Wuck, you began with fatherhood: the Jones men face to face with the grail but barely out of reach—a fine dramatic moment to choose. It allowed me to see these directors from your past not just in artistic terms, but in fatherly terms.
I can’t help but wonder what yearnings (or expectations) you inherited from your father early in life. I mean, you named this dynamic between Henry and Indiana quite well.
Your father wasn’t an artist, but he must have recognized his son’s brilliance early on. Your relationship made an impression on me, at least, our freshman year, when I was barely getting to know you. I was struck by how your dad accompanied you and your science fair bid through regional and state rounds—the time, the travel—with a zeal I had only witnessed in <quote-01>club-soccer parents<quote-01>. His involvement was intense. I don’t know the details of this story, but I know your early musical prowess was showcased center stage at that very church you once wandered invisible and silent. If it wasn’t your dad, who recognized your abilities at the piano and brought you literally out of the basement to play for the congregation? That had to be electric for a quiet, sensitive child—like becoming real. Like being born—again. An experience to seek and recreate over and over. How proud it must have made those who loved and believed in you.
So, like Indiana hearing his dad say something very new, midlife, could you be hearing <quote-02>a new whisper now giving you permission to let go of the grail quest for artistic notoriety<quote-02>?
I don’t want to pry, but you gave us the material at length, bro.
Murph, your treatise on the honeymoon years of childrearing is quintessential Murph, <quote-03>like, the kind of stuff I would quote in a homily at your funeral<quote-03>. Fury is right, Wuck, balanced with, or in the defense of, such tenderness. I’m quoting it, copying and pasting it for some use in what I’ve been writing to Abram.
You’re right, the “mess” of reality TV and Trump is a hazard and a trend. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so lazy with words like “fucked up.” Overall I think I’m asking—aiming—for that “clean up,” that “do better” sentiment you ended with. Of course, what I write to Abram is not going to be read by him now; I’m not stepping on the wet cement of his current experience with these self-analyses. Rather, my office, my writing, it’s all a kind of ante-room where I’m trying to scrape off the gunk of my personal history, the psychological grime I’ve picked up, naming it in word documents like an endless ream of paper towels so that when I go inside, when I encounter his actual childhood and heart, I’m not thoughtlessly tromping my shit, so to say, into our new home. I don’t think I made this connection when we converted the old mud room into what is now my office.
Some Muslims remove their shoes at the door. I respect this instinct. I used to cringe at religious purity codes, all the cleanliness standards in Leviticus and how they’re weaponized even now. I still cringe when it comes to policing who’s in and out, when it comes to lying about what we’re really made of. But the act of removing one’s sandals in the presence of what is holy—like when I washed my hands before first holding infant Grammar with Uncle Pat by my side—is entirely good.
As is the furious defense of innocence: “Little ones deserve the best versions of us, their parents. The cement is setting forever right now. We should keep our goddamn careless footprints out of it.”
You are right, Murph, to note that your experience of parenting and childhood is somewhat rosy, given your parents’ love for each other before your dad died, the absence of fighting between them, and their adoring treatment of you. Hold on to that.
So many—so many—lives and childhoods were sadly not so. Adults hurt children—often. This is my profession, in a sense: uncovering the wreck of these sadder stories from those that end up in society’s lockup dumpster. The men I meet aren’t quick to parade any of their childhoods as excuses. Rather, they do everything possible to avoid naming how they were tortured as kids. They often belabor what saints their mothers were and, other than admitting their poverty—readily naming they “didn’t really have shit like other families”—explicitly say they have “nobody to blame.”
This is the dizzying common denominator in most of the wild lives I meet behind bars: the rollercoaster ups and downs of their stories nearly all erupted from significant childhood experiences of sheer terror. I’m embarrassed how long it took me to get this. I only feel this now because I have Abram. Before, I saw the adult lives I serve in a more thematic, cerebral way, like a film buff studying the R-rated episodes and Lynchian outworkings of their underground lives. But with my own <quote-04>tender<quote-04> little boy in my arms, I suddenly feel the nauseating sadness of what was done to all these men when they were little boys.
Every man in prison was once a child no less holy than Abram or Grammar.
Their caretakers, all wounded adults, stepped with carelessness and unclean fury in the wet cement of these children’s hearts. I’ve become a cartographer of those craters, a tracker of those fearsome footprints. I found my legs as a young pastor stumbling through those common shapes of childhood harm, calcified beneath all the detritus—drugs, gangs, criminal records, child support debt—piling up in these now-adult lives.
So yes, I am probably obsessive in my self-scrubbing, vigorously careful in the presence of my own little boy whose toes aren’t even stinky yet. His terrible sweetness and unguarded goodness sends me back to the mudroom regularly.
Even this morning, I’m here wiping my cheeks as I write these sentences. An hour ago in the living room, on my way to my desk, we crossed plastic swords as Captain Hook and Peter Pan. And just now, on a quick coffee-refill trip to the kitchen, I asked him if he wanted to take our kayaks to “Never Never Land” later this afternoon. He jumped up in his pajamas, knees-to chest, cheering, “Yes! Yes! Yes, Daddy! SANK YOU, Daddy!” and began telling me everything we’d do, eyes unblinking at me: “Daddy! I wear the blue life jacket, Daddy wear the green life jacket, and Mama wear the red life jacket . . .” and so on. He hollered all this while following me into the garage, toward the mudroom here, unaware that it’s only 8am and that I said we’d go when I relieve Rachel at 2pm.
As I sit down and return to this letter on children being harmed, my own son’s giddy shouts still ringing in my ears, how can I not hurt for the countless men I meet—those in the jail’s red scrubs or the khaki pants and white t-shirts of prison—those who didn’t have fathers to play with them, whose happiness was already being hammered out of their fragile bodies and spirits at Abram’s age?
Where do I talk about this jarring emotional contrast I straddle most days? I don’t, usually.
It’s pouring out of me now.
Let me tell you about a man who just came home from prison this week, Junior Morales.
Junior has dark X’s tattooed over his eyes, like a dead cartoon character. His street name was Bonkers. Because of the five years he spent in a gang-dropout prison with a real mental health counselor and pro-social groups of peers in rare rehabilitative classes, he is recovering with stunning innocence a language to speak his childhood to me and others. So far, we are learning that his mother was kicking heroin on and off when he was still in utero. He and his brother Reggie (known as Smiles on the streets in Mount Vernon) survived a childhood in California where their mother was regularly pimped out and prostituted for more drugs. These two brothers literally watched—the cable and electric bills unpaid—as different men “beat the brakes off” their frail mother. She would then discharge this contempt onto her own little ones in drunken rages the next day, calling them terrible things, whipping them with otherwise useless electrical cords. Beatings from mom sometimes came on nights when her boyfriends or pimps would sneak into their bedrooms and molest them, always with whispered threats of worse violence.
I’d heard some of these same stories two years earlier from Reggie when he was at Clallam Bay Corrections Center way out on the Olympic Peninsula. Their mother had died a few months earlier, while he was locked up and couldn’t say goodbye. He clearly hadn’t had a place to talk about his mom, either her life or her death. So when I asked him to tell me about his mother and these stories spilled out of his mouth, I saw in him a despair: he could no longer gather this stuff into his survival narrative of having a saintly mother, the flimsy fiction he needed all these years in order to feel human and normal and loved. He was so ashamed and undone in my presence he didn’t write or call until recently, ghosting the release plan we’d built before my visit.
His younger brother Junior, however, had found an environment in which to tell these facts without shame. He’s the one who smiles now, better than his brother and better than most smiles I know. He was released just days before the lockdown hit the state, making his “reentry” to the “normal world” anything but. We’ve videochatted from his halfway house every day this week. He calls just to say hi, just to tell me how grateful he is to be alive. Yesterday we talked about his recovery from addiction, how he understands his mother’s addiction and forgives her for throwing pots and pans at him as a boy, for telling him he was a nasty piece of shit. He too knows what drugs can do to a mind, he says with an authentic calm.
Junior has a team of retired folks from the Presbyterian church where I partially work who take him to appointments and video chat with him. Just before the lockdown put us all on house arrest, one widow was taking him to the humane society once a week to volunteer and take the dogs out the cages. They’d walk the caged dogs through the surrounding woods together.
His “One Parish One Prisoner” team had a ZOOM “lunch” yesterday after the ZOOM church service. Normally we’d all be in someone’s backyard or in the church fellowship hall or at a restaurant. I thought trying this over a computer together would be awkward. But it was poetry, all of it. I took notes the whole time.
My screen was a Brady Bunch grid of nine faces, all of us with our phones or laptops in our separate houses of confinement, each square the same size, talking about our experiences of lockdown, missing family, helpless to be there for aging parents who might die alone, fears all inmates face now suddenly accessible to every American at home by law. For whatever reason, the conversation turned toward pop music, and an elderly lady quoted, of all people, Missy Elliott. Junior, in response, affirmed his preference for the “oldies” only. Then Sarah, another retiree who adores Junior, asked, “Oldies? Does that mean music from the nineties, for you?” We all laughed. “No,” Junior said, <quote-05>“more like Smoky Robinson and Sam Cooke and the songs that take me back to my mom dancing in the kitchen with us.”<quote-05> I scribbled all of this down instead of crying, the only other person on the screen who knew what else transpired in Junior’s mother’s kitchen. And yet that happy memory abides. It won’t be taken from him. It is his inch of unmarred cement, a tiny emotional foundation on which he can build new relationships with other loving humans and receive love without defenses.
This is a mystery to me.
And now I am overstepping work hours, especially if I plan to make good on my promise to take Abram to—wait for it—Hope Island this afternoon. When he invites me into constant sword play, I am both delighted and careful with the combat. We take turns smacking each other’s fingers and kissing them better.
All of this and I almost forgot to tell you both the one thing I’d planned on.
<quote-06>Rachel is pregnant<quote-06>.