My father took everything from me. He had his vision of who I should be: a Christian, straight A student, warrior, black man. It was a noble vision, but to shape it, my father undermined everything that I was, took everything that didn’t bring me closer to his vision and erased it. He erased me .
I loved fantasy fiction; it inspired me to dream. When my father found my books, he burned them because they were the devil, drawing me away from God. I shouldn’t admire make-believe heroes, for a real savior who had died on the cross for me deserved my love. I loved comic books; they inspired me to draw pictures. Comic books to my father, however, were for dummies. His proof came when I brought home a B on my report card. His decision to feed my comics, and the inspiration I had tied to them, to the fireplace was vindicated when I began to bring home A’s again. Under my father’s hand, I was shaping up to be the next Doctor Ben Carson.
The thing about shapers like my father is their minds lie too far in the future to be touched by the destruction they work in the present. After all, what sculptor frets for the clay he must mash, squeeze, and cut to finish his masterpiece?
My father had beautiful qualities, but you will not know them, for this is not his story. I used to hedge expressing my anger about him. I made sure to explain to listeners all the ways he influenced my sense of family, loyalty, and compassion, how he taught me to read before I began preschool, how he showed me there was nothing more powerful in this fucking world than my pen. No, my father took everything from me; he erased me. For that, I hated him. I didn’t know it then, but I couldn’t hate my father without loathing myself by extension.
Interesting fact: when you hate yourself, no one’s love can reach you.
People loved me; I could see it with my eyes, but I couldn’t feel it. This confused me and engendered a sense of powerlessness, for no matter how hard I tried to get love, to be worthy of love, it never seemed to reach me.
The lack of power and the pursuit of it have defined my life. In truth, we all have power, for we all have choice. It took me a long time to understand that, so I was like the beggar in the old Buddhist parable. The story goes: a man lost his fortune and had to live in the street with nothing but his clothes and a coat his father had willed him. He spent his days begging for food until one day a man asked him why he was begging. The beggar, of course, explained that he had no choice. A Zen-style dialogue unfolds between the two, and by the end of the conversation, the beggar has discovered a priceless jewel sewn into the lining of his father’s coat. The beggar had been rich all along; he just didn’t know it.
The first time I felt powerful was when, as a boy, I wrote my father a letter. At the time, my father had a live-in girlfriend with a son my age named Lawrence. My brothers and I felt like our father treated Lawrence better than he treated us while his girlfriend consistently treated us worse. Over months, our resentments grew. The last straw came on an allowance day. My father had always insisted that our allowance depended on our ages since our ages determined how much responsibility we carried in the household. My two brothers and I lined up with Lawrence in the rear because he was the youngest. My dad handed my oldest brother $10, the next received $7, and I pocketed $5. We all stood around, curious as to what Lawrence would get. My father gave him a twenty dollar bill.
We were furious, but no one wanted to confront the man whose favorite line was, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!” We even held a meeting, each of us encouraging the other to tell our dad how we felt. None of us could, but each of us knew we couldn’t live with holding our silence. So I wrote our father a letter. You’re a liar. You said you’d fight Mike Tyson for us, but you won’t even stand up to this woman who treats us like third-best in the house we gathered bricks to build . I put it on the desk beside his bed, returned to my room, and waited for the sky to fall. When he found me, he wept.
His girlfriend moved out before the end of the week.
I’ve spent every birthday since I was thirteen years old incarcerated. For more than half of my life, I’ve required permission to talk, write, sleep, and even shit. These were things given to me as privileges — some were rights, but courts enforce rights, and you’ll find that Benches and bailiffs don’t frequent detention facilities. These are places that, in the name of discipline, work to strip your sense of power. Without power, there’s no choice; and without choice, there’s no self. Two things staved off my annihilation by making me feel powerful: thinking and masturbating. Thinking was something no one could take from me, and masturbating was something I had to take from an environment whose rules said I couldn’t have it.
In the California Youth Authority, I used to write raps in my head, no paper or pencil. I would recite them to myself in isolation cells, memorizing them line by line. I gave rowdy performances for the other wards once I returned to the yard, and in those moments, I felt capable. I would see the joy on their faces, and I would own it. I was creating that. There was a time when I would’ve said it was the tough-guy lyrics that made me feel powerful. But it wasn’t. It was my expression, my voice filling the sky with thunder.
There’s an old saying in urban circles: “Niggas can’t handle power.” The implication is that power goes to their heads, and they misuse it. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Why would a man know how to use a thing he’s never had? Power certainly went to my head, and I misused it. I sold drugs: I reveled in the money, respect, fear, and the human need that depended on my say. Guns made me feel powerful too. My greatest abuse of power came when I murdered a man. I was eighteen; he had children. I took his power — I took their power — and I didn’t blink. Remorse, like love, didn’t reach me because I was walled behind my self-hatred.
I blinked seven months later, when my daughter was born, and the walls came tumbling down. I love my daughter so much that the word “love” bothers me. I love cheesecake and sex and Game of Thrones. Paris Hilton loves tiny dogs that fit in her purse. Love means too many things, and there is only one thing I feel for my kid. I need a word that says, “I will lie across a fire so she can cross it without getting ashes on her fire-proof shoes.” I don’t have the words, so I’ll just say, I love my daughter fiercely.
A quick sidebar: you can’t love your child without loving yourself.
That love broke through my walls of self-hatred. Though it took years for empathy and feeling to return fully, the process began in my county cell. I was watching my daughter’s future unfold in my mind. I was horrified because I saw myself through my daughter’s eyes. I was a high school dropout, a thug, a murderer … absent. I had given her every reason to be ashamed of me, perhaps even to hate me. And I knew that she couldn’t be ashamed of me, she couldn’t hate me, without feeling the same things about herself.
I wept as my father had wept after he read my letter.
I resolved that I would find a way home to my daughter. I knew I’d never parole without a miracle, but I committed to a faith in that moment: whatever a man creates, he can uncreate.
That’s what writing is for me: creation. What my father erased, I have remade. In this process of remaking, I’ve recreated the connection with humanity that I’d lost behind my walls of self-hatred, for the more I write, the more I understand that my story is your story. Your story is mine, and nothing makes me feel more connected to people than that. And the power that writing gives me — oh my God — the rush of being excellent, of being me, it’s a madman’s high. I can do anything. Knowing that, I can sit in my narrow cell smiling, pen poised above paper, while I wait for the words that will unlock my prison.
Emile DeWeaver grew up in California's Bay Area. He is a Pushcart nominee. He has creative pieces published in the Lascaux Review, the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review, and fiction forthcoming in Nth Degree. Learn more at https://tonguepaintings.wordpress.com/
© 2014 Emile DeWeaver