In the sunny summer of 2017, I received a Twitter direct message from Caitlin Flanagan, a reporter with The Atlantic. I took a glance at her twitter profile to see she only had a few thousand followers, a number that immediately allowed me to trust her. If she were a reporter, and if she were publishing essays, she certainly wasn’t doing it for the instant glorification of the spotlight. She was doing it to simply expose The Truth.
Flanagan had noted that I had been given a raw deal by the media, and she wasn’t looking to simply put out some sort of mainstream media article surrounding Penn State’s systemic issues surrounding hazing.
We talked on the phone quite a bit for weeks on in. She had become fully aware that I was working as a sous chef and server at a Thai restaurant in South Jersey, which she found to be the coolest thing ever. She also became fully aware of my foster care experience, my adoption, my parent’s divorce, my parents’ remarriages, and all the other joys that dysfunctional families enjoy.
One of the roles Flanagan played throughout her mystical career was a social worker. She had met people like me before, taken them into her arms and building deep down inside of them: confidence, strength, and character. Flanagan came to me at the perfect time, a time in which I began to question why Kordel Davis ever deserved a place on this earth.
After a lengthy series of phone calls, Flanagan and I finally settled on a date to sit down and have lunch together. She drove over to my stepmother’s house in South Jersey and we winged the venue for our miniature rebellion while in the car. We debated grabbing some sushi, but when I brought up Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, Flanagan couldn’t resist. After all, I was born in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Some of the first words Flanagan ever said to me were “I wish my son dressed like you.” I was sporting pink chino shorts with a Khalid American Teen shirt and vibrant blue Kobe Bryant sneakers. As I opened the car door and snuck myself in, I was comforted in the fact that I was with a woman who could see me as a son-like figure.
As we drove through the parking garage looking for two white lines to squeeze the car between, I told Flanagan that I wasn’t quite sure of who my biological father is. My aunt and biological mother exclaimed that since there were so many men at once, a final determination could not be easily made.
“Oh, I’m sure that’s the case,” Flanagan stated with ease. “I dealt with lots of situations like that when I was a social worker.”
I immediately dissected her words and was a bit relieved to realize that in a world of over seven billion I was not the only one with such a bastard filled childhood.
When we got inside the market, we walked around for quite some time searching for a certain cuisine that both of us could enjoy. There was so much to choose from, and I didn’t want to be the one to have to make a decision that could find itself in a paragraph of The Atlantic, a magazine that I wasn’t sure of who read. (Lawyers, academics, public speakers and politicians, Kordel. Come on!)
“Do you like ribs?” she asked. And so, we settled on ribs with some comfort food sides.
I was eager to finally be able to sit down with Ms. Flanagan after so many lengthy phone conversations. She had gone on to know so much about me that she could singlehandedly write my life story, which is exactly what she did in a section of her article.
What would I tell Ms. Flanagan? Was there anything that I would feel the need to leave out? The fact that I was so open with her regarding my biological father or lack thereof meant that we may already be looking towards a conversation with no boundaries.
Sitting there with Flanagan, I had a feeling inside of me that I never before had. Have we crossed dimensions? Was this meeting itself ordained and created by God? There are dark and terrible things in this world. Mass shootings, twisted doctors, scientists making clones. But Flanagan wasn’t like any of this. Like Grammie bringing over shoe-fly pie on a Saturday evening, Flanagan was here to simply comfort. “Hang in there! This is an intense situation, but it will pass,” she messaged me on Twitter shortly before we met.
I knew she would have to know about the relationship between Joe Paterno and Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi. How could it be that the model fraternity of Penn State and its football franchise would go on to become the poster child of hazing deaths in America? Articles were scattered around Beta Theta Pi’s trophy room highlighting the press conference Joe Paterno and his wife had after Don Abbey donated millions of dollars to fund the most expensive fraternity house renovation in American history.
Throughout the renovation, active members of the fraternity bashed holes in the walls with baseball bats, causing Abbey to install a state-of-the-art security system and cameras so that he could catch any future misbehaviors. If not for those holes in the walls, and not for Abbey following up by installing security cameras, what happened on February 2, 2017, within the walls of Beta Theta Pi may have never been fully solved.
There are events that occur in this world that are fully out of our control and our knowledge. That’s the summary of my childhood in a kind, nonviolent form. Thrown against a wall by a family member, sexually assaulted by another, thrown into the foster care system and finally adopted at the age of three only to have my parents get divorced within two years. All of this trauma, undealt with, created a ripple effect in a child that created a young adult incapable of achieving self–actualization. One of the best forms of medication I’ve had in 2019 was going to my ex-girlfriend’s house on the Fourth of July and not getting thrown out.
I explained my childhood to Flanagan, noting that I had been that weak individual in need of help so often, causing me to gain a sense of empathy and causing me to become careful of whom I trust.
“All of this led me to realize that on February 2, 2017, I could finally use all my life experiences to help somebody in need. But I failed,” I said to Flanagan.
“But you didn’t fail, Kordel. It was everything that you went through in your childhood that allowed you to realize that action had to be taken. It was everything you went through that made the detectives realize that you are not like the other brothers, and you shouldn’t be charged.”
In seventh grade, I was searching for a book to read in Bucks County, Pennsylvania’s Strayer Middle School. Just like attempting to make a choice of what to eat at the Reading Terminal Market, I could not decide on which book I should read next. The Writing Workshop teacher walked over to the book cart, took a book off the cart, handed it to me, and said, “Here’s your next book.” Nestled in my hands was Monster by Walter Dean Myers.
My first reaction when I looked at the cover of the novel was that this teacher was calling me a monster. What else was a seventh-grader with a childhood like mine supposed to believe? I took the book, walked to my locker and tucked it inside, and debated if I would ever open the darn thing or hand it back to the teacher in a month unread, telling her I just loved her pick–great advice.
Eventually, I battled my fears and plunged myself into the woke world of Walter Dean Myers. The result was only more fears instilled inside of me, the fear that one day I would be in the vicinity of a crime gone wrong, and whilst being completely innocent, would become corralled into the group of defendants.
Monster centers around a group charged with murder by inner-city prosecutors after they open fire on a drug store owner in a robbery gone wrong. District Attorney Sandra Petrocelli states “They are all equally guilty. The one who grabbed the cigarettes, the one who wrestled for the gun, the one who checked the place to see if the coast was clear.” But the main character who has been charged in the case, Steve Harmon, is not culpable whatsoever.
Towards the end of the novel, Steve goes to give a character a hug, but they refuse to share this intimate moment, as they can view Steve as being nothing but a monster.
When I got voicemails from Central Pennsylvania detectives stating that I had a subpoena for a Grand Jury investigating the death of a pledge at Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi, it took me back to Monster.
I avoided detectives’ calls for as long as I could, knowing that being Black and in the vicinity of a crime scene in Central Pennsylvania would mean that I would be facing a sentence of life in prison. District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller and her gang of detectives would use every fallacy under the Tuscan Sun to paint a picture of me as some cold-blooded killer, nothing but a real-life walking, talking version of Steve Harmon.
Defendants would say I “gave detectives everything they need” and “spilled mad beans.” It didn’t matter to me. Whatever move I made; nobody could save me from my future life behind bars.
But that was not the case at all. Instead, detectives and prosecutors would go on to give me the nickname “The Good Samaritan.” They understood that in my attempts to save a dying pledge I was marginalized, overruled and overmatched, being called “crazy” and “insane” and being thrown against a wall.
Detectives even understood that a text I sent, “Hello pledge. Get ready to get fucked up tonight and get ready for a long semester,” was a warning call to the pledges. “Get ready to get fucked up tonight” are lyrics from the song “Shots” by LMFAO. I was hoping that pledges would understand heavy drinking would be a key component of the night. Active members of the fraternity ostracized me for sending that text; the binge drinking was supposed to surprise the pledges and I may have given away the secret. I don’t regret sending that text. I only wish that I ended it with “Don’t come.”
Throughout the Centre County Grand Jury’s investigation, defendants openly engaged in witness tampering with me. An active member screamed at me in front of Berkey Creamery, “You should have never advocated calling 911 because the pledge should’ve gotten help for himself if he needed it so bad. And now you just want us to go to jail.”
The offenses continued and got so vulgar that one day I pulled out the card a State College Detective gave me and actually dialed the number on it. I called a good friend’s father, a lawyer known for keeping Main Line Philadelphia bad guys out of jail, to see if he could help keep these bad guys out of my face. I called my mother, who then called the detective.
“I promised your mother I was going to keep you safe, and I am going to stick to that promise,” a State College Detective said to me, face to face.
Upon first receiving my subpoena, a detective said to me, “I hope you stay at this university. It needs you.”
The university needed me, but I didn’t need it. I needed a family, a friend, somebody to talk to. I went to a therapist at Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services who later called me in the summer of 2017, left a voicemail saying, “Hey, Kordel. Would you be able to sign this paper so I can inform Penn State administrators that we spoke?” Operation Get Out was in full swing.
After I received death threats at Penn State for “ruining Greek life” and “giving the detectives everything they need,” my stepmother drove to State College at the advice of her own cousin, a psychologist, and took me into her and my father’s care.
“Was it your father that went and picked you up or was it me?” she asked me one afternoon. The question rung truth, but it also raised other questions as well. Why wouldn’t my father or mother get me when I needed help the most? Why did my mother have to send countless emails to my father every day just to get him to see his legal children when I was young?
The death threats themselves didn’t bother me too much, just college students talking trash as college students do. But when my stepmother’s sister found the online rants and sent them to my stepmother, they weren’t so thrilled.
“You’re never going back there.”
After lunch with Flanagan and I was still dressed in delicate shades of pink and blue, my stepmother asked where I had been. I told her I went to the Reading Terminal Market with a friend and it was obvious that she immediately knew there was more to the story, but this was something she would store in her head for a later date.
When Flanagan released the article in October of 2017, my legal father sent me a text asking if I would be available for a call later in the evening.
“It’s not going to be the same in the future,” he said, “you decided to do that article and you lied about it.” The dialogue obviously wasn’t drafted by him. In the night… I hear him talk… the coldest story ever told… somewhere far along this road… he lost his soul… to two women so heartless….
Those big little lies, however inconsequential they may have seemed to be to me, took a clear emotional toll on my stepmother. She did care for me, once handing me a twenty-dollar bill as I stood at a cash register purchasing a new pair of shoes, shouting at my father later in the evening that one new pair of shoes does not make me spoiled but American. And so, the lines “the additions of stepparents and stepsiblings further difficulted his life” probably hit her hard, but they were the words written by a former social worker and not me. An apology would eventually ensue during the Davis Family Christmas Meltdown 2018.
The essay itself has flung to the forefront of the national conversation of Hazing Prevention. Flanagan has gone on to become more successful than ever before, being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her work between January and August of 2018. The exposé of Penn State’s vigorous hazing has gone on to become a highlight in academic circles and collegiate courses, being featured in the eighth edition of The Right Thing to Do edited by James and Stuart Rachels and published by Rowman & Littlefield.
While some will read my works and hear me speak and say it’s “not his story to tell,” others such as Dr. Ben Carson understand that it is imperative to the longevity of our country. For if there are ninety–nine safe sheep and one who is lost, is it not all the more important to save the life of the one?