It Could Be Worse: 74 Years Plus Two Life Sentences

JugendstrafvollzugAddiction has destroyed so many lives and families. Whenever I think of how difficult the road to recovery is for my son, and we start to despair, I remind myself and him:

It could be worse. At least he still has this opportunity. Some don’t.

The son of a family friend whose downfall was drugs is now serving 74 years plus two life sentences in federal prison. He spends most of his time in the SHU (Special Holding Unit). If you know anything about the penal system, or have been watching the series “Orange is the New Black,” you know this is the worse place to be incarcerated, reserved for the most dangerous prisoners, in virtual isolation. It destroys minds and bodies. The fact that he has been living there for years is almost unbelievable.

When I knew him he was just a skinny little boy with big brown eyes and a shy sweet smile, a few years younger than my son. I didn’t know him well, but saw him from time to time until his parents divorced and he went to live with his mother and step-dad.

The next time I saw him he was standing on our doorstep at 3 AM in the morning. He wouldn’t tell us what was wrong, but wanted to know if he could come inside and call his father. We were surprised to see him, but of course let him in.

While we were waiting for his father to arrive, we sat on the couch and I made small talk. He was 18 years old, but looked like 14, still skinny, still with the big eyes and shy smile.  It was obvious he was in trouble, but we didn’t pressure him to give us details. He seemed like a sweet kid, and I hoped that whatever the trouble was, he would be okay.

We learned later that day what had happened. Just before arriving on our doorstep, he had shot his mother and step-dad in a dispute over drugs. Apparently his parents were peddling drugs from their home, supplying their son and using him to distribute the goods. Their son was hopped up on meth and when they had a falling out and wouldn’t give him what they owed him, in an angry fit, he grabbed their gun and shot them.  His mother died, the step-dad was paralyzed and would spend the rest of his days in a wheelchair.

Somehow he remembered that we lived close by and came to our house to hide out and to wait for his father to come help him.

His lawyer didn’t want to defame the victims, so the fact that his mother and step-dad were drug dealers who had encouraged and benefited from their son’s drug use was never revealed to the jury. He was sentenced to 74 years in prison.

Not long after he was sent away, he wrote to me and we began exchanging letters. I’m not sure why he sought me out. We didn’t really know each other. But perhaps our brief conversation on the couch that night, my kindness to him, made an impression.

At first I enjoyed his letters. He was very articulate and intelligent. He was doing a lot of reading in prison and clearly enjoying what he was learning. But then the letters began to change. He had been drafted into Aryan Nation Brotherhood, was reading all their literature, and was being brainwashed by it. Now his letters were full of white supremacist propaganda.

I did my best in my letters to refute all his arguments and encourage him to stay away from this group. But it was no use. He was fired up and enthusiastic, and he was trying just as hard to convert me. When his language about Jews became increasingly hateful, I knew I could not longer write to him. I mailed him a “Dear John” letter and ended our correspondence. Fortunately, his father and sister and other family members still wrote him, so I don’t imagine he missed my letters.

What I did not know then, nor did he, was that the Aryan Nation was recruiting this impressionable young man with nothing to lose, who desperately needed something to believe in, to be their trained assassin. Or their orders, he murdered an inmate and a guard, earning two life sentences on top of the 74 years.

At that point he realized that he had been used by the Brotherhood and denounced them. Now he was friendless. The other prison gangs already hated him, and those “unaffiliated” feared him, so he was left pretty much alone when he was not being targeted by members of one gang or another. Perhaps that’s why they put him in the SHU. Perhaps that’s why he slashed both his wrists and sliced up and down his arms and legs.

Much to his surprise, and everyone elses, he survived that violent attack upon his own body.

Not long after, his life took an odd ironic twist. For the better.

Resigning himself to life in solitary confinement, he sought to make the most of it. Seeing as how the kosher food served to Jewish inmates was superior to his own, he decided to convert to Judaism. But in order to convince the prison officials the conversion was genuine, he found a distant Jewish relative and began learning as much about the faith as he could. He was fascinated by their long history, their persecution and suffering, and he began studying their sacred texts. His conversion became real.

His father tells us he now wears a yarmulke on his head and his beard nearly reaches his waist. It almost covers up the swastika tattooed across his chest.

I don’t know what this young man’s life would have been like if he hadn’t become involved in drugs. Perhaps he still would have created violent acts. Perhaps he still would have gone to prison.

But I remember him as that sad, shy kid sitting next to me on the couch that night, chewing his fingernails, and looking like all he really needed was a big hug and lots of love to make things right.

I wish he had had a chance to turn his life around.

When I despair of my son’s challenges, I remember: At least it’s not too late for him. We still have hope.

It could be worse.

[POSTSCRIPT: It occurs to me after writing this that I have taken one man’s life and a family tragedy and turned it into a life lesson for myself and my son. The lesson I extrapolated from his story was that everything is relative, and that what seems nearly hopeless for addicts trying to recover, comparatively, is not nearly so hopeless as other cases may be. Therefore, we should take heart, we should recognize the opportunities we have to improve our situation, and not be overcome with all that seems to work against our recovery.

That said, this story of this young man, tragic as it is, has its own thread of hope weaving through it. While his life took such a horrible turn and then grew even worse upon entering prison, at some point, he had the clarity of mind to see that he had been used and the courage to denounce those who had used him for evil, and to choose to live a life of loneliness rather than to be part of that group and way of thinking.

Although overcome with the hopelessness that led him to try to end his life, miraculously, he survived. And in an ironic twist of fate he found in the faith and life story of a people he had once reviled a sense of purpose, and a spiritual practice. I don’t know how his story will evolve, but truly his life story has evolved for the good, even in an atmosphere and under conditions that would severely test any of us. And that, in itself, should give us hope.]

A Flash of Insight, or Magical Thinking?

cloud-ground-lightning National GeographicHave you ever had a dream so devastating that you woke with a headache and unshakable sense of doom? Yet so powerful it provoked flashes of insight about life and reality?

The Dream

I woke from such a dream recently. It was my daughter’s wedding day and everything that could go wrong went wrong. We arrived at the church only to discover no one had come to decorate it. The food we’d ordered was half-prepared. My daughter showed up in her beautiful gown, but we’d forgotten to get her hair done or her make-up. It was so horrible, we cancelled the wedding and sent everyone home. The wedding party climbed into a car and was driving away when my daughter said, “Stop! I can’t wait, I just want this over!”

So we stopped at a tiny diner, and that’s where the wedding took place. I tried to talk her into going to someplace nicer, where it wasn’t so shabby and depressing. But she insisted. I had wanted to take photos of the wedding to hang on our walls, but how could I take photos of this? It was too awful.

The beautiful wedding day we both had dreamed about was ruined, and there was nothing I could do to change it. Our worst nightmare had come true and it was all my fault. I shouldn’t have left the wedding planning up to her. I should have taken charge. I should have had a check-off list and made sure everything had turned out as planned. But it was too late. I screwed up. I let this happen. And now there was nothing I could do to change it.

Then I woke up. My head was pounding and I was gripped by sense of failure and doom.

It was crazy! Why was I having this dream? My daughter had already had the most beautiful wedding imaginable just last year. And she had planned it all! I hadn’t had to lift a finger. Why would I be worried about her wedding?

Then I had a sudden flash of insight. A whole series of them. One after the other.

Flash of Insight #1

This wasn’t a dream about my daughter’s wedding! It was a dream about my son’s life. About the terrible drug addiction that had ruined the beautiful life we both had dreamed for him. And I blamed myself. I shouldn’t have left something as important as his life up to him! I should have taken charge. I should have planned better. But now everything was ruined and there was nothing I could do about it.

Flash of Insight #2

My daughter’s ruined wedding had only been a dream! There had never been a reason to be so upset and despondent. I could have changed the dream at any point. I could have decorated the church, fixed her hair. I could have insisted to go to a beautiful restaurant. At any point in the dream I could have taken charge and created the perfect wedding. If only I had known I was just dreaming. If only I had realized I had the power to do so.

Flash of Insight #3

Maybe I’m still dreaming! I remember how real the ruined wedding had seemed in my dream. Like it was really happening. Like this was reality. So much so that even when I woke, I couldn’t shake the sense of sadness and failure. Maybe I will wake up and find out that my son’s ruined life, his addiction, was just a dream too. Maybe in “reality,” he’s living the perfect life I’d always wanted for him, just as my daughter had had her perfect wedding.

Maybe I’d wake to find him in his perfect house with his loving wife, surrounded by his beautiful children, happy and healthy. He’d flash me a big grin and put his arms around me and say, “Silly mama. Why so sad? You were just dreaming!”

Flash of Insight #4

Maybe in this current “dream of reality” we can change things. Maybe we have the power to practice a type of lucid-dreaming. The power to wake up enough to know this isn’t real, and to change the dream into something better. It’s possible, right? Isn’t change possible?

Flash of Insight #5

Maybe this is what they call “magical thinking.” What we do when every other avenue of escape from a reality we cannot tolerate is closed to us.

Maybe. But I’m not convinced.

Spirituality and Science

I keep thinking of some talks by Alan Watts about Christian mysticism and Asian philosophy that I listened to not long ago. He talks about the inter-connectivity of the universe and how it has evolved into human consciousness. How the very cells of our bodies and brains are made of star stuff. How we are in some strange way the universe made conscious. “We are the eternal universe,” he tells us. Each of us, individually, is a pinprick perception of the whole, and altogether we are the whole itself.

The Christian mystics and Zen masters and Hindu gurus all seem to tell us this is so. We are sparks of Divinity.

But the stories of science, of quantum physics, and cosmology also include fantastic tales about the nature of reality that seem “magical,” even “mystical.” And the reality science depicts sounds strangely similar to these spiritual teachings.

Think of it! How strange is this: The story of the Big Bang, how creation exploded spontaneously out of empty space, a void. How an infinite number of galaxies are spinning through space, some being swallowed by gigantic black holes. How our own bodies which seen so solid to us are actually composed mostly of empty space. How an infinite number electrons and neutrons spinning are spinning through our cells like tiny galaxies. What could be more fantastical or magical than reality science teaches us! The reality we accept on “faith” because we believe what science has revealed.

Watts tells us that we each are sparks of the divine Creator, living an infinite number of lives over and over. Sometimes we choose easy paths, sometimes difficult ones. Sometimes we just want to see how much we can take, how far we can push ourselves, how bad it can get before we turn ourselves around.

Did my son choose his path? Did I choose mine? Are our night dreams and waking dreams just various stages in the ever-expanding understanding of who we really are? Will we wake to another understanding of reality and realize this life is just a dream within a dream within a dream . . . and each life is just as “real” or as “magical” as the next one?

We once believed the earth was flat and the distant ocean spilled off into nothingness. Later that the sun circled the earth, and we felt smug and special at the center of the universe. Then we woke up.

What more will we come to understand about reality–the universe and ourselves–as the eons unfold?

Wake up, I tell myself, wake up.

I still don’t know if this is “magical thinking,” the desperate hopes of a mother afraid to let go, to face the fact that there may actually be nothing I can do to help my son, to change his life.

Or a faint faraway flash of insight about reality that is yet too radical to be believed by most.

What do you think?