Death by cop is a more common form of attempted suicide than I would have guessed before I became a crime reporter. Among the poor, the desperate, the heart-crushed, the mentally ill, and the abjectly lost it is up there with bridge jumping and, believe it or not, about a third as prevalent as guns, pills, opiate overdoses, and car exhaust fumes, mainly because these latter remedies for our existential knot all require some cold, hard cash. Acting insane and life-threatening—hyped-up and crazed, preferably at night, in the shadows, a stranger in a place you should not be—is often enough to lure a bullet out of a policeman’s gun and into your heart, lung, guts, or head. And statistically speaking, it of course also helps to be black.
Maybe you read about Jeremy Eastman, a troubled nineteen-year-old from Portsmouth, Virginia, an upper-middle-class white guy. But if you did he was probably a bit player, a secondary character—the dead guy (I know because I wrote some of the copy)—in the brief political storm that battered this area a few years back having to do with police brutality and when it is and isn’t appropriate to use deadly force. I’m now going to tell the story, as simply as possible, of what actually happened to Eastman. To the extent that is possible.
It’s not that I lied in the newspaper clips. On the contrary, every fact I chose to reveal was correct and my words were arranged to say what happened. I just left out, in my rush to print, in my rush in being rushed to print, some key information. By the standards I was meant to uphold as a newspaperman, I got it all right; I just also got it all wrong.
Jeremy Eastman had been an honors student studying Pure Mathematics at William & Mary. (Former English major that I am I have only a cursory notion of what that even is.) He dropped out after his third semester because of what the school would only call “personal reasons.” I got the feeling they asked him to leave, but no one ever officially said as much. At college he drank heavily. He smoked pot every day. He had very high grades, nearly a 4.0. And then one day at the beginning of the spring semester of his sophomore year he painted his dorm room door caution orange and used his face and hands to make “self imprints” in the wet paint. He did this, I was told by a student in that dorm who knew him, because he felt it would protect him from fourth- and fifth-dimensional forces he was just discovering in his pure mathematical studies.
Some kids lose it in college. Not a news flash, I know, because we all assume that about half the country that can afford it is prescribed some kind of psychiatric medication (full disclosure: I’ve taken 300 mgs of Buproprion XL every morning with my coffee for several years). And we all see the parade of mass shooting aftermaths on TV—what?—four, five, six times a year nowadays. And I personally know because a) I went to college, am part of the mass-shooter demographic of white, middle-ish-class males, and I felt, for a few years there, before some lifestyle changes and the meds, the faint tremors of depression to the edge of some unknowable abyss; and b) as a Ph.D. Lit student, before I dropped out, I taught four sections of freshman composition a year for half a decade. I’d say, just ball-parking it, that, as I stood at the front of a class in my five‑o’clock shadow and khakis and Ray Ban nerd spectacles, looking the part of an underpaid lecturer, one or two out of ten of my students each semester were having serious adjustment/stress/mental health issues. Basically if you mix eighteen to twenty-two year olds (the most common ages for mental illness to manifest itself), high expectations, external and internal pressure, dashed and dashing dreams, feelings that a lot of what they believed to be true—economics, politics, history, the construction of meaning, gender roles, sex, social order, time, memory, identity, basically any idea of real, unyielding “facts”—is quite possibly at least partly a sham or at any rate contextual, contingent, and up for debate, and then simmer all this in heavy alcohol and narcotics abuse that ranges from genetically modified super-weed to grain alcohol to the brain-scrambling smoking of toxic bath salts and snorting crystal meth, you have a very unstable situation on your hands.
Eastman returned home after the door-painting incident. He sought counseling. Or rather his family sought counseling for him. He took a job at his father’s insurance company, but when he showed up for work in a suit and without shoes or socks that first week and told the secretary he was “ready for combat,” his parents decided he needed more rest. Thus began a two-month period in which he slept until noon, sat in his dark room on his computer (doing what, nobody knows, but it was some kind of high-level mathematics), and going a week sometimes without showering or eating anything other than dry cereal and Fig Newtons. His hair grew long and wild. His beard grew out in patches, like a scorched, weed-choked lawn. He dropped out of the counseling sessions after a couple of weeks. (As usual, I only saw him when he was stretched out in the morgue on a steel table with gutters and a drain.)
Eastman began walking around Portsmouth at some point, sometimes barefoot, spending his days doing ten- and twelve-mile loops, often through poor, black sections. He was stopped at least twice by police, who asked him what he was doing there or if he was lost. He was once picked up because of “erratic behavior” (I don’t know what, specifically)—probably stepping on and off the sidewalk, walking directly toward people and veering away at the last second—and mumbling to police when questioned. His mother and father fetched him from the local precinct. No charges were filed.
He met a sixteen-year-old black runaway at a place called Rainbow Youth Services Center, which was essentially a storefront with tables and chairs and a computer and board games for street kids to hang out during the day. There were three counselors. There was a part-time nurse and medical treatment of minor issues onsite—dehydration, panic, bruises and cuts—and a ride to the ER for major issues—rapes, knife wounds, psychosis, overdoses. There were sandwiches, donuts, and apple and orange juice every morning until they were gone, which was usually by noon. There was an attempt at drug and alcohol counseling, but none of the counselors had training in this area. The place had been started by a Lutheran Minister, a man who had died a few years earlier of brain cancer, but it stayed open and it received varying levels of funding from the state each year, depending on whether Republicans (lower funding) or Democrats (slightly higher funding) were in the state house.
Jeremy brought the runaway home with him and they disappeared into his dark room in the far corner of the third floor. It was a big house of five or six bedrooms and four bathrooms, he was a troubled guy, his parents were walking on eggshells around him, and it was a week later before Jeremy’s mother ran into the runaway, who was in her underwear, in the hall. She screamed, assuming, reasonably, that this black girl was an intruder. Jeremy came out of his dark room, underwear only, a deflating erection pushing against the Fruit-of-the-Loom’s front flap, and told his mom with an odd and bearded face that she, the runaway, lived here now. A year, two years before this, Mrs. Eastman would have exerted some serious parental authority and become apoplectic over something as outlandish as this—a black runaway in her Virginia gentry brick colonial. But the world of that house had seriously shifted with Jeremy’s mental state and situation and the dropping out of college and the Eastman’s wanted to avoid any sort of crisis, which they sensed, consciously or not, was coming. Mrs. Eastman awkwardly shook the runaway’s hand and said, “Uh, welcome.” (People think their world is sturdy, that nothing like this could come along and wreck its very essence, its comfortable meanings. But of course they’re wrong.) Jeremy said his new friend’s name was Lisa Bonet, referring of course to the beautiful light-skinned black actress best known for her role as the oldest Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.” Jeremy and his friend, “Lisa,” laughed, but Mrs. Eastman didn’t know the show and was outside of the joke. Her life had become a strange dream, and having her wild-haired, filthy-footed son and a black, and not very clean, teenaged runaway, both in underwear, post-intercourse, cackling conspiratorially in her upstairs hallway—the fine hardwood floors, the landscape and hunting paintings—was just another episode in this nightmare of Jeremy’s mental state to get through.
A few months after Lisa Bonet moved in, Mr. and Mrs. Eastman came up with a plan to get rid of her, which would allow them, they hoped, to get Jeremy back into what they believed was much-needed therapy. They would bribe her.
Now if this were Shakespeare, and not the rehashed tales of a convalescing ex-crime reporter, if this were lyricized art, iambically rendered, instead of often cruel and disappointing life, Lisa Bonet would have rejected the money, held tight in the powers of love, and she and Jeremy would spend the rest of this story doing whatever was necessary to stay together until some love-caused tragedy, which would grow organically out of the drama we are in here, befell them. This isn’t Shakespeare, though, or a tale of star-crossed lovers, and the real world of my reporting days was quite narratively messy, filled with deus ex machina, as if some ill and confused and cruel god liked to step into this little life of ours to smite the living with fuck-all, crap-shoot logic. Working as a crime journalist didn’t make me stop believing in the idea of the possibility of a God; it just made it very clear to me that God doesn’t individually care about us.
Lisa hung out with Jeremy for a place to stay and for plentiful marijuana smoking. I didn’t know her at all. But she was a street kid. I’ve hung out with street kids, interviewed them or those who knew them, gathered oral history, written about them, sometimes because they’d just been killed or almost killed. And I can tell you that she was most likely an addict, and that she had probably been raped at least once, and that at some point she may well have been raped by a family member or a friend of the family, and that that, the emotion scrambling victim/predator scenario at home two or four or six years ago, is probably what sent her out into the streets in the first place. She slept with Jeremy as part of the deal of staying with him (sex as payment), and she may have wanted to do that, I don’t know, but as soon as Mr. and Mrs. Eastman offered her a grand in cash and a bus ticket to Durham, NC, where there was also a decent-sized runaway population and some support through religiously run youth centers, she grabbed the money and disappeared. The end.
Or the end of the relationship, at least.
I’m not sure what happened in the immediate aftermath of Lisa Bonet’s taking the cash and bus ticket and leaving. But something bad, and either violent or threatening to be violent. Because Jeremy was involuntarily committed to a holding ward at Eastern State Mental Hospital.
Since deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, it has become very hard to hold people in hospitals. There are plenty of people who get locked away who shouldn’t be. Many more, however, need serious help and can’t get it or refuse it and end up back on the streets. Sometimes they commit crimes. More often they are victims. They could only hold Jeremy for thirty days. At the end of those thirty days, he went back home, no better at all and now angry at his parents.
This next part is tricky. Jeremy’s mother wanted him to stay at home, erratic behavior or no. His father, the insurance mogul, did not want his hairy, foul-smelling, mentally-ill son in the house unless he would agree to take his medications exactly as prescribed, which he wouldn’t do. Words, screaming, hurt feelings, and then Jeremy is out the door, at night, roaming the poor black neighborhoods of Portsmouth, not three miles from his family’s mini-mansion in the rich, white part of town.
For some reason—and he was completely off meds and very unstable—he began sprinting, barefoot, along the streets and avenues, past food marts and cash checking places. Some groups of kids hanging out on corners shouted encouragement to him. Go, man! Yeah!
No black person would sprint along those streets unless they needed to. I reported on this place for years, so believe me when I tell you that a black twenty-year-old would not suit up and go for a run because he would be pulled over by a cop. He might be arrested. He might be shot.
So therefore a running person in these neighborhoods was de facto a criminal. Or he wouldn’t be running.
Jeremy was chased down by a squad car. Scared, he ran into a dark alley. Two cops, both young and white, pulled their guns and told him to come out with his arms raised. They flashed a light into the alley but didn’t see him. They waited. Nothing. They yelled again for him to come out.
Then Jeremy writhed out from behind a wood crate and in an instant sprinted at the cops, growling like a deranged bear. Both officers shot him multiple times. Twelve bullets in all, all direct hits to the chest, arms, shoulders, and abdomen. He was dead before he fell to the concrete. When I saw him naked in the morgue, I couldn’t help but think that all those bullet holes, cleaned up now, looked like small, perfect circles drawn onto his skin with a red Sharpie. That’s a strange thought, I know. But it’s the one I had.
Like I said, most of the coverage after this centered on the issue of police behavior and the use of deadly force. One of the cops quit a few months after the incident. He was, I believe, destroyed by it. The other is still on the force, but no longer patrols that area.
Much was made in the newspapers of the facts that Jeremy was a William & Mary student, his father was a successful business man, his mother was head of a local chapter of the Junior League, and they were a fine and upstanding family from the rich part of town.
At the grand jury, the lawyers for the officers painted a portrait of Jeremy as a deranged individual who wanted the cops to kill him. They had records and written testimony about Jeremy’s life at the end of college and after, which was odd and grim reading. The two cops were the victims of a “suicide by police” situation, and no charges were filed.
A lot of the death I covered was like this: ridiculous, existential, faith-destroying.
No one—except me to my editor, in the privacy of his office—ever mentioned the possibility that Jeremy, deranged or not, would likely not have been gunned down had he not been in that poor, black neighborhood at night, where every local knew running was an admission of guilt. Not that a social observation like that would have made any difference to anything at all.
Greg Bottoms is a writer of literary nonfiction and fiction. He is the author of a memoir, Angelhead (2000), an Esquire Magazine “Book of the Year,” two books of essays about American outsider artists, The Colorful Apocalypse (2007) and Spiritual American Trash (2013), and four prose collections, Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks (2001), Fight Scenes (2008), Swallowing the Past (2011), and Pitiful Criminals (2014). His work has appeared in Agni, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Oxford American, Seattle Review, Shenandoah, Texas Review, Witness, and numerous other literary journals and magazines. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is a Professor of English.