Playing for Keeps
texasmonthly.com: How did you discover this story?
Katy Vine: My brother-in-law was researching it for a class at the University of Texas at Austin, and the program sounded incredibly strange.
texasmonthly.com: Many teenagers might have a hard time taking a program like the one at Giddings seriously. How did the group deal with uncooperative members?
KV: The boys regularly give feedback to each other throughout the sessions, and if a student becomes disengaged, the other members point out his bad attitude. This peer pressure seemed to have an impact on the overall level of commitment they had to the program.
texasmonthly.com: From which parts of Texas did the boys come?
KV: Most of them committed their crimes in metropolitan areas, and the therapists said that they seemed to work with a lot of kids from Dallas and Houston. This was consistent with a report I found that showed higher numbers of referrals for violent offenders in Dallas, Harris, and Tarrant counties.
texasmonthly.com: Raymond asked you if your opinion of the kids would change after you heard their stories, and you replied that you didn’t know. How did your feelings change throughout your reporting?
KV: I’d have to say I became more afraid of the boys after hearing what they were capable of—not because I really thought they’d hurt anyone again, but because hearing them tell the specifics of their crimes was chilling no matter how penitent they were in the telling.
texasmonthly.com: Did you learn anything from the boys that did not make it into the article?
KV: One day they gave me some advice: They said not to be afraid when I’m walking around, but be cautious because you never know what a kid is capable of. I think they meant to calm my fears, but that answer exacerbated them.
texasmonthly.com: How many times did you visit Giddings? Did you get to spend much time talking face-to-face with the boys, as opposed to watching them from behind the mirror?
KV: I visited twice a week (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the class schedule) from mid-May to early September. Usually I spent time in the dorm with them before and after the sessions, and we’d talk. But during class, I was behind the mirror.
texasmonthly.com: Did the teenagers know you were watching during the sessions?
KV: I got their consent to watch and write about their experiences before I sat in on the first session.
texasmonthly.com: The climax of the story is deeply emotional to read but must have been even more intense to watch. While the reenactment was happening, what were you thinking?
KV: During the reporting process, I tried to stay analytical. While I was horrified with the actual events portrayed, I was usually wondering if the student would be able to return to the significant moment in time and really re-live what happened since it was so key to the therapy. Most of the emotion that I had suppressed during the viewing didn’t bubble up in nightmares until a day afterward. Crime scene photos I saw offered enough material in some cases. In others, scenarios of beatings and break-ins and carjackings ushered them in.
texasmonthly.com: Do the therapists have similar reactions to the sessions?
KV: Margie Soto and Thomas Talbott told me that after years of holding these groups, they’d gotten used to some aspects of the therapy, but the experience has changed the way they look at kids when they’re out at the mall or walking through a parking lot. I don’t think there’s a way to hear these stories and walk away totally unaffected.