Damn You for Being a Friend

I thought I knew my lifelong buddy. I didn’t.

I recently lost my oldest friend, someone I’d known since we were 10 years old. It’s my first experience with the death of someone who was close but not family. The most painful thing about it isn’t that he died; the end had been in view for a while. Much harder to deal with are the secrets I’ve since learned about him, disturbing things that made me realize I didn’t know my old friend at all.

A darker, meaner, unstable person was hiding behind the goofy jokester I’d hung around with my entire life. Finding this out has left me feeling foolish, like the victim of an investment scam.

ILLUSTRATION BY TANG YAU HOON

Let’s say my friend’s name was Matt, because for reasons that will become apparent I’ve changed some details of our story. Hell, the story isn’t even ours anymore. It’s his, with me scribbled in the margins. I thought we’d shared our lives, but our lives cracked apart when I wasn’t looking.

We both fathered two children, for example, though I never robbed mine. Matt opened credit card accounts in his kids’ names, maxed them out, and ruined their credit when they were still teenagers. Among the many things I didn’t know about Matt—his family has given me permission to disclose everything you will read here—was that he was a reckless spender, always in the hole and always shafting someone.

What kind of guy robs his kids? Not Matt, not the guy I knew! I mean, there was that time at Penn State when I rescued him from flunking out by helping him finish his overdue term project. He gratefully said Hey, I’m taking you out to a big dinner, buddy! Then when the check came, he said Whoops, I forgot my wallet. That was a funny story until it became chronic.

Other seemingly isolated anecdotes have turned into a list of symptoms. There was the time soon after I’d moved to Cincinnati when Matt came to visit, with no notice. Just a knock on the door. “I beg your pardon, can you help me find the Gilbert residence?” He was always opening with a joke. Only now do I know that impromptu travel was his typical way of ducking consequences from somewhere else. We had to kick him out after several days. It’s not clear today whether his sudden Cincinnati trip was triggered by a crisis of debt, romance, or worse. (Warning: The anecdotes ahead get worse.) But I’m sure now it wasn’t just an urge to see his childhood friend.

Our friendship started in Philadelphia. We slightly knew each other in fourth grade until one Saturday at a department store; my mother had taken me there to see a local TV kid-show host showing cartoons. Crowds of unfamiliar kids made me nervous, but then I saw someone I knew: Matt! What a relief!

Big, extroverted Matt impressed me. He was funny, and the other kids at school seemed to like him. Afterwards, our mothers agreed to have us spend more time together. And so we started hanging out at each other’s houses, which continued for more than 50 years.

By middle school I was creating little extravaganzas on my home tape recorder, often featuring Matt. Our co-starring continued as the years passed: the same summer camp, the same after-school clubs, and then Penn State. After I moved to Cincinnati, we stayed in touch and attended each other’s family milestones. We were so much alike, it seemed. I never witnessed Matt’s hair-trigger temper that broke furniture and flesh, his habitual road rage and suspended driver’s licenses that were routinely ignored, his disappearances, his thefts, his crimes.

In 2009, Matt was arrested and pled guilty to downloading and distributing child pornography. Here in Cincinnati the story never reached me. (My other Philly friends, I’ve discovered, felt it wasn’t their place to tell me.) Matt’s lawyer got him off with a hefty fine, a long probation, and a lifetime club membership as a registered sex offender. Contact with minors was forbidden, so Matt suddenly stopped coaching little girls’ softball and soccer teams, something he’d done for years.

My professional career has largely centered on audio, thanks to those childhood hours with the tape recorder. Consequently I’ve been able to do personal favors making audio tributes for events like weddings and birthdays, and some of these were for Matt. There’s one recording I made that shows my perception of Matt versus the reality behind the curtain. It was for his daughter’s wedding; let’s call her Rachel. During the father-daughter dance, heartwarming soundbites of Rachel at 2 years old were peppered throughout Billy Joel’s “Goodnight, My Angel.” A perfect Hallmark moment, right?

Behind the curtain, though, was this: Rachel didn’t know about the recording because Matt hadn’t spoken to her in weeks. Such childish anger was nothing new. This time it was because Rachel had forbidden Matt from inviting a family friend to the wedding—someone who had once groped her as a teenager. Also because she’d confronted Matt about several incest porn links she’d recently seen on the home computer. And that jolt echoed the time she’d stumbled on his videos of parent/child porn.

At this point, even though I’ve changed names and blurred other details, I must hurriedly skate past the particulars about Matt’s sexual abuse of his daughter at a very young age. (I am required to add “alleged.”) It’s bad stuff. Matt’s family has apologized to me for unloading this drip-drip of disturbing history and “ruining” my memories of him, but I don’t need an apology. I’m grateful to them for telling me and for allowing me to tell you.

Matt once gifted me a large coffee mug, featuring the face—not a photo, but the actual shaped head—of Joe Paterno, Penn State’s beloved football coach. He was Matt’s No. 1 hero, a winner with a reputation for building character in his players. Sadly, the mighty legend collapsed later when Paterno was fired in disgrace. Like me, he’d been blind to the misdeeds of a trusted old Penn State buddy. His assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, after years of mentoring child athletes, went to prison for sexually abusing several of them.

People said Paterno should have known, maybe even did know. Matt, though, stood firm behind his hero, saying Paterno had been football-focused and innocent. Should I take that stance as a shadow defense of me?

Until these painful truths began to emerge, people outside of Matt’s inner circle knew nothing about his secrets. My own inner circle, though, as far back as summer camp and college, sensed something was wrong. Some begged off group events if Matt was going to be there; he was just too much. In my two marriages, both spouses lost patience with Matt’s clownish behavior and wondered why the hell I kept our relationship going. Here is my answer: I felt like I owed him. That day in the department store when I was a shy kid, he started loosening me up. He seemed to have all the answers. I was his admiring puppy.

Over time I realized that our roles were slowly reversing, that Matt was becoming the puppy. I learned more normal ways to relate to people and achieve goals, but he didn’t. We both got into college, but I had to save him from flunking out. We both wanted a radio career, but I found a real job while Matt’s big microphone gig was back at the department store, making promotional announcements over the Muzak. He did get corporate sales jobs later on, plus the requisite marriage, parenthood, and mortgage.

The mortgage, by the way, was foreclosed last year. Matt hid it from his wife until the last minute. She left him last summer. In Matt’s final months he never told me any of this, nor did he say a word about his sinking medical condition. Drip-drip.

Our bond now feels tragically superficial, a fake closeness that in truth was more distant than our cities. Our comfort level was set at avoiding the uncomfortable. Still, we must have had something. We laughed a hell of a lot. We sang harmony at talent shows. Traded reckless joyrides with our new driver’s licenses. From high school through middle age, we mailed the same stupid birthday card back and forth.

It was Matt who agreed to wait in line for hours at the record store until they opened the first box of Sgt. Pepper’s LPs. Matt who once dropped everything during his big family weekend to help me with my own family emergency. In Matt’s neighborhood, there are women today who say he helped them gain confidence as young girls when he coached them in sports. What is the tipping point where someone’s admirable deeds collapse beneath the unforgiveable ones?

Matt’s lifelong jesting and increasingly sad need for laughs illustrate the observation that “comedy is how you cry.” Clearly, he was already crying when we met at age 10. It’s a safe bet that his abusive behavior did not begin with him. These things usually have histories, sometimes generations long. I’ll never know what horrors may have visited Matt as a child or why he seemed unable to escape them, but here is one more addition to the list of things we had in common: the carrying of dark family secrets. My mother’s childhood included abuse by a relative, and she married someone— my father—who later molested my sister. Matt and I were too young to understand our surroundings or to know how to share tears, so we shared laughs.

There are people in families where abuse didn’t begin with them who nevertheless make sure it ends with them. I wish Matt had done that. I wish at some point he would have grown tired of his demons and reached out to a person he could trust with the truth. Someone who’d known him a long time and could read him well enough to see he needed help. I wish a true friend had been there for him.

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