Time: 15:43 22-08-2015
Subject: New piece
So here's my new piece, I know it's not as long as usual but I wanted to keep it punchy. Should be just in time for the next edition. Let's talk $$$, maybe have lunch?
P.S. I’m not 100% happy with the title. Any good ideas?
Time: 10:23 24-08-2015
Subject: RE: New piece
Hi Alex, good to hear from you, you never return my messages!
Sounds like you want to get straight to business, so I’ll be honest, and honestly I don’t like what you’ve written here, in its current state. There are several problems that, to my mind, need major attention if you want to put this in our mag, and it won’t be the next issue, sorry. I hate to be so blunt, but there it is.
I like the story, it’s got all right elements, but you’ve taken it in the wrong direction. If you want to put this piece in our mag, you really need to tone down the sympathy for your Mr Nabozny. Frankly I’m impressed by the mental gymnastics you’ve performed so you can make him the victim in all this. Did you completely lose sight of the fact that this is about 13 and 14 year old girls? I know nobody reads us anyway, but that's not exactly part of our business strategy.
And on the topic of the girls, it’s downright creepy the way you describe Karina in such rapturous terms, like Aphrodite brought down to downtown Warsaw. Nobody wants to see you salivating in the midst of all this moral ambiguity you’re trying to push. I know you like to push boundaries, and that’s great, but there’s a fine line between provocative and distasteful, and I think you’ve jumped right over it.
Also, you can delete the word 'romantic’ from this thing, that’s not negotiable.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m interested, but this thing needs work. I’m free on Friday for lunch if you’re in the mood to make some compromises. I’ll understand if you’re not, though.
Hope all’s well,
Non-fiction editor, Black Text magazine,
158 Sinai St, Collingwood, VIC, 3066
Aleksy Bacik, 2015
On a damp, foggy morning in April 2015, Henryk Nabozny was found dead, hanging by a bedsheet in a Polish prison cell. The next day, the front-page headline for Metropol, the most popular tabloid newspaper in Warsaw, read NA RAZIE, NABOZNY! (SO LONG, NABOZNY!), above a ten-year-old photo of his scowling face. Two days later the Polish Prime Minister did a radio interview, and when the newscaster asked for his reaction, he joked that he had been saving a very expensive bottle of champagne for just such an occasion. He then stammered and backtracked, and said that every death is regrettable. My Polish facebook friends made countless untranslatable puns on his name with a general air of neighbourly good humour over the death of this man. But if you're reading this in English, you probably don't know who Henryk Nabozny is.
¤ ¤ ¤
In 1998, the Polish Olympic gymnastics team was in dire straits. It had failed to earn a single medal in the female division from the past three Olympic Games, enrollments in training programs were dwindling year by year, and vague threats of de-funding were insinuated in the monthly meetings of the the Gimnastyka Krajowych Instytucji (National Institute for Gymnastics). At its very nadir, the head coach Mariusz Piasecki resigned from 14 years of faithful work to go live out an early retirement on his family's pumpkin farm. The assistant coaches who remained behind were young and inexperienced at the international level, most of them being recent Olympic also-rans. The future of the very sport looked grim — without great heights of glory to aspire to, what sane young girl, or sane parent of a young girl (if such a person exists in the world of competitive youth sports), would devote dozens of hours each week to the grueling training that elite gymnastics requires? It seemed that very dark times laid ahead for the world of Polish girls' gymnastics.
At the same time, Henryk Nabozny was an energetic young man on the cusp of middle age, working hard as a senior assistant gymnastics trainer in his home of Ukraine. He was born into a low-class Polish family in the city of Lublin, in Poland’s mountainous southern region. His father was a cobbler by trade, and by all accounts he was strangely obsessed with Soviet propaganda, so much so that he uprooted his young family and migrated to the USSR when Henryk was five years old. Throughout his youth, Henryk had been something of a prodigy, showing such talent both in his academic and sporting lives that he seemed destined for great things in this new egalitarian paradise. His teens and twenties were mostly spent womanising and sticking his landings, with the collapse of the communist state hardly a blip on his radar.
But in 1998, Henryk found himself frustrated. He was unmarried, his hairline was rapidly receding, and his career seemed to have reached a plateau from which it might never budge. The head coach, Henryk's immediate superior, was a man named Vasyl Mak. Vasyl was only two years older than Henryk, but what made him indispensable to his employer, the National University of Physical Education and Sport of Ukraine, was that on top of being Ukranian born and bred, he simply loved his work more than anything else. To the point that he had given up his city apartment to move into the old cleaners' quarters at the gymnasium. Vasyl lived and breathed gymnastics — whereas Henryk wrote interminable letters to his mother to bemoan his lonely single existence, Vasyl was known to proclaim that he would rather see a woman's hands rubbed with chalk than rubbing his stalk. (Obviously that isn’t a literal translation, but it’s the best I could do to make the joke work.) On a typical day he would go out only to eat and to buy a daily newspaper, which was his main point of contact with the world beyond his parallel bars and pommel-horses. And that newspaper was the far-right wing Сегодня (Today), the views of which regarding the Poles is, to put it gently, rather skewed.
So one can only imagine the excitement that Henryk Nabozny felt when the figurative call rang out across Eastern Europe for someone, anyone, to captain the sinking ship of Polish gymnastics. As a man of ambition and unbridled self-confidence, Henryk knew he was just the man to steer through these troubled seas and make his homeland proud. Vasyl, on the other hand, knew that it was just like a Pole to take advantage of a bad situation to seize power for himself.
Eight years later, Henryk had been proven right beyond even his own expectations. He had burned his bridges in Ukraine, so he knew that this was his only chance to make it in his field before quitting to become a garbologist. He had taken a leaf from Vasyl's book and moved into his new gymnasium, though he stopped short of selling his own flat, in which he spent the occasional day off. He encouraged his team of junior trainers to do the same, creating a little bubble in which they were fully immersed in their work and training. Together they lived like muscle-bound monks. Henryk’s newfound dedication to the sport earned him enormous respect from his underlings, though not without a modicum of cautious avoidance. They saw him as a cold and deeply unhappy man, and his occasional attempts at big ‘family dinners’, as he called them, were quietly disastrous.
¤ ¤ ¤
Among the many seminal moments in Henryk Nabozny's life, perhaps the biggest occurred at a hotel pool, on a breezy summer's evening in Volos, Greece. It was there, in April 2006, that the cool, greyish body of Ania Toma was spotted by a young waiter as he was setting out the outdoor breakfast tables on the hotel balcony. Fifteen floors above, Henryk Nabozny was banging on Ania's door, yelling that if she didn't come out in the next five minutes then the bus would be leaving without her. He had a squad of eleven young gymnasts in tow, ready to compete in the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships.
Nobody in the hotel reported hearing a splash, but CCTV footage showed a blurry figure hitting the deep end of the pool, from somewhere directly above, at 2.33am. Ania’s balcony door was ajar and the lights were still on. The coroner concluded that the force of her impact against the water's surface had thrown Ania's brain back and forth inside her skull, bruising its soft folds and shearing through bundles of delicate nerve fibres. Had she survived, she would probably have been left permanently disabled by brain damage. But the final determinant of her survival, in essence, was a cosmic coin-toss. Had she resurfaced in the pool floating face-up, she would have woken up in a hospital bed some days to weeks later. Instead, as you can surmise, she was face-down, with water lapping at her ears as she gently, silently drowned.
Needless to say, Henryk and his young athletes missed the games that year. They flew home after being questioned by Greek police, and Ania's body was released two weeks later, once the autopsy report was finalised.
After a brief mourning period, things continued much as normal for Henryk. Training continued at the gym, with perhaps even greater fervour now that a much-anticipated opportunity for success had been foregone. Training day in, day out, the young trainees soon let Ania slip into distant memory. Then three months after her death, the big story — the one that made it all a lot bigger than the tragic suicide of a high-achieving girl in the prime of her life — was exclaimed on the cover of the women's magazine Flesz (Flash). Alongside the cover photo of Kate Beckinsale, and above ‘Ten hairstyles for this Spring’, sits ‘MY COACH RAPED ME AND MY DEAD FRIEND!’ It is such a confusingly nonchalant announcement of such shocking content that it is almost comical.
The article was framed as an exposé, but for content it relied only on a cursory interview with a young gymnast, high-school student, and best friend of Ania Toma, named Karina Wiater. She told of how she had been entangled with her head coach, Henryk Nabozny, and that she had sure proof that the late Ania Toma had been too. Though she didn’t use the word ‘rape’ or imply that she had been forced, so one can only surmise that her editors thought ‘statutory rape’ somehow lacked the punch that a headline needs. Following a massive (for the year 2006) internet response to the article, the next issue fleshed out the story. It included excerpts from the suicide note Ania had slipped under Karina’s door on the night she had died, in which she listed the litany of her life’s failures, among them being a sinful involvement with you-know-who. The article closed with a statement from Karina’s mother (the one who, it turned out, had first contacted the magazine after her daughter confessed everything to her), stating that she would be pursuing legal action against Mr Nabozny. So with that, Henryk was thrust from his comfortable obscurity onto the nation's centre stage, where his life was forevermore to be a performance for which he could not train or practise.
¤ ¤ ¤
When the public side of this whole tale began, in late 2006, I was in Poland visiting my uncle. I try to see him as often as I can, short of actually moving to Poland. He is a rather frail old man, who seems to have been on death's door since I was in nappies. His latest blood tests are always his main source of chit-chat material. Each time he meets me at his door he proclaims loudly, 'I'm still here, you can see for yourself!' It always makes me laugh as I'm bringing my suitcases in from a taxi, but it's a lot less funny when I've only come back from the shops with milk and a newspaper. Once or twice a year I stay for a week, perhaps two, in his little flat in Warsaw, but in October 2006 I had been jobless for almost a full year and was glad to have an excuse to be neglecting my job hunt. ‘I'm in Poland’ seemed like a reasonable enough excuse. So as well as ferrying my uncle back and forth to his various specialists' appointments, making borscht, and finally reading Proust, I had time to idly sit in the gallery of a municipal courtroom as a foreign journalist, imagine myself akin to Helen Garner and Truman Capote, and watch Henryk Nabozny's life unravel.
I don't know what I really expected to hear, just something juicy. And juicy it was indeed. No fewer than four young female gymnasts from Henryk's institution came forth, each in her own way telling the same story: He would observe from the stands through the countless hours of training, only ever speaking via his other trainers, as one might expect. Then one day he would approach his chosen girl on the floor, and congratulate her on the vast improvements he had seen in her technique, her strength, and her confidence. He would casually tell her that she was among the most promising young stars in his institution, that he would be taking a closer interest in her training from then on. She was to keep this a secret from the other girls, though, because he didn't want her to cause tension amongst his trainees. He said he would put his faith in her, as he would in few others, to understand. Several days later, after letting her feel for a while the bright future that was about to unfold beneath his watchful eyes, he would ask her to meet him in his office-cum-apartment upstairs, after training. This was a rare privilege — the living quarters of the gymnasium were strictly off-limits to trainees, and had a fascinating air of mystery and power. Again, the other girls couldn't know about these meetings, as he was sure she could understand. And from that point on, I'm sure you can imagine where the stories all went.
It's not hard to imagine how special and desired each of the girls must have felt as Henryk led them along into his den. It would have been a lot more romantic, though, if the story had not been repeated almost beat-for-beat by each of the four girls. By the fourth time around, the story had become nauseating and faintly boring. (When I was eight year old I saw Fleetwood Mac perform live, and I was unable to articulate how stupid and betrayed I felt when they started playing songs from their album note-for-note, with the same lyrics, and I realised that they hadn't been making those songs up as they went along.) One can also imagine such a tale of seduction being more palatable if both of the principal characters had been over the age of 15.
The testimonies of the girls were, of course, at the heart of the trial. Karina, especially, will remain in my mind forever. She was 17 at the time of the trial — not quite a woman, but no longer a girl. It isn't hard to see what drew Henryk to her. She is effortlessly beautiful, with flowing copper hair, iridescent eyes set in her porcelain face, and a body both powerful and delicate, like those of all great performers. She moves through the world so gracefully that she seems to control the movements of those around her. Any warm-blooded man would have to admit he wanted her. Above all, she has the worldly dignity of a woman twice her age — she was examined and cross-examined for six hours in court, and though she often spoke through streaming tears, she spoke with absolute clarity of mind and never once hid her face from her audience. She most clearly articulated the essence of all the girls' pain — a twisted mixture of incredulous betrayal, humiliation, guilt, and heartbreak. None of them seemed to feel that they had been abused, but for the fact that they each thought they had been Henryk's only one.
Karina was wistful when she spoke about the first time they spoke in his office — how nervous and thrilled she had felt, how they talked about her life, her family, her hopes for the future, how they stood looking out over the city lights from his balcony, drinking white wine and smiling quietly at one another. She was reticent and euphemistic about the sex acts everyone was there to hear laid bare, and the hard facts had to be drawn out of her with questions that earner either a resolute ‘No!’ or a reluctant ‘Yes.’ At times she was apologetic and remorseful, appearing to quietly grieve for Henryk as his entire future collapsed. I struggled to decide whether this was another layer of abuse he had put upon these girls — a kind of Stockholm Syndrome — or a genuine feeling they had for him. Karina referred often to ‘our bond’, ‘his love for me', et cetera, and as she spoke she glanced at the accused with pain and tenderness in her eyes. Henryk sat mostly with his head hanging low, letting the world direct all its disgusted judgement at his shiny, near-bald scalp. When at times he looked up, his face was a tense, impenetrable mask that gave nothing away, but his eyes were red and shining with tears.
¤ ¤ ¤
The newspapers reported on the trial as it happened, so I was forever making small-talk with my uncle's neighbours and the local shopkeepers about the things that I had heard yesterday but that they had only read that morning. In a way it was the perfect piece of gossip — elite people in exotic places, broken taboos, death and sex, beauty destroyed by an ugly brute, a victim who was easy to love and a criminal who was easy to hate. And the story just went on and on, forever giving out new details to groan in disgust about.
Mostly I tried to avoid reading the ubiquitous newspaper articles and opinion pieces; I changed the channel each time a news update came on. I was seeing it all first-hand, and I couldn't help thinking that it was all just too grey and ambiguous to fit into the victim-perpetrator mindset of the mass media without losing its true meaning. But even as I actively avoided it, I found that I couldn't go about a normal day without being a part of the national outcry. As I waited in line at a grocery store, a pair of middle-aged women noticed me listening to their gossip about the case. The one with a small boy in tow asked me, 'Do you think he'll get life?', in the same tone I imagine she might ask about my football predictions. I demurred and just said, 'Well, men like that don't do well in prison, do they.' She smiled knowingly, and her boy looked up at her to ask what a prison was. Late at night, while my uncle and I waited at a bus stop in the cold drizzle, I almost got into the first fistfight of my adult life. A big bear-like man sat beside me on the bench for ten minutes before idly making conversation about the news. I made an unwise joke about getting into the gymnastics business myself, then suddenly I felt the air around me become stiffer. He quietly turned to me, and said, 'I've got two daughters, you know.' I told him it was only a joke, that maybe people worry too much. He shifted his great bulk and put his face very close to mine, breathing alcohol fumes into my eyes, and slurred, 'Your jokes aren't funny, and I’m not laughing. Don't fuck around with me or I'll fuck you up.' As we trundled home on the bus, with my uncle's sleeping face pressed against the window, I sat immersed in memories of my school days, and all the hateful locker-room intimidation that I had thought I would never have to endure again.
I think there may be more to learn from all the daily chatter and posturing than there is from the many earnest, thought-provoking newspaper columns and fearsome TV reports. It made me wonder why the men and women on the street took this court case so personally, why it mattered more to them than the war in Syria or their own rising costs of living. My feeling is that the women were mostly afraid for their daughters. Of course they knew that this one man couldn't hurt or corrupt their children, but Henryk Nabozny stood as a symbol of the dark sexual world that takes place beyond anyone's sight, where their sisters and daughters may be ensnared without their knowledge. The fact that none of the girls ever accused Henryk of forcing or coercing them (at least not beyond the kind of persuasion that seduction always involves) seemed to make the idea even more horrifying for the women in my uncle's neighbourhood — it meant that their young women might be corrupted and degraded without even putting up a fight, like losing them to drugs or accountancy school.
While the women were shocked and saddened, the men were far more vehement and aggressive with their opinions. They were more likely to sock you one if you didn't think Henryk deserved to be drawn and quartered. They looked as if they were trying to expunge Henryk, and men like him, from the face of the Earth, through sheer force of will. And though they could not cleanse the world of child abusers, then surely the next best thing would be to cleanse themselves. I have no doubt that every man has stared with desire at a girl who he knows is far too young to be lusted after. We all have felt that pang of guilt, followed by confused indignation at being made to feel guilty for our inborn urges. Frustrated sexual desire is a burden that all good men must carry, and I suspect that men like Henryk Nabozny are hated in the same way an obese man at a buffet is hated: as an effigy of our own shackled desires. He must be decried with enough force that perhaps when we rid ourselves of him, we will also rid ourselves of our forbidden hunger. But perhaps I am over-generalising. Perhaps the loudly outspoken men really were as clean of mind as they portrayed themselves to be, and the shameful men who sympathised with Henryk just kept quiet, as I tried to do.
¤ ¤ ¤
Why am I writing this? For the most part it's because there are bills to be paid. But also because I think that we, being half a world away from Henryk Nabozny's prison cell and whoever is occupying it now, are well-placed to think soberly about these terrible events. We are all caught in the whirlwind of news, spin, and opinion, just like my neighbours in Poland were, so shouldn't it be a relief to have a story that won't be twisted into something we are supposed to be personally involved in?
I am also writing this because since he died, Henryk Nabozny won't leave me alone. He invades my dreams and my thoughts, he is an unwanted guest in my home. He was a man who spent his teenage years flexing his perfect biceps and picking up girls in nightclubs, only to one day find himself a pudgy, greying fourtysomething with a funny half-foreign accent. By all accounts he had not had a legitimate female partner since returning from Ukraine, and his days were spent working with dozens of lithe young females in leotards, who vied for his approval. And with each sinful night in his bedroom upstairs, where the fruits of his desire turned bitter in his mouth once he had released his sexual frustration, his self-loathing would amplify and drive him back to his girls for distraction and approval. They would help him forget his own awful self for a while. With each sin committed, the next would only seem like a small addition to a vast heap of wrongdoing, so why fight the good fight against temptation? I ask myself that question, and I can't let go of this vague sense of indignation, because we are all made to suffer, and to punish each other, for our immutable temptations.
I often think about what I would say to Henryk if I had seen him in his cell. He must have felt unimaginably lonely when he died. Since he arrived at the Polish State Prison he had been in and out of protective solitary confinement — he was violently condemned by people who themselves were condemned. He died without hope, without a family, without compassion. So I would only have liked to tell him that I understood. That among the people who cursed his name, most of them would have done just what he had if they had the chance. That we are all sinners, we are all weak, we are all corrupt. That it isn’t personal. That when a dog bites the neighbour's kid, nobody wonders about its character, or what the child may have done. It just gets put down.