There but for the Grace
One evening in the summer of 2018, I was standing before a small audience in a converted barn in southern Vermont, reading an excerpt from my memoir manuscript. The reading was the culmination of my time at a monthlong creative residency, a chance for the residents to share our work with the local community.
In the excerpt I read, my aunt is dying of cancer while I molder in prison. It’s an imagined scene of the slow, viscous moments I missed while locked up and learned about only later, from my dad, in the prison’s visiting room.
The piece opens with me standing beneath the weak stream of a prison shower as my aunt wastes away at her home in a Chicago suburb. She taught me how to drive stick shift in her little red Mini Cooper. She wrote me letters every day when I was first locked up, so that I would have some mail, until she no longer had the strength to hold a pen. Now the wheels of her hospital bed have formed deep impressions in the living room carpet, and her breath comes in fits and starts. My dad and uncle debate smothering her to death as an act of mercy, until one morning they awake to find the living room still and lifeless as the surface of the moon.
I finished reading and we moved on to Q&A. A man wearing a pastel button-down immediately raised a hand, his arm held straight up in the guileless, insistent manner of a schoolboy.
“What were you in prison for?”
In trying to explain what it’s like to be confronted by this compulsion people have — to extract a confession from any person with a criminal record — I always arrive at the same analogy: imagine you’ve recently witnessed a car crash and are describing it to a friend. You recount how the car gave a quick shudder before the driver fully lost control, how even though it couldn’t have been more than a split second before the hood met the guardrail, your stomach had enough time to make a full revolution. You chart the unnatural angle of limbs and insist you can still smell the burnt rubber on your clothes, clinging like smoke.
Your friend listens, rapt and horrified. “That’s awful!” they say. “What color was the car?”
I let the man’s question hang in the air, as if I didn’t have a response queued up. It was a question I’d come to expect. In the few years since my release, I’d come across countless people who thought that never having been prosecuted for any of the harm they’ve caused entitled them to an explanation from someone like me.
“I’ll tell you all about why I was in prison,” I said, trying not to sound peevish, “if you can tell me how that has anything to do with the piece I just read.”
The liberal, art-appreciating audience in the barn, eager to have an awkward moment over and done with, burst into applause.
At the reception afterwards, once everyone had filtered outside to eat appetizers and sweat in the fading light, the man from Q&A sought me out by the drink table. Having denied him the sordid details he’d wanted, I felt I ought to at least hear him out. We stood there swatting mosquitoes, shifting our feet and pawing at the grass like nervous horses, so he could inform me that — no but like, he just wanted me to know — he actually has a good friend who donates money to nonprofits that work in re-entry.
Acknowledging another person’s full humanity takes many forms. Sometimes it’s as simple as an undeserved social favor. I straightened up and raised my eyebrows as the man spoke, doing my best to look surprised. I made the sound that translates to, “Wow, I had no idea.” I watched him watch me as this bombshell about his friend sunk in. His shoulders relaxed. And then, relieved that I no longer had him all wrong, he gave a satisfied nod and walked away.
When my mom was a teenager in the early seventies, bored and driving drunk after dark, she would sometimes run an experiment. This was shortly before she ran away from home for good, before she dropped out of high school and found her way to a hippie commune in Canada. She would drive straight down the main road without stopping: windows down, dainty foot on the gas, long blonde hair flowing out behind her. She would run every red light from one end of the city to the other, just to see what would happen.
What happened, luckily for her and the people she could’ve killed, was nothing. She was never even pulled over. Eventually she’d get tired and end up back at her parents’ house, its scowling exterior painted the color of thick blood. She’d fumble out of her bell-bottoms and sink into bed. A few weekends later, she’d be at it again.
When I was younger, my mom would sometimes tell me stories like these. She wasn’t boasting, nor did she ever seem worried that I’d get the wrong impression. My mom had done good things and she’d done bad things. She was, in a word, human. She would talk about the time she and some friends spray-painted a lot full of cars at a local dealership, or shake her head at how easy it was to slide anything she wanted into her purse and walk out of the mall.
In white, well-resourced circles, there’s a term for doing something harmful and not getting caught. It’s called “a learning experience.” This was the language my mom used to talk about the things she’d done in her youth. She learned not to do those things by… well, by doing them repeatedly and not getting caught, so far as I could tell.
Even then I knew she’d had significant traumas in her life, although I wouldn’t have used that word at the time. Eventually I would learn that trauma is no longer a neutral or universal part of life, as I’d believed. It has become a moral category, one you must earn the right to invoke by being “innocent.” I would learn that some of us get to tell very different stories about our pain.
My mom is in her sixties now and much more fearful, the distance between herself and others growing wider every day. She seems to have conveniently forgotten the old stories of her life. These days, she would rather argue about when George Floyd had last spoken to various members of his family. She’d rather detail how people struggling with homelessness and addiction are destroying her city: running the place down, committing crimes. When I try to remind her of the person she once was — of the actions she’s never had to answer for, the good fortune and privilege she’s been afforded — she scoffs and claims not to know what I’m talking about.
A few months ago, my mom called me in a full-blown panic. A disagreement over money had erupted between her siblings, and she’d convinced herself that one of them was trying to get her locked up. I tried to explain that it’s impossible for an old, BMW-driving white woman to go to prison over a family dispute, but she didn’t seem to hear me. She’d punched through reason during the night and come out the other side, wild-eyed and jumpy.
“I haven’t slept in days,” she croaked into the phone. “All this waiting and worrying. Jesus.”
Then a pause as she considered something: “Now I finally know how you must’ve felt.”
I filed this with the other false equivalencies I’d heard recently, most of them courtesy of COVID-19. In the early days of quarantine, while people who happily co-sign mass incarceration decried their lack of human connection and the shortage of yeast at Whole Foods, the rhetoric around our collective “confinement” reached such a pitch that Shaka Senghor — who served 19 years in prison, seven of them in solitary confinement — went on Oprah’s virtual show to point out, “There’s a difference between quarantine and not having your freedom.” What, everyone seemed to be asking, did any of us, the good ones, ever do to deserve this?
Sometimes I put my mom’s past aside and try a different tack. I ask how she reconciles her current views around crime and responsibility — her hypocrisy, although I don’t call it that — with the fact that her own son has been to prison. Her answer is always immediate.
“That’s not the same thing,” she says. “What happened to you, that’s just… different. You’re not like them.”
I’m in my thirties, but my mom is still a mom. She wants to protect me, even from — perhaps especially from — reality. To turn me into an exception, she digs a moat around me in her mind’s eye. She puts me in an untainted, better place than all those other convicts. She takes one step towards me. She takes two steps back.
Incarceration is criminogenic; someone is more likely to commit a crime if they’ve been locked up, even for a matter of days, than if they’d never been imprisoned. Over half of those confined in American jails and prisons have a diagnosed mental illness, and more than 90% of people incarcerated have exceptionally high rates of lifetime traumatic experiences. Surveys consistently show that survivors of crime find the criminal legal process and its outcomes unsatisfying, disempowering, and often re-traumatizing. Far less than half of all crimes — including less than half of murders and less than 2% of sexual assaults — ever lead to a conviction, largely because an overwhelming number of those affected by crime, faced with a choice between the courts and nothing, choose nothing at all.
And yet it feels pointless to cite numbers, or to criticize the system at large: its failure to improve public safety, reduce recidivism, foster accountability, deliver meaningful healing to those harmed, or change the culture that cultivates such harm. Advocates of decarceration already know the statistics; skeptics aren’t suddenly going to be moved by them. Any further progress on decarceration requires a more personal project.
If every American jail and prison were demolished tomorrow, the attitudes that built them would endure. New forms of oppression would sprout in their place. The sociologist Reuben Jonathan Miller argues that the problem of mass incarceration is instead best understood as a problem of citizenship. Citizenship is not a collection of static laws and rights but an everyday practice — an ongoing, constitutive series of interactions that form our belonging or exclusion in the social world.
Dismantling the criminal legal system means rooting out our own individual practices of exclusion and the assumptions on which they’re based. It requires encircling the false moral high ground on which so many Americans stand, the place from which mass incarceration and its accompanying stigma became possible in the first place. This is the high ground on which every person who thinks they need to know why I was incarcerated is standing. It is the high ground my mom seeks to defend when she erases her own history, and mine.
The one statistic that gets my attention has, on the face of it, little to do with the criminal legal system. It’s a measure of Americans’ collective consciousness, or lack thereof: the United States ranks as the most individualistic country on earth. Ours is a country arrogant and naive enough to lay every triumph and failure at the feet of the individual, to the exclusion of all else: race, money, education, trauma, gender, environment, even the reckless weather of timing and luck.
Punishment paradigms always reflect culture; our hyper-individualist culture is the bedrock on which American egos and American so-called justice are built. If every success begins and ends with the individual, it follows that the harmful actions for which others have been imprisoned must be their own personal moral failures. None of us — the rest of us — are implicated, and no larger system change or social innovations are necessary. There’s nothing left to do except eye each other with suspicion and legislate each other’s wrongs, all of us wandering far from any chance for an equitable world. What did you do? How sorry are you? Prove it.
Of course, most of us don’t actually want equity. What an unsettling idea: to live in a world where something that befalls one of us is just as likely to happen to any of us. Enforcing inequities in our own small, everyday ways makes us feel secure. It reminds us not to worry, because we’re different. The outcomes borne by others remain irrelevant to our own possibilities in life.
How Americans think about and treat those who have criminal records — the ways we bury our hypocrisies as we call for others to explain themselves — is an expression of our own individual and collective shame: shame carried for the things we’ve never been held accountable for, or for the things we have. To end mass incarceration we have to cultivate humility, turn the focus inward, and reckon with ourselves.
“Almost every one of my moments outside of prison,” writes the poet and legal scholar Reginald Dwayne Betts, “has been filled with me fighting to be defined by something other than prison. I learned to meet people and lean into conversations with an admission of guilt…. I thought I had to tell people, because not to tell them was to lie.”
I’m tired of seeing formerly incarcerated people asked to grovel: to confess our crimes at every turn, to perform our remorse for strangers, like children in a desperate bid to be allowed back inside the house. I’m not interested in trying to convince you that I’m fully human too. I don’t aspire to one day be as decent and moral (and sinful) as you, because I already am.
I worry that people might assume I don’t discuss why I went to prison because I’m not sufficiently sorry. That isn’t it; I’m just not sorry to you. I’ve served my time. I’ve done nothing to harm the state, or that man in Vermont. I’ve harmed particular people. Those people hold my remorse and my desire for repair. I’m not willing to perform my accountability for you. It is, quite literally, none of your business.
But I’ll tell you a secret: I don’t think what I went to prison for is the worst thing I’ve ever done. That’s one reason why I don’t recite the story. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression, to think I’m only that bad. A full picture of the harm I’ve caused would require a much wider lens. This isn’t because I’m some slick career criminal; only a fraction of what creeps out of my past is illegal. The worst things I’ve done, the things I regret most, are among the everyday harms we inflict on each other without leaving a mark.
Even with my best effort at a full accounting, I’ve simply forgotten much of the damage I’ve done. It’s easy to lose track of wrongs you haven’t been held responsible for; the colors run and bleed together. If that point seems flippant, I don’t raise it to brag. This is what survival looks like — how we live with and construct our virtuous sense of ourselves, every one of us. I’m living proof of that. So is my mom.
I didn’t drag my mom into this essay in order to out my own mother as a self-righteous, would-be criminal. I did it to out us all as self-righteous, would-be criminals — even confirmed criminals like me, who have been imprisoned for at least a sliver of our wrongs. My mom and I are just examples plucked from a typical, unremarkable, all-American family. She and I have both committed grave wrongs — some of which were illegal and, in both our cases, had the potential to ruin or end the lives of others. She isn’t more ethical than me just because she wasn’t caught committing any of hers, and I’m not worse than her just because I served time for one of mine.
Any American adult, controlling for luck and privilege, could be in prison for the things we’ve done or been complicit in. The question of what to do about harm in our society isn’t a question of what so-called innocent people like my mom ought to do about convicts like me. It’s about what we need to do about us. Each of us has a bidirectional stake in this question, whether we can humble ourselves enough to admit it or not.
Empathy is not the answer. Empathy is the attempt to imagine you, yourself, in someone else’s situation. This is not the same as being that other person. Even in the throes of empathy, your mind is limited by your own singular positionality — the only one you’ve ever known. It is, at root, a failure of imagination.
The only way forward is to get more deeply in touch with ourselves, to meet those who’ve been touched by mass incarceration with humility instead of scorn. Stigmas are social in nature, maintained by those outside of the stigmatized group. Without the participation of the crowd, stigmas simply evaporate. This is why a refusal to hold the currently and formerly incarcerated at arm’s length — in one’s actions, attitudes, questions — is so powerful.
Crime has no objective reality either. As the criminologist Nils Christie points out, crime is the manufactured product of a political project. Some Americans see the Bible as a kind of criminal legal foundation, as if our laws arrived from on high. But there are only ten commandments, only three of which have parallels in American law. Meanwhile, the state of Illinois has invented around 3,000 crimes, including more than 1,000 felonies, a significant portion of which don’t require the state to prove intent on the part of the accused. This means you can be imprisoned for a so-called crime without even having known that what you did was illegal.
There are other realities we could create, ways we could hold each other and ourselves truly accountable. We could commit to our shared stake in the well-being of all people. We could recognize a collective responsibility to cultivate human thriving, and address the failure to do so as something for which all of us are answerable. But first, we have to know that any person who has fallen could’ve just as easily been us. We have to acknowledge that either we all owe each other an explanation or none of us do.
My mom is among the one in two Americans with an immediate family member who has been or is currently incarcerated. While I was in prison, she used to rail against the criminal legal system. She’d talk about how she was going to volunteer somewhere, donate money to help tear it all down. Now that I’m free, I’ve realized that she isn’t really against the system at all. Like so many Americans, she largely believes in it. She just doesn’t think one of her loved ones deserved to be in its jaws. That, as she says, is different.
I wish my mom would stop saying that I’m somehow better than other formerly incarcerated people. I’m not, and neither is she — none of us are. I feel as though I’m being asked to take sides in her false dichotomy: those who pretend to be without blemish on one side, everyone else on the other. I worry she and I are running out of time to find our way back to each other. I worry we aren’t asking the right questions.
Sometimes I picture my mom back in the day, running at a full sprint down the sidewalk, away from that car dealership she vandalized. Empty cans of spray paint jostle in her bag, tinkling like Christmas ornaments. Not a sweet moment, not her at her best. Just a full and complicated life. I see my own mistakes, my own brokenness. I take a step closer.
Michael Fischer is a faculty member at the Odyssey Project at Illinois Humanities, a free college credit program for income-eligible adults. He is a Luminarts Cultural Foundation fellow, Illinois Arts Council grantee, and finalist for the PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship. Michael’s nonfiction appears in The New York Times, Salon, The Sun, Lit Hub, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. His piece in Hotel Amerika…View Bio