August 31, 2010
Secrets of the murderous human heart
David Scott Milton, 50-some years old, Jewish, is alone in a locked room with a young Nazi. They’re in the library of the Maximum Security Yard of the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi. It’s night, and the prison is in lock-down. David and the Nazi had a standoff a few days earlier — the Nazi doesn’t like Jews and David doesn’t like people who push Jews around — but that time, they were surrounded by prisoners and guards, and so the Nazi had backed down. When the lock-down began, he knew David would be sent alone to the library. Somehow, he evaded the guards, got there before David, and waited. He knows it’ll be some time before anyone realizes he’s missing, and some more time before he’s found.
The Nazi is telling David he’s in the hole because he likes to burglarize homes when the owners are in, having dinner or watching television or doing whatever peaceful activity families do together. He likes roaming the house while they’re awake, coming up close behind them, standing over them while they sleep. And if they turn around, or wake up, and see him? He kills them.
“You’re an animal!” David screams at him, but the Nazi just stares at him. He has “graveyard eyes”— eyes that never move, that reflect no soul. Slowly, he opens the front of his shirt, shows David the swastika tattooed across his chest.
It’s raining hard outside. A prison guard has lost it and is threatening to open fire on the yard from the observation tower. The Nazi’s doing life without parole. He’s got a score to settle and nothing to lose by settling it.
I first met David Scott Milton over 20 years ago, when I was a student in his playwriting class at USC and he was writing screenplays for big Hollywood movies. By then, he had published many books; his plays had been staged all over the world; he’d won all kinds of awards. But you wouldn’t know any of that unless you looked up his bio. In person, he was unusually humble. He had a deep voice and an exceptionally generous spirit, found the best in his students and in their work. He taught the way he wrote — with fervor, insight and humor. He was more interested in understanding the human heart than in cashing in on it, and that’s why he ended up in Tehachapi one day in 1991, just drove up to the prison gates and told the guard he was a writer and wanted to teach at the prison.
“Teach what?” the guard asked.
“Why?” the guard asked, frowning. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money.”
The warden told David he wouldn’t last more than a week, that he would be teaching murderers exclusively, that he would be alone with them in a room that locked from the outside. There would be no guards, just a pager David could activate in case he was attacked. He was well-advised, however, to avoid being attacked, because the men were fast, and the guards couldn’t respond to the page right away.
There were 12 students in the first class. One was a Mexican Mafia leader who was doing 1,300 years, plus three life sentences. Another was a Mensa member who had killed his stepfather. A third had been functionally illiterate till he was 42 and came to prison; he wrote with the help of a dictionary, took a week to complete a page. They wrote about their lives, their crimes, their victims. Their stories haunted David from week to week, polluted his life, poisoned his sleep. He had gone in to explore the question of guilt, the nature of sin, and the more he learned about these men, the bigger the mystery became.
“These murderers are becoming your life,” one of his students at USC warned. “Stop teaching those criminals and go home to your children.”
The student, Aziz, was the son of a Moslem Palestinian father and a Jewish Israeli mother, with an American wife he loved, two small children he adored and a very promising career he had begun under David’s tutelage.
He kept telling David, who also had two kids, about the importance of telling one’s children how loved they are. “Tuck them into bed at night,” he said, “and tell them you love them.”
A year went by, and then another, and still, David went back to the prison. He had started to believe that there were different degrees of guilt involved in the commission of the same crime, that sin is relative, that most criminals are born innocent. He had taught everyone from Lyle Menendez to Geronimo Pratt to Ken Hartman, young men from privileged backgrounds who had killed for the thrill of it, prison gang leaders, and he had never seen an instance of pure evil until he met the Nazi who cornered him in the library.
“You’re an animal,” he screams at the man the night of the lock-down, then showers him with insults. He knows these may be the last words he utters, but he can’t help himself, he wants to kill this man, put out the dull, dirty light behind the graveyard eyes. He’s a peaceful person, but he’s never been able to back down from a fight when Jews or Jewishness were involved. He grew up in Pittsburgh, on Squirrel Hill, surrounded by anti-Semitism. He went to a Conservative synagogue, had many a fight with kids from the neighboring areas. His father, once a prize fighter, had a heart attack when he was about the age David is now: Someone — a much younger, stronger man — had called him a dirty Jew, and David’s father had thrown the first punch.
For most people, David has learned by teaching at the prison, the line between guilt and innocence can shift in a fraction of a second.
“Those murderers are your life,” Aziz warned. He and his wife had just bought a house together. He was working on a film with David, and he kept talking about his children. Once, he gave David a book his wife had given him; it was subtitled “Over 300 ways to say I love you.”
“I’m at No. 270,” he said. “Some of the advice is very helpful.”
At Tehachapi, a guard notices that the Nazi’s missing, figures he’s gone to find David and gets to the library in time. A few days later, David gets a call from someone at USC: Has he heard about Aziz? the person asks. He killed his wife and kids. Shot them execution-style, then drove out to the woods and used the gun on himself.
A nice Jewish man, a father and family man, a talented writer who disliked violence and warned David to stay away from murderers. One day, he’s sitting at a conference table in a classroom at USC; the next, he could be writing from inside Tehachapi.
In all, David would teach the murderers for 13 years, at four different maximum-security prisons in California. Afterward, he would write a one-man play about those years and those men, about Aziz, and about the night when David wanted to kill the Nazi or be killed himself.
“Murderers Are My Life” is a breathtaking study of the nature of guilt and evil. Just about everything in the play is true. David wrote it with the intention of showing it in schools and prisons, religious institutions and civic centers, anyplace where the study of the human heart may help make a difference. He has a taped performance that runs for about an hour, and afterward he speaks to the audience. It’s a transformative experience, at once witty and devastating, and it stays under your skin long after the evening is over. He still teaches screenwriting at USC’s film school, but with “Murderers Are My Life,” he’s teaching the world about the tangled pathways of the human heart.
David Scott Milton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.