Standing With Jesse
I'm going to Brooklyn next week to stand with Jesse Dailey during his criminal trial, a sad and stunning thing to have to go see. I met Jesse a long time ago when he e-mailed me about the life of the geek, the outsider. It was a beautiful message and I rread it and flew out to Idaho to meet him. I told my editor that I knew I wanted to write about him.
I had been writing about the geek culture online, and one day I got an e-mail from Jesse.
"…it makes no sense to try, or even to want, to fit into a place you don't belong," he wrote me. "…it's not going to happen, and if it every did, it's not what you would want anyway…it's a delusion. The trick is to take something that is painful, and to make it so trivial that it's inconsequential. Just walk away and make it trivial. My advice to geeks? If you don't like it, leave, leave fast, make it trivial. Come to terms with who you are."
It was good advice then and now, Jesse is once again coming to terms with who he is, and this time he is fighting for his very existence. This time there is more at stake than he might ever have imagined, there is no way to make it trivial. I stood with him once before, I am going to stand with him again.
Jesse Dailey and I have one of the most remarkable relationships of my life, I suspect of his. More than a decade ago, I wrote a non-fiction book about Jesse, then a struggling, somewhat lost young man trying to make his way in the impoverished town of Caldwell, Idaho. Jesse is one of the most admirable people I have known in my life, he chased his dream, he made to the big city in a rented van with about $100 in his pocket. After many mishaps, he got a job and an apartment there – he had never been in a city – and began his hero journey.
Jesse was – is – a geek, one of those oddballs and outsiders who was suddenly the only person in school who knew how to run the computers that were now running the world. His childhood was rugged, at times he had to rummage around in garbage bins outside of supermarkets to help feed the family. One of his mother's boyfriends left an old computer around, Jesse put it back together and his life changed. He has always had to fight for the things many other people get for free, he is very strong. He told me a hundred times that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and he will soon be very strong.
We were very close, as often happens with writers when they write books about people. Jesse and I are very different in some ways, very similar in others. We got one another from the beginning, our relationship was honest, effortless. We are both social misfits and outcasts, it is our natural place.
Jesse is a computer genius, a software and technology savant. I wrote about him in Rolling Stone in the late 1990's, then wrote the book about him – "Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode The Internet Out of Idaho." It got wonderful reviews but didn't sell much (this is a familiar refrain for me). People didn't really want to read about geeks, especially in the years after the Columbine shootings. People were still afraid of the Internet and struggled to understand it. Many people thought it a very dangerous place.
Others might have settled for getting out of Idaho and to Chicago, but Jesse was not finished dreaming.
I visited him often in Chicago while researching the book and one day we were riding the train together taking Jesse downtown for several job interviews. The train ran right through the University of Chicago and the beautiful gothic buildings mesmerized him. I had been encouraging him to go to college, he was an extraordinarily gifted writer, he had a piercing intelligence, he deserved that opportunity.
"I think I'd like to go here," Jesse said abruptly, looking at the receding laws and buildings. I was stunned. I told him that was almost impossible. He had barely gotten through high school – like many geeks, he had his own curriculum, it was mostly online and in gaming. "This is like the Harvard of the mid-west," I said, "it's one of the toughest schools in the country to get into."
Jesse said he wanted to try, and I am just as crazy as he is, so we went for it. It was not a simple thing to do, it was one of the most exciting things I have ever been a part of. This remarkable journey is, in part, what the book is about. It is a very long way from being penniless in Caldlwell, Idaho, to sitting in the gorgeous office of the Dean Of Admission Of The University Of Chicago, arguing passionately about fate versus scientific determination. Jesse is nothing if not sure and pig-headed in his beliefs.
At the end of his debate with Jesse the dean, which I witnessed holding my breath – I had been him pestering for months – the dean asked me to stay behind. "I don't like him very much," he said, "but I would love to have him in my class." A few months later, I was writing up in my cabin on Colfax Mountain, beginning my own hero journey. There was a message for me on the answering machine. "Hey," it said, "we did it. I got the fat envelope. I'm in." I cried and cried up on that hill.
Jesse was admitted with financial aid, he graduated four years later. It was a very difficult thing that he did. Along the way, he annoyed many teachers, held many jobs, made many good friends, took care of himself, had several intense relationships with wonderful young women.
On the first day of school, I few to Chicago, we stood and watched as all of the Yuppie and Boomer kids pulled in with their family SUV's stuffed with TV's, computers and linen. Jesse didn't even have a sweatshirt, towels or bedsheets. He did not take things from people, he did not plan ahead. We rushed to a mall and loaded up with some basics like soap and a blanket. He invited me out to Chicago for his graduation, and I flew there. But it was too powerful a thing for me, and I became obsessed with the idea I was intruding on a private family thing. After all, I was not his father. I had no right to be there.
I stood at the rear of the crowd and watched him get his diploma. Every few minutes, he texted me, wondering where I was. I left without talking to him, and flew back home. I can't really explain it even now, it was just not something I could do, and perhaps was something he could not have done either. Jesse never asked me about it. I knew he was disappointed.
Jesse later moved to New York City, he is a software designer and we lost touch for a few years. He and I are not good at keeping in touch, but we did e-mail and message each other from time to time. I can say honestly that I came to love Jesse and love him still. If I had a son, I would be proud to have one like Jesse. God help me, he probably would have been like Jesse.
About a year or so, I got a call from a reporter in New York, he told me Jesse had been arrested by the NYPD and charged with three counts of groping teenage girls and also of assaulting a police officer who tried to question him. According to the police, Jesse touched the behinds of three girls while walking behind them on the street, at different times and locations. They are all in the same class of the same school, I'm not sure what the odds would be against that.
These incidents are said to have occurred on one of the busiest streets in Brooklyn, none of the many store cameras operating caught the alleged groping, nor have any witnesses emerged to identify Jesse. The three girls are expected to testify against him.
I literally did not believe what I was hearing. When you write a book about someone you develop an intimate relationship, I think I spoke to every single person Jesse had known in his life – family, friends, teachers. He never once lied to me, exaggerated or shaded or distorted the truth or told me one self-serving thing. He told me had been caught selling fake ID's and had smoked marijuana – this was nearly 20 years ago.
Nothing he ever told me turned out to be false or self-serving and I must have asked him thousands of questions over a few years.
This week, after an insane amount of legal wrangling, delays and procedural problems, Jesse is finally going on trial. I do not believe he committed these crimes, there is virtually no rational evidence against him, the encounters he had with the police have shocked me profoundly. I was a police reporter for some years, I have many friends who are police officers, I know what a difficult job it can be and how much good they do. I am not partial to police conspiracies or demonizing them all for the violent acts of a few, I think most cops work hard in difficult jobs and do their best.
But sometimes they stumble, and sometimes the system fails. I believe this is the case here. This case has some echoes of the Joshua Rockwood case, except it is potentially more serious for Jesse. The prosecution wants to put him in jail for five years in the worst prisons in New York. He would be a sex offender if convicted, marked for life.
That would be an awful thing, even in our very harsh and angry culture. I do not minimalize groping or the unwanted touching of young girls, but once again, I feel a loss of perspective and humanity. A conviction on these charges would destroy a significant part of his life, if not most of it.
And I am convinced of his innocence. This is simply not conceivable to me, knowing what I know about Jesse. Something seems very wrong with the case. Beyond his teenage adventures, Jesse has never been arrested or charged with any crime, he has always had stable and loving friendships and relationships – he is in one now – he has always done well in his work and taken care of himself.
I have talked with him for hours about this case, I have interviewed lots of guilty people in my life, Jesse does not in any way sound or seem like one of them.
He has overcome enormous obstacles in his life and has behaved with honor and strength to alter the course of his life in ways that would have defeated most of us and continue to defeat many. There is no suggestion or trace of any kind of sexual impropriety in his life, he is in a loving relationship that began years ago and continues through this awful ordeal. The case against him makes no sense on any level. The evidence against him is shockingly thin.
In her opening arguments, the prosecutor introduced my book as evidence of Jesse's "prior bad acts," as proof that because he made some fake ID's, then he was contemptuous of the law and capable of sexual assault on very young women and of knocking a police officer to the ground when she asked for his ID. If you know computer geeks, you know they are not fighters, and neither is Jesse. He does his arguing on line, in games and via messaging. I have had plenty of arguments with him, I know what he is capable of and what he is not.
She took two lines in a 220 page book and simply re-invented it's purpose and point, an awful thing to try to do to Jesse, me or any book..
It was very painful for me to hear "Geeks" being distorted and misrepresented in so grotesque a way. The book is a celebration of Jesse's life and of his strength and determination. I don't know too many teenagers who have not used fake ID's at one time or another, I did, so did my daughter. I know even fewer who have transformed their lives in the way Jesse Dailey has.
Jesse's lawyer asked me if I will be willing to testify on his behalf as a character witness, and I am eager to refute the misuse of my book. It is wrong to distort the truth and point of a book, they are hard to write and take a lot of work. Misrepresenting the truth is not my idea of justice, but if the case against him is no better than this – it does not appear to be – than this bodes well for Jesse.
Either way, I'm Brooklyn bound. I won't disappoint him again. Jesse has asked me to come down to Brooklyn at his trial, to testify if possible, if not, to stand with him. He said it would boost his morale, make him feel stronger to have me there. I wouldn't miss it…I'm going. I'm waiting for him to tell me when, probably Monday of next week.
I am happy to stand with Jesse and help him get his life back. I hope I can do something to help him. He earned it. It seems our paths have crossed again.