Archive for December, 2010


Thursday, December 16th, 2010

*Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect the anonymity of the individuals.

                It’s 9:00 AM on a Saturday morning. Typically, my dad would wake up at about 6:00 AM and put a pot of coffee on.  About an hour or so later, as my mom would arise, he’d make eggs and bacon. Together, they would eat their breakfast, read the paper, and talk, all while the sun’s rays gradually flood the kitchen through bay windows. But on this Saturday, neither has slept. My dad did not prepare a breakfast. Instead, my parents have been sitting here at the kitchen table for hours drinking coffee.

                Last night, at about 2 AM, they got a call from the Union County Sherriff’s Department, notifying them that my brother Brett had been arrested for a DUI (driving under the influence). It’s Brett’s third DUI, which is a Class F Felony not only in South Dakota, but across the nation. It’s punishable by up to two years in the state penitentiary. My parents were told that Brett would be released in the morning after he sobered up.

                My parents called me at about 8 this morning to tell me the news. I told them I’d come see them, to be with them, and see if I could talk to Brett. After I got off the phone, without showering, I left my apartment in Sioux City, Iowa and drove fifteen miles north to Elk Point, South Dakota.

                We’re all sitting at the kitchen table waiting for Brett to come home. My dad gets up to get another cup of coffee.

                “Would  you like some more, Carmen?” he asks.

                “No, thank you,” my mom says, her eyes staring into the wooden surface of the table.

                I want to say something that might comfort my mother. She closes her eyes. She tilts her head down and massages her temples with her fingertips. I can’t say that it’ll be all right. I don’t know that. Brett has a serious drinking problem. My mom brushes some of her thick brown hair behind her ears.

“What did we do wrong with him, Blake?” my mom asks me.

I shake my head. I say, “I don’t know. Nothing.”

And it’s true. My parents are wonderful people. Our whole lives, they have shown my brother and me unconditional love. My family is and always has been comfortably middle-class. My parents aren’t alcoholics or drug addicts. Yet somehow, Brett, at 24, is a raging alcoholic. And me, at 23, I’m both an addict and alcoholic. But I’m in recovery. I attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings at least twice a week. I’ve managed to stay clean and sober the last three years. Watching the current scene unfold before me gives me a pretty biting idea of what I put my parents through only a few short years ago. They are both about sixty years old, and I worry what kind of toll this level of stress might take on their health.

My dad sits back at the table with a fresh cup of coffee. He sighs. He scratches his well-groomed beard, which is almost completely gray. Then he lifts his glasses slightly to rub the insides of his eyes, which have dark circles under them. He yawns.

“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” he says.

A pang of guilt knots in the pit of my stomach. Though I have changed, the wounds I caused my parents aren’t entirely healed. Chronic pain weakens a person. Chronic emotional pain aggravates your nervous system, so that any kind of trauma is doubled, even tripled in magnitude. When I was getting arrested, going in and out of jail, my parents had to cope with it. Brett managed to stay out of trouble while I was getting into it, but once I got clean, it was like I passed the self-destructive baton to Brett. He has run with it.

“I thought we were through with all this,” my dad says.

My mom says, “I thought Brett had his drinking under control.”

With all due respect to my mom, her outlook on Brett is grossly naïve. For the past four years, he has drunk at least a twelve pack of beer a day. His ex-girlfriend of two years, Molly, used to confide her worries over his drinking to me. She told me that it’s perfectly normal for him to drink a case of beer in one night. I’ve seen him drink in the morning before work. When I told him it wasn’t a good idea, he told me to back off, that he was hung over, and that a few beers would help his hangover. I’ve heard he drinks on his lunch break at work.

                “How did you do it?” my mom asks, looking at me.

“I had a lot of help,” I say. I try to smile.

                “What do we say to him?” my dad asks. “Do we chew him out?”

                I shake my head. I say, “That’ll only make it worse.”

                My mom places her fingers on her temples again and rubs them.

                “I have prayed for you boys for so long,” my mom says, “and the Lord has helped you, Blake. But why He can’t get through to Brett I don’t know.”

                “I don’t know either, Mom,” I say. “Maybe this is Brett’s rock-bottom. They say you hit rock-bottom when you stop digging.”

                My mom doesn’t say anything. Why am I here and Brett in jail? Why have I changed and he hasn’t? I don’t know if adoption has anything to do with it. But Brett has held fast to his being adopted as a form of victimization. I don’t buy it. He was adopted when he was five days old. He has never known his biological parents. His parents are my parents. But he feels what he feels, and I feel what I feel. Our parents aren’t alcoholics. Maybe his biological ones are. I couldn’t ask for more loving parents. Could Brett?

                Just then, I hear the door to the porch open. I look up and see Brett. He walks to the kitchen door. Before opening it, he looks in, sees me, my mom, my dad. He enters. His short brown hair is greasy. His blue eyes are bloodshot. The faint smell of stale alcohol permeates the kitchen.

                Brett stands in the doorway. We don’t say anything. My dad looks at him, opens his mouth to speak, but only sighs. My mom looks at Brett with watery, pleading eyes. I remember well the numerous times she looked at me in the same way.

                Brett looks at me but quickly looks away. I won’t be the first one to speak. Neither will Brett. It’ll be my parents.

 I want to see defeat on Brett’s face. I want him to feel devastated. I want him to collapse and cry, to surrender. For an addict or alcoholic to recover, addiction has to beat the shit out of you so bad you can’t go on. You must be destroyed before you can be rebuilt. You have to want change. The trick is to have this happen before addiction kills you. But I don’t see this on Brett. He puts his hands in his jean pockets, shifts his standing position, like this is all just a misunderstanding.

My mom says, “I don’t know what to say, Brett. I love you,” she says, “but I’m angry and sad. I’m hurt.”

Brett doesn’t say anything. I wish I knew what was going through his mind.

“I’m awful hurt, too,” my dad says. He looks at Brett. “You need help, son.”

Brett says, “Yeah.” But he just looks into the wood tile of the kitchen floor.

“What’d they tell you?” my dad says.

“My first court date is December 15th,” Brett says. “I’m going to have Phil Peterson as my attorney. I gotta call him on Monday.”

Phil Peterson is the public defender in Union County. He’s the attorney you get when you can’t afford one. He was my attorney.

“Okay,” my dad says. “Phil’s a good guy. He worked hard for your brother. We’ll get in touch with him Monday.”

I feel some hope for Brett through Phil Peterson. He is a good guy, and he stuck his neck out for me, even when I violated my probation with my second DUI. Partly because of him, I avoided going to prison.

“Are you hungry?” my mom asks Brett.

“No,” Brett says.

Moments pass in silence.  Eventually, Brett sits down at the kitchen table. As a family, we continue to sit in silence. Having us all here at the kitchen table reminds me of my childhood.

We grew up just like any other brothers. As kids, Brett and I fought together, wrestled together, played video games together, trick-or-treated together, spent summers at the pool together. I picture Brett as a kid, when he had his bleach-blonde hair and two big front teeth with a gap between them. And I know that Brett. That Brett is my brother. He’s the guy I spent almost every moment of my childhood with. But this other Brett, the one who just got his third DUI, I don’t know this Brett.

In high school, we drifted apart. Actually, that’s an understatement. We basically parted ways. He started drinking heavily, gradually becoming more withdrawn from his friends. I started using drugs and drinking heavily. I hung out with other kids who used drugs. I rarely saw Brett, let alone spent time with him. Now, I don’t know this Brett who is sitting across the table from me. This Brett has tattoos. This Brett has his ears pierced, his lip pierced, his eyebrow pierced, his tongue pierced. He even has his nipples pierced. Aside from that, I can’t tell you anything about him. I don’t know what he’s interested in. I have no idea what he’s passionate about, except getting tattoos and piercings.

“Where did we go wrong?” my mom asks, breaking the silence.

Her question holds our attention for only a few seconds. It dissolves into the air, like a gas dissipating throughout the room, becoming imperceptible. Questions like these don’t matter anymore. No one responds to my mom’s question. We just sit in silence. We are all in a state of mutual discomfort. Eventually, Brett says he is going to his house to go to sleep. My dad offers to give Brett a ride. Brett accepts. Without saying goodbye, the two of them leave. My mom shakes her head as the kitchen door shuts.


On Monday, Brett and my dad meet with Brett’s attorney, Phil Peterson. They are in Phil’s office at the Union County Courthouse. Phil is around my dad’s age. He is a short, stocky man with a horseshoe of hair around the bottom and sides of his head, and a mostly-gray beard on his face. His large, thick glasses might look silly on someone else, but they help to make Phil look distinguished, somehow giving him an appearance of lawyerly authority.

Phil sits at his desk, and my brother and my dad sit across from him.

Phil says, “You probably won’t go to prison. You don’t have any violent offenses. Thank God, you didn’t wreck your car or hurt anyone. You just seem to have a serious problem with alcohol.”

“So he probably won’t go to prison,” my dad says, “but he’ll have to do some time, won’t he?”

“Most likely,” Phil says, looking at Brett, “you’ll have to do three to six months in the county jail. Since you have a job, I’m very confident you’ll be granted work release.”

My dad nods approvingly. This is good news. Brett works at Thermo Bond in Elk Point. They build small power-generating buildings for various companies around the country. It’s a good blue-collar job, offering decent pay and benefits.

“The judge doesn’t want to see you locked up,” Phil says to Brett. “I know Judge Art Rush. He’d rather see a kid like you take care of your drinking problem. You’re not a bad person. You just need to make some serious changes in your lifestyle.”

Brett nods his head.

“However,” Phil says, “starting today, you’ll be placed on the 24-7 breathalyzer program.”

The 24-7 breathalyzer program is a new invention. It’s only a couple years old. A person who is placed on the program is required to report to the jail twice a day to blow in a breathalyzer. The breathalyzers must be twelve hours apart from each other. So if a person reports at 6 o’clock in the morning, they must return at 6 o’clock in the evening for their second breathalyzer. The person must pass the breathalyzer. Any detection of alcohol, however minute, is considered a failed breathalyzer and the person is then placed in a holding cell until a judge is contacted. If a person fails to show up for their breathalyzer, a warrant is issued for his or her arrest. If a person shows up more than fifteen minutes late for his or her breathalyzer, the judge is notified. Tardiness can lead to jail time. The 24-7 breathalyzer tries to ensure that a person doesn’t drink. It’s been pretty effective across the country in states that have implemented it. The Sioux City Journal ran an article in January 2010 about it, explaining how it has won national awards. I was on the 24-7 breathalyzer program for almost 8 months. Though it kept me out of trouble, it was a huge hassle, reporting to the jail twice a day, every day, for 8 months.

My brother says that he has to be at work at 6:00 in the morning, so Phil suggests Brett to schedule his breathalyzers at 5:00 AM and 5:00 PM.

“Blake had to do this for 8 months,” my dad says.

Phil says, “I remember.” Phil looks at Brett. “This should keep you out of trouble until your sentencing. This way, it can’t get any worse than it already is. Right now, you won’t be going to prison. So we’re going to try to keep it that way.”

Phil pauses for a moment, then says, “Trust me. You don’t want to end up in prison.”

My dad and Brett shake hands with Phil before leaving. From Phil’s office, they walk to the Sherriff’s department to enroll Brett in the 24-7 program. After that, they walk out of the courthouse and climb into my dad’s truck.

“I think this 24-7 thing was good for your brother,” my dad says.

“This is going to fucking suck,” Brett says.


In Elk Point, there are three meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous a week: Monday at 8:00 PM, Thursday at 8:00 PM, and Sunday morning at 9:00. The meetings are held above the drugstore on Main Street in an old room that is actually the Elk Point chapter of the International Order of Odd Fellows. The room is large and open, with a long table in the middle. There are paintings of old Odd Fellow Grandmasters hung on the walls. In my first year of recovery, I attended every single Monday and Thursday meeting. I was living at my parents’ house, and since I didn’t have a driver’s license, the Elk Point meeting was very convenient for me. These meetings are where my life changed.

After staying clean and sober for a year and getting my driver’s license back, my parents and I decided it was time to cut the umbilical cord. I moved to Sioux City and got an apartment. In Sioux City, I found myself going to more Narcotics Anonymous meetings rather than AA, primarily because of the greater number of young people in NA. In the last two years, I have attended almost exclusively NA meetings.

However, my dad tells me that for the last few months, Brett has been attending the Monday night AA meeting in Elk Point. At first, I was extremely excited. The help my brother needs is in the meetings. The people are wonderful. Of the twenty or so regular attendees, most of them are age forty or older, and they all have anywhere from ten to thirty-some years of sobriety. They have lots of recovery knowledge and experience.

When my dad told me Brett had been going, I decided that I would try to make it up to some of the Monday night meetings to support Brett. It would be a win-win situation for me because I would be helping Brett by showing support and helping myself by attending a meeting. So I got a hold of Brett over the weekend and agreed to meet him at the upcoming Monday night meeting.

On this Monday night, I arrive at the meeting about fifteen minutes early. As I walk in the door, I see the same familiar faces. They greet me warmly, ask me how I’ve been. I tell them I’ve been great – just going to school and working. I catch up with some of them, periodically checking the clock, hoping that Brett will arrive. I ask a few of the people if they have seen my brother Brett up here lately. They have to ask who Brett is. I describe them to him. They tell me that they have seen him a few times, but not on a regular basis.

The clock strikes 8 and the meeting starts. Brett is yet to show up. I text him, “Are you coming?” and wait for a response. The meeting proceeds in the typical fashion. We open by reciting the serenity prayer together. The twelve steps are read. The twelve traditions are read. The chairperson speaks for about five minutes on a topic of his or her choice. When he’s done, the meeting is opened up and everyone is offered a few minutes to speak their thoughts on the topic. The topic tonight is resentments.

It is 8:20 and Brett still hasn’t shown up or responded to my message. I text him again. After a few minutes, he responds with this message, “Sorry. I have a leak in my bathroom ceiling. I’m trying to do something about it. I probably won’t make the meeting.”

I don’t respond to his message. To me, this is bullshit. I would never miss a meeting I committed to because of a leak in my ceiling. My brother is a compulsive liar, and it is my opinion that he is lying to me now.

The meeting continues on. I share my less-than-heartfelt thoughts on resentments, leaving out the current resentment towards my brother that is boiling in me now. At 9:00 o’clock, the meeting adjourns. I chat a bit with people afterword, asking a few others if they have seen Brett at the meeting. Some say they have. Some say they haven’t.

I drive back to Sioux City.


It’s Easter morning. A week ago, Brett failed a breathalyzer. The judge decided to let him sit in jail for a week, releasing him on Easter morning. My oldest brother Gabe,33, and his wife and two kids have come from Omaha to spend Easter with us. My dad informed them of Brett’s situation. Gabe is hurt and angry, like the rest of us. Brett’s opportunity of avoiding prison has most likely been blown, pun intended.

Our family went to church in the morning, but Gabe and I left early to pick Brett up from jail. This is far from an ideal Easter. I try to remind myself that it could just as easily be me that has to be picked up from jail. After all, the last time I drank and used was St. Patrick’s Day of 2007, and my parents had to come pick me up from jail the next day.

Gabe and I arrive in the parking lot of the Union County Jail at about 10:00 AM. We see Brett standing outside. He is smoking a cigarette. We pull up along the curb and wait for him to take one last drag. He gets in the car.

“Before I say anything else,” I say, “I want you to know that I love you, Brett.”

“That’s right,” Gabe says. “We love you.”

“I love you guys, too,” Brett says.

I hope by telling Brett I love him first, I will be absolved from anything I may say that pisses him off. I drive out of the jail parking lot and onto the street.

“Do you think you’ll come to Uncle Brad’s for dinner?” Gabe asks Brett.

“Yeah, probably,” Brett says. “I wanna shower and get cleaned up first.”

Several moments pass in silence.

“Do you think you’ll still go to the meeting on Mondays?” I ask Brett.

“Maybe,” he says.

“I think you need to,” I say.

“Dude,” Brett says, “I know what the twelve steps are. It’s not like I’m going to learn anything there I don’t already know.”

Recovery is a spiritual process. But I can’t explain this to Brett. I have no idea how to get through to him.

“And I’m not going to fucking treatment,” Brett says. “I know they’re probably going to try and send me to treatment. I’ve already been down that road.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Treatment would probably help you.”

“Fuck that,” Brett says. “It’s just a waste of time and money.”

Brett’s attitude doesn’t give me much hope for him.

“What about the guys you work with?” I ask Brett.

“What?” Brett says. “Are you going to tell me I shouldn’t hang out with them because they still drink?”

“I think you need to try to find some new friends,” I say.

Brett doesn’t respond. I say, “I just wish you would come to Sioux City and check out some of the meetings I go to. Or come to one of our dances or functions. There’s lots of young people. I know you’d find some friends.”

“I don’t need a fucking lecture, Blake,” Brett says.

This is the extent of influence I have over Brett. He will take nothing I say to heart. Gabe takes over trying to talk to Brett. I don’t say anything else, and I pay minimal attention to the words exchanged between Brett and Gabe. We reach Brett’s house.

“Just call us when you’re showered and ready to head over to Brad’s,” Gabe says.

Brett gets out of the car and walks up to his house.


The Easter dinner was strangely okay. Everyone knew about Brett. But no one said anything to him about it. He didn’t look ashamed. In fact, he was quite talkative. I didn’t say much to him.

Brett’s situation was worsened by his failed breathalyzer. Instead of six months in the county jail, he will have to do three months in the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls. It’s weird. The Union County Jail charges $25 a day for an inmate to be housed. Prison costs an inmate nothing. Instead, the taxpayers fund the prisoner’s room and board. Also, Brett has to do half the time. But he won’t get work release. And it’s prison. Bad things could happen to him. When I was facing prison time, I lost sleep over it. I would lie in bed worrying about what could happen to me. I don’t know what’s going through Brett’s head, but it doesn’t really matter. He has to go. There is no way out of it.

It is Wednesday, and Brett goes to prison on Friday. My parents wanted me to see Brett one last time before he left. I thought it sounded a bit dramatic. He’d only be gone for three months. But then again, it’s probably a good thing to see him. Who knows what will transpire in the next ninety days for Brett?

I would’ve seen Brett Thursday, the night before he left, but I have night class. So Wednesday night was it. My parents arranged for Brett and I and my grandmother to go out for dinner. We go to a local steakhouse in Elk Point.

My grandmother doesn’t fully understand the situation. She’s not very familiar with prison. She doesn’t know what questions to ask Brett. She avoids the subject altogether.

We are sitting at a table, the three of us. As usual, I struggle to converse with Brett. There is little we share in common, so it is hard for me to come up with something to talk to him about. My grandmother doesn’t hear well, so I decide to ask him about prison.

“Are you scared?”

“Kinda,” Brett says.

“I think you’ll be all right,” I say. “I’m pretty sure they separate the violent offenders from the nonviolent ones. You’ll probably be safe.”

“I think so, too,” Brett says. “But if any nigger or spic tries getting in my face, I’m not gonna back down.”

I shake my head. I say, “I wouldn’t go in there with that attitude.”

Brett doesn’t say anything. I say, “Don’t say shit like that, Brett. It’s stupid.”

“I’m just saying,” Brett says, “that I’m not afraid to fight if I have to.”

“Okay,” I say. “But don’t go in there all racist.”

“Well no,” Brett says.

I don’t get him. Brett is an enigma.

After our dinner, Brett and I drive my grandmother home. We give her a hug and a kiss. She tells Brett she’ll miss him. It feels like any other time we’ve said goodbye to her.

I drive Brett home. I pull behind his house into the dirt alley where his truck his parked. He’s telling me about some movie, but I’m not really paying attention. I just want to say what I have to say to him and leave.

When he’s done talking, I get out of the car. He follows. He walks around and stands in front of me.

“Maybe I can write to you,” I say.

“Yeah,” Brett says. “It just sucks you won’t be able to visit me.”

“Yeah, I know,” I say.

It’s because I’m a felon. Felons can’t visit inmates in prison.

“Mom and dad will come see me though,” Brett says.

I don’t say anything. My parents will go visit him every chance they get, just like they did for me when I was in jail.

“You’ll be out in time for my wedding, right?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says. He smiles.

Brett is going to be my best man. I asked him to do it because I thought it would make him feel good. I think he does feel good about it.

“I gotta go,” I say.

“I know,” Brett says.

The silence is awkward. I am uncomfortable.

I step towards Brett. “I love you,” I say.

I hug him.

He says, “I love you, too.”

I say goodbye to him. I get back in my car. I drive away. Brett is beyond my control. As much as they’d like to tell you AA and NA is a “WE” program, the truth is, it only works if the individual wants it to. That’s all there is to it. If you want to stay sober, you will. If you don’t, you won’t. I don’t know what Brett wants, but his miserable situation is more motivation for me to continue down the path I have chosen.

Review of “Under the Banner of Heaven”

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, Under the Banner of Heaven, is about Mormonism in the United States. Krakauer tells the complete story of Mormonism’s birth and maturation, a feat made possible by the fact that the religion has only been in existence for less than two hundred years. Krakeur uses the particularly gruesome 1984 murders of a Mormon woman and her baby as a focal point for which the entire book spins on. Krakauer simultaneously tells the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, the Mormon extremist murderers, and the birth and development of Mormonism, starting with the now legendary Joseph Smith. The two stories feed each other and overlap as the book progresses. Krakauer offers a detailed, yet fluid account of Mormonism’s history. Although those who aren’t interested in a history lesson might put the book down, it is well worth the read because just the story of Mormonism in and of itself is interesting and compelling. It is also a good read because Krakauer is a good writer and organizes the book in such a way to make the story of Mormonism’s progression suspenseful. Moreover, there are side-plots within the two big stories, and along the way, we meet several interesting characters who are either active Mormons, excommunicated Mormons, or ex-Mormons who managed to escape the confines of the Church.

Jon Krakauer, in addition to being a professional mountaineer, is the author of four bestselling nonfiction works, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Where Men Win Glory: The Pat Tillman Odyssey. Under the Banner of Heaven, published in 2003, is Krakauer’s third book and signifies a marked departure from his first two books, Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, which focused largely on humans struggling in the face of some of nature’s more extreme forms.

Krakauer wrote the book for fairly obvious reasons: to expose some of the evils running rampant in fundamentalist Mormonism. It is important to note that the book is not an indictment of mainstream Mormonism. Instead, it focuses on the extremist Mormon communities tucked away in Utah, Arizona, Mexico, and Canada. The primary issue Krakauer focuses on is polygamy. Within fundamentalist Mormon sects, the practice of polygamy remains well intact. Now, Krakaeur doesn’t attack polygamy itself from a moral or ethical perspective. Instead, the specific way that fundamentalist Mormons go about practicing polygamy is the source for contention. Within these communities, young girls are chosen from a very young age – as young as thirteen and fourteen years old – and married off to men more than three or four times their age. These Mormon men then have sex with the girls, and their lives are tightly controlled. Basically, fundamentalist Mormon women have no freedom. However, despite the radical differences in mainstream culture and fundamentalist Mormon culture, the Mormon way of life would be okay if these women were freely choosing to be plural wives. However, this is not the case in many instances. Krakauer tells the story of several women who have managed to escape the fundamentalist communities they were once a part of, and their testimonies are disturbing, tragic, and enraging.

Krakauer put a monumental amount of research into the book. There are footnotes on at least half the pages of the book that cite other sources or provide further information on some of the things discussed. He did hundreds of interviews with a plethora of people – mainstream Mormons, fundamentalist Mormon males and females, former Mormons, excommunicated Mormons, media people, and many others. He also traveled to several of the fundamentalist Mormon communities and interviewed people there. Most importantly, Krakauer interviewed both Dan and Ron Lafferty, who are currently serving life sentences in prison for the murders described in the book.

Only in the brief prologue is Krakauer himself present in the narrative voice. Aside from that, the text is written in third-person perspective, in which Krakauer is not a character in the story. However, despite the non-presence of a personalized narrator, Krakauer’s narrative is not objective. Of course he chooses to focus his narrative on the negative aspects of Mormonism, its troubled past, and its history of and continuation of sexual violence. But it should be noted that Krakauer doesn’t have to try very hard to make an indictment of fundamentalist Mormonism sound convincing – the Mormons make it easy. Much of the book’s content is startlingly disturbing, and there is little room for defense of such heinous fundamentalist Mormon practices.

Your Friend, the RA

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Imagine you are eighteen years old. You’ve just moved out of your parents’ home for the first time, the place you’ve spent your entire life. It’s a warm day in late summer, and you’re now in Sioux City, Iowa, at Morningside College.

You notice the campus looks nice. There’s green grass and pretty deciduous trees and squirrels running around and friendly-looking people walking up and down the sidewalks. The buildings look old but somehow new at the same time. It’s all made out of brick. You see a fountain spouting water at the center of the campus. There’s a nice-looking couple holding hands in front of it. You’re watching them watch the fountain.

You look around and see other clusters of people, walking briskly, talking energetically to each other, laughing smiles on their faces. But you, you’re all alone. A sudden knot of dread tightens in your chest. You scan your field of vision frantically for perhaps a high-school classmate, perhaps a distant cousin, or maybe, just maybe, one face you’ve never seen in person, but seen once on Facebook. . .

Who could you possibly turn to in this situation? Well, chances are you’re going to live in the dorms, and lucky for you, your dorm hall will have what’s known as a Resident Assistant, and the Resident Assistant is required to be your friend.

Miriam Phfaler is a 21-year-old senior at Morningside College. She has been a Resident Assistant, or RA, since her sophomore year. In her own words, an RA is “someone you can go to for issues. An RA will help and listen and try to make the resident’s experience in the dorms better.” So in the case of the scared and lonely freshman, an RA such as Miriam is the perfect person to turn to for social anxiety, culture shock, homesickness, and dating prospects.

Broadly speaking, an RA is a student who, along with other RA’s, oversees the dorm halls on week nights and weekends. The RA’s work in shifts, doing their best to juggle their student responsibilities while trying to provide RA services. But an RA’s duties are not limited to just consoling the lost souls of freshman.

Imagine you’re in your dorm room. It’s midnight on Saturday night, the ideal time to study and do homework. Thus, you are diligently studying. All of a sudden, from down the hall comes a blood-curdling scream. It sounds like a female.


You freeze. An icy panic courses your veins. You’ve had this thought before, that if someone were in trouble, you’d like to be the brave person who courageously steps forward and helps, rather than be the bump-on-the-log-bystander who is later interviewed on television about the incident and then asked why you didn’t do anything to help and you don’t have a response and you stand there in embarrassed silence while everyone watching judges you for the coward you truly are.

So you get up from your desk and make your way to your door. The scream sounds again.


This time, the scream is louder. You open your door and step out into the dorm hall. You look in the direction of the scream and see a large man, dressed entirely in black with a strange ghost mask over his face. His arms are wrapped around a young woman. You recognize her. It’s Jennifer, the quiet girl in your composition class. The intruder’s hand is clasped over Jennifer’s mouth, and her muffled screams unnerve you.

But just then, seemingly out of nowhere, a tall, fair-skinned young woman leaps out of a neighboring dorm room and tackles the man. The three bodies fall to the ground, and Jennifer manages to escape the clutches of the intruder. The heroic young woman quickly climbs on top of the intruder, flattening him to the ground face-down, pinning his arms behind his back. She jerks her head in your direction, her thick red hair fluttering over her shoulder like it were blown by the wind.

You recognize her. It’s Miriam Pfhaler, your RA.

“Call the police,” she says to you.

You see, an RA is much more than the person in your hall who can write you up for drinking. In order to become an RA, one must go through three weeks of grueling training. Naturally, because of the dangers of our world, this training includes emergency response training, CPR, and role-playing, such as the scene just described.

An RA must also undergo career therapy counseling, so that when a student comes to them in tears and says, “I don’t know what to major in,” the RA will have a system by which to rehabilitate the distressed, hopeless student. It is possible that throughout the years, RA’s have helped to motivate many students from dropping out of college and becoming drug addicts, so remember to thank your RA when you get the chance.

Aside from being the rock on which the entire dorm hall relies for its strength, hope, and will to endure, and in addition to being the dorm hall’s last line of defense from total annihilation, an RA is also required to participate in community service. Throughout her years as an RA, Miriam has taken part in countless community service projects, including breast cancer awareness events and promotions geared towards becoming more environmentally friendly, like buying a reusable mug at the campus coffee shop and using that instead of being wasteful and using a different paper cup each time.

Besides just simply carrying out the tall orders already discussed, an RA at Morningside College must also be socially, culturally, and politically aware. Miriam has had to stay up on the latest fashion trends, for, in the case that a resident comes to her, holds up two different outfits and asks, “Which one should I wear?”, Miriam must be prepared to offer an informed recommendation that will be the most likely to lead the resident in the direction of social success.

Since almost all college students are at least eighteen and therefore eligible to vote, and since it is almost certain that a presidential election will take place during an RA’s tenure, it has been Miriam’s duty to stay politically informed. We all know how stressful it is to vote for the first time. Thinking back to that first time we voted, it is possible that it was the single most impacting thing that changed our lives. Thus, when a resident comes to Miriam, possibly in tears, and says, “Who should I vote for?”, Miriam must be prepared to offer a concise yet informative and unbiased summarization of the platforms of each candidate and where they stand on key issues such as gay rights, abortion, war, health care, and the legalization of marijuana.

Miriam has also had to stay culturally informed as an RA, for, the services she provides must not be second-rate for a student with a different cultural or ethnic background than her own. She has participated in activities that promote diversity, because she must be able transcend potential cultural barriers and provide the many difficult duties described thus far to students of all colors, cultures, and backgrounds.

As if everything discussed so far wasn’t enough, as an RA, Miriam has also been in charge of providing entertainment for her dorm hall. And mind you, this involves more than simply juggling in front of a small crowd of uninterested people or playing an unpolished cover of a Taylor Swift song that you’ve told the listeners prior to “still needs some work.” No. Miriam’s duties entail actually organizing real events such as a free movie night at the Carmike Cinemas in the Southern Hills Mall. Of course, the consumption of alcohol at these events is prohibited, for college students have a propensity to consume alcohol in excess and engage in belligerent behavior they wouldn’t otherwise exhibit. Of course, several students violated the prohibition order.

In her three years as an RA, Miriam has RA’d Roadman Hall, Dimmit Hall, and she is currently the Head Resident at the college apartments on campus. Although the events described in this article sound hyperbolized, they are not beyond the realm of possibility. But the truth is, in regard to responding to dorm hall emergencies, Miriam’s experiences have mostly dealt with residents being locked out of their dorm rooms. In these cases, Miriam, who has a key that opens everyone’s room, will promptly accompany the resident to their locked dorm room. Next, Miriam will insert the master key into the locked door. She will turn the key and unlock the door. The resident, depending on if she is a decent human being or not, will say, “Thank you.”

For Miriam, being an RA has involved sacrificing her social life. Over the years, she has had to give up many weekends and stay in the dorms and carry on her RA duties. Although the job has inhibited her socially, Miriam says that being an RA has been a good experience. “It has allowed me to find my authoritative voice,” she says. “I’ve become more assertive, and also more approachable.”

Some people have accused RA’s of being on a power trip, of abusing their authority, of “raining on the parade,” or being “party poopers.” However, no substantial evidence has ever been compiled to support this claim. Instead, the overwhelming amount of evidence, including that contained in this article, suggest that an RA is your friend – some might even say your guardian angel.