip you,” he said, calmly. Then he started swinging it, buckle first. Sometimes my mother fought back, and she did that night. She threw a marble candlestick at his head. He ducked and it thudded the wall. She ran into the bathroom, locked the door, and cowered on the toilet. He kicked the door down and backhanded her hard. Her head slammed into the wall. She was barely conscious when he grabbed a fistful of her hair and dragged her down the hall.

			By then my brother and I had heard the violence, and we watched him drag her all the way down the stairs to the first floor, then crouch over her with the belt in his hand. She was bleeding from the temple and the lip, and the sight of her blood lit a fuse in me. In that moment my hatred overcame my fear. I ran downstairs and jumped on his back, slammed my tiny fists into his back, and scratched at his eyes. I’d caught him off guard and he fell to one knee. I wailed on him.

			“Don’t hit my mom!” I yelled. He tossed me to the ground, stalked toward me, belt in hand, then turned toward my mother.

			“You’re raising a gangster,” he said, half-smiling.

			I curled into a ball when he started swinging his belt at me. I could feel bruises rise on my back as my mom crawled toward the control pad near the front door. She pressed the panic button and the house exploded in alarm. He froze, looked toward the ceiling, mopped his brow with his sleeve, took a deep breath, looped and buckled his belt, and went upstairs to wash off all that evil and hate. Police were on their way, and he knew it.

			My mother’s relief was short-lived. When the cops arrived, Trunnis met them at the door. They looked over his shoulder toward my mom, who stood several paces behind him, her face swollen and caked with dried blood. But those were different days. There was no #metoo back then. That shit didn’t exist, and they ignored her. Trunnis told them it was all a whole lot of nothing. Just some necessary domestic discipline.

			“Look at this house. Does it look like I mistreat my wife?” He asked. “I give her mink coats, diamond rings, I bust my ass to give her everything she wants, and she throws a marble candlestick at my head. She’s spoiled.”

			The police chuckled along with my father as he walked them to their car. They left without interviewing her. He didn’t hit her again that morning. He didn’t have to. The psychological damage was done. From that point on it was clear to us that as far as Trunnis and the law were concerned it was open season, and we were the hunted.

			Over the next year, our schedule didn’t change much and the beatings continued, while my mother tried to paper over the darkness with swatches of light. She knew I wanted to be a Scout, so she signed me up for a local troop. I still remember putting on that navy blue Cub Scout button down one Saturday. I felt proud wearing a uniform and knowing at least for a few hours I could pretend that I was a normal kid. My mom smiled as we headed for the door. My pride, her smile, wasn’t just because of the damn Cub Scouts. They rose up from a deeper place. We were taking action to find something positive for ourselves in a bleak situation. It was proof that we mattered, and that we weren’t completely powerless.

			That’s when my father came home from the Vermillion Room.

			“Where you two going?” He glared at me. I stared at the floor. My mother cleared her throat.

			“I’m taking David to his first Cub Scout meeting,” she said, softly.

			“The hell you are!” I looked up, and he laughed as my eyes welled up with tears. “We’re going to the track.”

			Within the hour we’d arrived at Batavia Downs, an old-school harness horse race track, the type where jockeys ride behind the horses in lightweight buggies. My dad grabbed a racing form as soon we stepped through the gate. For hours, the three of us watched him place bet after bet, chain smoke, drink scotch, and raise holy hell as every pony he bet on finished out of the money. With my dad raging at the gambling gods and acting a fool, I tried to make myself as small as possible whenever people walked by, but I still stuck out. I was the only kid in the stands dressed like a Cub Scout. I was probably the only black Cub Scout they’d ever seen, and my uniform was a lie. I was a pretender.

			Trunnis lost thousands of dollars that day, and he wouldn’t shut up about it on the drive home, his raspy throat raw from nicotine. My brother and I were in the cramped back seat and whenever he spat out the window, his phlegm boomeranged into my face. Each drop of his nasty saliva on my skin burned like venom and intensified my hate. I’d long since learned that the best way to avoid a beat down was to make myself as invisible as possible, avert my eyes, float outside my body, and hope to go unnoticed. It was a practice we’d all honed over the years, but I was done with that shit. I would no longer hide from the Devil. That afternoon as he veered onto the highway and headed home, he continued to rave on, and I mad-dogged him from the back seat. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Faith Over Fear”? For me it was Hate Over Fear.

			He caught my eyes in the rearview mirror.

			“You got something to say?!”

			“We shouldn’t have gone to the track anyway,” I said.

			My brother turned and stared at me like I’d lost my damn mind. My mother squirmed in her seat.

			“Say that one more time.” His words came slow, dripping with dread. I didn’t say a word, so he started reaching behind the seat trying to smack me. But I was so small, it was easy to hide. The car veered left and right as he was half-turned in my direction, punching air. He’d barely touched me, which only stoked his fire. We drove in silence until he caught his breath. “When we get home, you’re gonna take your clothes off,” he said.

			That’s what he’d say when he was ready to bestow a serious beat down, and there was no avoiding it. I did what I was told. I went into my bedroom and took off my clothes, walked down the hall to his room, closed the door behind me, turned the lights off, then laid across the corner of the bed with my legs dangling, my torso stretched out in front of me, and my ass exposed. That was the protocol, and he’d designed it for maximum psychological and physical pain.

			The beatings were often brutal, but the anticipation was the worst part. I couldn’t see the door behind me, and he’d take his time, letting my dread build. When I heard him open the door, my panic spiked. Even then the room was so dark I couldn’t see much with my peripheral vision, and couldn’t prepare for the first smack until his belt hit my skin. It was never just two or three lickings either. There was no particular count, so we never knew when or if he was gonna stop.

			This beating lasted minutes upon minutes. He started on my butt, but the sting was so bad I blocked it with my hands, so he moved down and started whipping my thighs. When I dropped my hands to my thighs he swung at my lower back. He belted me dozens of times, and was breathless, coughing and slick with sweat by the time it was over. I was breathing heavy too, but I wasn’t crying. His evil was too real and my hate gave me courage. I refused to give that motherfucker the satisfaction. I just stood up, looked the Devil in his eye, limped to my room, and stood in front of a mirror. I was covered in welts from my neck to the crease at the knees. I didn’t go to school for several days.

			When you’re getting beat consistently, hope evaporates. You stifle your emotions, but your trauma off-gasses in unconscious ways. After countless beatings she endured and witnessed, this particular beat down left my mother in a constant fog, a shell of the woman I remembered from a few years before. She was distracted and vacant most of the time, except when he called her name. Then she’d hop-to like she was his slave. I didn’t know until years later that she was considering suicide.

			My brother and I took our pain out on each other. We’d sit or stand across from one another and he would throw punches as hard as he could at me. It usually started out as a game, but he was four years older, much stronger, and he connected with all his power. Whenever I’d fall, I’d get up and he’d hit me again, as hard as he could, yelling like a martial arts warrior at the top of his lungs, his face twisted with rage.

			“You’re not hurting me! Is that all you fucking have?” I’d shout back. I wanted him to know that I could take more pain than he could ever deliver, but when it was time to fall asleep and there were no more battles to fight, no place to hide, I wet the bed. Nearly every night.

			My mother’s every day was a lesson in survival. She was told she was worthless so often she started to believe it. Everything she did was an effort to appease him so he wouldn’t beat her sons or whip her ass, but there were invisible trip wires in her world and sometimes she never knew when or how she set them off until after he slapped the shit out of her. Other times she knew she teed herself up for a vicious beat down.

			One day I came home early from school with a nasty earache and laid down on my mother’s side of their bed, my left ear throbbing in excruciating pain. With each throb my hate spiked. I knew I wouldn’t be going to the doctor because my father didn’t approve of spending his money on doctors or dentists. We didn’t have health insurance, a pediatrician, or a dentist. If we got injured or sick, we were told to shake it off because he wasn’t down to pay for anything that didn’t directly benefit Trunnis Goggins. Our health didn’t meet that standard, and that pissed me the fuck off.

			After about a half hour, my mother came upstairs to check on me and when I rolled onto my back she could see blood dribbling down the side of my neck and smeared all over the pillow.

			“That’s it,” she said, “come with me.”

			She got me out of bed, dressed me, and helped me to her car, but before she could start the engine, my dad chased us down.

			“Where you think you’re going?!”

			“The emergency room,” she said as she turned the ignition. He reached for the handle but she peeled out first, leaving him in her dust. Furious, he stomped inside, slammed the door, and called out to my brother.

			“Son, get me a Johnnie Walker!” Trunnis Jr. brought over a bottle of Red Label and a glass from the wet bar. He poured and poured and watched my dad down shot after shot. Each one fueled an inferno. “You and David need to be strong,” he raved. “I’m not raising a bunch of faggots! And that’s what you’ll be if you go to the doctor every time you get a little boo boo, understand?” My brother nodded, petrified. “Your last name is Goggins, and we shake it off!”

			According to the doctor we saw that night, my mother got me to the ER just in time. My ear infection was so bad that if we’d waited any longer, I would have lost my hearing in my left ear for life. She risked her ass to save mine and we both knew she’d pay for it. We drove home in eerie silence.

			My dad was still stewing at the kitchen table by the time we turned onto Paradise Road, and my brother was still pouring him shots. Trunnis Jr. feared our father, but he also worshipped the man and was under his spell. As the first born son he was treated better. Trunnis would still lash out at him, but in his warped mind, Trunnis Jr. was his prince. “When you grow up I’m gonna want to see you be the man of your house,” Trunnis told him. “And you’re gonna see me be a man tonight.”

			Moments after we walked through the front door, Trunnis beat our mother senseless, but my brother couldn’t watch. Whenever the beatings exploded like a thunderstorm overhead, he’d wait them out in his room. He ignored the darkness because the truth was way too heavy for him to carry. I always paid close fucking attention.

			During the summers, there was no midweek respite from Trunnis, but my brother and I learned to hop on our bikes and stay far away for as long as we could. One day, I came home for lunch and entered the house through the garage like normal. My father usually slept deep into the afternoon, so I figured the coast was clear. I was wrong. My father was paranoid. He did enough shady deals to attract some enemies, and he’d set the alarm after we left the house.

			When I opened the door, sirens screamed and my stomach dropped. I froze, backed up against the wall, and listened for footsteps. I heard the stairs creak and knew I was fucked. He came downstairs in his brown terrycloth robe, pistol in hand, and crossed from the dining room into the living room, his gun out front. I could see the barrel come around the corner slowly.

			As soon as he cleared the corner he could see me standing just twenty feet away, but he didn’t drop his weapon. He aimed it right between my eyes. I stared straight at him, blank as possible, my feet anchored to the floor boards. There was no one else in the house, and part of me expected him to pull the trigger, but by this time in my life I no longer cared if I lived or died. I was an exhausted eight-year-old kid, plain old fucking tired of being terrified of my father, and I was sick of Skateland too. After a minute or two he lowered his weapon and went back upstairs.

			By now it was becoming clear that someone was going to die on Paradise Road. My mother knew where Trunnis kept his .38. Some days she timed and followed him—envisioned how it would play out. They’d take separate cars to Skateland, she’d grab his gun from beneath the office sofa cushions before he could get there, bring us home early, put us to bed, and wait for him by the front door with his gun in hand. When he pulled up, she’d step out the front door and murder him in his driveway—leave his body for the milkman to find. My uncles, her brothers, talked her out of it, but they agreed she needed to do something drastic or she’d be the one lying dead.

			It was an old neighbor who showed her a way. Betty used to live across the street from us and after she moved they stayed in touch. Betty was twenty years older than my mom and had the wisdom to match. She encouraged my mother to plan her escape weeks in advance. The first step was getting a credit card in her name. That meant she had to re-earn Trunnis’ trust because she needed him to cosign. Betty also reminded my mother to keep their friendship a secret.

			For a few weeks Jackie played Trunnis, treated him like she did when she was a nineteen-year-old beauty with stars in her eyes. She made him believe she worshipped him again, and when she slipped a credit card application in front of him, he said he’d be happy to score her a little buying power. When the card arrived in the mail, my mother felt its hard plastic edges through the envelope as relief saturated her mind. She held it at arms length and admired it. It glowed like a golden ticket.

			A few days later she heard my father talking shit about her on the phone to one of his friends, while he was having breakfast with my brother and me at the kitchen table. That did it. She walked over to the table and said, “I’m leaving your father. You two can stay or you can come with me.”

			My dad was stunned silent and so was my brother, but I shot out of that chair like it was on fire, grabbed a few black garbage bags, and went upstairs to start packing. My brother eventually started gathering his things too. Before we left, the four of us had one last pow wow at that kitchen table. Trunnis glared at my mother, filled with shock and contempt.

			“You have nothing and you are nothing without me,” he said. “You’re uneducated, you don’t have any money or prospects. You’ll be a prostitute inside a year.” He paused then shifted his focus to my brother and me. “You two are gonna grow up to be a couple of faggots. And don’t think about coming back, Jackie. I’ll have another woman here to take your place five minutes after you leave.”

			She nodded and stood. She’d given him her youth, her very soul, and she was finally finished. She packed as little of her past as possible. She left the mink coats and the diamond rings. He could give them to his whore girlfriend as far as she was concerned.

			Trunnis watched us load up into my mom’s Volvo (the one vehicle he owned that he wouldn’t ride in), our bikes already strapped to the back. We drove off slowly and at first he didn’t budge, but before she turned the corner I could see him move toward the garage. My mother floored it.

			Give her credit, she’d planned for contingencies. She figured he’d tail her, so she didn’t head west to the interstate that would take us to her parent’s place in Indiana. Instead, she drove to Betty’s house, down a dirt construction road that my dad didn’t even know about. Betty had the garage door open when we arrived. We pulled in. Betty yanked the door down, and while my father shot out on the highway in his Corvette to chase after us, we waited right under his nose until just before nightfall. By then we knew he’d be at Skateland, opening up. He wasn’t going to miss a chance to make some money. No matter what.

			Shit went wrong about ninety miles outside of Buffalo when the old Volvo started burning oil. Huge plumes of inky exhaust choked from the tail pipe and my mother spun into panic mode. It was as if she’d been holding it all in, stuffing her fear down deep, hiding it beneath a mask of forced composure, until an obstacle emerged and she fell apart. Tears streaked her face.

			“What do I do?” My mom asked, her eyes wide as saucers. My brother never wanted to leave, and he told her to turn around. I was riding shotgun. She looked over expectantly. “What do I do?”

			“We gotta go, mom,” I said. “Mom, we gotta go.”

			She pulled into a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Hysterical, she rushed to a pay phone and called Betty.

			“I can’t do this, Betty,” she said. “The car broke down. I have to go back!”

			“Where are you?” Betty asked, calmly.

			“I don’t know,” my mom replied. “I have no idea where I am!”

			Betty told her to find a gas station attendant—every station had those back then—and put him on the phone. He explained we were just outside of Erie, Pennsylvania, and after Betty gave him some instructions, he put my mother back on the line.

			“Jackie, there’s a Volvo dealer in Erie. Find a hotel tonight and take the car there tomorrow morning. The attendant is going to put enough oil in the car to get you there.” My mother was listening but she didn’t respond. “Jackie? Are you hearing me? Do what I say and it will be okay.”

			“Yeah. Okay,” she whispered, emotionally spent. “Hotel. Volvo dealer. Got it.”

			I don’t know what Erie is like now, but back then there was only one decent hotel in town: a Holiday Inn, not far from the Volvo dealership. My brother and I followed my mom to the reception desk where we were hit with more bad news. They were fully booked. My mother’s shoulders slumped. My brother and I stood on either side of her, holding our clothes in black trash bags. We were the picture of desperation, and the night manager saw it.

			“Look, I’ll set you up with some rollaway beds in the conference room,” he said. “There’s a bathroom down there, but you have to be out early because we have a conference starting at 9 a.m.”

			Grateful, we bedded down in that conference room with its industrial carpet and fluorescent lights, our own personal purgatory. We were on the run and on the ropes, but my mother hadn’t folded. She laid back and stared at the ceiling tiles until we nodded off. Then she slipped into an adjacent coffee shop to keep an anxious eye on our bikes, and on the road, all night long.

			We were waiting outside that Volvo dealership when the garage opened up, which gave the mechanics just enough time to source the part we needed and get us back on the road before their day was done. We left Erie at sunset and drove all night, arriving at my grandparents’ house in Brazil, Indiana, eight hours later. My mom wept as she parked next to their old wooden house before dawn, and I understood why.

			Our arrival felt significant, then and now. I was still only eight years old, but already in a second phase of life. I didn’t know what awaited me—what awaited us—in that small, rural, Southern Indiana town, and I didn’t much care. All I knew was that we’d escaped from Hell, and for the first time in my life, we were free from the Devil himself.


			We stayed with my grandparents for the next six months, and I enrolled in second grade—for the second time—at a local Catholic school called Annunciation. I was the only eight-year-old in second grade, but none of the other kids knew I was repeating a year, and there was no doubt that I needed it. I could barely read, but I was lucky enough to have Sister Katherine as my teacher. Short and petite, Sister Katherine was sixty years old and had one gold front tooth. She was a nun but didn’t wear the habit. She was also grumpy as hell and took no shit, and I loved her thug ass.

			Second grade in Brazil

			Annunciation was a small school. Sister Katherine taught all of first and second grade in a single classroom, and with only eighteen kids to teach, she wasn’t willing to shirk her responsibility and blame my academic struggles, or anybody’s bad behavior, on learning disabilities or emotional problems. She didn’t know my backstory and didn’t have to. All that mattered to her was that I turned up at her door with a kindergarten education, and it was her job to shape my mind. She had every excuse in the world to farm me out to some specialist or label me a problem, but that wasn’t her style. She started teaching before labeling kids was a normal thing to do, and she embodied the no-excuses mentality that I needed if I was going to catch up.

			Sister Katherine is the reason why I’ll never trust a smile or judge a scowl. My dad smiled a hell of a lot, and he didn’t give two shits about me, but grouchy Sister Katherine cared about us, cared about me. She wanted us to be our very best. I know this because she proved it by spending extra time with me, as much time as it took, until I retained my lessons. Before the year was out, I could read at a second grade level. Trunnis Jr. hadn’t adjusted nearly as well. Within a few months he was back in Buffalo, shadowing my father and working that Skateland detail like he’d never left.

			By then, we’d moved into a place of our own: a 600-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment at Lamplight Manor, a public housing block, that cost us $7 a month. My father, who earned thousands every night, sporadically sent $25 every three or four weeks (if that) for child support, while my mother earned a few hundred dollars a month with her department store job. In her off-hours she was taking courses at Indiana State University, which cost money too. The point is, we had gaps to fill, so my mother enrolled in welfare and received $123 a month and food stamps. They wrote her a check for the first month, but when they found out she owned a car they disqualified her, explaining that if she sold her car they’d be happy to help.

			The problem is we lived in a rural town with a population of about 8,000 that didn’t have a mass transit system. We needed that car so I could get to school, and so she could get to work and take night classes. She was hell-bent on changing her life circumstances and found a workaround through the Aide to Dependent Children program. She arranged for our check to go to my grandmother who signed it over to her, but that didn’t make life easy. How far can $123 really go?

			I vividly recall one night we were so broke we drove home on a gas tank that was near empty, to a bare refrigerator and a past due electric bill, with no money in the bank. Then I remembered that we had two mason jars filled with pennies and other loose change. I grabbed them off the shelf.

			“Mom, let’s count our change!”

			She smiled. Growing up, her father had taught her to pick up the change she found on the street. He was molded by the Great Depression and knew what it was like to be down and out. “You never know when you might need it,” he’d say. When we lived in Hell, carrying home thousands of dollars every night, the notion that we would ever run out of money sounded ludicrous, but my mother retained her childhood habit. Trunnis used to belittle her for it, but now it was time to see how far found money could take us.

			We dumped that change out on the living room floor and counted out enough to cover the electric bill, fill the gas tank, and buy groceries. We even had enough to buy burgers at Hardee’s on the way home. These were dark times, but we were managing. Barely. My mother missed Trunnis Jr. terribly, but she was pleased that I was adjusting and making friends. I’d had a good year at school, and from our first night in Indiana I hadn’t wet the bed once. It seemed that I was healing, but my demons weren’t gone. They were dormant. And when they came back, they hit hard.


			Third grade was a shock to my system. Not just because we had to learn cursive when I was still getting the hang of reading block letters, but because our teacher, Ms. D, was nothing like Sister Katherine. Our class was still small, we had about twenty kids total, split between third and fourth grade, but she didn’t handle it nearly as well and wasn’t interested in taking the extra time I required.

			My trouble started with the standardized test we took during our first couple of weeks of class. Mine came back a mess. I was still way behind the other kids and I had trouble building on lessons from the previous days, let alone the previous academic year. Sister Katherine considered similar signs as cues to dedicate more time with her weakest student, and she challenged me daily. Ms. D looked for a way out. Within the first month of class, she told my mother that I belonged in a different school. One for “special students.”

			Every kid knows what “special” means. It means you are about to be stigmatized for the rest of your damn life. It means that you are not normal. The threat alone was a trigger, and I developed a stutter almost overnight. My thought-to-speech flow was jammed up with stress and anxiety, and it was at its worst in school.

			Imagine being the only black kid in class, in the entire school, and enduring the daily humiliation of also being the dumbest. I felt like everything I tried to do or say was wrong, and it got so bad that instead of responding and skipping like scratched vinyl whenever the teacher called my name, I often chose to keep quiet. It was all about limiting exposure to save face.

			Ms. D didn’t even attempt to empathize. She went straight to frustration and vented it by yelling at me, sometimes when she was leaning down, her hand on the back of my chair, her face just inches from my own. She had no idea the Pandora’s box she was tearing open. Once, school was a safe harbor, the one place I knew I couldn’t be hurt, but in Indiana it morphed into my torture chamber.

			Ms. D wanted me out of her classroom, and the administration supported her until my mother fought for me. The principal agreed to keep me enrolled if my mother signed off on time with a speech therapist and put me into group therapy with a local shrink they recommended.

			The psychologist’s office was adjacent to a hospital, which was exactly where you’d want to put it if you were trying to make a little kid doubt himself. It was like a bad movie. The shrink set up seven chairs in a semicircle around him, but some of the kids wouldn’t or couldn’t sit still. One child wore a helmet and banged his head against the wall repeatedly. Another kid stood up while the doctor was mid-sentence, walked toward a far corner of the room, and pissed in the trash can. The kid sitting next to me was the most normal person in the group, and he had set his own house on fire! I can remember staring up at the shrink on my first day, thinking, There’s no way I belong here.

			That experience kicked my social anxiety up several notches. My stutter was out of control. My hair started falling out, and white splotches bloomed on my dark skin. The doctor diagnosed me as an ADHD case and prescribed Ritalin, but my problems were more complex.

			I was suffering from toxic stress.

			The type of physical and emotional abuse I was exposed to has been proven to have a range of side effects on young children because in our early years the brain grows and develops so rapidly. If, during those years, your father is an evil motherfucker hell-bent on destroying everyone in his house, stress spikes, and when those spikes occur frequently enough, you can draw a line across the peaks. That’s your new baseline. It puts kids in a permanent “fight or flight” mode. Fight or flight can be a great tool when you’re in danger because it amps you up to battle through or sprint from trouble, but it’s no way to live.

			I’m not the type of guy to try to explain everything with science, but facts are facts. I’ve read that some pediatricians believe toxic stress does more damage to kids than polio or meningitis. I know firsthand that it leads to learning disabilities and social anxiety because according to doctors it limits language development and memory, which makes it difficult for even the most gifted student to recall what they have already learned. Looking at the long game, when kids like me grow up, they face an increased risk for clinical depression, heart disease, obesity, and cancer, not to mention smoking, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Those raised in abusive households have an increased probability of being arrested as a juvenile by 53 percent. Their odds of committing a violent crime as an adult are increased by 38 percent. I was the poster child of that generic term we’ve all heard before: “at-risk youth.” My mother wasn’t the one raising a thug. Look at the numbers and it’s clear: if anyone put me on a destructive path it was Trunnis Goggins.

			I didn’t stay in group therapy for long, and I didn’t take Ritalin either. My mom picked me up after my second session and I sat in the front seat of her car wearing a thousand-yard stare. “Mom, I’m not going back,” I said. “These boys are crazy.” She agreed.

			But I was still a damaged kid, and while there are proven interventions on the best way to teach and manage kids who suffer from toxic stress, it’s fair to say that Ms. D didn’t get those memos. I can’t blame her for her own ignorance. The science wasn’t nearly as clear in the 1980s as it is now. All I know is, Sister Katherine toiled in the trenches with the same malformed kid that Ms. D dealt with, but she maintained high expectations and didn’t let her frustration overwhelm her. She had the mindset of, Look, everybody learns in a different way and we’re gonna figure out how you learn. She deduced that I needed repetition. That I needed to solve the same problems over and over again in a different way to learn, and she knew that took time. Ms. D was all about productivity. She was saying, Keep up or get out. Meanwhile, I felt backed into a corner. I knew that if I didn’t show some improvement I would eventually be shipped out to that special black hole for good, so I found a solution.

			I started cheating my ass off.

			Studying was hard, especially with my fucked-up brain, but I was a damn good cheat. I copied friends’ homework and scanned my neighbors’ work during tests. I even copied the answers on the standardized tests that didn’t have any impact on my grades. It worked! My rising test scores placated Ms. D, and my mother stopped getting calls from school. I thought I’d solved a problem when really I was creating new ones by taking the path of least resistance. My coping mechanism confirmed that I would never learn squat at school, and that I would never catch up, which pushed me closer toward a flunked out fate.

			The saving grace of those early years in Brazil was that I was way too young to understand the kind of prejudice I would soon face in my new hick hometown. Whenever you’re the only one of your kind, you’re in danger of being pushed toward the margins, suspected and disregarded, bullied and mistreated by ignorant people. That’s just the way life is, especially back then, and by the time that reality kicked me in the throat, my life had already become a full-fledged, fuck-you fortune cookie. Whenever I cracked it open, I got the same message.

			You were born to fail!

Challenge #1

			My bad cards arrived early and stuck around a while, but everyone gets challenged in life at some point. What was your bad hand? What kind of bullshit did you contend with growing up? Were you beaten? Abused? Bullied? Did you ever feel insecure? Maybe your limiting factor is that you grew up so supported and comfortable, you never pushed yourself?

			What are the current factors limiting your growth and success? Is someone standing in your way at work or school? Are you underappreciated and overlooked for opportunities? What are the long odds you’re up against right now? Are you standing in your own way?

			Break out your journal—if you don’t have one, buy one, or start one on your laptop, tablet, or in the notes app on your smart phone—and write them all out in minute detail. Don’t be bland with this assignment. I showed you every piece of my dirty laundry. If you were hurt or are still in harm’s way, tell the story in full. Give your pain shape. Absorb its power, because you are about to flip that shit.

			You will use your story, this list of excuses, these very good reasons why you shouldn’t amount to a damn thing, to fuel your ultimate success. Sounds fun right? Yeah, it won’t be. But don’t worry about that yet. We’ll get there. For now, just take inventory.

			Once you have your list, share it with whoever you want. For some, it may mean logging onto social media, posting a picture, and writing out a few lines about how your own past or present circumstances challenge you to the depth of your soul. If that’s you, use the hashtags #badhand #canthurtme. Otherwise, acknowledge and accept it privately. Whatever works for you. I know it’s hard, but this act alone will begin to empower you to overcome.

Chapter Two

			2. Truth Hurts

			Wilmoth Irving was a new beginning. Up until he met my mother and asked for her phone number, all I’d known was misery and struggle. When the money was good, our lives were defined by trauma. Once we were free of my father, we were swept under by our own PTSD-level dysfunction and poverty. Then, when I was in fourth grade, she met Wilmoth, a successful carpenter and general contractor from Indianapolis. She was attracted to his easy smile and laid-back style. There was no violence in him. He gave us permission to exhale. With him around it felt like we had some support, like something good was finally happening to us.

			With Wilmoth

			She laughed when they were together. Her smile was bright and real. She stood up a little straighter. He gave her pride and made her feel beautiful again. As for me, Wilmoth became as close to a healthy father figure as I’ve ever had. He didn’t coddle me. He didn’t tell me he loved me or any of that fake-ass sappy shit, but he was there. Basketball had been an obsession of mine since grade school. It was the core of my relationship with my best friend, Johnny Nichols, and Wilmoth had game. He and I hit the courts together all the time. He showed me moves, tuned up my defensive discipline, and helped me develop a jump shot. The three of us celebrated birthdays and holidays together, and the summer before eighth grade, he got down on one knee and asked my mother to make it official.

			Wilmoth lived in Indianapolis, and our plan was to move in with him the following summer. Though he wasn’t nearly as rich as Trunnis, he made a nice living and we looked forward to city life again. Then in 1989, the day after Christmas, everything stopped.

			We hadn’t made the full time move to Indy yet, and he’d spent Christmas Day with us at my grandparents’ place in Brazil. The next day, he had a basketball game in his men’s league and he’d invited me to sub for one of his teammates. I was so excited I’d packed my bags two days early, but that morning he told me I couldn’t come after all.

			“I’m gonna keep you back here this time, Little David,” he said. I dropped my head and sighed. He could tell I was upset and tried to reassure me. “Your mom is gonna drive up in a few days and we can play ball then.”

			I nodded, reluctantly, but I wasn’t raised to pry into the affairs of adults and knew I wasn’t owed an explanation or make-up game. My mother and I watched from the front porch as he backed out of the carport, smiled, and gave us that crisp single wave of his. Then he drove off.

			It was the last time we’d ever see him alive.

			He played in his men’s league game that night, as planned, and drove home alone to the “house with the white lions.” Whenever he gave directions to friends, family, or delivery guys, that’s how he always described his ranch-style house, its driveway framed by two white lion sculptures elevated on pillars. He pulled between them and into the garage where he could enter the house directly, oblivious to the danger moving in from behind. He never did close that garage door.

			They’d been staking him out for hours, waiting for a window, and as he climbed out from the driver’s side door, they stepped from the shadows and fired from close range. He was shot five times in the chest. When he dropped to the floor of his garage, the gunman stepped over him and delivered a kill shot right between his eyes.

			Wilmoth’s father lived a few blocks away, and when he drove by the white lions the next morning, he noticed his son’s garage door open and knew something was wrong. He walked up the driveway and into the garage where he sobbed over his dead son.

			Wilmoth was just forty-three years old.

			I was still at my grandmother’s house when Wilmoth’s mother called moments later. She hung up and motioned me to her side to break the news. I thought about my mom. Wilmoth had been her savior. She’d been coming out of her shell, opening up, ready to believe in good things. What would this do to her? Would God ever give her a damn break? It started as a simmer but within seconds my rage overwhelmed me. I broke free of my grandmother, punched the refrigerator, and left a dent.

			We drove to our place to find my mother, who was already frantic because she hadn’t heard from Wilmoth. She called his house just before we arrived, and when a detective picked up the phone it puzzled her, but she didn’t expect this. How could she? We saw her confusion as my grandmother walked over, peeled the phone from her fingers, and sat her down.

			She didn’t believe us at first. Wilmoth was a prankster and this was just the kind of fucked-up stunt he might try to pull off. Then she remembered he’d been shot two months before. He’d told her the guys who’d done that weren’t after him. That those bullets were meant for someone else, and because they merely grazed him, she decided to forget about the whole thing. Until that moment, she never suspected that Wilmoth had some secret street life she knew nothing about, and the police never did find out exactly why he was shot and killed. The speculation was that he was involved in a shady business deal or a drug deal gone bad. My mother was still in denial when she packed a bag, but she included a dress for his funeral.

			When we arrived, his house was wrapped in a ribbon of yellow police tape like a fucked-up Christmas gift. This was no prank. My mom parked, ducked under the tape, and I followed right behind her to the front door. On the way, I remember glancing to my left trying to get a glimpse of the scene where Wilmoth had been killed. His cold blood was still pooled on the garage floor. I was a fourteen-year-old wandering through an active crime scene, but nobody, not my mother, not Wilmoth’s family, and not even the police seemed disturbed by me being there, absorbing the heavy vibe of my would-be stepfather’s murder.

			As fucked up as it sounds, the police allowed my mom to stay in Wilmoth’s house that night. Rather than stay alone, she had her brother-in-law there, armed with his two guns in case the killers came back. I wound up in a back bedroom at Wilmoth’s sister’s place, a dark and spooky house a few miles away, and left alone all night. The house was furnished with one of those analog, cabinet television sets with thirteen channels on a dial. Only three channels came in static-free, and I kept it on the local news. They ran the same tape on a loop every thirty minutes: footage of my mom and me ducking under police tape then watching Wilmoth get wheeled on a gurney toward a waiting ambulance, a sheet over his body.

			It was like a horror scene. I sat there all alone, watching the same footage over and over. My mind was a broken record that kept skipping into darkness. The past had been bleak and now our sky-blue future had been blown the fuck up too. There would be no reprieve, only my familiar fucked-up reality choking out all light. Each time I watched, my fear grew until it filled the room, and still I could not stop.

			A few days after we buried Wilmoth, and just after the new year, I boarded a school bus in Brazil, Indiana. I was still grieving, and my head was spinning because my mother and I hadn’t decided whether or not we were staying in Brazil or moving to Indianapolis as planned. We were in limbo and she remained in a state of shock. She still hadn’t cried over Wilmoth’s death. Instead she became emotionally vacant again. It was as if all the pain she’d experienced in her life resurfaced as one gaping wound she disappeared into, and there was no reaching her in that void. In the meantime, school was starting up, so I played along, looking for any shred of normal I could hang onto.

			But it was hard. I rode a bus to school most days, and my first day back, I couldn’t shake a memory I’d buried from the year before. That morning, I slid into a seat above the back left tire overlooking the street as usual. When we arrived at school the bus pulled up to the curb, we needed to wait for the ones ahead of us to move before we could get off. In the meantime, a car pulled alongside us, and a cute, overeager little boy ran toward our bus carrying a platter of cookies. The driver didn’t see him. The bus jerked forward.

			I noticed the alarmed look on his mother’s face before the sudden crush of blood splattered my window. His mother howled in horror. She wasn’t among us anymore. She looked and sounded like a fierce, wounded animal as she literally pulled the hair from her head by the roots. Soon sirens wailed in the distance and screamed closer by the second. The little boy was about six years old. The cookies were a present for the driver.

			We were all ordered off the bus, and as I walked by the tragedy, for some reason—call it human curiosity, call it the magnetic pull of dark to dark—I peeked under the bus and saw him. His head was nearly as flat as paper, his brains and blood mingled under the carriage like spent oil.

			For a full year I hadn’t thought of that image even once, but Wilmoth’s death reawakened it, and now it was all I could think about. I was beyond the pale. Nothing mattered to me. I’d seen enough to know that the world was filled with human tragedy and that it would just keep piling up in drifts until it swallowed me.

			I couldn’t sleep in bed anymore. Neither could my mother. She slept in her arm chair with the television on blast or with a book in her hands. For a little while, I tried to curl up in bed at night but would always wake in the fetal position on the floor. Eventually I gave in and bedded down low to the ground. Maybe because I knew if I could find comfort at the bottom place there would be no more falling.

			We were two people in dire need of the fresh start we thought we had coming, so even without Wilmoth, we made the move to Indianapolis. My mother set me up for entry exams at Cathedral High School, a private college preparatory academy in the heart of the city. As usual, I cheated, and off a smart motherfucker too. When my acceptance letter and class schedule came in the mail the summer before freshman year, I was looking at a full slate of AP classes!

			I hacked my way through, cheating and copying, and managed to make the freshman basketball team, which was one of the best freshman teams in the entire state. We had several future college players, and I started at point guard. That was a confidence boost, but not the kind I could build on because I knew I was an academic fraud. Plus, the school cost my mom way too much money, so after only one year at Cathedral, she pulled the plug.

			I started my sophomore year at North Central High School, a public school with 4,000 kids in a majority black neighborhood, and on my first day I turned up like some preppy-ass white boy. My jeans were definitely too tight, and my collared shirt was tucked into a waistline cinched with a braided belt. The only reason I didn’t get completely laughed out of the building was because I could ball.

			My sophomore year was all about being cool. I switched up my wardrobe, which was increasingly influenced by hip hop culture, and hung out with gang bangers and other borderline delinquents, which meant I didn’t always go to school. One day, my mom came home in the middle of the day and found me sitting around our dining room table with what she described as “ten thugs.” She wasn’t wrong. Within a few weeks she packed us up and moved us back to Brazil, Indiana.

			I enrolled at Northview High School the week of basketball tryouts, and I remember showing up at lunch time when the cafeteria was full. There were 1,200 kids enrolled at Northview, only five of which were black, and the last time any of them had seen me I looked a lot like them. Not anymore.

			I strolled into school that day wearing pants five sizes too big and sagged way down low. I also wore an oversized Chicago Bulls Jacket with a backward hat, cocked to the side. Within seconds, all eyes were upon me. Teachers, students, and administrative staff stared at me like I was some exotic species. I was the first thuggish black kid many of them had seen in real life. My mere presence had stopped the music. I was the needle being dragged across vinyl, scratching a whole new rhythm, and like hip hop itself, everybody noticed but not everyone liked what they heard. I strutted through the scene like I gave no fucks.

			But that was a lie. I acted all kinds of cocky and my entrance was brash as hell, but I felt very insecure going back there. Buffalo had been like living in a blazing inferno. My early years in Brazil were a perfect incubator for post traumatic stress, and before I left I was delivered a double dose of death trauma. Moving to Indianapolis had been an opportunity to escape pity and leave all that behind. Class wasn’t easy for me, but I’d made friends and developed a new style. Now, coming back, I looked different enough on the outside to perpetuate an illusion that I’d changed, but in order to change you have to work through shit. Confront it and get real. I hadn’t done a shred of that hard work. I was still a dumb kid with nothing solid to lean on, and basketball tryouts ripped away any confidence I had left.

			When I got to the gym, they made me suit-up in uniform rather than wear my more generic gym clothes. Back then the style was getting baggy and oversized, which Chris Webber and Jalen Rose of the Fab Five would make famous at the University of Michigan. The coaches in Brazil didn’t have their fingers on that pulse. They put me in the tighty-whitey version of basketball shorts, which strangled my balls, hugged my thighs super tight, and felt all kinds of wrong. I was trapped in the coaches’ preferred dream state: a Larry Bird time warp. Which made sense because Larry Legend was basically a patron saint in Brazil and all of Indiana. In fact, his daughter went to our school. We were friends. But that didn’t mean I wanted to dress like him!

			Then there was my etiquette. In Indianapolis the coaches let us talk shit on the court. If I made a good move or hit a shot in your face, I talked about your mama or your girlfriend. In Indy, I’d done research on my shit talking. I got good at it. I was the Draymond Green of my school, and it was all part of basketball culture in the city. Back in farm country, that cost me. When tryouts started, I handled the rock a bunch, and when I crossed some of the kids over and made them look bad I let them and the coaches know. My attitude embarrassed the coaches (who were apparently ignorant that their hero, Larry Legend, was an all-time great trash talker), and it wasn’t long before they took the ball out of my hands and put me in the front court, a position I’d never played before. I was uncomfortable down low, and played like it. That shut me up good. Meanwhile, Johnny was dominating.

			My only saving grace that week was getting back with Johnny Nichols. We’d stayed close while I was away and our marathon one-on-one battles were back on full swing. Though he was undersized, he was always a nice player and he was one of the best on the floor during tryouts. He was draining shots, seeing the open man, and running the court. It was no surprise when he made the varsity squad, but we were both shocked that I barely made JV.

			I was crushed. And not because of basketball tryouts. To me that outcome was another symptom of something else I’d been feeling. Brazil looked the same, but shit felt different this time around. Grade school had been hard academically, but even though we were one of only a few black families in town, I didn’t notice or feel any palpable racism. As a teenager I experienced it everywhere, and it wasn’t because I’d become ultra sensitive. Outright racism had always been there.

			Not long after moving back to Brazil, my cousin Damien and I went to a party way out in the country. We stayed out well past curfew. In fact, we were up all night long, and after daybreak we called our grandmother for a ride home.

			“Excuse me?” She asked. “You disobeyed me, so you may as well start walking.”

			Roger that.

			She lived ten miles away, down a long country road, but we joked around and enjoyed ourselves as we started to stroll. Damien lived in Indianapolis and we were both sagging our baggy jeans and dressed in oversized Starter jackets, not exactly typical gear on Brazil’s country roads. We’d walked seven miles in a few hours when a pick-up truck came bouncing down the tarmac in our direction. We edged to the side of the road to let it pass, but it slowed down, and as it crept past us, we could see two teenagers in the cab and a third standing in the bed of the truck. The passenger pointed and yelled through his open window.


			We didn’t overreact. We put our heads down and kept walking at the same pace, until we heard that beat-to-shit truck squeal to a stop on a patch of gravel, and kick up a dust storm. That’s when I turned and saw the passenger, a scruffy looking redneck, exit the cab of the truck with a pistol in his hand. He aimed it at my head as he stalked toward me.

			“Where the fuck you from, and why the fuck you here in this fucking town?!”

			Damien eased down the road, while I locked eyes with the gunman and said nothing. He stepped within two feet of me. The threat of violence doesn’t get much more real than that. Chills rippled my skin, but I refused to run or cower. After a few seconds he got back in the truck and they sped off.

			It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the word. Not long before that I was hanging out in Pizza Hut with Johnny and a couple of girls, including a brunette I liked, named Pam. She liked me too, but we’d never acted on it. We were two innocents enjoying one another’s company, but when her father arrived to take her home he caught sight of us, and when Pam saw him, her face went ghost white.

			He burst into the packed restaurant and stalked toward us with all eyes on him. He never addressed me. He just locked eyes with her and said, “I don’t want to ever see you sitting with this nigger again.”

			She hustled out the door after him, her face red with shame as I sat, paralyzed, staring at the floor. It was the most humiliating moment of my life, and it hurt much more than the gun incident because it happened in public, and the word had been spewed by a grown-ass man. I couldn’t understand how or why he was filled with so much hate, and if he felt that way, how many other people in Brazil shared his point of view when they saw me walking down the street? It was the sort of riddle you didn’t want to solve.


			They won’t call on me if they can’t see me. That was how I operated during my sophomore year in high school in Brazil, Indiana. I would hide out in the back rows, slump low in my chair, and sidestep my way through each and every class. Our high school made us take a foreign language that year, which was funny to me. Not because I couldn’t see the value, but because I could barely read English, let alone understand Spanish. By then, after a good eight years of cheating, my ignorance had crystalized. I kept leveling up in school, on track, but hadn’t learned a damn thing. I was one of those kids who thought he was gaming the system when, the whole time, I’d been gaming myself.

			One morning, about halfway through the school year, I milled into Spanish class and grabbed my workbook from a back cupboard. There was technique involved in skating by. You didn’t have to pay attention, but you did have to make it seem like you were, so I slumped into my seat, opened up my workbook, and fixed my gaze on the teacher who lectured from the front of the room.

			When I looked down at the page the whole room went silent. At least to me. Her lips were still moving, but I couldn’t hear because my attention had narrowed on the message left for me, and me alone.

			We each had our own assigned workbook in that class, and my name was written in pencil at the top right corner of the title page. That’s how they knew it was mine. Below that, someone had drawn an image of me in a noose. It looked rudimentary, like something out of the hangman game we used to play as kids. Below that were the words.

			Niger we’re gonna kill you!

			They’d misspelled it, but I had no clue. I could barely spell myself, and they’d made their fucking point. I looked around the room as my rage gathered like a typhoon until it was literally buzzing in my ears. I’m not supposed to be here, I thought to myself. I’m not supposed to be back in Brazil!

			I took inventory of all the incidents I’d already experienced and decided I couldn’t take much more. The teacher was still talking when I rose up without warning. She called my name but I wasn’t trying to hear. I left the classroom, notebook in hand, and bolted to the principal’s office. I was so enraged I didn’t even stop at the front desk. I walked right into his office and dropped the evidence on his desk.

			“I’m tired of this shit,” I said.

			Kirk Freeman was the principal at that time, and to this day he still remembers looking up from his desk and seeing tears in my eyes. It wasn’t some mystery why all this shit was happening in Brazil. Southern Indiana had always been a hotbed of racists, and he knew it. Four years later, in 1995, the Ku Klux Klan would march down Brazil’s main drag on Independence Day, in full hooded regalia. The KKK was active in Center Point, a town located not fifteen minutes away, and kids from there went to our school. Some of them sat behind me in history class and told racist jokes for my benefit nearly every damn day. I wasn’t expecting some investigation into who did it. More than anything, in that moment, I was looking for some compassion, and I could tell from the look in Principal Freeman’s eyes he felt bad about what I was going through, but he was at a loss. He didn’t know how to help me. Instead, he examined the drawing and the message for a long beat, then raised his eyes to mine, ready to console me with his words of wisdom.

			“David, this is sheer ignorance,” he said. “They don’t even know how to spell nigger.”

			My life had been threatened, and that was the best he could do. The loneliness I felt leaving his office is something I’ll never forget. It was scary to think that there was so much hate flowing through the halls and that someone I didn’t even know wanted me dead because of the color of my skin. The same question kept looping through my mind: Who the fuck is out here who hates me like this? I had no idea who my enemy was. Was it one of the rednecks from history class, or was it somebody I thought I was cool with but who really didn’t like me at all? It was one thing staring down the barrel of a gun on the street or dealing with some racist parent. At least that shit was honest. Wondering who else felt that way in my school was a different kind of unnerving, and I couldn’t shake it off. Even though I had plenty of friends, all of them white, I couldn’t stop seeing the hidden racism scrawled all over the walls in invisible ink, which made it extremely hard to carry the weight of being the only.

			KKK in Center Point in 1995—Center Point is fifteen minutes from my house in Brazil

			Most, if not all, minorities, women, and gay people in America know that strain of loneliness well. Of walking into rooms where you are the only one of your kind. Most white men have no idea how hard it can be. I wish they did. Because then they’d know how it drains you. How some days, all you want to do is stay home and wallow because to go public is to be completely exposed, vulnerable to a world that tracks and judges you. At least that’s how it feels. The truth is, you can’t tell for sure when or if that is actually happening in a given moment. But it often feels like it, which is its own kind of mindfuck. In Brazil, I was the only everywhere I went. At my table in the cafeteria, where I chilled at lunch with Johnny and our crew. In every class I took. Even in the damn basketball gym.

			By the end of that year I turned sixteen and my grandfather bought me a used, doo-doo brown Chevy Citation. One of the first mornings I ever drove it to school, someone spray painted the word “nigger” on my driver’s side door. This time they spelled it correctly and Principal Freeman was again at a loss for words. The fury that churned within me that day was indescribable, but it didn’t radiate out. It broke me down from within because I hadn’t yet learned what to do or where to channel that much emotion.

			Was I supposed to fight everybody? I’d been suspended from school three times for fighting, and by now I was almost numb. Instead, I withdrew and fell into the well of black nationalism. Malcolm X became my prophet of choice. I used to come home from school and watch the same video of one of his early speeches every damn day. I was trying to find comfort somewhere, and the way he analyzed history and spun black hopelessness into rage nourished me, though most of his political and economic philosophies went over my head. It was his anger at a system made by and for white people that I connected with because I lived in a haze of hate, trapped in my own fruitless rage and ignorance. But I wasn’t Nation of Islam material. That shit took discipline, and I had none of that.

			Instead, by my junior year, I went out of my way to piss people off by becoming the exact stereotype racist white people loathed and feared. I wore my pants down below my ass every day. I ghetto wired my car stereo to house speakers which filled the trunk of my Citation. I rattled windows when I cruised down Brazil’s main drag blasting Snoop’s Gin and Juice. I put three of those shag carpet covers over my steering wheel and dangled a pair of fuzzy dice from the rearview. Every morning before school I stared into our bathroom mirror and came up with new ways to fuck with the racists at my school.

			I even concocted wild hairdos. Once, I gave myself a reverse part—shaving away all my hair save a thin radial line on the left side of my scalp. It wasn’t that I was unpopular. I was considered the cool black kid in town, but if you’d have bothered to drill down a little deeper, you’d see that I wasn’t about black culture and that my antics weren’t really trying to call out racism. I wasn’t about anything at all.

			Everything I did was to get a reaction out of the people who hated me most because everyone’s opinion of me mattered to me, and that’s a shallow way to live. I was full of pain, had no real purpose, and if you were watching from afar it would have looked like I’d given up on any chance of success. That I was heading for disaster. But I hadn’t let go of all hope. I had one more dream left.

			I wanted to join the Air Force.

			My grandfather had been a cook in the Air Force for thirty-seven years, and he was so proud of his service that even after he retired he’d wear his dress uniform to church on Sundays, and his work-a-day uniform midweek just to sit on the damn porch. That level of pride inspired me to join the Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary of the Air Force. We met once a week, marched in formation, and learned about the various jobs available in the Air Force from officers, which is how I became fascinated with Pararescue—the guys who jump out of airplanes to pull downed pilots out of harm’s way.

			I attended a week-long course during the summer before my freshman year called PJOC, the Pararescue Jump Orientation Course. As usual, I was the only. One day a pararescuman named Scott Gearen came to speak, and he had a motherfucker of a story to tell. During a standard exercise, on a high altitude jump from 13,000 feet, Gearen deployed his chute with another skydiver right above him. That wasn’t out of the ordinary. He had the right of way, and per his training, he’d waved off the other jumper. Except the guy didn’t see him, which placed Gearen in grave danger because the jumper above him was still mid free-fall, hurtling through the air at over 120 mph. He went into a cannonball hoping to avoid clipping Gearen, but it didn’t work. Gearen had no clue what was coming when his teammate flew through his canopy, collapsing it on contact, and slammed into Gearen’s face with his knees. Gearen was knocked unconscious instantly and wobbled into another free fall, his crushed chute creating very little drag. The other skydiver was able to deploy his chute and survive with minor injuries.

			Gearen didn’t really land. He bounced like a flat basketball, three times, but because he’d been unconscious, his body was limp, and he didn’t come apart despite crashing into the ground at 100 mph. He died twice on the operating table, but the ER docs brought him back to life. When he woke in a hospital bed, they said he wouldn’t make a full recovery and would never be a pararescuman again. Eighteen months later he’d defied medical odds, made that full recovery, and was back on the job he loved.

			Scott Gearen after his accident

			For years I was obsessed with that story because he’d survived the impossible, and I resonated with his survival. After Wilmoth’s murder, with all those racist taunts raining down on my head (I won’t bore you with every single episode, just know there were many more), I felt like I was free falling with no fucking chute. Gearen was living proof that it’s possible to transcend anything that doesn’t kill you, and from the time I heard him speak I knew I would enlist in the Air Force after graduation, which only made school seem more irrelevant.

			Especially after I was cut from the varsity basketball team during my junior year. I wasn’t cut because of my skills. The coaches knew I was one of the best players they had, and that I loved the game. Johnny and I played it night and day. Our entire friendship was based on basketball, but because I was angry at the coaches for how they used me on the JV team the year before, I didn’t attend summer workouts, and they took that as a lack of commitment to the team. They didn’t know or care that when they cut me, they’d eliminated any incentive I’d had to keep my GPA up, which I’d barely managed to do through cheating anyway. Now, I had no good reason to attend school. At least that’s what I thought, because I was clueless about the emphasis that the military places on education. I figured they’d take anybody. Two incidents convinced me otherwise and inspired me to change.

			The first was when I failed the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test (ASVAB) during my junior year. The ASVAB is the armed forces version of the SATs. It’s a standardized test that allows the military to assess your current knowledge and future potential for learning at the same time, and I showed up for that test prepared to do what I did best: cheat. I’d been copying on every test, in every class, for years, but when I took my seat for the ASVAB I was shocked to see that the people seated to my right and left had different tests than I did. I had to go it alone and scored a 20 out of a possible 99 points. The absolute minimum standard to be admitted to the Air Force is only 36, and I couldn’t even get there.

			The second sign that I needed to change arrived with a postmark just before school let out for the summer after junior year. My mother was still in her emotional black hole after Wilmoth’s murder, and her coping mechanism was to take on as much as possible. She worked full-time at DePauw University and taught night classes at Indiana State University because if she stopped hustling long enough to think, she would realize the reality of her life. She kept it moving, was never around, and never asked to see my grades. After the first semester of our junior year, I remember Johnny and me bringing home Fs and Ds. We spent two hours doctoring the ink. We turned Fs into Bs and Ds into Cs, and were laughing the whole damn time. I actually remember feeling a perverse pride in being able to show my fake grades to my mother, but she never even asked to see them. She took my damn word for it.

			Junior year transcript

			We lived parallel lives in the same house, and since I was more or less raising myself, I stopped listening to her. In fact, about ten days before the letter arrived, she’d kicked me out because I refused to come home from a party before curfew. She told me that if I didn’t, I shouldn’t come home at all.

			In my mind, I had already been living by myself for several years. I made my own meals, cleaned my own clothes. I wasn’t angry at her. I was cocky and figured I didn’t need her anymore. I stayed out that night, and for the next week and a half I crashed at Johnny’s place or with other friends. Eventually the day came when I’d spent my last dollar. By chance, she called me at Johnny’s that morning and told me about a letter from school. It said I’d missed over a quarter of the year due to unexcused absences, that I had a D average, and unless I showed significant improvement in my GPA and attendance during my senior year, I would not graduate. She wasn’t emotional about it. She was more exhausted than exasperated.

			“I’ll come home and get the note,” I said.

			“No need for that,” she replied, “I just wanted you to know you were flunking out.”

			I showed up on her doorstep later that day with my stomach growling. I didn’t ask for forgiveness and she didn’t demand an apology. She just left the door open and walked away. I stepped into the kitchen and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She passed me the letter without saying a word. I read it in my room where the walls were papered over with layers of Michael Jordan and special ops posters. Inspiration for twin passions slipping through my fingers.

			That night, after taking a shower, I wiped the steam away from our corroded bathroom mirror and took a good look. I didn’t like who I saw staring back. I was a low-budget thug with no purpose and no future. I felt so disgusted I wanted to punch that motherfucker in the face and shatter glass. Instead, I lectured him. It was time to get real.

			“Look at you,” I said. “Why do you think the Air Force wants your punk ass? You stand for nothing. You are an embarrassment.”

			I reached for the shaving cream, smoothed a thin coat over my face, unwrapped a fresh razor and kept talking as I shaved.

			“You are one dumb motherfucker. You read like a third grader. You’re a fucking joke! You’ve never tried hard at anything in your life besides basketball, and you have goals? That’s fucking hilarious.”

			After shaving peach fuzz from my cheeks and chin, I lathered up my scalp. I was desperate for a change. I wanted to become someone new.

			“You don’t see people in the military sagging their pants. You need to stop talking like a wanna-be-gangster. None of this shit is gonna cut it! No more taking the easy way out! It’s time to grow the fuck up!”

			Steam billowed all around me. It rippled off my skin and poured from my soul. What started as a spontaneous venting session had become a solo intervention.

			“It’s on you,” I said. “Yeah, I know shit is fucked up. I know what you’ve been through. I was there, bitch! Merry fucking Christmas. Nobody is coming to save your ass! Not your mommy, not Wilmoth. Nobody! It’s up to you!”

			By the time I was done talking, I was shaved clean. Water pearled on my scalp, streamed from my forehead, and dripped down the bridge of my nose. I looked different, and for the first time, I’d held myself accountable. A new ritual was born, one that stayed with me for years. It would help me get my grades up, whip my sorry ass into shape, and see me through graduation and into the Air Force.

			The ritual was simple. I’d shave my face and scalp every night, get loud, and get real. I set goals, wrote them on Post-It notes, and tagged them to what I now call the Accountability Mirror, because each day I’d hold myself accountable to the goals I’d set. At first my goals involved shaping up my appearance and accomplishing all my chores without having to be asked.

			Make your bed like you’re in the military every day!

			Pull up your pants!

			Shave your head every morning!

			Cut the grass!

			Wash all dishes!

			The Accountability Mirror kept me on point from then on, and though I was still young when this strategy came through me, since then I’ve found it useful for people at any stage in life. You could be on the cusp of retirement, looking to reinvent yourself. Maybe you’re going through a bad break-up or have gained weight. Perhaps you’re permanently disabled, overcoming some other injury, or are just coming to grips with how much of your life you’ve wasted, living without purpose. In each case, that negativity you’re feeling is your internal desire for change, but change doesn’t come easy, and the reason this ritual worked so well for me was because of my tone.

			I wasn’t fluffy. I was raw because that was the only way to get myself right. That summer between my junior and senior year in high school I was afraid. I was insecure. I wasn’t a smart kid. I’d blown off all accountability for my entire teenage existence, and actually thought I was getting over on all the adults in my life, getting over on the system. I’d duped myself into a negative feedback loop of cheating and scamming that on the surface looked like advancement until I hit a brick fucking wall called reality. That night when I came home and read the letter from my school, there was no denying the truth, and I delivered it hard.

			I didn’t dance around and say, “Geez, David, you are not taking your education very seriously.” No, I had to own it in the raw because the only way we can change is to be real with ourselves. If you don’t know shit and have never taken school seriously, then say, “I’m dumb!” Tell yourself that you need to get your ass to work because you’re falling behind in life!

			If you look in the mirror and you see a fat person, don’t tell yourself that you need to lose a couple of pounds. Tell the truth. You’re fucking fat! It’s okay. Just say you’re fat if you’re fat. The dirty mirror that you see every day is going to tell you the truth every time, so why are you still lying to yourself? So you can feel better for a few minutes and stay the fucking same? If you’re fat you need to change the fact that you’re fat because it’s very fucking unhealthy. I know because I’ve been there.

			If you have worked for thirty years doing the same shit you’ve hated day in and day out because you were afraid to quit and take a risk, you’ve been living like a pussy. Period, point blank. Tell yourself the truth! That you’ve wasted enough time, and that you have other dreams that will take courage to realize, so you don’t die a fucking pussy.

			Call yourself out!

			Nobody likes to hear the hard truth. Individually and as a culture, we avoid what we need to hear most. This world is fucked up, there are major problems in our society. We are still dividing ourselves up along racial and cultural lines, and people don’t have the balls to hear it! The truth is racism and bigotry still fucking exist and some people are so thin-skinned they refuse to admit that. To this day, many in Brazil claim that there is no racism in their small town. That’s why I have to give Kirk Freeman props. When I called him in the spring of 2018, he remembered what I went through very clearly. He’s one of the few who isn’t afraid of the truth.

			But if you are the only, and you aren’t stuck in some real-world genocidal twilight zone, you’d better get real too. Your life is not fucked up because of overt racists or hidden systemic racism. You aren’t missing out on opportunities, making shit money, and getting evicted because of America or Donald fucking Trump or because your ancestors were slaves or because some people hate immigrants or Jews or harass women or believe gay people are going to hell. If any of that shit is stopping you from excelling in life, I’ve got some news. You are stopping you!

			You are giving up instead of getting hard! Tell the truth about the real reasons for your limitations and you will turn that negativity, which is real, into jet fuel. Those odds stacked against you will become a damn runway!

			There is no more time to waste. Hours and days evaporate like creeks in the desert. That’s why it’s okay to be cruel to yourself as long as you realize you’re doing it to become better. We all need thicker skin to improve in life. Being soft when you look in the mirror isn’t going to inspire the wholesale changes we need to shift our present and open up our future.

			The morning after that first session with the Accountability Mirror, I trashed the shag steering wheel and the fuzzy dice. I tucked my shirt in and wore my pants with a belt, and, once school started up again, I stopped eating at my lunch table. For the first time, being liked and acting cool were a waste of my time, and instead of eating with all the popular kids, I found my own table and ate alone.

			Mind you, the rest of my progress could not be described as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it metamorphosis. Lady Luck did not suddenly show up, run me a hot soapy bath, and kiss me like she loved me. In fact, the only reason I didn’t become just another statistic is because, at the last possible moment, I got to work.

			During my senior year in high school, all I cared about was working out, playing basketball, and studying, and it was the Accountability Mirror that kept me motivated to keep pushing toward something better. I woke up before dawn and started going to the YMCA most mornings at 5 a.m. before school to hit the weights. I ran all the damn time, usually around the local golf course after dark. One night I ran thirteen miles—the most I’d ever run in my entire life. On that run I came to a familiar intersection. It was the same street where that redneck had pulled a gun on me. I avoided it and ran on, covering a half mile in the opposite direction before something told me to turn back. When I arrived at that intersection a second time, I stopped and contemplated it. I was scared shitless of that street, my heart was leaping from my chest, which is exactly why I suddenly started charging down its fucking throat.

			Within seconds, two snarling dogs got loose and chased me as the woods leaned in on both sides. It was all I could do to stay a step ahead of the beasts. I kept expecting that truck to reappear and run me the fuck down, like some scene from Mississippi circa 1965, but I kept running, faster and faster, until I was breathless. Eventually the hounds of Hell gave up and loped off, and it was just me, the rhythm and steam of my breath, and that deep country quiet. It was cleansing. By the time I turned back, my fear was gone. I owned that fucking street.

			From then on, I brainwashed myself into craving discomfort. If it was raining, I would go run. Whenever it started snowing, my mind would say, Get your fucking running shoes on. Sometimes I wussed out and had to deal with it at the Accountability Mirror. But facing that mirror, facing myself, motivated me to fight through uncomfortable experiences, and, as a result, I became tougher. And being tough and resilient helped me meet my goals.

			Nothing was as hard for me as learning. The kitchen table became my all-day, all-night study hall. After I’d failed the ASVAB a second time, my mother realized that I was serious about the Air Force, so she found me a tutor who helped me figure out a system I could use to learn. That system was memorization. I couldn’t learn just by scratching a few notes and memorizing those. I had to read a text book and write each page down in my notebook. Then do it again a second and third time. That’s how knowledge stuck to the mirror of my mind. Not through learning, but through transcription, memorization, and recall.

			I did that for English. I did that for history. I wrote out and memorized formulas for algebra. If my tutor took an hour to teach me a lesson, I had to go back over my notes from that session for six hours to lock it in. My personal study hall schedule and goals became Post-It notes on my Accountability Mirror, and guess what happened? I developed an obsession for learning.

			Over six months I went from having a fourth grade reading level to that of a senior in high school. My vocabulary mushroomed. I wrote out thousands of flash cards and went over them for hours, days, and weeks. I did the same for mathematical formulas. Part of it was survival instinct. I damn sure wasn’t going to get into college based on academics, and though I was a starter on the varsity basketball team my senior year, no college scouts knew my name. All I knew was that I had to get the fuck out of Brazil, Indiana; that the military was my best chance; and to get there I had to pass the ASVAB. On my third try, I met the minimum standard for the Air Force.

			Living with purpose changed everything for me—at least in the short term. During my senior year in high school, studying and working out gave my mind so much energy that hate flaked from my soul like used-up snake skin. The resentment I held toward the racists in Brazil, the emotion that had dominated me and was burning me up inside, dissipated because I’d finally considered the fucking source.

			I looked at the people who were making me feel uncomfortable and realized how uncomfortable they were in their own skin. To make fun of or try to intimidate someone they didn’t even know based on race alone was a clear indication that something was very wrong with them, not me. But when you