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The Tainted Kidney

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“And Charlie doesn’t really feel bad about any of this. He’s concerned how it affects his kids, but he doesn’t feel bad. And Charlie’s not the kind of guy to fake it,” says Mask. “It makes some people feel like he’s getting away with something.” Prison was supposed to take away his options. And yet there he was, still making demands.

After Allentown, his final sentencing, Cullen was shackled in the back of a windowless van. He was met at the Trenton prison by guards in riot gear. They strip-searched him, gave him prison clothes, and led him to the psych ward, where they took the clothes away and strip-searched him for a second time. He was handed a disposable gown like medical patients wear, but it was made from the stuff they wrap around new TV sets, and he was put into a padded room for a 72-hour observation period. The gown shredded after the first day. He tried not to listen to the “time for your insulin” comments from the guards, focusing instead on Psalm 25: “My enemies are many, they hate me. Deliver me, let me not be ashamed.” Then he was given clothes again and moved into DD Block, where he was to serve his now eighteen life sentences, and where I visit him again.

From the Trenton River Line train, the prison appears as a block of brick and razor wire across the highway from a McDonald’s. Another minute’s walk past the front gate gets you to a security check-in with a metal detector and a uniformed guard. After a pat-down, you’re buzzed through three bolted steel doors and into a guarded hallway partitioned into steel booths. I find Cullen waiting in the third one, waving a little hello. We nod mutely across the bulletproof divide, and plug in our phones. There is static, then breath.

Cullen and I had been communicating through letters for nearly a year, and I had learned a lot about the man—his accidental entry into nursing school and his first job scrubbing dead skin from burn victims, the depressions and suicide attempts and marital problems, his drinking and his hospitals and his sixteen-year murder spree. But even knowing the facts, I was still unable to fully connect the mild man across the glass with the serial killer and his monstrous crimes.

I tell him that some of the families of his victims are against the kidney donation, that they see it as special treatment for a serial killer, and nothing more. “I’m trying to get something? I’m in prison, I can’t control—there’s nothing to bargain for—no island off the coast of New Jersey that they send you to torture you, no Guantánamo Bay. All I can do is sit in a cell. And I know that New Jersey doesn’t make license plates anymore, so what would the families rather I did, just sit and watch TV?”

Cullen is indignant at a system that he said was willing to sacrifice an Ernie Peckham to punish a Charles Cullen. Saving a relative stranger’s life is undoubtedly heroic—would you give up a kidney?

Of course, heroic compassion is easier to talk about than mass murder. I can admire Cullen for the one and hate him for the other, but I have no idea how to connect the two—they seemed to be the actions of two very different men. And so I ask him: Is it any wonder people question your motives? You’re in prison for having taken dozens of lives, and yet now you’re fighting to save one. It seems … inconsistent.

Cullen is only a foot away, on the other side of the glass, but I cannot decipher his expression. Then he glances to the side of the glass, as if reading there, and slowly begins to speak.

“If you’re asking if I knew what I was doing was wrong,” he says, “I saw that I was stopping pain, removing pain. I saw it as shortening the duration of the pain, ending pain. Sometimes the pain was patients who were suffering and terminal; sometimes it was the pain of families being ripped apart; sometimes it was the lives of patients that would only be tied up in an endless series of procedures and complications and pain.

“But if you’re asking—well, I knew that it was illegal,” Cullen says. “And that it wasn’t my choice to make. But it’s how I thought about it. I felt compelled to do what I did. I didn’t see it as bad. I did know it was illegal.”

Cullen is looking at the table but not looking at it. I don’t know what he sees. “But, if you’re asking, when I was asked to donate a kidney, I felt that I did what I would normally do, in any circumstance. To be helpful. It was something that I could do. It was something that was needed. I was asked to do it, and it’s possible. And I felt compelled to, because I could do it and I was asked to.”


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