Fiction is the lie I use to tell the truth. That’s been my mantra for years. I may have cadged it from Picasso, but he’s dead and not using it so I’m keeping it. Everything I write starts from my life, people I’ve known, people I’ve been. Somewhere in the writing the characters and story gain a life of their own. Looking back I can see three distinct muses that drove the creation of TRICKY.
FIRST: My son Dylan is intellectually disabled. As a kid, he was great, easy to parent. Like his mother he was a natural born rule follower. At 26 he developed schizoaffective disorder and for a time our world exploded. Rages came on with no apparent trigger. He was living in an apartment over our garage, we built it to afford him some privacy. For a while it worked. Until the day he tore it apart, flipped what furniture he couldn’t break. Tore drawers from his dresser and piled his clothing on the floor. Ripped up beloved He-Man comic books. In the following months he became more and more paranoid. My wife and I became the enemy. As his delusions worsened, we thought we could handle it. We were wrong. He was completely out of control. Fearing he might hurt himself or us, we knew we needed to get him to the hospital. But how? He was starting to act out violently. There was no way to get him into our car. In the face of all that, we made the worst decision of our lives. We called 911. They sent a LAPD cruiser.
I remember being ordered to stand back and let them handle it. An officer — hand on pistol butt — was yelling up to the porch of our Eagle Rock craftsman home. He was demanding my son comply with his orders. Dylan, dressed in ninja turtle pajamas looked so young, was so lost. His eyes were unfocused. His madness was amped up by the officer’s angry tone. Pointing at his badge the officer yelled, “Do you know what this means?”
“No, he doesn’t.” My wife said, but it went unheard. I believe my son would have been shot if the SMART team psychologist hadn’t arrived at that moment. SMART – Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team. They partner a police officer with a county psychologist. I’m not sure how but they dialed all the agro from the scene. With just gentle words they took it from a stand off to sitting on our sofa chatting with Dylan. They talked to him respectfully about needing to go to the hospital, asking if he would feel better if he got dressed first. Even when they cuffed him, they explained every move, got him to understand and accept it. That night after Dylan was safely under his psychiatrist’s care, the SMART team psychologist called us just to check in, he wanted to know how Dylan was and how we were handling it. Compassion.
Years later when I decided to write TRICKY, I interviewed a command level member of SMART, who explained that LAPD tested prospective employees, filtering them into specialties. If you’re a marksman you go to SWAT, candidates with an abundance of empathy go to SMART. The problem is, as parents we couldn’t call in the SMART team. The decision to bring them in is made by the patrol officers first on the scene, regardless of their empathy levels. When I laid out what had happened with the officer that could have shot my son, I was told, “Yeah, we get a few knuckle-heads sometimes.”
SECOND: My grandmother told me a story long long ago. She was a licensed clinical social worker, looking after a woman who’s son was a terror. Not in the cute Home Alone kinda way. He was a thug who terrorized the residents of her apartment complex. My grandmother never would say this, but this guy sounded irredeemable.
And then he shot himself in the head.
He survived, but was forever intellectually disabled. The thing was, he lost some intellectual abilities, but he also lost the cruel side of his personality. When he regained his strength, he took care of his mother and helped the other elderly people in the complex. He fell in love with a woman with Down syndrome. They married and rented an apartment next door to his mother. He was a model citizen, a man anyone would be proud to call son.
This story stuck with me, filed in my brain under – who are we? Are we the sum of our experiences? Are we genetically predetermined reactions to chemicals firing in the dark? Are we capable of change or redemption?
THIRD: My grandfather was a cop. Spent his adult life working in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He was the best man I ever knew. He was a marksman who was proud to have never pulled or fired his gun out side of the shooting range. He rose from walking a beat to chief of corrections. He went behind command’s back and brought in psychology and sociology professors from USC to help find ways to improve LA’s jails. He told me that he believed 95% of the inmates were followers, it was up to the system to guide them in heathy directions.
I have read so many great books about bad cops. I was raised by counter culture radicals and have seen the pain bad policing brings on. And I knew my grandfather. I wanted to write a book about a flawed but decent cop, and set it in LA, full of the dreadful and the beautiful. The compassionate and the cruel. The petty and the magnificent. The lovingly painful tapestry that is the city of my birth.