By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In the issue of July 1925, Gabrielle Idlet revealed that her father, much lauded in local obituaries, had in fact died in jail while serving a sentence for having sexually abused his daughter Susan some 30 years ago. The piece, "Hitting the Beats," generated a large number of letters, some of which follow.
I fortunately did not know the John Thomas described in his daughter's "memoir." No matter how germy the real truth or examples of collateral damage from all that well-publicized existential behavior (which you could drop on the doorstep of an entire history of Beat-generation archetypal figures who probably did some pretty shameful things behind consensual acid baths and the all-consuming blue-cheer parties of the mid20th century), there will always be, I feel, a danger in the sometimes hazy recollection of truth, turning, in some cases, into printed attendant rants and defamation and imaginings and defensive innuendo, no matter how honest and well-intentioned a victim of, sometimes, sordid circumstances might be. After all, it appears to hold a cracked mirror up to a desperate American cultural regret, which, even as indicated in conversation with him down the years, John Thomas recognized with a full heart.
Let me bottom-line you on all this: When the accused is no longer on the planet to answer, wholly, any accusations, the only result is the residual pain of penultimate cruelty. The ultimate cruelty, of course, is when those who "read all about it" are vulnerable enough and feel victimized enough themselves to believe it, without holding healthy, necessary and forgiving reservations.
Gabrielle Idlet courageously sacrificed her privacy to set the record straight about her father. It is rare and welcome to see a piece in L.A. Weeklyin which a Beat's degeneracy is portrayed as squalid and trivial rather than brave and important.
If Gabrielle Idlet's raw exposé of her father proves anything, it's that the "If the legend becomes fact, print the legend" credo deserves to be scuttled. Jack Henry Abbott was talented too, and despite Norman Mailer's attempt to sponsor and grant him a new literary lease on life, he showed his true colors by committing murder yet again. Thomas' behavior appears not a rebellion of justified defiance against the usual numerous oppressive forces or adolescent familial strictures that threaten one's basic freedoms or ideologies, but reeks of the lame "I do what I want" school of thought, i.e.: "I'm going to be a selfish, hypocritical rogue (prick), and what are ya gonna do about it?"
Revere and lionize the work; it stands on its own merits, separate from its creator. Those whom Thomas mentored, influenced or regaled with his words shouldn't look at him through rose-colored glasses or put a mask of hipster saint on the man, because on the scale of simple human decency, his personal life was pathetic and beneath contempt.
I am horrified by your irresponsible journalism. The article, and the photographs accompanying it, was character assassination pure and simple and amounted to mostly a pack of lies written by a woman with her own agenda. In publishing "Hitting the Beats"you not only took part in the slandering of a pre-eminent Los Angeles poet, you took part in slamming the entire Beat culture. Shame on you.
Concerning the revelations of Gabrielle Idlet, I was ignorant of the circumstances of her father's death and the crime for which he was convicted. I profoundly apologize if my efforts on behalf of the work of the poet caused any harm or suffering to the children.
I have come by my reputation as a poet and writer with hard work, sacrifice and integrity, and I resent being used by Gabrielle Idlet as fodder for her book proposal -- or anything else. Her piece could have appeared without unfairly linking my name (or Fred Dewey's) to the heinous acts she attributes to her father, Venice West poet John Thomas. We did not know about them. After leaving home, Gabby was in touch with me on numerous occasions, and has always had my home phone number. I considered her a family friend.
At no time did she mention anything to me about her personal life, before or after leaving home. This suggests to me that Gabby, in her own way, is as much of an abuser as her father -- if what she says about Thomas is to be taken as the truth. She is willing to tarnish the reputations of innocent people for her own financial and emotional gain. She has abused the privilege of my friendship and openness to her in the ugliest possible way -- to make her own reputation. But then -- that's very Hollywood, isn't it?
I met the late poet John Thomas in 1992. I consider him and his wife, poet Philomene Long, my mentors. As a writer, John Thomas must be defined as one of the best American poets of the 20th century. As a teacher he had the gift of a poetic wisdom I have never before encountered. As a person I remember him as a very generous and respectful man.
There is, though, a moment in Thomas' life that I admire over everything else. To me it was, and still is, his final and greatest lesson. It is the manner in which he conducted himself during this last year when he was being prosecuted. He never tried to deny, nor justify his actions of 30 years ago, but took responsibility for them. He faced his destiny with great integrity, an integrity that ultimately would cost him his life.
I had the tragic privilege of being the attorney for John Thomas in his criminal prosecution. In my 20 years of exclusively criminal-defense practice, I have rarely had a client walk into my office and say: "I did this. I am sorry." John Thomas not only acknowledged his wrongdoing of 30 years ago, but appreciated the gravity of his conduct.
Thomas was 71 years of age and had congestive heart failure. Because his health would not withstand the demands of trial, despite important constitutional, legal and factual defenses, John pleaded no contest to the charge of one count of oral copulation with a person under the age of 16, not "child molestation" as mischaracterized in Gabrielle Idlet's article. Moreover, the misconduct occurred under the influence of hallucinogens with his former wife, Rose Idlet, in 1972. Thomas told the sentencing judge, Michael Pastor: "I do not forgive myself" and "I will abide faithfully by all conditions of the judgment you lay down, whatever they may be."
I will never understand how the judge and prosecutor could sentence a 71-year-old man with congestive heart failure (and a statement from his doctor that he could not survive it) to 120 days in jail. John Thomas died on the 18th day. The criminal prosecution was subsequently dismissed, based upon his death during the pendency of the appeal. (This was omitted from your story.)
A luminary of the Beat generation, Thomas lived and wrote in Los Angeles for the past 40 years. He acknowledged to me and others that in his earlier days he was on drugs, his house was in great disarray, and he didn't write for 18 years. He was, in his own words, "committing slow suicide."
Also omitted in the published hate piece is that after 1983, with his marriage to poet Philomene Long, Thomas was, as he would say, "resurrected." For the next 19 years he transformed his former life, feeling regret for his past, and began writing again (over 1,000 poems) and teaching. This was the John Thomas whom Fred Dewey, the director of Beyond Baroque, described as a "generous spirit," for whom "poverty and love were equal teachers in a life of wisdom."
Whatever truth exists in what Gabrielle Idlet has written is secondary to the distortions. She and her sister distributed hate mail and death threats to their father for years before the legal system was corrupted to allow the unconstitutional repeal of the statute of limitations. Their stated wish to see their father's death was finally satisfied, and their thirst for revenge was a primary cause. May they be given the forgiveness that they refused to grant their father.
--Jeffrey J. Douglas
Gabrielle Idlet replies:
I'm not certain what difference Mr. Douglas sees between the criminal charge he uses in his letter and the term I used in my piece. John Thomas had sex with his own daughter, my half-sister, Susan, when she was a teenager.
Susan and I are not hate mongers or death-threat dealers; we were not in fact motivated by a thirst for revenge, as Mr. Douglas puts it. Rather, we were driven by a profound need for justice -- a resolution that is far too rarely experienced by those who have endured child abuse. Perhaps our father apologized to the court, and he may have apologized to Mr. Douglas, but he never did anything of the sort to Susan or to me. Nor did he ever strive to help us in our healing -- with his words or his deeds.
I wrote what I wrote to set the record straight. There simply is no excuse for child abuse. Its prosecution is important not only to its immediate victims, but to our society as a whole. Silence on these matters helps no one.