A cautionary tale
I have known for some time that one of the dangers to pastors, priests, social workers, counselors, and caregivers in general, is the failure to set appropriate boundaries. While people need help and while caregivers are usually compassionate, caring people, the lack of inviolate boundaries can result in dire consequences. This, then, is a cautionary tale. The story is true.
The heading of the newspaper article was, “Fed-up suicide prevention counselor admits slitting wrists of chronic caller.” In 1991, a Suicide Prevention Center volunteer counselor in Sacramento, Calif., confessed that he slit the wrists of a chronic caller who had become too demanding.
Frank Charles Snyder, 29 at the time, admitted that he and an acquaintance, identified only as “John,” had attacked a depressed and suicidal Benjamin Carlson. According to Snyder, Mr. Carlson, who survived the attack, “was sucking everything out of me ... he antagonized me so that I would kill him.” The judge ordered Mr. Carlson to stand trial on the charge of attempted murder.
In 1991, Mr. Carlson was 52 and recently separated from his wife. He became a client of the suicide prevention hotline, reaching out for help while struggling with depression and loneliness over the holidays.
Soon, many of the volunteers at the center were refusing to accept calls from Carlson. Carlson would later deny most of the allegations testified by counselors in court. The counselors accused Carlson of obscenity, sexual harassment, and death threats. According to the service director, Carlson threatened to bomb her car and threatened her children. Carlson was calling the hotline 150 to 200 times a week.
But Frank Snyder, by all accounts, was a nice, compassionate guy, majoring in sociology at a local college, and decided that he would accept the calls nobody else would take and that he would try to talk to Carlson. Snyder took it upon himself to ignore the hotline’s rules and decided to meet and befriend Carlson in person.
Snyder and Carlson quickly became buddies, visiting each other’s homes and fishing together. Snyder even gave Carlson a puppy. The two scooped up the puppy one night and all three partied together at a topless bar.
But the friendship became a struggle for Snyder. His college grades were suffering, his relationship with his wife was at odds, and while helping Carlson through alcohol withdrawal, he himself began to drink more.
The hotline center also found out about Snyder’s breaking policy and suspended his participation for three months. According to Snyder, Carlson was unwilling to end the friendship with his only friend when the suggestion was brought up.
A deputy sheriff quoted Snyder as saying, “This guy, Ben, was in a vicious cycle. He wanted to die but didn’t have the courage to do it ... I was angry with him. I was furious. It was ruining my life.” Said Snyder to a detective, “If I was ever going to get Ben out of my life, I was going to have to take care of it somehow.”
On the night in question, Snyder and “John” went to Carlson’s home and forced their way into the house. Snyder struck Carlson in the face and said, “I’m going to shut you up.” A razor from a snakebite kit was used to cut the victim’s wrists. Snyder then told “John,” “We’ve got to take the jugular out,” when he realized that Carlson wasn’t dying. Snyder said that he didn’t have the nerve to cut Carlson’s throat but that, “‘John’ did the best he could.”
A jury rejected Frank Snyder’s insanity defense and Snyder received a life sentence for attempted murder with torture. He never gave up “John.” He would have been eligible for parole in 2001.
In the early summer of 1994, the former suicide prevention counselor hanged himself with an electrical cord while serving time at the state prison in Vacaville. Ben Carlson is still alive.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Fellowship in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]