The story of Gifted Disabilities, the Columbia-based novel the government never wanted you to read
By Corey Hutchins
It was a crisp, clear late Friday afternoon in October 2004 when U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Terry Hunter knocked on the door of Apt. 1 in the Charles Edward building, an old brick and wrought iron historic mainstay across the street from Capstone Hall in Columbiaâ€™s University Hill neighborhood. When the door opened he let himself in. Two Columbia police officers and two USC police officers followed. Hunter, a towering black man wearing a black suit, white shirt, black tie and a buzz cut, produced no warrant to search the apartment owned by Peggy McMaster, the wife of the state attorney general, which she was leasing to 21-year-old Justin Blackburn. In one hand Hunter carried a black briefcase and in the other a boxy black case used for fingerprinting and photographing criminals. It was approximately 5 p.m. at the time.
For the next five hours, Hunter and the officers would interrogate Blackburn, his roommate Kenny Norsworthy, 21, and friend Patrick Duffie, 18, about a novel written under the name â€œJustin Blackburn,â€ a then-unpublished manuscript titled Gifted Disabilitiesâ€” a manuscript that had been circulating around the state for a month in the form of a bound stack of papers. It is a novel about a boy in the former mental institution on Bull Street who escapes and murders his parents, a disturbing 268 page first person novel based in Columbia about outward angst and violence and the sadism of a dystopian American youth. A novel that, now published, is missing two pages â€” deleted, taken out, forcibly censored on that day in October â€” by Hunter, a man who had shown up at Blackburnâ€™s door knowing everything about him, including his medical history. For Blackburn and his friends, that day America was exactly how they had portrayed it in their book of fiction, a book thatâ€™s fourth chapter contains the line â€œâ€¦because you know censorship is the backbone of [this] fucking bullshit country.â€
While enrolled in English classes at USC, Blackburn said his professor, William Price Fox, encouraged him to write a novel. Halfway through the semester Blackburn dropped out of school but he took his professorâ€™s advice. He wrote that novel. And because of it, he was now staring into the face of a very serious, very severe-looking Secret Service agent who was telling him he might be going to jail. â€œPolitical prison.â€ Inside his head the words were like fireworks in a storm drain. At that moment he was not thinking of alliteration.
When Fox talks about Blackburn now he does so with a cautious skepticism and says he was aware of Blackburnâ€™s claim of the Secret Service contacting him in 2004 but he thought a lot of it might just be in Blackburnâ€™s head.
University of South Carolina Director of Communications Russell McKinney, however, told City Paper that members of the university police department do recall the incident involving Blackburn and confirmed that the Secret Service had been involved.
McKinney said City Paper could say with confidence that Blackburn was approached by the Secret Service and USC police officers were aware of it. McKinney also said no incident report was ever filed.
Another professor in USCâ€™s English department who did not want to be named alluded to possible drug use by Blackburn during the time of the incident.
When confronted with the allegation, Blackburn has no reservations about the state he was in when he wrote Gifted Disabilities.
â€œWe kind of did a lot of drugs and we just kind of wrote whatever we wanted to write,â€ he said about the free-flowing novel, mostly written by him and Norsworthy, along with other minor contributors who breezed in and out of their apartment while hammering at the keyboard in a kind of kibbutz-like literary commune. And that was the problem: it was what they chose to write about that had drawn the five law enforcement officers out of the woodwork and into their faces, threatening and humiliating them and rifling through the drawers of their three-bedroom apartment. But what they were after, even Blackburn said he doesnâ€™t really know. The officers told him he had written something about the president that could send him to a political prison in Kentucky for 20 years (no official political prison exists in the United States). Blackburn would find out later the agents had made the same threat about him to his parents by phone 30 minutes before they entered his apartment and forced both he and his roommate into two separate rooms for interrogation.
For the past few weeks, Blackburn and his friends had been distributing their unpublished novel hoping to have it commercially published. Blackburn and Norsworthy printed up multiple of copies of the manuscript, self-delivered it, and held literary readings from Greenville to Charleston.
According to Lisa Kozlowski, a former employee at the Thomas Cooper Library, Blackburn racked up a printing bill totaling almost a thousand dollars using university equipment. Two weeks after his ordeal with the government, he would later be handcuffed and escorted out of that same library for using a computer. It was after returning to Columbia following one particular reading in the Lowcountry when a police line of city and university cruisers flanked his apartment and a Secret Service agent was waiting at Blackburnâ€™s door.
Brian Barr, a witness that day, said he was walking up Barnwell Street when he saw the police vehicles.
Hunter and the officers held copies of the manuscript Gifted Disabilities and had marked certain pages. They demanded Blackburn let them inside and told him the apartment must be searched for weapons.
â€œThey were under the pretext that we were some kind of threat,â€ Norsworthy, now living in Los Angeles, said of the police and the way they conducted the search. â€œThey just basically turned over everything [in the apartment].â€ In what he described as a â€œraid of fear,â€ Blackburn recalled the officers as â€œseriously, really, really upset,â€ when they first crowded into the place. â€œThey kind of tried to shake me down, to get me to admit to thingsâ€” to admit to whatever we were doingâ€” to scare me. Using all these scare tactics. And of course it worked. I was scared,â€ he said.
At one point an officer told Norsworthy that if the Secret Service wanted them dead they would be dead.
Waving at the walls, Norsworthy recalled asking one muscular officer with a shaved head if he would see a red dot in regards to being aimed at with a firearm. The officer told him no. Gesturing to the large glass windows that faced the street where outside, Hunterâ€™s government-issue forest green Chevy Impala was parked on the curb, the officer told him, â€œGet some curtains.â€
After separating the two and interrogating them both about certain passages from Gifted Disabilities, mostly sections in the manuscript relating to President Bush (some of which they read out loud demanding interpretation), Hunter opened his booking case. According to Blackburn he told him he was going to be placed on â€œsome kind of list,â€ and then he fingerprinted and photographed the longhaired fiction writer in his own living room.
Hours later, still unclear about what exactly Blackburn had done besides write and distribute a work of fiction, the officers told him they believed the text was not a manuscript but a manifesto. According to Norsworthy, an operative of the Young Democrats at USC had tipped off a female university police officer after reading a copy of the manuscript. Because of the content in the unpublished work, the officer decided to go up the chain with it. All the way to the top. Two pages in particular are what forced the government to get involved, according to the authors.
â€œWhat does this mean?â€ Blackburn recalls being asked by the officers who rattled the pages in front of him and read the text aloud. â€œâ€¦the goddamn president who has taken innocent lives for nothing but fucking money. He thinks money buys him love, he runs our goddamn country. He receives anonymous love letters from machines. The way the Nazi loved Hitler we love George W. Christ.â€
That line certainly did it for Hunter.
â€œIt is alright to hate the President, you are not going to go to hell, you might get shot behind some fucking barnyard.â€ So did that one.
And for hours it went on.
When Hunter and the officers learned there existed a disk somewhere with the manuscript on it in digital form they became incensed. They wanted it. Not only did they want the physical disk, but they also wanted pages of the novel deleted off Blackburnâ€™s personal computer. And looking over his shoulder as he booted up the computer in his bedroom, Hunter and the officers told him exactly which parts to delete and watched as he scrolled through the document, highlighting blocks of text and tapping the backspace key. Blackburn said it was between one and two full pages, equaling close to double that in book form. What exactly was on those pages he said he canâ€™t remember and does not have any hard or digital copies of to use as a reference.
â€œThey thought it was a manifesto to take over the world,â€ Blackburn said. â€œIt was a fiction novel.â€
By 10 p.m., Hunter and the officers finished their job with Blackburn, Norsworthy and Duffie, who they called to the apartment because he had a copy on disk. They told Blackburn he should write a â€œgood book,â€ and not this kind of thing. They told him they would be watching the boys and following them around. It being a month away from the November elections, they said theyâ€™d check in on them at the apartment from time to time. Hunter put away his camera and packed up his booking kit. He told Blackburn he would meet him the following Friday, but never called back. With all the digital copies taken care of, the portions deleted off the computer and their information processed, it seemed to the authors that the governmentâ€™s job there was done.
There is a Terrence Hunter, who works for the U.S. Secret Service and keeps a field office in Los Angeles. On his voicemail he calls himself Terry. Calling from New York, Hunter told City Paper that he investigates incidents regarding national security and published or distributed documents that may appear harmful to the president or the government but he would not comment on the specific incident involving Blackburn.
The following months, Blackburn said a lot of his friends wouldnâ€™t talk to him. His landlord told him his roommateâ€™s parents had complained about the Secret Service visiting the house because of him. The first book publisher he was going through, AuthorHouse, told him they were going to print the novel but later declined. When he went to the Thomas Cooper Library to use a computer, officers took him out in handcuffs and detained him for 40 minutes outside until a university police official arrived and told him not to come back. He moved out of Columbia and returned to his hometown of Greenville.
In the spring of last year, Blackburn self-published Gifted Disabilities through BookSurge in paperback and he and Norsworthy went on a subsequent Southeastern book tour, selling nearly all the copies they had printed. Amazon.com, where the novel can be purchased, currently ranks the title at 1,153,894. To contact Justin Blackburn, as the authorâ€™s note on the last page of the book suggests, contact your local riot squad sheriff.