I was 40 when I was arrested. My oldest son was 16. His mother and I split when he was about one, but we have remained close friends, and I have never been to court over obligations. We simply did what was necessary and worked out any problems as adults should.
I was arrested when my son called the police. I was suffering from a mental health crisis, brought on by traumatic brain injury and a number of stressors, I had destroyed the kitchen and got in a fistfight with my son. I was in such a bad state that I accused the family dogs of being against me. That last part would almost be funny were I not writing this from the Pocahontas State Correctional Center.
The police arrived even though my son called them back to tell them that he, my mother and my common law wife of 14 years had left the house. As is always the case and most especially when mental health crises are concerned, the police made a bad situation worse. You hear the story regularly in the news of incidents where protocols are ignored, procedure violated, and constitutional rights disregarded. My son called for help because he was concerned for his father, who had never acted so bizarrely, but that concern lost him his father.
We were living in the small town of Floyd, Virginia. The local police not only went after me but pursued my son for a minor marijuana charge. The cost? Missing an entire year of high school He had been an A/B student, first chair trumpet player and a member of the soccer team, but he was suddenly placed in a remedial school.
The hits kept coming for my son. My wife — his stepmother — met a guy who moved into our house and told my son that he was no longer welcome in the home that he literally helped to build. His mother, grandparents, aunt and uncle all bore witness to this. As I write this, my ex-wife is trying to take our house, and we are in court over it.
Thankfully, I come from a good family and my son was able to live with his grandparents in Philadelphia. His mother and his younger brother, whom I helped raise due to an absent father, moved closer to her family in Alabama. The sense of loss and separation was profound, lingering to this very day. Prior to the pandemic, my son moved back to Virginia and made plans to get a place with some high school friends. When those plans fell apart, he stayed with one of his friends until the family told him he could no longer stay there. This poor kid.
I’m fortunate to have friends, real friends, and one of them took my call from prison and accepted my request to take in my 19-year-old son. Thank the Gods! I was able to convert a possible major catastrophe into a minor inconvenience with some lessons about friendship. It’s a bit ironic. My son was getting a harsh lesson about friendship from those who put him out, while at the same time getting a lesson about what friendship really is. The universe is a strange place.
Staying with my friend involves participating in the household. Doing dishes and caring for their dogs and cats. That is not a problem for my son. That being said, there are a number of issues which have, as expected, begun to surface. There was a reason I called the person I did. It is the right environment with the right person to help guide my son while I am absent. My absence is one of those issues, compounded by a sense of abandonment from his stepmother and his friend. He is also isolated from his family and peers. Quite honestly, the boy is a psychological disaster area, and most days I am deeply concerned.
I call my son almost every day, sometimes twice a day. But at 20 minutes at a time, there is simply no way to delve deep into his crisis, not in a real meaningful way. Those are conversations that would involve hours and days, covering morality, philosophies of honor and loyalty, expectations and illusions and the nature of society and culture. The nature of reality. Maybe, just maybe, in the utmost perfect setting, you could work through all this in a 15-hour couch session. Realistically, it would take months of deep introspection, often covering the same ground a dozen times to find the one kernel of progress. Twenty minutes at a time is not conducive to this, but it is better than nothing. It is more than many in this situation are blessed with, but it isn’t enough by any stretch.
I also write him frequently, often reciting a similar litany of advice, ideas and suggestions. I include quotes from books I am reading, songs whose lyrics I find inspiring and movies that have a similar effect on me. I’m a bit of a geek — it’s hip to be square — and so there is a myriad of sci-fi and fantasy in my world. My son has incorporated these tastes, so I recently compiled a complete list of every novel in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, in the chronological order they should be read. SUPER GEEK, SUPER GEEK, HE’S SUPER GEEKY, YOW (ba bum ba bum). They comprise more than 250 books because I have nothing but time. It’s not as if the Virginia Department of Corrections is known for its programs.
Today … today was especially complicated. My son was in tears because he felt trapped and alone. He wondered what he has to live for, and he blamed himself for my imprisonment. He blamed himself for calling the police. How did I handle that? Well, the first step was telling him all the wonderful things about him. Telling him that the world has good in it, and we carry on for that very reason because it is worth fighting for. I told him that I do not blame him, that he was forgiven, and that now he needed to forgive himself. I made it very clear that it was the police who were the bad guys. I told him he is loved.
I also told him to knock off this self-pity crap. Life is hard, especially in a society so full of cultural rot as American culture is. Ours is a careless, throwaway culture where it has become a twisted virtue to look out for yourself and no one else. I remind him that our family does not abide by that nonsense. That is why seeing injustice and suffering affects us so deeply. We do not need a massive crisis to show concern for others’ needs. We also don’t waste time whining about it. We act to solve the problem.
I had to tell my 20-year-old son, who is desperate to have the family connections that were stolen from him and who lives in fear of making another critical error, to stop being lazy and cowardly. It was heart-wrenching, another moment when I wished the police, who without notice or identification opened fire on me, had actually hit me dead on. Instead, my son hung up on me.
He answered the phone when I called him back, and we talked for 20 more minutes. He was raised to be self-aware. He knows better than to wallow in useless self pity. He knows he needs to make things happen instead of waiting for someone to spoon-feed him. He also knows deep down in his soul, as do I, that he just wants a hug from his daddy. More than anything else.
There is an unspoken rule about not criticizing other parents. We are all fumbling through it, learning in real time. I don’t have any advice for those of you in this situation. But you have my experience now. Good luck, and abolish prisons now!
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.