I was doing his intake assessment. He was an elderly white man with sparse gray hair. He was wearing a cardigan sweater and a flannel shirt and was ashamed to find himself in this predicament.
I rattled off the standard question: How much have you been drinking, for how long? Have you used cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepines? Have you ever had a blackout? Have you ever been violent while under the influence? Have you ever murdered someone?
Fred gave me all the standard answers. He had only used alcohol—no illicit or prescription drugs—and his use had increased dramatically in the year since his wife died. Sadly, this is a rather typical scenario for older people who become widowed. They drink alone at home to try to assuage their grief, to fill the loneliness.
His responses were all routine until we came to the murder question. He was speaking slowly, quietly, not making eye contact. He looked away. I wasn’t sure he heard me, so I asked again, “Have you ever murdered someone?”
He took a deep breath and looked out the window. “Yes,” he said, “maybe I did.”
I said nothing. I had never been trained, never expected anyone to answer yes to that question.
He began to explain. He had been in
War II, patrolling the streets of a small town. He turned a corner and came
face-to-face with a German soldier. They looked into one another’s eyes and
Fred pulled the trigger on his rifle before the German soldier had a chance to
shoot. The German soldier died instantly. Fred went through the German’s things
and found a photograph of the man with a woman and a small child. Fred thought
he might have killed others before in skirmishes with enemy troops, but he
never knew for sure. But this time, in a small town in Italy , he looked into the German
soldier’s eyes and killed him. The image haunted him for 50 years. Italy
“I don’t know how to answer that question,” he said, “I’ve been asking myself that question for 50 years.”