From: "John V. Wilmerding" (

Date: Feb 12 1999 06:13:28

Frontline's "The Execution": Commentary

Commentary on PBS' (US Public Television's)

Frontline ( episode

titled 'The Execution'

broadcast in February 1999.


He wanted attention at a very basic level, from the time his drug and alcohol ridden mother left him when he was three days old to go and look for the next fix.

That was the defining moment in Clifford Boggess' life. From that moment on, Clifford needed attention, and he did anything he could to get it.

He was left twice -- by his birth mother and by his adoptive mother. His adoptive mother feels guilty -- she says she thinks he might have turned out differently if she had not left him at the age of five during a divorce. She says he needed to be held all the time when he was a toddler -- she could not meet his need to be held.

Someone should console her -- the fundamental damage within Clifford was not her fault.

It was the first time around when the real damage was done. Clifford did not get to bond with someone until he was adopted -- at the ripe old age of a year and a half. If you don't bond with someone by then, you are in big trouble. After that, the need for attention becomes the cast of one's entire life --

it becomes a need of infancy that was never filled, and never can be.

This is how a human being acquires a real illness -- a permanent illness -- a dis-ease -- that will never leave them for the rest of their lives.

Every human being has value in the eyes of G-d. But some human beings can never have value in their own eyes. Some human beings can never fully know what they lack, because they never had it at the most basic human level -- at infancy.

But maybe they can see -- maybe they observe -- from the outside looking in, as it were -- on a rational level -- that other people can relate on a deeper level, and then in some way -- emotionally -- they remember -- deep down -- they need attention. The baby in them still needs it. The baby never had it. The baby still craves it.

These are emotional memories -- formative records from the first days, weeks, and months of life. Even sometimes from inside the womb. But the adult Clifford could not remember if there might have been something in his early childhood that made a difference one way or the other -- he could not remember.

As adults, sometimes we learn to lie to ourselves about some things. We can ALWAYS remember -- deep down, we can always remember. Maybe not words, or sounds, or pictures, or people. But the horror, the pain, the anger, the blows, the violations -- these we can remember.

But the bonding with a loving, relatively-whole parent? How can someone remember what they have never had?

Clifford never formed a self in the way that most people understand this. He never had a foundation upon which to build character.

The social conscience forms way past toddlerhood -- between the ages of six and ten -- closer to ten. In Clifford, there was something important missing way before that.

Baby Clifford. The "poor son of a bitch", as someone in the program called him. Is this the way we should remember him? Is this what you say about a baby with no one there to hold him, to change his diapers on time, to lovingly feed him, to sing to him, to whisper that they love him?

Do we stop focusing on Clifford and dehumanize his mother by calling her a bitch? Of that description of Clifford, Frontline said "that feels about right". The mother who could not feel -- the mother who even brutalized him. They called her a female dog. They dehumanized her. They wound up calling Clifford a sorry puppy by implication. They even dehumanized the baby boy that lay there alone, his most basic human needs unmet.

He never got his needs met. It wasn't possible. So Clifford got real mad at the world. But he wasn't trying to get even -- getting even would require a rudimentary sense of justice. He didn't even know he was mad. He was just trying to get attention.

Later on, he did get some -- he was able to relate to people in such a way that from afar, through the mails, from behind glass screens, they could call him their best friend.

But he could not meet their needs to relate on a deeper level, and neither could they meet his. It was too late for baby Clifford. His mother never gave up on him -- instead, she couldn't care for him -- was unable to care for him -- because she had a chemical agenda -- a substance-induced biochemical imbalance.

So Clifford gave up on his mother! He gave up on his most basic human connection with life. HE HAD NO CHOICE IN THIS MATTER.

Clifford learned to hate Mother's Day -- he just couldn't relate to it. All those people fawning sickeningly over their mothers. Clifford was hurt when he saw it, but he could not bring himself to admit how much.

On one level, how could he fully appreciate the loss of someone, something, that he never had?

But on the deepest level of life, he couldn't help but thirst for attention.

They say 'you don't miss your water 'till the well runs dry'. But do you really have to comprehend what water is to be thirsty? Well, we do comprehend what this kind of water is -- you can't escape it -- human beings are made of water -- we are made of love.

Clifford knew something was missing -- something blessed and precious -- something he had a RIGHT to, but could never have. Something that he was MADE of, but that he needed MUCH more of. Clifford missed having love -- he missed it so deeply that he could never express -- in words, in emotions -- how much he missed it.

Over and over and over again in his life, people gave up on Clifford because he could not offer them true respect -- he could not offer them any personal sort of intimacy -- he could not affirm them, because he could not affirm himself.

He decided to kill when his needs still weren't met as a young adult. He was desperate -- at the level of the heart, his life was abominable -- it would be too easy to say it was a life or death struggle. One day, he realized he was a man -- he may have said to himself 'Is this all there is?' It was not enough. It would never be enough.

Texas gave him attention. They attended to him last June when they killed him. It is the way they do things in Texas -- you know, like they say, it's like a whole other country there.

People live in Texas. Human beings. Some of them say they want to see people die if they brutally murder somebody. This is wrong. You don't kill a baby for needing attention. Not unless you needed attention yourself once and didn't get it.

There are Quakers who have been killed because they believed so desperately in peoples' humanity that they took them into their homes and tried to minister to them. They may not have fully realized the absurd cast that life takes on when you never bond with someone as an infant.

Quakers believe in 'that of G-d in every one'. Does it boil down to a deeper understanding that as human beings, we are so imperfect that we cannot presume to judge that there is nothing of G-d in somebody? Rather than condemn our selves and our families and our destinies to a bleaker vision, do we learn to find a kind of *optimism* that there is that of G-d in every one?

We pre-tend to worship. Don't take this statement out of context -- our worship is real. But we realize that the violence in the world does not end until people recognize and affirm the human capacity for violence, understand that everyone has it within us, and decide to chart a course -- to blaze a trail -- into a new way of life -- an evolutionary 'next step'. This 'next step' defines a brighter future for humanity in terms of the abysmal past that we, as a species, can one day leave behind if we break the cycles of violence -- if one day we turn the other cheek -- if we learn to love our enemies as well as our neighbors -- if one day we say 'let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me'.

Occasionally, this optimism has been taken on in such a way that it has proven fatal. I have known Friends (Quakers) who have died at the hands of 'Cliffords' who were not able to live up to those Friends hopes and prayers for the flowering of their humanity.

Clifford got Jesus before he died. But Jesus could not replace what Clifford was missing as a human being. It may be seen as a kindness to help someone like Clifford begin to believe that Jesus can do this for them. But this kind of belief in Jesus -- Clifford's kind -- needs to be apprehended with a grain of salt.

Frontline concluded that Clifford tried and failed to affirm his own humanity to himself and others. Frontline was wrong. What is more human than a baby crying for its mother?

Clifford's life was a witness to Truth -- he freely admitted what he had done. And he never said so -- perhaps he didn't know how -- but one may infer that he hoped and prayed the attention he got might make him more human.

Clifford became an artist because the arts serve us by informing us who we are, and what our condition is. Clifford not only needed to know who he was -- he needed to know if he could ever love or be love-able. He needed to know that at the very deepest level of his humanity.

Until you know that, you cannot possibly know who you are, because socially, we define ourselves by what we see reflected back to us in the eyes of others. We drink our humanity in from these others -- it is the Water of Life. As an infant, what do you do when those eyes are not there? You thirst. And if it is your mother's milk of human kindness that you never get, then you never stop thirsting.

Clifford's art and life are part of the human condition today. Clifford was brutally honest, and he was also honest in his brutality. Clifford needed what he could never have -- and despite his pre-tensions of 'getting Jesus', his infantile personality never fully let go of the implied question "Is this all there is?"

John Wilmerding, CERJ General Secretary

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