When I was in the 7th-9th grade, I palled around with a borderline delinquent named Doug.
Together we would sluff the Evergreen Jr. High spirit assemblies (opting instead to get breakfast at the Hungry Hermit on 33rd South) or take a cab downtown to grab some dinner and catch a midnight movie when our parents thought we were sleeping over at each other’s house. When we were 12, we’d dig in the bars’ trash bins around Salt Lake City looking for mini-bottles for our collections. When we were 14 we’d walk out of Jeans West in different clothes than what we walked in with. I liked hanging around Doug ’cause he always had pocketfuls of cash (pilfered from his dad’s office safe) and it seemed we were always off on some exciting (albeit illicit) adventure. I guess that made me a borderline delinquent, too. We were just damn lucky we never got caught.
Doug was, understandably, a pariah in his ward. He was the example parents pointed to when telling their kids to shape up and fly right– the Romper Room “Don’t-Bee” to the CTR “Do-Bee.” In a way he performed his service as the ward cautionary tale, and for filling the measure of his creation he was rewarded with righteous social banishment.
In the ninth book of The Republic, Plato famously observed that “the virtuous man is content to dream what a wicked man really does.” Elaborating on that thought, Freud argued that lawbreakers (sinners) make it possible for the rest of us to adapt to the demands of normality by acting out, and being punished for, our own unacknowledged impulses. Going one step further, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim observed the criminal (sinner) contributes to civic well-being (righteousness) not only by promoting a sense of solidarity among law-abiding citizens (the obedient), united in condemnation of the malefactor, but by providing a cathartic outlet for their primal vengeful impulses. This is probably why true crime has always been such a popular industry.
I think every ward has a Doug, and I believe he (or she) provides a valuable gauge for members trying to measure their own– or their families’– spirituality. Take, for example, when a member’s “little Megan” is constantly disruptive in primary. Despite ourselves, we would think “my Brianna is never disruptive– she’s a good girl.” Or, if a fellow priesthood holder openly challenges conventionally accepted tenets in class, the others might be prompted to think, “Oh my brother, why dost thou kick against the pricks? I never kick against the pricks.”
There’s the daughter who became pregnant and the husband who cheated on his wife, the missionary who was sent home and the sister who had that nervous breakdown, the family that stopped coming to meetings and the scout leader who campaigned for Bo Gritz and told his home teachees how to get around paying their taxes. We love them all and, in part, use them to build our own testimonies. Without the fallen, after all, how could we measure ourselves in the ward eco-system (besides callings, that is)?
It isn’t enough for us to draw from examples given to us in the scriptures. We have to vicariously experience the penalties of sin through our contemporaries– we have to witness the execution to be deterred. That isn’t to say the Lord provides “fall guys” for us, but it is convenient how there’s always one in a congregation to point to.
Doug’s mom and dad always blamed me for being the bad influence even though in our friendship I was always the follower. I guess I was an easy enough target, being the non-member kid and all, and not being their own son. But by the time I was 15, I outgrew my delinquent ways and Doug just got worse. He started doing drugs and eventually went to prison after being caught breaking into a Spoons n’ Spice in Sugarhouse. Real public enemy, that kid.
The last I saw Doug was in 1981 when I came home from my mission. He was out of prison but still doing drugs. He was also clearly uncomfortable to see me again and acted like he couldn’t wait for me to leave.
I got an email from my kid sister Erika this morning. She ran into one of Doug’s little sisters who, recognizing E’s last name, asked if she was related to me. She told Erika that Doug died of congestive heart failure in 2006– no kids, never married, still on drugs. His friends used the next few days to help themselves to Doug’s stuff before the smell became too awful, and then they called the police. A crappy ending to a progressively crappy story.
It’s too easy to say Doug would be alive and happy today if members of his ward had taken a loving interest in him. There was a tendency of labeling and prejudice among those folks at that time, but I’m certainly not going to get all self-righteous and say they let him stray and die. I knew the kid– he was my friend, but he was also a hard case, bent on self-gratification. He ran from anyone who tried to be a good influence to him.
On the other hand, so many other kids in that ward grew up to be faithful members and good parents– including his siblings–so I guess Doug did fill the measure of his creation.