I walked into my apartment and immediately locked the door. I did it before turning on the light, before slipping off my shoes, before looking around.
Locking the door is not something I’ve ever much bothered with. I’ve been scolded for years by friends and family but I didn’t want to be the person who locks my shit up and then decides I’m safe because my possessions are tucked tightly behind a lock. I didn’t want to let that paranoia creep in–not even a little.
But then today I heard in depth the story of Christopher Toughill exactly as he told me. He stopped often to cry. Sometimes he would dip his head and begin going through the photos on his phone of rainbows. “I just took a lot of rainbow pictures. I suppose it was a crime of opportunity,” he quipped.
Before October 18, 2016- Christopher describes himself as a person who believed in “…rainbows and Unicorns, I believed in the very best in people and I thought that’s what they gave me. If I was ever disappointed it was worth the price of believing in the good in people.”
He grew up in DC to a journalist mom and a speech writing dad. His father, also a union organizer, taught him every labor song and chant and he still recounts them without a prompt breaking into song across the lunch table. In those moments, he’s someone else.
After October 18, 2016- Christopher has nowhere to live, owns nothing but one change of clothes and his dog, Harmony, a 14 year old geriatric pup who fits her name. His hands are still recovering, his teeth never will and his heart, however expansive, is shattered.
I found Christopher after he posted something on Facebook that sounded suicidal. “I give up” it began. When my intrepid friend tracked him down she asked me to go to him–a total stranger–and help. I said yes. That lead me to an abandoned mobile home space and a tall man with a brown dog sitting in a gravel spot surrounded by trash in a broken chair. He was on his cell phone and by his posture and expression he could have been a business person closing a deal, yet his dirty clothes, his untrimmed toe nails poking from old sandals, a single backpack with a broken zipper and his entire lack of options told part of the story.
But only part.
Christopher had been a very successful business owner. He had an optical shop in the affluent art village of Ashland, Oregon where he sold high end, hand crafted glasses to the rich and famous including more than one movie star.
Now-after his attacker brutalized him- he is homeless and by outside appearances looks broken.
On October 18, 2016- he was held hostage–chained in fact–by his landlord who rented him a one bedroom shop behind his house. Christopher was beaten, his hands broken, his teeth knocked out, his feet battered and he was burned with hot oil and dowsed in gasoline. “I was humiliated, degraded and tortured,” he says of the experience. Unknown to him at the time he rented his place–his landlord belonged to a criminal gang and had a long, violent history.
Christopher managed to escape to safety and the man who held him hostage is now in prison.
But in some ways so is Christopher. He cannot understand how so much evil exists on one hand, on another he chose mercy for his attacker. He agreed to his plea bargain. “I couldn’t be responsible for depriving someone of their freedom for life–even though I couldn’t understand what he did to me. Still, sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have taken the deal. He is not fit to live free among people. He is a monster.”
Christopher considered taking his own life. “I was in my shell. I was non functional.” He came away from the experience with nothing. His health too fragile to work, his home gone because he could never go back there, he found himself deteriorating. He went into a diabetic coma due to stress and lack of food and crashed his last thing–his car.
Christopher was waiting for his old dog to die so he could take his own life. “I couldn’t let Harmony down.” But Harmony did not die. She kept living and so did Christopher. “Now I don’t want to do it anymore. There are still sunrises and sunsets…the world itself. I got touched by the dregs of society, but for all its sham and drudgery the world is still a beautiful place.”
His pain is noticeable and I could feel it when we talked. He cried often, reached out for my hand, sometimes needed to get up and walk it off. He would speak of the crime and discuss the “incomprehensible.” He says he is disappointed that there was not a safety net deep enough to hold him. He’s tried all the services, he shows me all the calls he’s made on his cell phone to no good effect. “They can’t really help me.”
I left him at a clean hotel for the night where he could get a shower and his dog could take rest. It’s not enough. Nothing I do for Christopher is enough.
One time a cop told me there are few real, innocent victims. He implied most people put themselves in bad spots. I tried to believe that because it makes life less scary. But Christopher did not invite his trouble. What happened to him could have happened to me–or you.
There are innocent victims. There are people who do evil to them.
But there are also people who forgive evil, people who get back up and try again. There is me and you. And those pictures of rainbows on Christopher’s phone did happen.
So tonight I’m behind the locked door. I’m thinking of Christopher and I may shed more tears. I don’t know the way forward for him and I don’t know how he overcomes but I know he does. I can see that he is still the hero of his story.
If you want to help Christopher he has a GoFundme: