CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Despite his booming laugh, the big man has known dark times.
John Osborne, a former Yale University assistant professor who landed in homeless shelters here, picks up the baseball bat that looks small in his chunky hands, his bearded face bursting into a grin.
"When I think the old rage is going to get the best of me," he says, standing in his small apartment in a public housing facility, "I take this down to the river bank and beat it. I call it bat therapy."
Raised by parents who severely abused him and his brothers in the late 1940s, Mr. Osborne's resentments twisted him for years.
Unhealed, such anger can trigger crimes of revenge. The recent murders of four people in a New Hampshire town were committed by a man with longtime grudges. Experts say many male felons were sexually or physically abused as children.
Osborne's path to recovery is emblematic of that being followed by others today. Through men's support groups, the 12-step program originated by Alcoholics Anonymous, prayer, writing, and reaching out to help others, his path is one of spiritual insight and healing.
This route marks a cultural departure, especially for men, from traditional ones of toughing out emotional pain, resorting to alcohol or other drugs, or opting for standard psychiatric treatment.
"I feel as though I have been redeemed," he says in his hearty voice, "and I owe something for that to other people who won't give up hope that it can happen to them. I know now that this is an inside job, just between me and my God, and has nothing to do with anyone outside of me."
Long before Osborne made this discovery, he used a baseball bat one night in self-defense against his father when he was 20. "My father had really brutalized John and my mother just before John struck back," says Dennis Osborne, John's brother.
Osborne struck his father, sending him to the hospital. The police saw it as self-defense. Osborne's father never returned, thus ending some 20 years of physical and sexual abuse.
Healing the rage and resentment has been more difficult. "When I use the bat today," says Osborne, "I don't direct it at him. It's for me, a way to expend energy, to help myself."
A double life
How Osborne traveled from the Yale faculty to a homeless shelter evolved through a double life, one that appeared successful on the surface, but remained explosive an inch below.
Even as he graduated from City College of New York and later earned a master's degree in social work from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., he says he "held on to his list of resentments."
Through college and into the Marines - and an attempted suicide before his discharge - Osborne continued to battle himself because "the tape of resentments was always running through my mind," he says.
After working as director of a children's residential treatment center, he was hired by the Yale Child Study Center as an assistant professor of social work. His empathy and understanding of troubled children was professionally recognized.
But personally he floundered. "I drove everybody away from me," he says. "Years of psychoanalysis only made me worse."
His failures began to come more swiftly.
"My marriage was a shallow relationship," he says, "and when my wife left me for another man, I stood over my sons one night with a knife in my hand ready to kill them and burn the house down as revenge. But something knocked me to my knees. Only God knows what it was."
He quit Yale, ran a laundromat for several years, then drifted in and out of jobs, using drugs, unable to cope or maintain relations with his sons, women, or anyone. After he tried to choke a woman he was living with in Cambridge, Mass., he was arrested and went to jail.
Upon release he went in and out of homeless shelters with few possessions, but a storm of anger and confusion in him.
"I knew I had fallen as far as I could," he says, "so I could stop worrying about that and relax a little. I began making choices that I had been unable to make all my life, to follow through on writing, for instance."
He began to write poetry and attend meetings of Co-Dependents Anonymous (CODA), a group based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. "I had no excuses," he says, "I began to meet myself."
In a state of spiritual hunger, he was moved by the CODA meetings. "I was sitting there [in the meetings] for the first time in my life with an attentive, respectful, family surrogate audience," he says, "and they listened to me tell my story and I listened to them tell their stories. And no one judges anyone or gives feedback unless you ask for it. This was amazing to me."
Part of the CODA process is to identify resentments in writing, and take responsibility to "write turnarounds to determine what you could have done differently," Osborne says.
Eventually he spent six months at the First Church Congregational Homeless Shelter in Cambridge, where this reporter first met him in 1994. Osborne often went to CODA five times a week.
He admired the courage others expressed, but felt "no admiration for my own story," he says. "I had no connection with myself and I was always attacking authorities."
He went back to his boyhood homes to "get over my childhood because it was costing me too much." He wanted to be free of the rage he felt.
"I always thought John was an intelligent, courageous man," says Jim Stewart, the director of the First Church shelter. "He was trying to deal with his scars and traumas the only way anybody can do it, to allow the healing process to take its course."
Most recently, Osborne participated in a Vermont wilderness retreat known as Vision Quest, and fasted alone for four days. The experience was preceded by discussions about how men can live from their strengths instead of their wounds.
"I trusted the leader there, a man named Sparrowhart," Osborne says. "I tested him and he passed every test. And later I learned to trust 40 men during another five-day camp."
Sparrowhart, who talked and worked with Osborne and other men in a nine-month program, says of Osborne now, "He had a 200-pound weight on his back at first, and now he has almost a normal sized backpack there."
Osborne realized the "tapes of resentment that he played again and again" were losing their hold. "I now know I have a choice," he says. "If I wake up in morning and have a problem left over from dealing with a person, I can call him on the phone, and straighten it out. Or I can drop it."
Osborne has the Third Step prayer (from the 12-step program) taped above his computer, and a copy in his wallet.
"I never spend a nickel," he says, "or sit down at my computer without starting with this prayer:
'God, I offer myself to Thee to build with me and to do with me as thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy power, Thy love and Thy way of life. May I do Thy will always.' "
As a long-time opponent of the death penalty, Osborne is now the Northeast Regional Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International. All too often, he says, he has seen men who have been abused as children, men who shuttle in and out of prisons until they end up on death row.
"Yes, these men have had their day in court," he says, "but what usually happens after they hit bottom is they begin to reflect. What happened to me? How did I get here? In my view, we shouldn't be executing these people. We should be letting God do His work with them."
Osborne now lives alone in a small apartment. He receives a modest Social Security check each month. On Thursday nights, he goes to CCTV Channel 55 here and reads books to children for half an hour. "It's the greatest fun," he says, laughing. "The highest you can get is when a child calls up and wants you to read the 'Stinky Cheese Man' to him."
Despite Osborne's fragility sometimes, his spiritual lens is clearer. "As far as I am concerned," he says, "we are here on earth to better ourselves as spiritual beings, and do our own work and the work of our Father."