I fucking hate men.
Jogging down the cement steps of the courthouse stairwell, all eleven floors, it’s all I can think. I’m blistering with rage.
This is the trial of Stephen Houk, a registered sex offender who is accused of abusing his spouse, Amey, and kidnapping their young children in the couple’s motorhome as he fled the police after Amey called the cops. Houk drove four hours in the RV from LA County to Bakersfield with cops on his heels. He told Amey over the phone “this is a hostage situation with babies involved and a loaded fucking gun.” The chase ended in an almond orchard. Houk left his three-year-old son and ten-month-old daughter in the motorhome with the engine still running. Officers found him in a train yard in Barstow two days later. Last year this was a major news story. LA Times, Washington Post, CBS News, KTLA – you name it.
Today I was the only person in the gallery.
The only journalist to hear the details of what came before that police chase, to hear Amey testify about the years of abuse she suffered at Houk’s hand. Years that changed her life forever. I’m the only one because this isn’t really news. This happens all the time.
I fucking hate men.
My shoes scuff the dusty pavement outside. It’s 90 degrees, at least it feels like 90 degrees, and I begin my walk home. I jab at my iPhone – looking for the exact statistic to reaffirm what I already know. One in four women are victims of severe domestic violence. 85% of domestic abuse victims are women. I reassess the crowd of pedestrians around me. I eye the swarms of business people, panhandlers, street vendors, skateboarders, shoppers, and bus-takers. I watch the women.
Amey’s hands shook when she took the stand. Her red hair fell flat at her shoulders, cresting the collar of a white blouse layered with a black knit sweater. Houk glowered at her from the counsel’s table. Balding with pockmarked skin and a bristled goatee, he scribbled notes on a legal pad with a three-inch pencil as Amey described their relationship.
The couple met three years ago in rural Oregon. Back then, Houk went by the name of Tom Johnson because had skipped out on parole for a prior conviction and was hiding from the law. Unable to work and uneasy staying in one place, Houk convinced Amey to use her savings to buy a motorhome, a blue and white Dolphin model with a bike rack. They drove all across the country in that RV: to the east coast and then to Alaska, back to Oregon and down to Arizona. All the while Amey was the sole provider. Houk forced her to panhandle, what he called “flying a sign,” and demanded that she bring in $250 every day while he stayed in the RV smoking cigarettes. Eventually Amey and Houk had a baby, a son. Two years later, Amey got pregnant with a baby girl. That’s when the real “bad” abuse started, Amey explained. He started to strangle her and kick her in the stomach.
I fucking hate men.
I pass under the highway and step over the glass of a broken Budweiser bottle. Today Los Angeles seems especially ugly. I’ve watched cases involving domestic abuse before but this one has ignited a flame in me. Maybe it’s the specific way Houk sneers at Amy or maybe it’s the sheer magnitude of violence against women that my colleagues and I have witnessed. Jose Macias was charged with domestic abuse after allegedly punching through a car window in an attempt to beat his girlfriend. Gabriel Jackson was charged with domestic abuse after allegedly sexually violating his girlfriend and throwing her out of a moving car. Andrea Moorer claims that she suffered years of sexual abuse before she allegedly murdered her pimp. Donte Solomon was convicted of shooting his girlfriend, Donneisha Gregory, in the head. Michael Garguilo, the “Hollywood Ripper”, was convicted of murdering Ashley Ellerin and Maria Bruno. Wyaunte Cousin was convicted of four counts of rape and in closing arguments his defense attorney called his victims a “crystal meth freak” and “the lowest of the low of prostitutes.”
Every ounce of my being screams for a guilty verdict. I’m a one-woman mob that wants the monster. Forget the jury. I have a pitchfork.
A phrase rings in my ears. Constant and piercing, a political tinnitus: “the purpose of the law is to mediate some of our most base instincts. The purpose of the law is to rise above emotion and primitive desires to help forge a civilization.” The words belong to Georgetown Professor, Paul Butler. He spoke them in an interview with Kary Antholis months ago when our site was in its early days. Back then his perspective on criminal justice was simple and inspiring. Back then it felt undeniable. Back then I did not have base instincts in need of mediation.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth: if I still believe Butler’s words then I must believe that Stephen Houk has the right to a fair trial. He has the right to counsel. He has the right against self-incrimination. If I believe that what makes the American legal system strong is the rights it gives its citizens then I must endorse those rights for all citizens and not just those whom I deem morally deserving.
I rattle my fingers along the black iron fences in my neighborhood. The ones that hold back dry mangled bushes, curling cati and ravenous weeds. Intellectually, I accept Stephen Houk’s rights but not in my gut. My fury is too feral right now.
According to Amey, the night before Houk kidnapped the kids and fled the police he was pissed that she wouldn’t suck his cock so he punched her repeatedly in the back of the head. On the stand Amey’s face flushed. Her eyes glistened with tears and she struggled to breathe – like the air was caught in her throat. “He said he was going to kill me and the kids and then himself.” Houk leered at her from his seat at the counsel’s table. He mouthed “LIAR.” Amey recounted that she tried to grab a gun from the closet for protection but Houk headbutted her and grabbed the gun from her hand. With the kids now screaming, Houk took the wheel, revved the ignition and yelled at Amey to make him breakfast. It was 3am but Amey was terrified so she made Hungry Man hash browns. When she handed Houk the plate he threw it in the trash.
I fucking hate men.
I sweat through my maroon linen dress, dark patches pooling around my back and armpits as I continue my trek home. I pass a TRUMP sign in the window of a barbershop and feel a sting of defeat. It took the President of the United States of America saying he likes to grab women by the pussy to inspire a march – to wake us up to the reality of gender inequity and the people who feed that injustice. I went to D.C. I marched that march and it meant something. But the patriarchal society that fosters domestic abuse did not originate with Trump, nor will it end when – god willing – he leaves office. This is beyond a think piece or a pussy hat. It’s not a Dove soap commercial or a girl power anthem.
This is cold hard violence.
Violence that has existed since the Stone Age when our foremothers suffered under a rule of “might makes right.” Violence that continued through classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, through World Wars, and the Cold War. Violence that is with us in the present, in an age where I can ask a three by six inch handheld smartphone what percentage of women experience domestic violence and receive an answer in less than a second.
I watched Stephen Houk’s testimony, thinking maybe his story would lend some nuance to the narrative. He pantomimed scenes and scrunched up his face, his voice cracking with emotional affect. He cried. Sort of. Excuse my speculation but I used to be a stage actor – a mediocre stage actor. I know what it looks like when you try to force tears. Houk voiced his own objections to the prosecution’s line of questioning and was repeatedly reprimanded by Judge Mark Arnold for going off the rails in his narrative. The prosecutor showed an exhibit of a series of text messages that Houk send to Amey. They were all disturbing but one stuck with me: “I want to rip off your head and shit down your neck.”
I fucking hate men.
Finally I make it home, past the bright colored Spanish walk-ups and dusty local convenience stores. I open the gate, trudge up the creaky wood stairs, and open the door to my apartment. My boyfriend is on the couch. My partner. My someday husband. We’ve just moved in together and boxes are still scattered in the living room. Our mishmash of pots and pans are clattered together in the kitchen, his office chair is our TV stand. My jigsaw puzzle occupies our coffee table. We’re at that time in our lives when family starts to mean something a little different: not just where you’re from, but where you’re headed.
I fucking hate men. Violent men, the patriarchal system that give them power, the psychological damage done to women who feel “less than.” But being angry doesn’t make me incapable of love.
My partner holds me tight and I tell him about the case. At this moment there’s one thing I can think:
I love this man.
But I still fucking hate men.
The jury found Stephen Houk guilty of kidnapping, child abuse, injuring a spouse, child detention, assault with a firearm, possession of a firearm by a felon, fleeing an officer and criminal threats. He was sentenced to 88 years in prison