SPYCAR BOOKS

one thriller wouldn't kill you

The Tao of Spy – Going “Underground” to Survive Sexual Violence at UVA and Dartmouth

Requested by North American Review

for posting on their blog on November 10, 2014.

 

 

Danger. Intrigue. Escape.

Individualism. Suburbanization. An Interstate highway system. And the American zeal to zoom.

Spycar, with concept drawing of rooftop device that will allow readers to, literally, "throw the book at 'em."

Spycar, with concept drawing of rooftop device that will allow readers to, literally, “throw the book at ’em.”

From Steve McQueen’s ’68 390 Mustang Fastback in the police thriller Bullitt, to the Aston Martin DB5 driven by Sean Connery in Goldfinger, to Peter Faulk’s rumpled ’59 Peugeot 403 convertible in the TV series Colombo – its no secret that its the car that taps out cultural code to telegraph an undercover agent’s image. To encounter an operative behind the wheel, some secreted cul-de-sac within the imaginative psyche secretes the desire to drive – and suddenly readers or viewers believe it is we who are behind the wheel eluding peril and saving the day.

Of course my building the Spycar came months before I would scrutinize why that vehicle proved the secret weapon in promoting my debut novel – a psychological thriller entitled Special Operations – and The Seethrough Spybook Series, of which S.O. is first installment.

My initial decision to build the Spycar was an act of utter frustration with the broken world of publishing, ubiquitous advice to self-publish and self promote, atop heaping discussions of “breaking the mold.” I thought: maybe stuff it into the furnace, then hammer it white-hot on an anvil stamped ACME — till I wind up with something I could use.

Equipped with a stealthy set of driving lights fashioned from cocktail shakers, and a theatrical smoke screen device in the trunk, the Spycar awakens the twelve-year-old in all who see it. It captures and codifies the essence of my debut novel’s entertainment value — not unlike ways in which the more recognizable spyrides shoot us clues about the sleuths who drive them.

From the results of my 7800 mile book tour this past summer, it seems I chose the right vehicle: a 1972 Volvo 1800e, a first departure from Volvo’s reputedly stodgy and square-ish looks — Italian by exterior design but powered by an engine of modest roots and outlandish last ability which had previously been driving force of Volvo’s farm tractors. A delightful balance of style and stubborn: what better vehicle in which to tour the United States sowing Special Operations?

The American road trip seems somewhat of a covert operation. While the rest of the herd’s heading for after-school soccer practice, we’re hiding in plain sight and on the road to Shambala. Striped with an X of yellow crime scene tape, the all-black Spycar kicks up book sales; this past summer, day after day, mile after mile, independent bookstore after independent bookstore – from Seattle to Boston, to Washington D.C. — and then back to Seattle: people’s eyes lit up and copy after copy of Special Operations got sold – the title page of which I habitually inscribe, “Enjoy the ride!”

Having hit its stride the Spycar equally delivers on riskier business. Beyond its miles of entertainment as psychological thriller, I wrote Special Operations in the vein of Upton Sinclair, the muckraker who spent six months working under cover amidst dirty secrets of Chicago’s meatpacking plants. His consequent novel, The Jungle, brought about the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Meat Inspection Act, and won Sinclair the Pulitzer Prize.

As product of more than twenty years’ work, published last January by Spycar Books, my thriller Special Operations explores cover-ups and cold cases – derived from my experience in legally confronting the ring of predators that sexually abused me as a teen, along with several other boys.

I continue to get my hands dirty at work on my sequel, Blood Rain, set in Rome, and in adding to the Spycar’s list of sly accessories. This month I began equipping that vehicle with a powered chute that is thematically connected to my psychological thriller, and will allow readers to, quite literally, “throw the book at ‘em.”

It’s poetic justice; I wrote Special Operations for the single reason of helping survivors come to terms with on-campus sexual violence.

At first it was impossible to write coherently about trauma. If I tried to write memoir, it was too painful. When I tried to write straight fiction, memories of got in the way.

I vowed to learn to master this and I did — through repetitive practice, and only after I had sought help, got sober, and built a solid support network.

How did I crack it?

Unable to control imagery or topic – I remembered a carpenter I had worked with who practiced Zen Buddhism. He once explained to me his Zen approach to physiological health; to offer zero resistance against a cold or flu – allowing the illness to simply pass through him.

So in my writing I began to imagine any memories that hit me as a set of spears that were finite in number, and that passed through my body. Painful wounds they made would heal upon my acknowledgement of their passage. I decided each instance would hurt a little less and heal a bit quicker. It amounted to acceptance with a destination: this is what’s present now — so I’ll write through it.

Gradually, I began writing short stories that were increasingly well rounded, even if at first these gravitated toward either exposing the systematic means by which I had been violated as a boy, or the psychic damage I was then coming to appreciate.

To look squarely at this trauma was crime scene analysis. Subtle clues in the form of language revealed I had been describing it as “what I did,” instead of “what was done to me,” or maybe describing a person as “my perpetrator,” as opposed to “the adult criminal who violently assaulted me as a faultless child.” To trace the chronology starkly revealed a series of actions that clearly indicated premeditation. Through this detective work my self-blame turned to understanding: a set of predators had systematically turned circumstances of my upbringing against me.

The leader of that youth group and many of his so-called “assistants” knew that my parents had recently separated after thirty-five years’ marriage; that my father was withholding child support so food stamps allowed us to eat; and that I was starved for affirmation.

I am the seventh son and ninth child of Depression-era parents. Discipline was not something one strived for in my family. It was strictly maintained. My mother had been raised by a Catholic convent in Fall River and afterward worked in a textile mill, before bearing nine kids and raising them. My father was the elder son of a single mother of five; he ran a trap line each morning before dawn, and then did his paper route throughout the town of Millbury, MA where he later came to supervise the tempering department of a wire mill after a two-year stint in training troops on a carrier during World War II. As youngest of nine my first job at age ten was pulling weeds at a nearby vegetable farm, where at age eleven I learned to drive a tractor.

School was hard for me because I easily became bored. Therefore teachers frequently assigned work well above my grade level, or allowed me special reading privileges because I so rapidly completed my assignments.

Prior to being exploited sexually at thirteen I steadily held an A average. After it began, almost as if a line had been drawn, I struggled with addictions and truancy that accumulated annually to the double digits, and I almost did not graduate high school. Every moment in class was to withstand the overwhelming irrational fantasy that the teacher would suddenly stand up, point at me, and shout out to expose to the rest of the class the horrid source of images and memories that constantly presented to me while I did everything I could not to bolt from my desk.

Unable to keep my mind on whatever was really going on in class, my face would constantly flush, my scalp and neck in a prickly sweat.

Thankfully one day in class I had been paying attention when a history teacher told a story about Upton Sinclair, the muckraker gone spy who in his novel The Jungle had exposed the worst of the wurst – and then some. Strangely this idea of the writer undercover became a point of hope for me despite my lacking at that time a stronger perspective on the trauma I’d been going through.

In my junior and senior year, I discovered a healthy refuge in music. I was a strong baritone with a broad range, and discovered great comfort those years singing concerts, and giving paid solo performances at churches in the Worcester area, where one college offered me a full scholarship to study voice. However the July before school started, I called that college to decline — because I was secretly afraid that eventually, at college, I would be “found out” for the horrid secret I’d kept so long – and once that happened, I’d be ridiculed and punished. Then I fled for Martha’s Vineyard, where I lived in a tent the remainder of that summer in the Oak Bluffs State Forest and worked as an apprentice carpenter.

I had not yet discovered there would be no outrunning it.

My first experience of on-campus sexual trauma began on Labor Day weekend 1972 during a camping trip to Mt. Katahdin, in Baxter State Park, Maine with a church-sponsored youth group. When we reached the town of Millinocket, a heart surgeon from New Hampshire met us as if on schedule – a man who told me he was faculty at Dartmouth College Medical School, administrator of the teaching clinic there, and grandson of the Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. The leader of this youth group knew men of all sorts who came and went, as his “assistants.”

The whole introduction, as I now look back on it, seemed prearranged to get me on the hook. A total of eight of us stayed in a cabin at Chimney Pond Campground, which sits upon a flat clearing that’s a three-mile uphill hike from the parking area. The leader of the group, that first evening, instructed us to pair into bunk mates, which was customary when camping in tents. But that weekend we were staying in a cabin. That doctor honed in on me – asking me questions, praising my answers, paying me closer attention than any adult I’d ever encountered. The next day he invited me to climb Mt. Katahdin, just the two of us, along the Saddle Trail. I felt as if I’d been discovered.

Labor Day 1972. Left to right: Me, Stephen Lukas, Michael Lukas in the cabin at Chimney Pond Campground, Mt. Katahdin, Baxter state Park Maine the night I met the doctor.

Labor Day 1972.
Left to right: my brothers Mike Lukas, Stephen Lukas, me — in the cabin at Chimney Pond Campground, Mt. Katahdin, Baxter state Park Maine the night I met the doctor.

That was the weekend I learned the word “philanthropist,” in reference to this generous and approachable Ivy League doctor who, on Monday of that Labor Day Weekend picked up the check at the Log Cabin Restaurant where we all had dinner before going our separate ways – the bulk of us to Worcester, the doctor to Hanover.

He had promised to call my mother, to arrange to fly his private plane to Worcester next month to pick me up. On the Friday of Columbus Day weekend he did. This established monthly visits to his home at Dartmouth College. During those visits he provided drugs, alcohol, and pornography, and he told me I should consider myself one of his sons — and that he would one day send me to Dartmouth.

I recall one night on the weekend of my fourteenth birthday. After a night of alcohol and drug abuse at that doctor’s house, followed by one of the first instances of full-on genital abuse — I got lost in the dark within the hallways of his seven bedroom home — after he had dismissed me to return to the guest room.

Frequently he arranged for mountain cabins owned by the Dartmouth Outing Club, or on the Dartmouth Grant, a huge piece of wilderness land owned by the college far north on the Canadian border. His abuse of me and other boys progressed through a series of gradual steps. Thereafter it became nightly during visits to New Hampshire, and during his visits to my mother’s house in Auburn, Massachusetts, lasting on and off until I was seventeen.

 

After running away to Martha’s Vineyard at age nineteen I worked through an apprenticeship to become a master carpenter and licensed building contractor. Throughout my twenties I also wrote part time for newspapers. To sharpen my skills as a writer over the following several years I attended a total of five different community colleges. During my early thirties I completed Creative Writing workshops at The College of William & Mary, and the Iowa Writers Workshop. To learn the form of the short story, I read and re-read every literary magazine I could get into my mitts.

One day I stumbled upon that fateful article in The New Yorker. It pictured a jailed priest, a man I had encountered who was the close friend of the youth group leader who had paired me with the predatory heart surgeon nineteen years before. This priest had also served as chaplain at our summer scout camp.

I was thirty-one years old, weary beyond my years from feelings of worthlessness, self-recrimination, and substance abuse that had accompanied any accomplishments I’d been able to muster. That year I discovered two things that I believe saved my life. One was a book named Victims No Longer, by Mike Lew, which is a survival guide for men. The other was a talk given at Mary Washington College by the Boston University psychologist David Lisak – from which I learned male survivors of sexual abuse who explore creative endeavors also strengthen their odds for recovery. Through these I would come to terms with a cause of suffering so powerful that many don’t survive it.

My older brother Patrolman Stephen Lukas of Auburn, Massachusetts did not. He had been on that trip to Mt. Katahdin, and had been a victim of the same men as me. We discussed this once, during our early twenties. After graduating collage, Stephen became a police officer. I had gotten sober and was doing therapy, although I had not yet made any connection that sexual trauma had been the cause of many of my problems. In retrospect, I could see Stephen’s response was toward a sort of rigid invincibility the job calls for. Everything came apart for Steve the night he responded to his very first rape call. It was the final weeks of his “Rookie” year.

Several hours after attending that brutal call and reeling from its psychological consequence, Steve received another radio call – an early morning car crash involving a vehicle that matched description of the rapist’s. Post-crash investigation reports after the fatality indicate that Stephen was going way faster than protocol for such a routine call — doing ninety miles per hour when he hit the patch of black ice. His speed increased as his squad car spun across the ice-covered roadway — result of a water main break that sub-zero New Years morning of 1986.

Something about that never seemed quite right. And over the years I thought back on it, the way Stephen had come apart after that rape call, had talked about packing it in for the night, except for fears he’d be regarded a Rookie-year washout.

I had begun to consider taking legal action well before reading that piece in the New Yorker, whereupon I decided to get serious. Statutes of limitations were in my favor – but I would have to act immediately. I got on the phone to New Hampshire. A local detective told me he had been watching that doctor parade his young boy victims around Dartmouth College thirty years, praying for the day one of those victims would come forward.

After writing out the facts, my legal confrontation of the ring of sexual predators who had harmed me throughout my teens yielded tuition, a signed apology from the surgeon, and a written agreement from all parties allowing me to write and publish an account. At age thirty-three I therefore left my lucrative career renovating marinas on the Chesapeake Bay in order to earn a bachelors degree in English literature at the University of Virginia.

Tragically in my second semester at UVA I once again endured sexual violence, when an English Lit. graduate student and her husband came to me imperiled, explaining a professor in the Department of English had attempted to rape her. In addition to feelings of utter despair for this woman, I experienced a horrible feeling I had made a poor choice. Prior to settling my own case, my attorneys had explained that if I chose to go to court I would very likely land a multi million-dollar settlement, but that the turmoil of litigation would render me unable to function as a student. So I had chosen to settle, study, and then author a book that would help other survivors. A major assumption of this decision was that UVA would be a clean slate, a new start, and a safe place. By all descriptions I had chosen to take the “high road.”

The more I learned about the startling reality about UVA, the deeper its impact upon my health. The professor was not removed – apparently because of tenure, which would impact the messy costs of removing him as the matter of dollars as well as the school’s reputation – and then I was told he had raped another graduate student some years before, who was so damaged by the trauma that she could no longer function and still disabled. The situation caused me a crisis in the belief I had placed in UVA, and therefore indescribable mental anguish. This crisis, in turn, caused a collapse in the sense of accomplishment implicit in my having navigated my legal travails, and how my decision to proceed on to UVA had shaped those decisions in ways very material. I became clinically depressed, had to take time away from school, and entered intensive therapy.

The impact of those events at UVA were very serious, and have been lifelong. While a student it got out to faculty, somehow, that I had learned of the predative professor and the strenuous attempts to keep this hush within the Department of English. For my two remaining years of study I would receive ominous warnings any time I wrote a short story having anything to do with sexual violence.

What was my crime? My short story, A Place Where Nobody Lived, dramatized a middle school student who takes an after-school job at the home of a man whose intentions, the reader can see beneath the dialog, are clearly sinister. Another of my stories from those UVA workshops, I Am Haunted by Waters, deals with a man in his thirties moving forward – making a go of family life and fatherhood despite a history of having been assaulted, and through magical realism shows ways in which PTSD impacts his ability to reap the joys, given intrusive thoughts and a set of psychic ghosts that will not let him go. Another of my stories, a Halloween tale titled subText, dramatized a student of archeology, who one moonlit night while strolling across the college quadrangle stumbles upon a human vertebrae. Beneath the full moon he spies another fragment, and begins what becomes an archeological dig using nothing but his own hands. By daylight what stands unearthed is the skeletal remains of a wild stallion, buried fully upright – upon its deteriorated saddle a rack of human bones belonging to the very Headless Horseman.

Years after graduating, while writing Special Operations, my having shared it with people at UVA at times brought more of the same menace and muscling. I’ve wondered: didn’t these people get it this as not about them?

I call it the season of consequence, that period between September 11th and New Years Day after the World Trade Center bombings. While living in New York City and working as a technical writer, I would encounter a dress blues police or firefighter funeral at least once every day – like the one in which I had participated after my brother Stephen was killed in the line of duty. It was a tough place to live those months. Much tougher for those who lost loved ones.

New Yorkers were understandably outraged, and the world “revenge” was on so many lips. So was the term PTSD, but as an emblem of courageous acts. These were people who had lived through violent intrusion. Because I had too, yet in a very different context, I discovered within myself a deepening well of empathy, and a desire to make a difference.

Two months prior between 8:00 and 9:00 each morning, I would pass through the WTC subway station to go to my office at the Wall Street Journal, housed at the World Financial Center just across from the towers — where I worked in electronic publishing. After the towers came down, my office window at WSJ was scorched and blown out. Something told me if I was going to write my book, I’d better get to it.

During the months after September 11 — that season of consequence – I wrote the first hundred pages of my debut novel. That scenario came straight from the streets and stories about recompense I was hearing on the news. I would take what we all agree is one of the worst crimes, and pair it with a punishment tailored very precisely to fit it – then let the story run its course.

 

That my writings have been misapprehended by some of the academic community –while I was a student, and long afterward — has only intensified my commitment to write such a book that might cause university administrators to make better decisions, and help children and students avoid unnecessary pain. While maybe different, it’s a set of priorities that deserves basic respect – particularly because to write about this subject had been my goal in studying at UVA.

Why would my helping others avoid such suffering be a thing to discourage?

The fact that I was “embedded” both before and during my years at UVA was never something I asked for, nor deserved, and this trauma has nearly cost me my life – in addition to consuming a great deal of it.

 

Seventeen years after graduating, debut novel in hand, my voice has become solid and steady — and I hear it echo — in the current-day news stories that report the U.S. Department of Education’s unprecedented investigation of several top universities’ mishandling of on-campus sexual violence. As a survivor of on-campus sexual violence I applaud this.

Pioneers in the field such as Mike Lew, who wrote Victims no Longer, and Leaping Upon the Mountains; Men Proclaiming Victory over Sexual Child Abuse, and Dr. Howard Fradkin, author of Joining Forces; Empowering Male Survivors to Thrive, have greeted my debut thriller with phrases like: “well-researched, erudite,” and “important.”

My editor Laura Davis, who co-authored the best selling The Courage to Heal, and authored The Courage to Heal Workbook, commented in praise of my villain The Illuminator in Special Operations, by writing: “You’ve created a villain as compelling as Hanibal Lechter, the greatest modern villain I love to hate.”

These observations touch on two fascinations that sustained my writing of Special Operations: First, a set of cultural conditions in which the discussion of male childhood sexual abuse is avoided at all costs – and in which colleges and universities historically placed – at least in my experience – an institution’s name or the costs of cleaning house ahead of protecting those it serves. My second fascination has been with the kind of person that feeds freely as a result of these cultural “conditions.” A most illuminating read on this was The Mask of Sanity, by Hervey M. Cleckley, about the sociopathic mind, so adept at appearing perfect, up to whom so many within the community will shine.

This fascination translates directly into my “villain,” The Illuminator. I figured: why not build a sociopath so astute she goes after sociopaths of a lesser ilk?

These are curiosities I came by through honest means – leaving me with a mild distrust of so-called polish over principles, at the cost of people.

 

I guess this is why I don’t overly involve myself in making a pristine show vehicle of the Spycar. It’s also why I believe the “B” movie quality of Special Operations is what makes it truly lovable. Road scarred yet ready, with a next book to write, and a book thrower to build for the Spycar – somehow, still, I’m on the road to Shambala. So I may as well to enjoy the ride.

Spycar, homeward bound. August 2014 © 2014 Tom Lukas / Spycar B

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2 Comments»

  Nancy Iaconi wrote @

Wow! I am left speechless!

[…] extended version of the blog and more information on the Spycar, click here to visit Tom Lukas’s […]


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