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Originally published Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

'Paranoia & Heartbreak': unlikely miracles and brute survival in a juvenile prison

Seattle author Jerome Gold's "Paranoia & Heartbreak" is his record of 15 years working as a rehabilitation counselor in a Washington state prison for juveniles. Gold discusses his book Wednesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jerome Gold

The author of "Paranoia & Heartbreak" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

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"Paranoia & Heartbreak: Fifteen Years in a Juvenile Facility "

by Jerome Gold

Seven Stories Press, 344 pp., $19.95

Jerome Gold has been in danger most of his adult life, in ways both visible and hidden.

As a soldier in Vietnam and later a rehabilitation counselor in a Washington state juvenile-detention facility, his survival hung on luck and intelligent caution, some days in equal measure. As a writer, he seems to live with the same ratio of risk and careful craft.

Reading "Paranoia & Heartbreak," a journal of Gold's years in what amounts to a prison for kids is like waking up in one of those Hieronymus Bosch paintings full of punishment and predatory reveling. First the horror overwhelms; over time it comes into focus as familiar surroundings. Evil becomes almost normal.

Gold chose to deliver his edited journal with little added affect and that flatness takes some getting used to:

"Wednesday, December 4: Terry told me, that, to him, the animals he tortured were the people who had abused him. The animals did not represent these people but were his tormentors. He would see the faces of the cousins who had raped him on the faces of the animals and he would say to them 'How do you like it?' "

The Seattle-based author's capacity for absorbing horror is considerable; his years in the U.S. Army Special Forces during the Vietnam War must have ensured that. But it is a mistake to take his unvarnished chronicle about these juvenile delinquents as another set of war stories, even when he confesses that he often thinks of the boys as his little soldiers. Within a few dozen pages, it becomes clear that this is a story of miracles.

It is a miracle — an awful, shocking miracle — that so many kids survive treatment worse than most prisoners of war receive; and that this treatment is so often meted out by their parents and peers. From the outside, it's nearly impossible to fathom how a culture of child abuse flourishes as it does.

Gold (who has a doctorate in anthropology and is publisher of Black Heron Press) doesn't theorize much about why things went so horribly wrong for these kids. He paints the picture and dares us to examine it closely. When he does step out of the story to address us, he doesn't stray far from the unadorned style of the journal entries:

"Social commentators wonder where the little gangsters get guns. They steal them ... If this were another country, or if we lived in another time, we might worry about the poor stealing guns from the rich and killing them, or the police who protect them, with those guns. But this is the United States. Here the poor kill each other."

I quickly discovered I needed to read "Paranoia & Heartbreak" during the day, not right before I went to sleep unless I wanted to lie awake with my brain thumping like one of those loud-bass cars that cruise through our neighborhood. I ask myself, as I always do, "Would I read this if it wasn't a review book? Why?" The answer was more complicated than usual:

Yes, because it's real. Yes, because this is the world and the time in which we live. Yes, because Jerome Gold survived living it and the telling of it, so people like me can see the miraculous, awful truth and, maybe, step up and question why it has to be.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a Portland writer.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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