Keith Luke, 28, the murderer who also tried to kill me, died Monday. He had been found unresponsive in his jail cell after a presumed suicide attempt – the last of several Luke made while in custody.
Luke had been given two life sentences after being found guilty of murdering two people of Cape Verdean descent and brutally raping and critically wounding a woman of the same heritage in Massachusetts in 2009. He appeared in court with a swastika carved into his forehead and declared himself a neo-Nazi.
On January 7, 2010, at the request of his defense attorney, I visited Luke in jail to evaluate his mental status. But soon after I said hello to Mr. Luke – a powerful, muscular man who weighed nearly 300 pounds – he leapt over the table between us, kicked me in the head and attempted to strangle me.
After Luke attacked me, I asked the prison officials to let me finish my evaluation that day. They (wisely, perhaps) declined my request.
I returned, therefore, for another visit a few weeks later.
This time, Luke was behind glass. When I started our discussion by observing, “Last time I was here you tried to hurt me,” he responded, “No, Doc, last time you were here I tried to kill you. And if I had had two minutes longer with you, you’d be dead. But not until the end of the two minutes. I’d want to watch you suffer as long as I could.”
I had enough thick glass between us to reinforce my presence of mind. “You just don’t want anyone getting close to the truth about whatever destroyed you as a person,” I said. “That’s why you’re spouting that garbage to me. That’s why you attacked me. And that’s why you have that Nazi symbol you carved into your forehead. Even your hatred of people of color is just your hatred of yourself, projected onto others.”
“Go to hell,” he seethed. “You’re a Jewish piece of crap.”
“You couldn’t try harder to make people keep their distance,” I went on. “And that’s why I’m back. Because you may not even remember that you were once a decent person, maybe just a decent kid, and we can figure out together what went wrong.”
I thought I saw the rage drain from Luke’s face for half an instant. I could have imagined it. He stood up, called for the guards to take him away and stared back at me, with murderous hatred, and said, “I hope you die in a car crash on your way home.”
Here’s my confession: I asked Luke’s attorney to let me keep visiting to keep evaluating him, but the attorney was resistant.
So I didn’t push the matter. I didn’t ask again. I never went back to see him. And that was a great failing of mine as a healer and a human being.
Maybe, in explaining why I consider myself to have failed so miserably, I can give readers insight into the power of psychiatry, and its connection to God.
I know for certain that many, many people are loath to let light into the parts of their lives that have turned them toward darkness – whether depression or anxiety or psychosis or violence.
They imagine it will be too painful to share their stories of being powerless or unloved or traumatized.
Some are so lost they don’t believe there is any light to be found anymore, or even that there ever was.
They will reject the very individuals who could help them retrace the steps of their psychological or spiritual destruction (which are the same thing, by the way) – until, maybe after years, maybe after terrible suffering or inflicting terrible suffering on others, they stop running from their truth and, instead, face it.
I know a psychiatrist can never conspire with that cynicism, hopelessness or helplessness. I know from 20 years of practicing adult, adolescent and forensic psychiatry that anyone who destroys another person has himself been destroyed, often in childhood, by forces over which he had no control.
There are no exceptions. No one is born evil.
Yet I didn’t show up more than once more to visit Mr. Luke.
I should have shown up a dozen times. Or two dozen. Or 50.
I should have met his desire to destroy me with an equal and opposite desire to resurrect him by helping him find the truth about how he lost his humanity and empathy. And I didn’t. I let his darkness overpower me.
Had I kept going back, there was the possibility (and only a sliver of one) that we would have prevailed together. We might have eventually, against the odds, separated by thick glass, meeting first as a killer and one of his intended victims, found the good in Keith Luke, meaning the human potential we all have for empathy and decency and courage.And that would have been elementally, immeasurably, important, for its own sake.
It would not have brought his victims back to life or erased the horrible suffering of the woman who survived his vicious attack. But it would have brought something inside Keith Luke back to life – something connected to God.
That’s what God wants from psychiatrists: nothing short of that commitment to burrowing for the Truth. And He could not have given me a more powerful clue. Keith. Luke. My first name, and the name of Saint Luke the Evangelist, a disciple of the apostle Paul, who is the patron saint of physicians.
How did I miss it? How could the juxtaposition of those two names literally have only occurred to me while writing this piece?
Now Keith Luke is dead, and so is a glistening possibility God put in my path to show I would always remain faithful to my profession and his Word. I can only remain alert for other such opportunities and show more commitment to them, in the future.
Sharing this story with you is part of that commitment.