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New Book Chronicles Traumatic Childhoods In Las Vegas

Original photo: Madcoverboy at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons/Illustration: Natalie Cullen

If we’re lucky, we only know the more tragic side of Las Vegas through hearsay – things we read in the newspaper or see on TV.

But if you’re not, you live it, entrenched in the addictions, violence and compulsive gambling that mar this city.

These horrors were all too familiar to the subjects of Timothy O’Grady’s book, who have survived addiction and abuse first-hand.

While living and teaching in Las Vegas between 2009 and 2011, O'Grady collected stories from his students and others. He recently published 10 of those stories in his book “ Children of Las Vegas.”

O'Grady told KNPR's State of Nevada that although he liked living in Las Vegas and he met nice people he always felt some something was off. 

“It had a quality to me that I couldn’t figure out for a long time,” he said. “It was a kind of ‘Twilight Zone’ quality.’”

He said there was a curious absence of people, and an "emptiness" about Southern Nevada.

“I could also sense somewhat eerily, wounds," he said. "Distress, sadness, anger, shame was in the air, but I didn’t know what it was about until one day in a class my students started talking about their lives and revealed what that was all about.”

He said students would tell him about their parents taking their paychecks, or going through their pockets looking for money, or even stealing their identities. 

O'Grady said 80 percent of the people in his classes were telling a version of that kind of story. Those discussions inspired him to talk to his students more about their lives. He also sought out other people who had grown up here. 

Kenneth Patrick is one of those people. He talked to O'Grady about growing up in Las Vegas in the '70s and '80s. 

“I grew up knowing that we were not necessarily held to the rules or standards of the rest of the country," Patrick said. "I knew that when I was very, very small.”

Patrick remembers using casino chips to buy candy from 7-Eleven. However, he said the real currency in Las Vegas was beauty and wealth. He also knew that the city was looked down upon, even by people within the state. 

"You have to be pretty. You have to have money and nobody really likes you,” he said.

Patrick's addiction to alcohol started when he was young he said, but he believes the 24-7 lifestyle of the city made it worse.

“Vegas facilitated the 24-hour cycle,” he said. “I think the things that happened to me would have happened but in a lesser degree, if I was in a place that had a different kind of schedule and a different kind of acceptance or demand of how parents treat their children.”

As a teen, Patrick said he would go to a nearby bar when his mom left for work at a casino cage and exchange sex for drinks. 

O'Grady believes Las Vegas is "designed" to find people's vulnerabilities and prey upon them. 

“It’s true that there are disastrous stories in other cities around the world, but these were things that happened to people precisely because of the license Las Vegas grants itself to indulge in these particular versions of fun,” he said.  

He said the people he wrote about had problems directly tied to Las Vegas. 

Patrick agreed with that. As a gay man, he said he felt safer in other places. He said his alienation he felt in Las Vegas was not felt any other place he lived.

Now, 19 years sober, Patrick said he feels a kinship to the other people featured in the book. He says from an early age he felt pressure not to talk about the city's problems. 

“We’re not allowed to tell the truth to each other or the outside world about what’s really happening because if we break down the façade then the money will stop," he said. "The city breaks down and then it's just chaos."

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Timothy O'Grady, author, "Children of Las Vegas"; Kenneth Patrick, who shared his story in the book.

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Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.