Extract: The Fear of 13 by Nick Yarris
Found guilty of the rape and murder of a woman he had never met, Nick Yarris was sentenced to death. With appeal after appeal failing he spent twenty-two years waiting to die.
This is the true and amazing story of how he survived Death Row.
Read on for the first chapter of The Fear of 13 and discover the book behind the hit Netflix film.
The Fear of 13
First, let me say hello, and I’d really appreciate it if you would say hello back. Simply put, for the first two years of my prison ordeal I couldn’t say hello to anyone without a prison officer giving me a whack across the face for doing this otherwise simple act. An act which violated the ‘silence rule’ I was made to live under on Death Row.
Because I was made to endure such a humiliation, I ask every audience that I now speak before to simply say hello back to me as I feel I have paid so dearly to earn that from them. For me it’s my way to hold my head up in the face of being so cowed in life. I hope that by the time you finish this book, you will offer me as much in respect for what it took for me to come back from such a hell to say this same thing to you here in these pages . . .
1: Down the path
If I had only known what was waiting for me I would never have gone down that path that day when I was seven years old. Yet if I had really known what was being offered to me in my life right now, then I’d like to think that maybe, just maybe, I would have had the courage to go through it all again . . .
Until the age of seven, I had a really normal life, I guess. I was a happy, contented little boy, growing up with my mom and dad and my five siblings on a friendly little street in a family neighbourhood on the edge of south-west Philadelphia.
My father, Michael Yarris Senior, met and fell in love with my mother, Harriet ‘Jayne’ Shaw, in 1957 when they were both living in an area of old Philadelphia called The Meadows. My father was a second-generation Russian-American and my mother third-generation Irish-English. Together they raised our family in one of the three-bedroom ‘row homes’ that made up many of the mostly new immigrant neighbourhoods sown throughout Philadelphia.
At the time my life changed for ever, my eldest sister Nettie was twelve, Anna Marie was ten and Mabel ‘Sissy’ was nine; then there were my brothers, Michael ‘Mikey’ Yarris Jr who was eight and Martin ‘Marty’, aged four. Our family dog at the time was a 14 lb black poodle named Jocko who had decided that I was his best friend in the whole world – and I agreed. Wherever I went, he shadowed my every move. It really was as blissful as that, with Jocko and me innocently discovering life together, and finding that it was wonderful.
Although I can no longer exactly recall the child that I was before the attack, I do have some clear memories of those early years. They also provided me with something tangible to hold on to through the really dark days of what was to come; they became a sort of ‘beacon’ for me to home in on as I fought my way back to becoming once again that person I had begun my life as.
In particular I have a wonderful photograph from this time, taken during a family vacation. It is a picture of my big brother Mikey and me. We were so close then, I swear he was the greatest big brother to have. There I am, wearing these ‘Chuck Taylor’ low-top basketball trainers which he had given me and which I prized above anything else. They were all frayed and washed out from having been put through the laundry so many times, and even the rivets on the sides were gone. They were also too big for me. But I was so pleased because I was no longer wearing ‘Pro-keds’, which were for babies.
But these weren’t just hand-me-downs; Mikey had given me these shoes of his as a form of protection, to stop me being teased by some of the other children. He saw them as his chance to step in and do what a great older brother does: stand up for me.
The events that were to change my life for ever began in the spring of 1968, which was one really wild year in America’s history. From the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in April to the assassination of Vice-President Robert F. Kennedy in June, and on through to the summer riots in cities all over America, it was a very scary year for us all. The country was in the middle of the Vietnam War and also the Apollo space race against Russia. As a child just waking up to all that was going on in the world, it really was an important time to witness.
To me, it seemed as if each new day brought some earthshattering news of ever bigger and scarier things that were changing the world. I wonder how many other people my age remember being shown how to curl up under our desks in class each morning in order to ‘practise’ our protection manoeuvres in the event of nuclear war. Every day at Patterson Elementary School, having pledged our allegiance to our country, we had to put our hands over our heads and curl up real small under our desks in case the Cubans fired nuclear missiles at us. We were told that the metal desks would protect us from falling debris and that we had to stay there until they sounded the safety note over the emergency public address system. The adult world was crazy.
This particular day, though, started like any other. I was just a little boy in third grade who’d been given an unexpected day off school and my imagination was filled with all the fun and freedom that such freedom brings. It all began when my black poodle Jocko and I were walking along a footpath in the woods near our home. I think I had gone to a dental appointment that morning and had returned home with my mother, rather than going back to school, and I was filled with that sweet boyish feeling of bursting free.
I still recall how my mother shouted at me not to get my school clothes dirty and to stay away from the creek which ran behind our home as I sped out of the front door with Jocko yipping happily at my heels.
Paying no heed to my mother’s customary warnings, I was off on one of the many adventures I shared with Jocko. We were on our way from the creek towards the open field where we both knew there were rabbits for Jocko to chase and places for me to hide and pretend to be a hunter on the loose.
That was when I saw him, sitting on the roof of a small wooden structure made by some local teenagers out of scrap wood. We were only about fifty yards from some houses but this home-made ‘fort’ was half hidden among some small shrubs and trees. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be here, as it was out of sight of the adults, but once I noticed he’d seen me I tried to act brave and continue on my way past the boy sitting on the fort.
He waited for me to get right up to the small clearing in the path leading up to where he was perched, then he jumped down easily from his position and stood in front of me, a lit cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. I knew who he was because he lived in the street adjoining mine and I had watched as he earned his place in the local pecking order for his street fighting. He was a member of a gang of boys ten or twelve years older than me who hung around the neighbourhood drinking beer. He had a reputation for violence and I was really intimidated by him as I’d previously seen him assault grown-ups as well as other children. Why would he waste his time talking to me? I wondered.
I had no idea what to expect as he stood there looking down at me. He held the cigarette out to me and although I shook my head, he just ignored me and pushed the lit end right near my face as I instinctively backed away. Then he ordered me to take the cigarette and puff on it.
I tried to do as he said but I got it all wrong, I didn’t inhale. He told me to try again. I was so scared and my hand shook so badly that when I took my second puff I dropped the cigarette. Even though Jocko was yelping and growling at the boy, I could tell my Jocko was afraid, too. Then I began coughing. My head became filled with fog as the smoke filled my lungs and I began to lose focus.
The next memory I have is of lying on my back looking up at the leaves on the trees through the branches. I’m not in any pain but I’m not altogether awake either. Then I feel the uneven ground under my lower back and his hands on my chest as he roughly twists my shoulders round to align with his. His hand covers both my mouth and my nose, and I start to panic as I fight for breath. He smiles weirdly as he nearly leaves his hand there too long. I choke wildly as he finally pulls it off.
By this time I am in such a panic that I begin to pee myself. Which just enrages him further as he lifts himself up from me. That’s when I look up again and see the stone in his right hand. He brings it towards my head and the next thing I hear is a wet smack. My eyes go red, then black. I lose consciousness to the sounds of the high-pitched angry noise that he makes as he finally finishes raping me.
I have no idea how long I was out for but I was moaning as I came round to hear him hiss in my ear, ‘Shut up! Shut the fuck up!’ I felt my eyes with my left hand. The lids were swollen nearly shut. As I tried to sit up he knelt on my shoulders, his knees either side of my head, and pinned me there, saying all these things I didn’t understand.
At one moment he sounded nearly hysterical, almost crying and pleading as he told me the things I would have to say were the causes of my injuries; in the next he switched to rage and anger, hissing dire threats that all spewed out on top of each other. When he had composed himself some, he started to tell me how he would kill Jocko and my entire family if I told anyone what had happened. Then there was this moment when he seemed to be deciding whether he had scared me enough to keep me silent. At last he ran off and left me.
My head was in such a haze as I tried to find my way back home that, even though it was so close, I kept getting lost as I screamed and screamed for Jocko to come until my lungs burned. I knew I’d be in trouble with Mom for going where I wasn’t supposed to go and for ruining my clothes, and I was sure I was going to get a whipping if my parents ever found out about the cigarette.
When I eventually reached our front door, Mom saw me and nearly fainted. There was a huge bruise across my forehead where I had been hit by the stone and my eyes were nearly swollen shut. I told her that I had fallen over and she was so alarmed by my appearance that she never questioned how or where I had fallen. She immediately called for an ambulance, which took me to a specialist eye hospital, the Wills Eye Institute in south Philadelphia. The doctors were concerned that the continued swelling would cause brain damage or that my eyesight might be affected, but following treatment I was released later that day.
That evening, when my father asked me what had happened, I told him I had been walking along a wall pushing a shopping cart when it had tipped over and taken me with it; I’d fallen on to the cart and banged my head, I said. It was the lie the boy who’d attacked me had told me to tell anyone who asked.
It was also the first step to the lie that not only kept me trapped by what he had done to me but which he would use to bind me to him in secrecy for several years to come.
I now wish with all my heart – for myself and for my family – that I had spoken out about the attack right away. No matter what I had done wrong – by going where I wasn’t supposed to go and by smoking a cigarette – I should have told my parents what had happened. But it was the weapon that he used on me every time he saw me alone. I hated it that from this time onwards for the next few years he would catch me by myself in an alley and just scare the hell out of me, before roughing me up a little as a reminder of how much bigger and stronger than me he was. I would hide in our basement and just pummel my fists into my legs because my head was all confused and I wanted to fight him but I felt so weak. There was nothing I could do, and the longer I kept silent, the less likely it was that anyone would believe me.
By the time I was ten or eleven it was like I could never convince anyone that the attack was real any more. I had also convinced myself that if I had not been so weak and afraid that day he would not have attacked me. There must have been something about me sexually that had made him attack me, I felt. Was it because I didn’t look masculine enough? I found myself trying harder and harder to be stronger and more masculine in any way I could. I wanted to be able to fight so that I could protect myself. I wanted to be menacing like him so that people would fear me.
Unknowingly, all the things inside me that had made me the person I was, left me after the attack, to be replaced by a chaos of violence and uncontrolled behaviour. School changed from being a wonderful place that I attended eagerly in order to learn, to this mad world where even my ability to see written words had changed.
The physical damage to my brain had two effects: the curvature of my eyes altered and my ability to see words correctly was also affected. Soon I was the child with the behavioural problems who was always being taken out of class for acting up.
Meanwhile, the seeds of dysfunction already sown amongst my five siblings were growing with every passing year. It was as if this unique era in America’s history was also pitched against my family. Racial violence and rampant drug use were the two common themes of my childhood. My whole family was as deeply affected by this as any other. But I was also growing up at a time when whole cities were being set on fire in race riots, and Philadelphia was no exception. Those were tumultuous times, as America went to war with itself, and it was all too easy for the system to overlook the psychological problems of a little white kid in a nondescript section of Philadelphia.
With my secret driving me deeper and deeper into self-abuse, it seemed that I was set on a sure path to self-destruction. I drank beer for the first time at the age of ten. This was at a family celebration and, after a few sips, I felt as if I had left every fear or worry behind at last. From then on, I wanted to feel the same way that beer made me feel all the time. By the age of fourteen I was using drugs or alcohol every day.
At fifteen I was arrested for the first time – for stealing from a neighbour’s home to purchase drugs. Then, after I was arrested and placed in a juvenile hospital facility, in a fit of panic I stuck my fingers in an electric fan, nearly cutting them off. By this time it should have been clear to any adult that I had emotional and developmental problems, but, despite my early arrest, the system did not catch up with me.
Upon my release from hospital I was placed in a school for troubled children, but before I had completed my senior year I was arrested again for petty crimes. As my life continued to spiral out of control it seemed as if all anyone said to me was: ‘You’re going to be dead or doing life in prison by the time you’re twenty-one.’
It became a self-fulfilling prophecy that I could feel pulling me along.
Yet to watch The Fear of 13 on Netflix? Check out the trailer below.