Culture of Abuse – Why There is Hope in the Fight Against Bullying and Street Harassment

When I was a kid, my cousin and I were walking alongside a busy two-lane stretch of road near the local high school. We had been playing in the woods, I think and were on our way back to his house to see if we could scrounge up some bagel bites or pizza pockets or some other similarly unhealthy snack that kids have loved since time immemorial.

Lost in conversation, neither of us heard the truck coming, nor noticed the chorus of drunken male voices roaring along on the wind along with it. What happened seemed to occur in flashes. I saw a bag of ice tossed by long, tan arms within the truckbed as it passed. I saw it connect with my cousin’s head. I heard a man scream, “Die, you faggots!”, I heard other men laughing. As I stood in shock – pained as if the bag of ice had hit my own head – my cousin shrugged it off, wiped a thin trail of blood from his brow and kept walking, apparently used to such treatment. It had been a glancing blow that could have been a concussion or worse had the bag been tossed merely a second sooner. I knew though, that it was the word and the laughter that stung even deeper. I don’t think either of us spoke much about it for the remainder of our journey home, nor ever again. For both of us, it was one “faggot” among many.

We grew up in the south during the 1980’s. Our homes were among a sprawling metro-Atlanta that contained trailer-parks and upscale neighborhoods crammed so close together that it was near impossible to know where the poor neighborhoods ended and the rich ones began. I distinctly remember a huge, 4-bedroom home at the entrance to our neighborhood directly across the street from a trailer whose occupants bathed in the local pond. I know they did this because I bathed with them once. I was upper-middle class at the time, but lived and played in the same woods they did, where class and the size of one’s house mattered not one bit. We all watched out for the same snakes and played in the same mud.

I was smaller than most children, a fact which became particularly obvious when puberty hit and, though my height caught up, the rest of me did not. Instead of the hulking physique so many other young boys became suddenly gifted with like a mutant super power, I had thin wrists, knobby knees, pale skin that could manage a tan but never hold onto it for long, big eyes over a hawkish nose and acne like there was no tomorrow. My lack of “masculine” development partnered with my lack of interest in sports – particularly football – immediately placed me aside from the confident, popular kids. I say immediately because it seemed very immediate to me. I left sixth grade for summer break, then came back for seventh grade and discovered that the boys I once played in the creek with were now six feet tall, tan, drinking and smoking dope like there was no tomorrow, had ALL gotten laid over the summer and had traded their GI Joes for football gear.

I didn’t get rid of my GI Joes until I was 29, so you can see where this is going.

Seventh grade was also when I encountered my first real bully. I won’t name names since some of my readers likely knew him and possibly still do, but I will go so far as to say that he had an androgynous male name, so for the sake of this story, let’s call him “Kim.” Kim did two things to me during his stint as my primary bully during 7th-9th grade. He introduced me to adolescent cruelty – hatred of perceived weakness fueled by a bully’s own insecurity and fear that they, themselves are weak – and he stripped me of my identify. Kim removed my name, refused to say it, and taught others in the loudest voice he could manage that he had found the biggest loser in the school and his name was not Robby, it was “Mouse.”

Kim called me Mouse because he decided that I never talked. I say “decided” because Kim had only met me about a week before deciding that I never talked and had therefore had virtually no chance to get to know me or witness any topic which typically sparked conversation from me. No, since I wasn’t participating in the heated football, who-passed-out-where and who-screwed-who talk, Kim decided that I must therefore never talk and labeled me as such. Quiet as a mouse. Looks like one, too.

Kim didn’t just bully. Kim delighted in introducing me to his equally insecure friends, literally by grabbing me in the hallway and pointing at me and proclaiming that he had discovered an amazing, defenseless creature just waiting to be mocked and shoved around, just as many of these kids went home to older brothers and fathers who shoved them around.

My attempts to speak to my defense and assert my true personality were ignored or – even worse – laughed at, as if the cute puppy had just attempted to bark a human word. No one came to my defense. Not a single soul, yet everyone witnessed my forced transformation. Kids I grew up playing with just seemed to accept that the Robby who used to invite them to build forts by the creek and told wild stories during sleepovers had been replaced by a “Mouse” who didn’t talk and was now the school pariah. That was the betrayal that hurt the most. The fact that no one fought for me. No one told Kim who I really was. No one thought I was worth it.

So I accepted my new reality and became the mouse that Kim wanted me to be. I stopped talking. I no longer raised my hand in class. I no longer spoke to anyone at the lunch table. When I got home I only hung out with neighborhood friends who were younger than me and therefore not a part of my school experience and didn’t know me as “that quiet freak.” Social anxiety sunk its ugly claws into me and I became convinced within the span of a year that I had nothing worthwhile to say, so I may as well play the part they wanted me to play and wait until those painful, isolated years were over.

Since then I’ve told this story to many friends who were not there and many of them say, “I would have been friends with you.” But I feel that it’s important to point out that no one did. No one came to my rescue. If anyone wanted to get to know me, no one ever really tried. During my highschool years I knew a grand total of three other boys who knew me when I was younger and would say anything to me at all. One I virtually never saw due to simple conflicting class schedules, one had been isolated since middle school due to behavioral problems and the third eventually asked me to stop sitting with him because I didn’t fit in with his new friends. That was my freshman year. For three years after that I sat alone and spoke to no one.

I feel that there is one more little fact that I should relate about Kim before he moves back out of this particular tale. One time – and only one time – Kim came bounding into the trailer where our social studies class took place, sat next to me and pulled out an issue of “Auto Trader” and – mystifyingly – spent the next hour leaning over to me, pointing out cars he liked and saying, “Dude, isn’t this one awesome?” It was at that moment that I realized that Kim thought he was my friend. He was trying to bond with me. I stopped hating Kim after that and simply felt sorry for him.

Kim stopped paying attention to me once our sophomore year of high school hit, but many of the boys he introduced, “Mouse” to stuck to me like glue. The Mouse title disappeared and became replaced with a simple, “Faggot.” I became the kid it was fun to punch in the middle of a lecture in some kind of game to see if I would cry out and interrupt the class (I never did because I was horrified of the attention it would bring). I became the kid it was fun to whisper to in class how much everyone hated me with the same enthusiasm reserved for a lover’s sweet nothings.

The worst was a time when a boy I had never seen before, a complete and utter stranger – one of the “punk” kids with a spiked collar and spiked hair – cornered me in front of some lockers (cliche, I know) turned his equally spiked pewter ring around with the spiked side facing his palm, then proceeded to beat me in the head with it until my skull bled, all the while viciously spewing how much he hated my stupid ugly face and wished that I would die so he and everyone else wouldn’t have to look at me anymore. This was a kid I had never even seen before, yet who my very presence offended so much that he would attempt to break my skull open and spill my brains on the concrete floor. After smashing me in the head several times in a crowded hallway, he wordlessly walked away with a look of rage and disgust on his face that would forever haunt my dreams and stain my sense of self-worth. The very next thing that happened was even worse. A well-loved math teacher walked around the corner at the very moment the nameless punk walked away. The teacher paused for a moment, made eye contact with me lying there in a crumpled heap on the floor, then kept on walking right past me, his face flush. Flush with shame? Irritation? Anger? I never knew, for that teacher that everyone kept on loving the next day just walked on and never said a word to me or anyone about what he had witnessed.

High school wasn’t an annoyance for me like it was for some kids. It wasn’t fun or academically challenging or filled with discovery. High school was a gauntlet. One that I dreaded returning to with all of my heart each and every day for four long years, six if you count the painful initiation into my new life that was 7th and 8th grade.

I will say that there were bright pockets during those years. Every once in a while I’d be lucky enough to land in a class filled with people who weren’t aware of my branded identity as the quiet kid it was fun to ridicule and kind of just ignored me or – in the best cases – attempted to include me in group projects. I was never any help because I had lost the knowledge of how to communicate back with my classmates, but I was happy for the acceptance nonetheless. I became known in those classes as “Robert,” since that was my legal name and I was too afraid to speak up and correct the teacher during the first day of class. That’s how “Robby” died, really. Robby gave way to Mouse which gave way to Robert which finally gave way to Rob in college when my first actual new friend decided that Rob sounded cooler than Robert. All the while…I was still being called “Faggot” more than anything else.

See, the word, “faggot” – at least among testosterone-pumping young men in the south at the time – only occasionally referred to homosexuals. A faggot was simply any male who was viewed as weak or effeminate. Calling a quiet, skinny kid “faggot” was delivered with the same shit-eating-grin glee that calling another kid “poo-poo-head” was when we were five. Except in the times when the name of “faggot” was delivered with a fist, a bag of ice or an upside-down spiked ring. During those angrier times (moments of insecurity-fueled rage in search of the most convenient target), I came to realize that “faggot” really meant “person who isn’t like me.” “Person I don’t understand.” “Person who isn’t what I was taught men were like and therefore needs to be punished.”

By my senior year, most of the “faggot”s had stopped and I simply became ignored altogether. I was okay with that, because I knew it was the end of this phase of my life. Whatever came next would be a fresh start with new people who would have no preconceived notions of me. Maybe I’d finally learn to talk to people again. Maybe people would remember my name. Maybe I’d finally kiss a girl and eat with friends at the lunch table and rediscover who I truly was. As luck and a certain amount of determination had it, all of those things happened. I fell in love – more than once. I learned to express myself through writing. I even reconnected with some of those people from high school I was so convinced hated me.

Truth was – some of them did. My lack of words scared them. This was a pre-Columbine era, but for some people, kids and teachers alike, a quiet brooding loner everyone knew was being picked on represented someone who might eventually snap, and was therefore best avoided. One or two of them did apologize for making fun of me or avoiding me. Most of them, I discovered much to my surprise, had simply never noticed. They remembered me from elementary school where we grew up playing together and going to birthday parties together and laughing together and those memories stayed with them more than what came after. For some, my six years of solitude would be later brushed off in conversation by “yeah, I remember you were quiet, but I didn’t really think anything of it.” Turns out, for a chunk of the population, I wasn’t the pariah I believed I was, just a kid they used to play with who didn’t say much for a while after that.

So why relate all of this and what does it have to do with my life today? Well, I want the world to know that even today, living a life where I have friends who love me, a supportive family, the opportunity to share stories about what I love (the biggest of which – The Pull – was a product of those painful teenage years, by the way), and I live in a town full of artists and dreamers and skinny male rockstars showing me that I can be male and weigh 130 pounds and still be respected, even with all of this – I still occasionally get called “faggot” in the street.

Doesn’t happen often these days. In fact it’s rather rare, but the occasional pack of bros will pass me by, leaving a “nice jeans, faggot” in their wake or a “holy shit, I bet I could pick that faggot up with one arm,” I get a sensation like an old, abusive lover calling to me, one who used to make me feel worthless, one I once believed, one who I listened to entirely too much. One who I can finally now walk away from and pity instead of fear.

I wanted to tell this story today because stories of bullying and street harassment are becoming more and more commonplace in the small-but-crazy college town I live in and in the media at large. I’m not sure if it’s actually happening more or if the media is simply finally showing a light on it, but my news feed brings me at least one story of harassment a week. The target may be male or female, straight or gay, young or old, “overweight” or “underweight”, and in some cases even crosses the line into sexual assault.

Most of us are lucky enough to live and work among like-minded friends and colleagues – even acquaintances, depending on our social circles – who can be dickish or selfish at times but don’t regularly belittle others for their own amusement or that of their peers. The average person is aware of the need for compassion, or at least that compassion is something that they should practice, even if they fall short from time to time, which we all do. Yet all it takes is an encounter with one roving pack of assholes – and let me remind you that assholes come in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders and nationalities – looking to feed off of the adrenaline of proving their dominance over someone their warped perspective perceives as weaker to remind us that – for some – compassion is just a word.

It’s easy to shrug one’s shoulders and accept that bullies will always exist. It’s easy to think that society is just too messed up to change. It’s easy to believe that the best thing to do is just let the assholes stay on their side of town while the open minded people stay on their side and, during moments when the assholes drunkenly stumble across the figurative tracks to our world, just cross the street and ignore their drunken insults and cat calling. It’s easy to believe that that is all that one can do. Simply survive the gauntlet and wait for it to be over.

I don’t believe that, and I’m going to tell you why.

The first reason I believe that there’s hope is due to group efforts like this one:

http://athensga.ihollaback.org/

Hollaback! is a website where victims of street harassment can tell their stories, share their experiences, and receive support. It offers advice and resources on how to deal with and react to everything from catcalls to full-blown sexual assault. By giving a public voice to those who felt belittled or attacked, they give those victimized an opportunity to realize that they are not little at all, but are, in fact, empowered to do the right thing, spread awareness and be the better, and yes I’ll say it – stronger – person than their attackers.  Perhaps through tools like this we even have a chance to educate them, for I believe that education and awareness of the value of compassion is the one true weapon we have in the cultural war against bullying, bigotry and assault.

I’ll leave you by sharing a more recent experience that helped form that opinion and gave me hope. The scene was Dragon Con, the big sci-fi and fantasy convention held in Atlanta once a year. I was walking down the streets of Atlanta headed from one hotel to another, dressed like an Anne Rice vampire with a sword strapped to my side. The streets were lined with countless people in costume just like me…but also countless football fans in town for a playoff game celebrating and watching the geeks parade by with amusement.

I saw a trio of young, 20-something, slightly inebriated men stumble towards me and soon I heard the familiar call of “Hey! Look at the faggot going to his fairy ball!”

I sighed – wondering as I always do if this time might finally be the last – and kept on walking. Yet as I passed the young man by, something unexpected happened.

“Whoa, that’s such a cool sword, bro. Where’d you get it?”

I paused, surprised by the sudden change of tone.

“Got it out of a catalog years ago. First sword I ever owned.”

“That’s awesome. Tell me where you got that sweet coat.”

I told him the name of the store where I picked it up, then relayed the origin of my other accessories and articles of clothing as he asked with genuine curiosity.

“Great costume, bro,” he said, fist bumping me before stumbling off to rejoin his colleagues.

I resumed my walk, a smile of bewilderment across my face as I realized that the young man’s initial instinct to insult the skinny kid dressed as a vampire was just that – an instinct. Something he had probably been doing his entire life. Something he may have learned from his parents or his siblings or his classmates; that cutting someone down was the way to prop one’s self up. But beyond that instinct lay a deeper truth. He wanted to be dressed up like a vampire, just like me. Some might say that the alcohol was simply clouding his brain and causing someone who was truly an asshole at heart to act erratically, but I choose to believe that the opposite is true. I think that the alcohol caused the self-imposed “asshole veil” to temporarily fall away. I could tell that when he asked about my costume, he genuinely didn’t even remember what he had called me just moments before. He was just a kid talking to another kid about something they both thought was cool.

I remembered Kim, sitting next to me in class and leafing through his issue of Auto Trader, gently elbowing me in class while the teacher spoke, desperate to show me the car of his dreams and hoping that I would nod in approval at his choice. In a different world – one where someone had showed Kim the value of compassion and accountability for the effects of his actions early on and dispelled within him the instinct to hurt others in order to prove himself a man – Kim could have been…he should have been…my friend.

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6×6 WILL Scare The Pants Off of You

6x6 cover low resWhat the heck is 6×6? 

Pronounced “Six By Six”, 6×6 is a horror novella – 34 pages of pure terror – based on a dream I woke up screaming from last year. In it a young boy ventures into his late grandfather’s basement to find himself trapped within a supernatural game. Each “turn” of the game brings a new monster to life. Can the boy survive long enough to win? Or can he escape before IT wins and drags him into the darkness?

6×6 is available on Amazon for only 99 cents for the eBook and $5.99 for paperback. It’s cheap, it’s a quick, fun read AND it’s pretty much guaranteed to give you nightmares. What more could you ask for?

Experience 6×6 for yourself

2 More Days

“Thump. Swish.

A human arm shot forward from the vines, landing on the inside carpet and gripping the fibers. That was the thump. What followed was a mass of dark hair, lanky and long covering a pale white face. The body swished as it pulled itself inside the room. I knew instantly that I was looking at the little girl from the image, and yet…this was no little girl at all; this was something much, much worse.”

Only 2 more days

6x6 cover low res

Stories from a 6 Year Old: Read by a 33 Year Old

Recently me and the gang at Athens Writers Association (check out my upcoming AWA page to see info and other stories!) performed a reading at a local coffee shop. Since I’ve been playing around with a journal of stories written when I was six I decided to read some. I’ll let Video-Me introduce them. Enjoy!

Stories From a Six Year Old: The Ghost

IMG_20140123_145323Recently my mother uncovered a stack of stories written by a six year old me. I’ve decided to start an ongoing feature where I share these stories – complete with typos and misspellings – just so you can see not only that I’ve been telling stories for as long as I could talk, but that the stories that come out of this little head have always been a bit…off.

Today’s story is stretching a bit because I realize I was probably 8 when I wrote it even though it was stored with my 1986-87 papers, but I thought it was too good to pass up. It was an exercise I was given in school requiring me to use certain big words. Those words were underlined on my paper. The results are interesting.

The Ghost

Last night I had a dream about making a commercial that promoted a new Ghostbuster movie! In my dream I requested that my little brother be submitted as the baddest ghost in town. When I woke up next to my bed all dressed up like a little ghost was my brother looking mean and saying, “According to copyright protection any photograph or produced endorsement from a book or movie must have prior approval.” I said, “What?”

the end

I’m a Loud Voice Doing Loud Things

IMG_20140313_181717Why must society value extroverts so much? Just wanted to muse on that for a moment.

I was thinking back this morning on pretty much every job interview I’ve ever had. All of them went something like this:

Potential Employer (hereafter referred to as PE): “So would you say you’re a people person?”

Me: “Oh absolutely! I love meeting new people.”

PE: “Do loud and obnoxious people make you uncomfortable?”

Me: “No, never! I find it easy to get along with all types of people.”

PE: “So what did you study in college?”

Me: “Philosophy and World Religions.”

PE: (dead silence, skips to next question) “Would you call yourself a leader?”

Me: “I’d say so. I consider myself a capable and compassionate team builder.”

– Two weeks later –

PE: “I’m sorry, but we’ve decided to go with someone more assertive.”

Now allow me to point out that many of these interviews were for stock room or warehouse personnel. Yep, Corporate America even wants extroverts sweeping their floors and unloading their trucks. Allow me to also point out that many of my answers were gross exaggerations of my actual social abilities. I do love people. I am, however, not particularly good at talking to people. At least, not inherently. It took me decades to even get to the point where I could string together a complete sentence when talking to a stranger. What you see and hear of “Rob White” today is about 10% social skill and 90% shoving words from my mouth out of sheer terror and hoping they make sense.

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration, too, but you get what I’m saying. I learned quickly that if I wanted a job that wasn’t from a relative – or hell, even one that was – I had to pretend to be something I’m not; that is: an extrovert.

Society wants loud people! Society wants opinions! Society wants confidence! Society wants you to live an EXTREME lifestyle and do EXTREME things and buy lots and lots and lots of Mountain Dew. Society wants you to believe something very strongly about politics and religion and shout those opinions evvvvvvvvvvvvvvverywhere. If you don’t…you’re just a little person, and who listens to them?

Well, fuck society. There, I said it.

I’m about damn ready to close my copy of Skyrim, sew an introvert flag made from footie pajamas, harness about a hundred house cats to pull my reclining chariot and lay siege to the halls of TMZ and Fox News and whatever board room The Man happens to be holed up in and say, “Look dude! Quiet people matter, too.”

Afterwards I’ll need about a week of me-time to recover, but it’ll be worth it. Who’s with me?

Stories From a Six Year Old

IMG_20140123_145323Recently my mother uncovered a stack of stories written by a six year old me. I’ve decided to start an ongoing feature where I share these stories – complete with typos and misspellings – just so you can see not only that I’ve been telling stories for as long as I could talk, but that the stories that come out of this little head have always been a bit…off.

So without further ado, I present….

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t

One day Santa Claus lost his reindeer. He could not deliver toys with-out his reindeer! For ten days he tryd to think of something but he couldn’t.

He tryed to go on a rowboat but it flipped over. He tryed to go on roller skats but the weels squashed. Then he made an invention that could throw the toys to the right hoases. but it broke. He tryed to send his elves to deliver the toys but the elves sunk in the snow.

Finaly Santa desited to walk. All of a sudden he saw a bike! He also descovered that he was wearing shorts! He road to all the houses and everyone had a Merry Christmas. And santa never found his reindeer again.

the end

Fake It ‘Till You Make It

1454617_10151860216158878_903010667_nIntroverted and not sure how to promote yourself as an artist? You’re in good company. Here’s an excerpt from a guest post I just did on fantasy author Jennifer Innes’s blog Fantasy Writers Unite. Follow the link below it to see the rest!

I’m an introvert. If you’re a writer – or any kind of artist, really – I bet you dollars to donuts you’re an introvert too, or at least have some ingrained introvert tendencies. Can’t speak for everyone but growing up I found my mental and creative stimulation through fantasy rather than through social interaction. I was the kid swinging the wooden sword in the woods at invisible goblins. I was the kid drawing monsters in the back of class instead of passing notes to cute girls. I was also the kid who had more than one epic fantasy tale mapped out in my brain before the age of 18. As an adult who allowed himself to believe that he could be a “real writer” (I’m one of those guys who says that being a real writer is about intention rather than measurable results) I finally began to share those fantasies with the world. If another lonely kid can gain the same thrill from my stories as I gained from Tolkien or Stephen King or Final Fantasy then I’d say all these hours in front of a keyboard or notepad covered in chicken scratch have been worth it.
 
Buuuut – and it’s a big but and I cannot lie – being a writer who releases his/her work to the public means that an introvert suddenly has to develop skills usually associated with that mysterious and alien race known as extroverts. We have to smile and greet passersby in hopes that they’ll buy our book (and therefore buy us lunch). We have to say hey, hi and how are you to dozens of names and faces online and in bookstores in hopes that they’ll carry or review our book. And if we’re really bold and really lucky – or persistent – we’ll get to sit at a table in front of a microphone and tell prospective authors about our experiences and how to get ahead in the business.

 

Read the rest and check out Jennifer’s work at http://fanwritunit.blogspot.com/

Let’s Talk Genre

The following is a guest post from Jennifer Innes, the co-author of The Beginning of Whit, a comedic urban fantasy tale recently released on Amazon. As an update to Jennifer’s story below (so sorry it took so long for me to post this, Jennifer!) she and her co-author, Andrew Grace have successfully funded their book’s launch through Kickstarter!!! Way to go, guys!

Let’s Talk About Genre

When I started my own blog many years ago I wanted it to be a place for fantasy authors to go so they knew they weren’t alone. Well, okay so there are enough fantasy books out there to prove this but there weren’t enough people talking about the validity of fantasy as a genre. One of my very first posts was about genre, exploring a wide variety of genres within fantasy (such as ‘historic fantasy’ and ‘urban fantasy’). Understanding your genre as a writer helps strengthen your final product and your credibility as an author.

Most writers I know write in multiple genres, and how can you not? If you have any imagination at all you aren’t limited to only one form of writing or one world you explore through your writing. As an author it is completely valid to write horror, chic lit, urban fantasy, and steam punk. At a certain point you’d probably just call yourself a speculative fiction writer (like I do) which Wikipedia defines as “is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres.”

I personally write several subgenres of fantasy, science fiction and horror. But something that always throws a wrench into labeling a genre is when I start adding comedy to a story. My first finished novel “The Beginning of Whit” is a comedic urban fantasy. Easy enough to label but very hard to pitch. Ace sat on this book for a year, trying to decide if it was publish worthy. Ultimately they decided there “wasn’t a market for it.” And in reality at this point there really isn’t. Sure some famous authors have gotten away with funny fantasy (see: Terry Pratchett and Robert Lynn Asprin) but as a general rule finding these types of books, and the success of these types of books seems far and few between.

But I haven’t given up on my novel yet. My co-author and I decided to try the deep waters of self-publishing and to help cover some of the publishing costs we have launched a Kickstarter for the book. So far the response has been great and we really think the success of Kickstarter will help make the book successful. Knowing our book is unique makes it both interesting and, at times, a hard sell. Even through Kickstarter it can be difficult to get people interested in the project, but knowing our genre we have a better chance of getting people interested.

Knowing your genre allows you to tell people what the book is like, “Yeah, my book about wizardry school is similar to a little known novel about a boy named Harry Potter” or “Do you like the True Blood series? Well my book about a small town full of vampires might be right up your alley!” Now this doesn’t mean copy books that are successful just so you can pitch your book as the next best thing, but it does mean understand the book you already wrote and love so you can find the people who liked something similar. For us, it’s still a struggle to find people interested in comedic fantasy, but based on the success of the funny authors that have come before us, I know this audience is out there and I just have to go and find them.

Follow Jennifer and Andrew on Facebook

Check out The Beginning of Whit on Amazon