Ryan is the hardest part of my story to explain.
We have never met, nor will we, and yet he radically changed the course of my life.
The path that I’ve walked since law school was not one that I intended. I did not go to law school advocate for people on sex offense registries. I went to hide. I went for lack of better ideas. I went because it interested me. I went because, while I was fortunate to have parents who put up money to retain counsel, I saw many who did not have adequate representation, nor families standing by their side.
The day after my arrest, I told my professors at school what had happened. I withdrew from graduate school at the end of that semester, where I studied psychology. Law school had never been on my radar. I asked my own lawyer one day after a pre-trial hearing if you could go to law school with a felony conviction.
And, so I went.
I pled guilty to a count of possession of child pornography in 2007. I was 22. I pled guilty because I was guilty. I was a lonely, awkward, bullied teen who was amongst the first generations to grow up with high-speed internet (or, indeed, the internet at all). Without delay, I encountered what writer Sage Webb refers to as ‘pixelated novocaine’ — internet porn. For anyone curious about the particulars of my crime, I did a Reddit AMA last October that you can peruse here.
But what I’m writing here is not really about my offense, though it is impossible to talk about him without talking about it.
I say that I went to law school to hide. Though I was open with my employer and my friends about my story, I worried what others would think of me if they knew. I wanted armor. I wasn’t a felon. I wasn’t a sex offender. I was an attorney. The Honorable. Esquire.
Ironic that I sought a profession held in such ill repute. I joked that I wasn’t sure which would make people hate me more, that I was an attorney, or that I was a sex offender.
I did not, as I said, go to law school to advocate for people on the registry. I burned with a mission to fight for people who lacked fighters, but not them. My best friend in law school suggested to me our 2L year that I would be very effective at it. I quickly discarded the idea. It terrified me.
Were I to advocate for sex offenders, it would betray my own secret shame.
I went to school. I took finals. I went to work. I saw friends and my parents. I dated. I complied with the registration laws. I finished my probation. I lived small. I valued the privacy that I had.
I did that for years.
In late 2013, the receptionist buzzed my office. It was an AP reporter on line 1. Was I the same Guy Hamilton-Smith that the Kentucky Supreme Court just ruled was ineligble to take the bar exam, and if so, did I have a comment? I don’t remember what I said, but that was how I’d learned that the last several years of my life and hundred thousand dollars in student loans were wasted, that a court battle I’d fought with my attorney (who offered me his services pro bono) for years ended in the worst way possible.
Compounding my terror, the reporter wrote a story about it, which was picked up widely. At first it was a trickle. Friends letting me know that I was in the local news. Then a deluge. The next day I was on the front page of every paper in Kentucky. National outlets ran with the story. I got mail. Mostly good, some bad. I slept with a knife.
I was out.
I wanted to die.
This was when I first heard Ryan’s name. By any other account, we had nothing in common. We moved in very different circles. He was a political operative in D.C., where he worked as the chief of staff for a United States Senator. Bright, charismatic, hard-working. Ryan was a rising star in conservative political circles. His future was bright.
Until his arrest on federal child pornography charges in December of 2013.
The following month he decided to end his life in his parents’ home.
His family, in what I can still only conceive of as a decision in equal measures astonishingly brave and agonizing, published the note that Ryan left behind. You can still read it here.
Ryan’s story was, in many ways, my own story, but for one, tragic difference. Ryan, like me, had suffered childhood abuse. Ryan, like me, had parents who loved him very much. Ryan, like me, had at first encountered child pornography inadvertantly. I sobbed into the autumn air from seventeen stories up on a balcony in 2006 when I was told the police were on the way. I pushed up on the railing and I looked at the pavement so far away. Jumping seemed like the only way out. I came back inside. Ryan didn’t. I still don’t know why.
Reading Ryan’s last words, I was compelled to do something I was dimly aware was insane. I needed to find out how to get in touch with Ryan’s parents. I needed to write them a letter, to try, if I could, to offer them some kind of meager comfort from a stranger.
And, so I did.
Some time later, I received a response in the mail.
Thus began what I would call an unlikely friendship. We’ve written letters. They’ve sent me books. I invited them to my wedding. We’ve talked about pain, and loss, and grief, and God, and purpose.
Ultimately, they’ve given me something much greater than friendship.
What follows is a letter I wrote to Ryan’s mother, Gay, on the eve of a presentation that I was to give on the topic of the sex offender registry.
I have been working on putting my presentation together for the prison ministry conference and trying to figure out what it is exactly that I want to say. I know that I want to educate people about these issues — and I’ve got all that. The facts and the figures aren’t too hard to present. They’re not that hard to understand. It’s not tough to figure out that the biggest problem that people on the registry face when re-entering society are housing and jobs.
I ran through my presentation yesterday, and it all just seemed so…clinical. Which I guess that’s part of it. It’s hard to make statistics and statutes all that appealing. Then I got to Ryan, and how I’m going to talk about his story.
A passage from the note that he left behind keeps sticking out to me. That, because of his fall from grace, and the enormous amount of attention that was put on the same, that the details of his shame would be forever preserved. That there would be no escape.
In looking at the timeline of it, I realize that we were both struggling with that same notion at the same time, as it was in January of 2014 that I got the media attention I received over the KY bar, then, googling myself, realized that there was no escape from it. It would be a forever sort of thing. And it will be.
Honestly, had I had to confront that same realization at the time of my arrest, I’m not sure I can say whether I would have come back in from the balcony.
So I’m thinking about how to talk about re-integration and re entry for something like this. What does that mean? What does it *really* mean? We talk about housing and jobs and being a law-abiding member of society, and I had a nice little spiel all worked up about how those things are important.
But it’s all bullshit. Or, it’s not bullshit, it’s just missing the point.
So I’m thinking about Ryan. I’m thinking about how, circa 2013, I was living a very small life, worried about how what would happen if people found out about me, about my past. Society tells me, and told Ryan, that we have no choice in the matter. That we have to be ashamed and afraid, and that we’re going to carry a brand to prove it. An indelible brand for the information age.
And I believed it. As Ryan did. As, I’d surmise, most people in this situation do. How can you not?
So then I read of Ryan’s passing, and had my crazy idea to send you a letter. Then, when we started communicating, I had the opportunity to take part in a documentary. The opportunity to initiate a lawsuit. The opportunity to give that talk to those high school kids. The opportunity to give this presentation. Once we win the lawsuit, I’m planning on being a lot more public via social media. I had high-minded ideals — that, perhaps, if I step out of my shell, perhaps I can do something for the next person who is sent into the fire. Perhaps I can do something for the numberless, nameless people who trudge in present day the same dark and anonymous paths that Ryan and I shared, and all those whom our actions caused harm to.
I’m going to save lives, I told myself, egotist that I am. And I guess I told myself that in part to combat the fear. Part of my presentation is going to be talking about a 2014 case where a couple of neo-nazis murdered a person on the registry and his wife and then, at sentencing, stated that child molesters don’t deserve to live (nevermind that this person was convicted decades previous of having sex with an adult woman who was mentally disabled). I think about that, and think to myself “Gosh, I’m probably not doing any favors to my lifespan by being out and open about this.”
And, maybe that’s true. I’ve never been very good at predicting the future.
But, I’m trying to write out what it is I really want to say — about re-integration, about Ryan, and about me. This idea of shame keeps popping up, and the words from Ryan’s letter. He used the word — shame.
And so I wrote out “shame kills” and looked at it for a while, writing and re-writing what it is I’m trying to get at. And something occurred to me that I never expected, that shot me through the heart…and that’s the reason for this long, rambly letter.
I’m thinking about how shame can kill so fast — faster than bullets, because it can move at the speed of 24-hour news cycles and tweets and internet searches. That it can become so overwhelming to a person, all at once, that — like Ryan — one feels that there is no way out but to take your own life.
But it kills slowly, too. And when it does kill you in such a fashion, in a way, it’s much more insidious, because you find that despite being dead, you’re still walking around. You’re still talking to people and going to the store and laying in bed at night. You’re still alive, but not living. You’re cut off from everyone, and even the very light of the soul is threatened to be snuffed out by it. You’re a husk, managing to fake it, until, perhaps mercifully, your body gives out.
Me, I’ve known shame so long that it’s presence was assumed to be normal, in whatever form it took. From being mercilessly taunted as a young boy, to trying to numb everything out with porn and sex and video games, to the fallout from my arrest and conviction and media attention from the bar. It’s something I would wake up with in the morning, and go to bed with at night.
So I’m finding something. That, slowly, as I begin to step out onto this stage, to show up, to commit to telling the truth, to being open, and honest…that these scales of shame are slowly falling away. That I am beginning to not care that this is a forever thing, and beginning to wrap my arms around it. To turn this place of low-light that society expects me to reside in and turn it into a garden. To take this toxic shame that’s supposed to number my days, and turn it into grace.
I started on this path of being open because I saw it as a duty to others, a duty that Ryan and you and your family showed me that I had. That, I should try, if I could, to not let shame claim another life.
But shame had claimed mine from the start. The last life I expected to be saving was my own.
So I want you to know it, to know that, as I wrote in my first letter to you, that Ryan’s death was not in vain. And what he and you and your family have given and left is playing out for me on a personal level in ways in which I never could have anticipated, and which I am only beginning to understand the enormity of.
Thank you for everything.