Shawn, 31

"I met my ex-wife, Jackie, when she was 12 years old and I was 17. We kind of had this little thing."

Published February 9, 2009 11:40AM (EST)

I'm Shawn Whitworth. I'm 31. I was born in Orlando, Fla. My name was S-H-O-N-E to start out with, because my family was so country, that's what they put on my birth certificate. Let's see. My dad was in the military when I was born and my mother didn't bother to tell him that she was pregnant so he didn't know until after I was born. I saw him a couple of times between the ages of 3 and 5. But we moved to L.A., and I never saw him again.

I had a stepfather. He wasn't like the most loving father, but he did provide for us and, you know, I love him. I call him Dad. But, like, my first stepdad was really abusive. I was burned and slapped and punched and beat. He smoked weed with me and drank and I was only like 2 or 3 years old. I can remember actually being burnt with a bottle -- he lit it, so it was like, black and then stuck it around my nipple. And it just seared into me. My mother was an alcoholic and she didn't really fight. But she got at him by being really stubborn. There was a lot of friction, a lot of argumentation. It was very dramatic.

Like, once I went fishing with my mother and a guy came down to the river where we were and she started talking to him and they ended up drinking some beers together. And this is a small town where everybody knows everybody, and like, he had his hand on her leg the whole time and she'd been married to my stepdad for like 15 years at the time. They did it right there in front of me. And then a couple of days later, the guy pulls up in our driveway, and I'm standing outside, and I'm like, "Oh shit." I walk up to the car very calmly and he's like, "Is your mom here?" I'm like, "That's my dad over there. I think it's best that you leave." So he backs out of the driveway and my dad comes over and he goes, "Who was that?" I'm like, "He got the wrong address." That's tough to do when you're 12. So my mother pretty much ruined me as far as trust goes with women. I don't think that -- I think I could trust a woman. It's just not like something that I would immediately do.

Being raised in Tennessee from around 7 to 14, they have a lot of mixed ideas there, a lot of backwoods, backward ways. I remember my grandmother slicing her wrists. I saw the blood trails. When I was like 6 or 7, this kid named Kevin molested me. I didn't like it. He was like, "Don't tell anybody." I was like, "Well, fine. I'm not gonna tell anybody." He was like 13. And when I was 4, I had two girls in my neighborhood that used to fool around with me. They were sisters. They were 7 or 8. They'd be like, "Do this to me. Do that to me." I basically went down on them and I mean they definitely didn't have hair down there, anything like that.

I pulled a gun on my brother when I was 11 years old. It was a 410 shotgun, single shot. I pointed it at him because they were being rambunctious and I was like, "You're gonna calm down, you're gonna listen to me." So I got sent to a mental hospital. And then the day I got back from the mental hospital, my mother was in jail for DUI.

When I was like 13,14, 15 -- my mother would be out drinking and driving almost every night. I would sit and wait by the window or outside on the porch waiting for my mother. Like a dog waiting for its master to come home. I didn't know what to expect. Was my mother dead? Was she in jail again?

I met my ex-wife, Jackie, when she was 12 years old and I was 17. We kind of had this little thing. We did drugs together, smoked weed, basically. I really didn't get involved too much in the heavier drugs. But she made it known that she liked me and I was like, "You're 12." At that point in my life, I had girls flocking all over me so it was more like, we'll be friends.

And we were friends. She was really mature. I think it's because maybe that she was molested when she was a kid and it made her grow up really fast. She never told me who it was. She was afraid I might do something about it.

I never tried anything with her. Like maybe I kissed her a couple of times or something, but I never tried to get down her pants 'cause she was so young -- I think she was like 13 or 14 around that time. And she told me she had been molested, but she hadn't been raped, so she was a virgin. And basically she told me that she was ready for me to take her virginity. At the time, she stayed with her sister in Georgia. And she called me and was like, "Hey, we want to meet you in Chattanooga." She's like, "I'm ready." And I was like, "Oh my God, man. I don't know what to do." But I wanted to see her. I took my brother with me, and I told her, you know, "You don't have to do this if you're not ready." She was like, "This is what I want." I'm like, "OK." So later on that night I took her virginity.

And then immediately the next day I felt bad about it. And also, her sister, Carrie, was older. I thought she was more my type. I just kind of stayed away from Jackie. Which made her feel really bad, like basically, you know, he doesn't have feelings for me anymore and he took my virginity. But you have to remember I lived in a different state. I called her from time to time, but like, I wasn't pursuing her for that.

So, a few months went by and I went to visit her in Florida and when I was going there, my car broke down, and her parents had the great idea to have her sister [in Georgia] pick me up. So she met me halfway, took me back home to her place and was like, "Yeah, I'm tired. I'll take you home tomorrow." And then another day went by and she's like, "Oh, I'm tired. I'll take you home tomorrow." And every day she did something else to try and lure my attention. And every day it got more and more difficult and I was trying -- not that I had any commitment with Jackie, I just didn't want her feelings to be hurt. I knew it was probably the wrong thing to do. So a week goes by and like Carrie's coming out of the shower in her robe and she's like, "Do you want a massage?" And with the hot oil and all this and I'm like, "Oh my God. I can't control myself." So I broke down and ended up spending about a month there. And then finally, I was like, "Look, I can't do this."

So I made her take me back home. And then Jackie comes to Georgia to stay with her sister and -- things are really fuzzy. All I know is that I went back to Georgia and Carrie didn't want to tell Jackie I was sleeping with her because she thought her sister would hate her. Which she did when she found out. But when Jackie got there she wanted to sleep with me too, so I was at a loss what to do. I ended up sleeping with both of them at different times of the day. While one was at work I would do it with one and while the other was at work -- it was a very confusing, exhausting time for me, and they both were subconsciously aware of the fact, though I don't think they admitted it to themselves at that time.

Then Jackie started hanging around with all her friends doing heroin and coke and roofies and all these different drugs. She was fooling around with this kid that was 15, and she ended up getting pregnant. She told me about it, and she was like, you know I don't believe in abortion. And she was going to have the baby. Well, I felt guilty. Because I'm the one who took her virginity. I fucked around with her sister. I felt like she had done this stuff to find a way to try to get me off of her mind or to forget the situation. And I basically didn't really have any relationship-type interest, but we were still friends, and I felt guilty. I was like, "Well, this kid is gonna need a father." I felt like, you know, I had to marry her and get her away from these people.

So, when I was 21 and she was 16, we got married. I mean, I loved her, but I didn't love her like "in love," you know, like a fairy tale love story. Basically, before we got married, I had sex with another woman, because I felt like once I got married I wasn't gonna do that stuff.

I adopted her kid by the other guy, Robbie. It wasn't a legal adoption. It was basically like a mental adoption. But I mean from -- immediately we had problems. Her father was abusive toward her mother and shattered her knee in a domestic argument. That's her memories as a kid. She blocked a lot of them out but they were still with her constantly, and every time I would raise my voice, it would scare the hell out of her. And I'm a very passionate person. I tended at that time to get in people's faces. So, she would leave me. I trusted her, but in the back of my mind, because I cheated on her before we got married, I always had it in the back of my mind that she's gonna try to get me back. Like I really thought she was gonna try to really hurt me, so, you know. I was really jealous and really afraid, and every now and then when she was pissed off she would tell me some shit, like, just to enrage. And this went on in Florida -- you know, every time the police are called somebody's got to go to jail. So one time she went to jail, and three times I went to jail.

But she loved me. I mean, she still puts it this way today, she "worshipped the ground I walked on." And I didn't appreciate that at all. I was very self-centered, very selfish, you know, was like, "OK, I'm gonna go to work, you stay here with the kids, you cook, you clean, and like, the money that I make is my money." At the time I had not a great job, you know. I was a nurse's assistant. I was working 16-hour shifts five days a week so I was bringing home $1,500 every couple of weeks, which isn't great. It was horrible. When I look back and think what a ridiculous person I was -- I mean it was so bad that she'd be like, "Can you buy me a water?" And I'd be like, "I'm not buying water. What's wrong with you?" When she would cry I would be like, "Shut up. Be strong." I would basically run her in the ground for crying. Because I never cried as a kid, really. I remember being slapped so hard that my ears rang -- and I didn't cry. And like, when my grandma died I didn't cry.

We stayed married for four years. However, we only lived together in that time maybe a year. Three or four months after we got married, Jackie got pregnant with Bethany. And then after that came Jason and Amber.

After we were divorced I moved back to Tennessee and we still maintained contact. Jackie was always the type of person -- she wasn't real promiscuous. Like, we had sex even after we were divorced -- I mean forever. But I was living in Tennessee with my brother in a duplex. And my stepdad's father had died, and my stepdad gave us each four grand. So I'm talking to Jackie and I'm like, "I'm gonna come down and see you. Can we stay at your place?" We wanted to go have a good time with the money. You know. "Can you hook my brother up with Andrea?" She had a friend living with her named Andrea. I've known Andrea since she was like 12 years old. And now she's like 20 or something like that so. I talked to Andrea and Andrea said, "Sure." OK. So we get there. Everything works out. My brother gets with Andrea. I get with Jackie.

And then Jackie and I get in a dispute, so I have to leave. The money was running low by the time the dispute happened. So I went to a dock and tried to get on a shrimp boat 'cause I heard you don't need any sort of documentation whatsoever, it's under the table, you just jump on the boat and go long days, whatever. So I'm on the boat, and my brother's been at Jackie's for, I guess, three weeks, something like that, and I'm like, "Yo, don't you think it's time you go back home?" And he's like, "Yeah. I just need some money." I'm like, "Well, get a job." So three weeks turns into three years and Andrea has moved out and, you know, I get to Key West, and then my captain was on heroin, and I couldn't take it, and a friend offered me a place in New York, so I moved to New York.

And I'm like constantly -- every time I'm talking to my kids and Jackie, I'm like, "Yo, he's gotta leave. This isn't right." My kids are there, you know. It doesn't seem right. And a year after I'm here in New York, they're like, "We're together." So I completely freak out. I think I had a nervous breakdown, and I talk to my brother and I'm like, "Look, man, if you had sex with her that's OK. I can forgive you. Just please, just move out." And he's like, "No, we're together." And at that point I start screaming like a mad man. I'm like, "I'll fucking kill you!" Like, "Don't even turn your back for a minute if you see a shadow out of the corner of your eye it's gonna be me, I'm coming to kill you. You better believe it. You're dead. You're dead."

The thing is that he's my brother and that coming from a trailer trash background that's the last thing I felt my kids needed is to have some sort of shit like that go on in their life to affirm to them that they are redneck trailer trash hillbilly fucking hicks and that that's all they're ever gonna be. You know? And now he's not their uncle anymore, he's Trevor. They're married now and they have a kid of their own so now, my kids' sister is also their cousin. And it pisses me off. They didn't have any kids at the time and I felt like they should have walked away from it.

I don't talk to him. When he answers the phone, I say, "Where's my kid?" And that's the most I've talked to him in two years. But ... there's a joke I didn't get for a long time, but now I get it. This guy who's in prison for 10 years comes home and he knocks on the trailer door and his wife answers the door. She invites him inside and he looks over and there's a guy sleepin' on the couch. And he says, "Who the fuck is this guy sleepin' on my couch?" She says, "That's the man that's been payin' the bills for the last 10 years." And the guy says, "Well shit. Give him a blanket! He looks kinda cold." My brother's paying the bills, you know. He takes care of my kids. He gets 'em private tutors if they want. I'm like, "Well, shit!" That man is doing better than I could've done. I think they're really in love and I'm happy for 'em. My kids are happy and I don't pry too much. I was mad before, but now I'm more contented with the situation.

You know, I felt bad when I left. She begged me not to go. And I'm like, I can't be here. I can't live like this. I can't. And my youngest son was like a month old and my -- I couldn't conceive of the responsibilities that I was taking on at the time. After I was married I didn't know what my responsibilities were. I really lacked in them, and I was really selfish and it was to my own detriment and now it's to my children's detriment as well because their father's not there to be with them.

If you were to see me 10 years ago you wouldn't believe I was the same person. I had a mullet. For like, five years. When I was a kid you probably couldn't understand me when I spoke. I was like -- I'll spell it out for you. I'd say "An-kur." For "I don't care." That's what I used to say to my teachers in school. I was such a disgruntled kid.

When I first moved to New York I had not the slightest idea of what prosperity was. This was only five years ago. In Tennessee, it was always just a hundred junked cars parked on the property, you know, the front porch falling in, everybody living in trailers, nobody wanting to do better for themselves. It was like knowledge was evil and the more you learned or the more diverse you are, they think you're a pussy, or you're -- I don't wanna say liberal, because they don't use that word. Like "nigger-lover."

So in New York, I saw people that not only had jobs, but they were in school at the same time and they still had a social life ... they juggled. That to me was so awe-inspiring. How do people do this? And I sort of had this moment of epiphany, like, to try to be a better person. I think that there was just some ingrained desire to be a better person. You know, I want to learn. And the fact that I'm uneducated is balanced by the fact that I'm smart, witty, and I search for knowledge. I'm self-centered, but I'm loving and I'm caring and I'm helpful. I've learned a lot of restraint. I think just a person gets older -- you kind of calm down a little and you start to learn that this type of behavior is unacceptable. And that nobody is going to be comfortable until you learn to deal with your anger a little better.

I don't think I've ever been in love or trusted a woman -- except Jackie. I learned more from her than I've ever learned from any other woman in my life. And also, she dealt with more than any woman could ever be expected to deal with. And when I look back I know at the time she truly loved me, and I took complete advantage of that.

If I met her today and she was the same person she used to be, and I was the person that I am now, I think things would be a lot different. I think, yeah, I could love her, that I would be lucky. I don't think that I'll ever find that kind of love again. I think I really screwed up. I don't ever expect to experience that again.

I admire her and respect her because my children are in safe hands. And I'm so lucky that she is the person that she is. You know, she dropped out of school in the 7th grade, but she doesn't drink, she doesn't do drugs. My children are safe. They go to school, do their homework, she's there for them -- emotionally, physically. She loves them. She doesn't talk bad about me. I mean she could say a million bad things about me and totally ruin my children's thoughts about me, but she doesn't do that. As far as I know.

I just recently met someone. She initiated the whole girlfriend-boyfriend type thing and I found it rather odd. She's 17 -- which is legal in the state of New York. I was waiting for lineup for my stripper job. I do go-go at a gay bar. I went outside for a smoke break and she was outside, and I said "Hi" to her and she ended up giving me her number and I called her up. This was like a month ago.

I'm really skeptical. You know, the age factor. The fact that she has a lot of guy friends that she's possibly had relations with in the past. I don't want to talk too much about this relationship.

My views on love are conflicted in my head so much that I may be an old man before I figure it out. I think that some form of companionship and "love" in quotations is necessary for human beings. Maybe not every single human being, but for most human beings, having a companion and someone that you love definitely helps heal the hurt, the stress of life, even if sometimes it makes life more stressful. But love is very elusive and if there were a precise definition I would like to know it.

I'm sure that I've felt something like love plenty of times in my life. I know it exists because I love my children. But have I loved anyone unconditionally? I mean even with my children, there's conditions. I think that maybe things are what you perceive them to be. That if you think that you love, then you love. I would like to choose to believe that I have loved or that I can and am capable of love. I'm almost sure that it exists. But if it slapped me in the face, I couldn't tell you what it was.

By John Bowe

John Bowe is a freelance writer living in New York. He is the co-writer of the film "Basquiat," co-editor of "GIG: Americans Talk About Their Jobs," and author of "Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor And the Dark Side of The New Global Economy." He has written for the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney’s, and appeared on NPR’s "This American Life."


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