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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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After so many have hurt him, he seeks to forgive himself
Deciding: To forgive
By JUSTIN GEORGE, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008
Dennis DeFeo finds chip carving to be great therapy. He suffered a nervous breakdown 10 years ago.
[Times photo: XXXX]
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]
Dennis DeFeo holds a teddy bear as he talks about the sexual, emotional and mental abuse he endured as a child.
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]
Dennis DeFeo holds a piece of wood sculpture he carved at his home in Spring Hill.
SPRING HILL - He sits in his mobile home, chipping away at wood and memory in a process that never ends.
Pipes and plywood lay exposed, a raw work in progress awaiting the parquet linoleum he will install. In five years, he's finished just one room, for guests.
He's been working on his life for 10.
He retired as a welder long ago. He whittles for a living to the tune of the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers, forming wood trivets and figurines by hand to sell at flea markets.
"It's called chip carving, and you take out a chip at a time," he said. "Before you know it, I'm looking at a finished piece."
Away from his work table, Dennis DeFeo chisels at his pain, replacing repression with confession and soon, he hopes, something else:
Perhaps he should forgive his father for those lashings DeFeo remembers and his father denies.
Perhaps he ought to forgive his mother, who never acknowledged the boy's bruises.
Perhaps his grandfather and uncle need forgiveness. Their families lived downstairs and upstairs from Dennis in a Brooklyn row house. But they didn't seem to notice.
Perhaps he should forgive them for mocking him when he cried as a child or when they'd see his "lawyer," Aunt Gloria, rush in to the rescue. Or for making him finish fights, even driving him back to the scene after he had been attacked 3 to 1.
Perhaps he should forgive everyone for what he says they did to him, leaving him with nowhere to turn, laying a foundation for the abuse to come, making him feel weak and incomplete - anything but a DeFeo man.
Perhaps he should forgive Ellie, his neighbor, who asked his mother to send him over to run errands. First she gave him $15 for $5 trips, then she'd be standing there in her panties as if that were normal and then came the day she asked him to come into the bathroom and bring her the pocketbook. She was in the tub naked.
He was 11, he says, when she touched him and told him she was going to make him a man. She did it for three years.
Perhaps Dennis should forgive a society that celebrates The Graduate and followed every move blue-eyed, blond Debra Lafave made after she abused one of her students.
No, he decides. After surviving a suicide attempt where he stuck a knife in his belly and pulled up, after 10 years of therapy, after overcoming the panic attacks brought on by the scent of perfume, after feeling okay enough to hug a teddy bear to feel safe or punch a bunch of sandbags in therapeutic frustration, he knows who deserves forgiveness.
"One day it's going to hit me that I forgive myself," said DeFeo, 54. "One day, it's going to hit me ... 'It's not your fault.'"
One day, he said, he'll stop judging himself for his ambivalence over being abused. He'll stop blaming himself for not dropping the pocketbook, not telling a police officer, not fighting off Ellie.
His wife reminds him that he probably couldn't have resisted if he had tried.
He knows she's right. But you have to accept forgiveness and he hasn't yet. So he whittles and waits.
Dennis DeFeo helped a reporter re-create feelings and moments experienced during his life and therapy. DeFeo's father, Michael DeFeo, 76, of Blue Ridge, Ga., denies ever striking his son or family with a belt. He says his son stopped speaking to him eight years ago. He knows nothing about abuse by their neighbor. Neither man recalls the neighbor's last name. Dennis DeFeo's mother, uncle and grandfather are dead. His sister declined to comment. "Deciding," an occasional series, offers insights on the choices people make.