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SURVIVOR'S GUILT

Name:            2ruTh
Offense:         2nd Degree Murder
Sentence:        Life (with chance of parole after 15 years)
Age at the time of offense: 20
Age at the time of writing: 31
Incarcerated in: Massachusetts

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. . . I have never previously told anyone my sordid past in detail . . . . [P]eople are always speculating—why I am as I am? To understand that of a person, his whole life, from birth must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient.  

                                                   —Malcolm X[1]

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            It’s important to me that I begin this installment of Explanations From Exile by expressing my utmost gratitude to all those who have taken the time to expose themselves to this project. I appreciate all the E.F.E. supporters who have been steadfast in their efforts to raise public consciousness regarding the complexities of youthful trauma and violent crime in America’s inner cities. I’m equally grateful to the skeptics, who despite any preconceptions they might have of violent offenders, have still allowed for the possibility that there may be more to the story than what is generally told. I sincerely hope that my story is helpful in some way.

 

            Out of respect for the families directly impacted by my crime, I have decided to make this submission under a pseudonym.

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             On January 2, 2007, I was arrested for a shooting which claimed the life of a 20-year-old Boston man. I was also 20 years young. At that time, I was selling crack in New Hampshire while floating between Boston and New York with no attachments and no substantial sense of community.

 

             I was born in New Hampshire to Jamaican parents as the younger of two boys. I was about three years old when my mother moved my brother and I to Maryland, where we stayed while my father attempted to launch a photography business back in New Hampshire. My mother struggled to provide for the three of us but ultimately saw to it that our essential needs were met. The dense Jamaican population that made up our church body provided a sense of comfort and familiarity within the volatility of our living situation. I understood, even then, that there was something exclusive about the texture of our culture, and the adults I was around were deliberate to drape it over me like a security blanket. I was so absorbed by the warmth and genuine concern shown to me by these cultural representatives that I hardly recognized how abnormal my family’s living situation actually was.

 

             My father eventually secured a large long-term contract back in New Hampshire, which effectively changed the family’s financial circumstances overnight. The family reunited up north and my father built a large home in a small affluent town. We were one of only two black families in the town at the time. I was eight years old when we got there.

 

            Looking back, I think it's possible that my parents underestimated the magnitude of the bigotry that surrounded us in that town. It's also possible that they had become enamored with the illusion of status associated with minority assimilation to white society. Maybe that they weren’t fully aware of their acquiescence to the subtle cultural ultimatums that white society submits to its colored citizens. It could be that they felt obliged to embrace the perceived perks associated with integration—as though they were generous accommodations made available to them by the tolerant whites in our midst; perhaps they accepted these perceived accommodations as a courteous demonstration of white hospitality—a gift of sorts. Maybe my parents adhered to the etiquette of gift recipience—where there is a subtle prohibition levied on the recipient against pointing out any observable flaws in the gift. They expected rather to graciously accept the gift—flaws and all—without protest. In this way, the functional components of the gift are leveraged by the donor as tools to pacify and oppress—not as a mechanism to uplift and enrich the recipient. It is entirely possible that, despite their best intentions, my parents simply neglected to calculate the potential impact that the racism I encountered in New Hampshire would have on my perception of myself in relation to my family and my community.

 

             By the time we arrived back in New Hampshire, my parents’ West Indian culture had sufficiently been instilled in me as a relevant source of pride which informed my young sense of identity. However, I was completely unaware of the ways that race would serve to distinguish me in that environment. At that point, I don’t know that I was even aware of my blackness as a distinctive component of my identity, much less the possibility that my young sense of dignity would ever be assaulted on account of it, so I was confused by the awkward looks and affronts directed at me by adults in that space. At home, my mother did her best to affirm my sense of value and self-worth while my father instructed me to ignore the denigration. As time went on and I began to incur similar assaults from my peers, I resented my parents’ advice. The more racism I encountered, the more the idea of treating it as though it didn’t exist angered me. It angered me that when I established friendships with my white peers, I had to expect that a rift between us was likely to end with them pointing to my blackness as justification for the degradation I incurred—as if they should have known better than to expect anything good to come out of a friendship with a nigger.

 

             My peers who weren’t disgusted with my blackness were utterly fascinated by it. They seemed to be particularly obsessed with the texture of my hair—if they asked, sometimes I would let the girls touch it.

 

In time, I got the general sense that both my male and female classmates viewed me as something of a mascot. It’s possible that my own suspicion of them served to color my assessment of their kindness toward me, but their geniality felt patronizing to me. So, I wasn’t sure how to feel when my seventh-grade class recognized me as trendsetter of the year. I remember experiencing a measure of surprise similar to what Malcolm X describes in his autobiography when receiving recognition from his white peers:

 

              . . . [I[n the second semester of seventh grade, I was elected class president. It surprised me

              even more than other people. But I can see now why the class might have done it. . . . I was

              unique in my class, like a poodle. And I was proud; I’m not going to say I wasn’t.[2]

 

             Racial undertones almost always boiled to the surface in my relationships with white folks in that atmosphere, and I fought a lot because of that. I had no confidence in my family’s passive approach to dealing with the racism I  encountered—whoopin’ ass was the only way I knew to compensate for the regular blows to my dignity.

            By the time I was 12 years old, I had resolved that it probably didn’t matter much whether I maintained the rigid disposition I had developed or if I  adopted my family’s non-confrontational approach to assimilation; it felt unlikely that my blackness would ever be respected in that all-white landscape. By that point, I had developed a strong disdain for, and a similar distrust of white people. In the years I spent with them, some spat on me, others threatened to hang me. Others would invite me to their homes and follow me to the bathroom just in case I decided to steal something between there and the kitchen. There was always the potential for a middle-aged mother to take it upon herself to remind me of my status in the event that the summer heat caused me to be too comfortable. “This is our lake, nigger! Get the fuck outa’ here!” she’d holler before punching me in my mouth. (This actually happened.) At a certain point, I gave up wondering who amongst them was actually racist—it felt safer to assume that they all were. All I could do was attempt to gauge the varying degrees of their prejudice.

 

            In time, my family’s inability to connect with my anger made it difficult to relate to them. To my young mind, it felt like their desire to be accepted by white society made it more practical to align themselves with white sentiment than I'd did to provide me with the support I needed. At that time, I may have been too young to understand the full scope of everything my parents had to negotiate as one of the first black families to integrate that community. But when they deferred to white counselors to help manage my anger, it felt like a massive betrayal. Therapists would ultimately conclude that I was depressed and that I had a problem submitting to authority. Educators deduced that my inability to focus in school was the result of a learning disability. In the course of my exposure to these white professionals, I never got the impression that they'd taken the time to consider the impact that the racial tension in my community was having on me.

 

            In time, my family reasoned it would be best to remove me from that environment altogether. When they made the decision to send me to boarding school, their intention was to provide me with a more culturally diverse learning and living environment. Looking back, I wouldn't say that I ever felt like a valued member of my community in New Hampshire, but when my folks sent me away, it did feel like I had been discarded by both my community and my family. I was 14 when I got to New Jersey

 

            Despite how I felt about the circumstances that brought me there, I relished the time I spent at boarding school. It meant a lot to me that the majority of my peers in that environment looked like me, and I appreciated the opportunity to visit more regularly with my mother’s side of the family in the Bronx. But I got there at a time when my ideas about manhood were dangerously oblique. My father had hardly been intentional about instilling a sense of identity or values that I could carry with me as a maturing black male—I was essentially feeling my way through the maze of adolescence on my own when I touched down in New York. The images of black masculinity that I was exposed to there were largely conditioned by the drug trade. Although my relatives weren’t deliberate in orienting me to the intricacies of the drug culture. I was always made to feel welcome and as though my presence was valued there. I never classified my family’s lifestyle as criminal; in fact, it made sense to me to embrace a culture that seemed so hospitable to me.

            Poor academic performance shortened my stay in New Jersey, so I returned to New Hampshire for a year before I was sent to live with my grandmother in Boston. I was 16 at the time. Both my parents had settled in Boston when they immigrated from Jamaica in the early 70s, and they maintained strong ties to the city after they transitioned to New Hampshire. The family made the hour-long commute to attend church and connect with relatives on a regular basis, so the landscape wasn’t entirely foreign to me when I got there. However, navigating the city on my own  exposed me to different layers of inner-city culture that would ultimately prove hazardous to my already fractured sense of self.

            By the time I moved to Boston, any connection with my dad and older brother that I could have pointed to in prior years had completely eroded. The male influences that I was exposed to in the Bean only seemed to fit into two categories: church brothers and drug dealers (the hybrid being the church brothers who sold drugs). I took cues from the latter and discovered a sense of identity and independence in the drug trade. I started selling herb at school and graduated to crack within that same year.

 

            I had an easy time making friends in school; however, I quickly noticed the tribal attachments that my peers had to their respective neighborhoods. I saw that's these tribal bonds served as a protective hedge in a climate where gangs and violent crime seemed to have an ominous presence. I was ever mindful of the fact that I did not share these bonds, and I understood that meant I didn’t share in the benefit of the hedge. I was hyper-aware of the makeshift memorials strewn throughout our parts of the city, marking the sites where the hedge had failed. Glass candles and fluorescent teddy bears represented the violent deaths of young black and brown citizens like us. In cases where we knew the victims, we couldn’t expect grief counseling the way our white peers in Wellesley could after an overdose or a deadly car crash; the not-so-subtle suggestion was that our physical and psychological well-being wasn’t as precious as theirs. In the regions we occupied, it was commonplace for weekend cookouts and house parties to end with gunfire. The violence there was so normalized that it almost felt permissible; attempting to avoid exposure to the brutality there seemed futile—it made more sense to anticipate it. I adapted to feeling unsafe in that atmosphere before I had the chance to process exactly what that meant for me. I felt extremely vulnerable knowing that I was an outsider in a climate where it felt fair to assume that most of the people I was around had guns. My experiences there conditioned me to carry survival instincts into basic social interactions. I considered my paranoia to be a virtue that would keep me alive; I didn’t recognize it as a response to trauma. At 16, a firearm felt like a general necessity to me; selling drugs only slightly heightened the need to arm myself.

            By the time I was 17, I had learned what it was to be robbed at gunpoint and shot at. Prior to that, I experienced what it was to be beat up by police. By the time I was 18, men I considered mentors had been sent off to prison; some had survived kidnappings, others had been murdered. By 20 years old, my community had long since confirmed its lack of regard for my life and sense of well-being.

 

            I committed the homicide that I’m now incarcerated for one month before my 21st birthday. I had done my best up to that point to guard my body from the violence around me, but I had also reconciled to the impending potential of my own victimization. I accepted that prospect to a similar extent that Malcolm X describes:

 

            Looking back, I think I really was at least slightly out of my mind. . . . I wore my guns as today

            I wear my  neckties. Deep down, I actually believed that after living as fully as humanly possible,

            one should then die violently. I expected then, as I still expect today, to die at any time. But then,

            I think I deliberately invited death in many, sometimes insane, ways.[3]

 

           While I had hoped to see my 23rd birthday, the thought felt presumptuous.

 

          Eleven years later, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to recover from the acute desensitization that caused me to recognize violence as the most prudent option for my young survival. I knew the man I killed, and I know he was a product of the same conditioning that I underwent. It is an excruciating thing for me to bear the onus of the fact that I robbed him of any chance to recover from such a critical state. I’m able to empathize today with the fact that the trauma we experienced as young inner-city residents made us more alike than we were different. The paradox of this tragedy is that our commonalities are exactly what make it difficult to imagine the potential for a different outcome. We were both forced to live our young adult years in a constant struggle for survival—a struggle which rendered empathy a liability to the very survival we instinctively sought to secure. Neither one of us chose to be steeped in a social environment that normalized violence and trauma anymore than we were able to choose the effects that the environment had on our psychological, emotional, and social development. We were both ill-informed about the obscurities of our condition and ill-equipped to recoup our humanity without the support of our community.

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            Now the community is expressing disaffection over the criminal legal system’s perpetual mishandling of its offending citizens. I would assert that the demand for change in the way we engage offending citizens entails a much more objective assessment of them as individuals and the relevant factors which contribute to their infractions. As a society, we’ve been socialized to totally disown perpetrators of violence in our communities—to be incurious and unyielding in our repudiation of such individuals. We’ve been conditioned to take every act of violence personally, and we’ve been given license to depersonalize the perpetrator. Our criminal justice system has nurtured this fear-based posture and has discouraged the audacity to consider the overwhelming loads of fear, desperation, anger, and hopelessness that overwhelm a young finger when a trigger is compressed. I fear that I may be naive to hope for a justice system which would seek the best interests of the entire community—one which is as willing to face the causal factors of violent transgressions as it is to stare down their devastating effects. I imagine our system will be that much closer to reform when this makes sense to us.

 

           

            Not everything that is faced can be changed,

            but nothing can be changed until it is faced.      

                       —James Baldwin

 

 

 

 

[1] Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 2015), 153.

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Ibid., 141.

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