After his honorable discharge in 1970, he returned to Washington to finish law school at American University. He began to champion prison reform — and his marriage began coming apart. Julie became the first casualty in a succession of failed relationships that could not withstand the passions that drove Brian. The women that have shared Brian’s life have, sooner or later, had to face the fact that what keeps him vital is not his commitment to one person, but to things bigger. The women in his life must compete with his causes — or join them.
I met Brian in 1976. Two years before, he had convinced the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in Boston to fund a new organization, the National Moratorium on Prison Construction (NMPC), to lobby and protest against the building of new jails. Brian had studied the history of the prison system. He realized that since the first penitentiary was built in Pennsylvania in 1779, one thing has remained constant: prison populations always grow.
Brian’s was a simple strategy. If you could foreclose the possibility of expansion, if you could keep the country from using prisons as a national carpet under which to sweep the human detritus, then perhaps you could force society to deal with the underlying conditions that produce social decay.
In 1977, I was hired to help run the NMPC Washington office. Brian and I were drawn to each other immediately, in some ways, we’re an unlikely pair. He loves baseball. I love Bach. He is deeply spiritual (though his definition of God has grown to encompass the “life force,” the “Great Spirit,” as he calls it). I am an atheist.
We also have much in common. I’ve always thought of myself as the world’s most disorganized person, so it is a pleasure to work with a man whose soft leather briefcase, the size of a saddlebag, is always stuffed to overflowing with position papers, letters, books and notes to himself. A streak of juvenile rebellion makes me resist wearing a necktie, even when testifying at congressional hearings. Brian wore a necktie at such times: wide, orange flowered thing that he kept wadded up in his overstuffed briefcase. Neither of us has much use for new clothes, or cares much about making money. And both of us have a gluttonous streak — and a special weakness for ice cream.
We both like to talk and we both like to write. Brian writes like he talks, unpolished and unedited, filling the margins and writing to the very bottom of the page. One of the first things I was asked to try my hand at — after many others had tried and failed — was to make publishable something he had written called “Designs for a Caged Society,” a thick manuscript warning that we were fast approaching the age of the American Gulag. Unfortunately, it would have no readers; it was too wordy, too ponderous, too disorganized. Typically, having written it, Brian had no desire to add polish, to package the message in a readable form. I tried and failed. It remains, unpublished, at the bottom of a drawer.
Our friendship deepened in conversations that lasted well into the night. “What do you want to accomplish in this job?” Brian would ask, playing Socrates. “Halting prison construction,” I’d answer. “That’s not enough,” he’d reply, by way of a morality lesson. “You’re too single-minded. We have to make this country respect people. We have to push the life force.”
He was growing away from his focus on criminal justice. Or, perhaps “growing away” is the wrong way to express it. it was still included within his lens, but he was widening the aperture, taking in a bigger picture. He was reading widely: Gandhi, Martin Luther Kin, Jr. and the prolific anti-war writer and activist A.J. Muste. What he thought he had put out of his mind began to intrude on his thinking I began hearing Vietnam stories.
Several years later, I visited Brian in Greenfield, Massachusetts, on the dairy farm that had become his latest home and enterprise. As usual, we talked well into the night. Suddenly, he got up. “I was looking through some old papers, and I found this photograph,” he said, handing me a black and white print. There he was, before he got fat. He was clean-shaven and his hair had not yet begun to recede or gray. He was sitting on some boxes, his elbow on his thigh, his head resting at an angle against the back of his right hand. His eyes were focused on something just outside the range of the photo. He had a puzzled look on his face, as if he were trying t6o understand something, something beyond his ken, though it lay right before his eyes.
“They were unloading the body bags,” he said. “They would bring them in on a truck and unload them for the count. I couldn’t see the corpses inside. Just the bags. Piles of them.” I did not know what to say.
By 1985, Brian was directing the Vietnam Veterans outreach Center in Greenfield. He would be called in the middle of the night by a distraught wife to come over and talk her veteran husband out of killing himself in the basement where he was barricaded with a shotgun. Brian would go and spend hours. Sometimes he would say nothing, just hold the man in his arms. Sometimes he would talk and talk. He had no scripted method, no approved procedure. The governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, awarded him an official commendation for his work.
In January of 1986, after Brian had resigned from the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center, he traveled to Nicaragua. He was no longer able to accept the U.S. government’s version of the Contra war. He sensed another Vietnam. He decided to go and see for himself.
For two months, he lived with a host family Esteli, a beautiful town in the hills that lie between Managua to the south and Honduras to the north. He studied Spanish, without much success. His Nicaraguan “mother,” Alejandra, had fought against the Somoza dictatorship. During the revolution, her house was used as a safe house for the Sandinista soldiers and is now used to conduct literacy classes. She raised eleven children. Her eldest son was killed shortly before Somoza’s fall in 1979.
During Brian’s stay, the contras attacked a local farm cooperative, killing eleven civilians. “We live and we die,” Brian’s Nicaraguan mother comforted him. “It is only the quality of our commitment to truth and justice, to love one another that makes the difference.” When he returned to this country, he had become convinced that normal means of protest were no longer enough.
And then came the experience that caused Brian to react in shock and horror as I, and so many others, have reacted in horror to the train. It was a horror powerful enough to threaten his sanity, I believe. I also believe it was the horror, faced and overcome, that now allows Brian to accept, with unnatural calmness, the severing of his legs. But it wasn’t horror felt in the Mekong Delta or in the combat zones of Nicaragua. It washed over Brian Willson in the gallery of the United States Congress.
On June 25, 1986, Brian was present as the House of Representatives decided to provide the contras with $100 million the president had requested. The sterile tone of the debate brought Brian to the brink. He wanted to scream, to cry out, even to jump over the gallery railing to confront his government eye-to-eye. Not far from where he sat, three contra leaders happily congratulated themselves. As he looked at them, Brian felt murderous.
He called me that night from Washington, distraught. “I’m an accessory to murder, now. What am I going to do? What are we going to do? What am I going to do?” I could offer nothing. The next morning he woke from a fitful sleep with a clear image in his mind of three members of Alejandra’s family lying dead on their dirt floor, with blood pouring from their necks. That day he joined a small group protesting the contra vote, but he knew it was not enough. Protests had done nothing. All his work had done nothing. The following morning he awoke again with the picture of death in his head, but this time six of his Nicaraguan family lay dead and bleeding on the ground.
The next day, Brian wrote, “People of faith and conscience must gather and plan as never before a variety of expressions that challenge virtually all the assumptions an comfort and arrogance of our culture. We must do this with the optimism and joy of living out the faith and power in honest participation with the great spirit of infinite wisdom and love. It must be done with nonviolence but with the willingness to militantly resist and noncooperate with the evil forces that are being conducted in our name and with our money. We must take whatever reasonable steps are necessary to make known the crimes of our government, and to stop further commission of those crimes.”