Posts Tagged ‘family’

I thought a lot about fathers today, of course, and how important their presence can be in our lives.  A good father (or stepfather) can serve as a teacher, a guiding star, an inspiration, or simply a haven of love and support that you know will be there, for as long as life allows.  (The same is true of mothers, of course.)  If you have a father like that, don’t miss your chance today (and every other day) to show him your love and gratitude for the gift he has given you.

I wish (as I have my whole life) that I would have had that kind of father, so I could be typing his praises right now.  But nobody promised me a rose garden, and hey – we all have our cross to bear.  I hope you won’t mind if I share this particular one with you.

For my brothers and I, fathers were more like a game of musical chairs – every time the music stopped, another Dad had left.  My older brother Marty and I were left by our father when I was 2.  No visiting, no child support.  My mother married again in 2 years, and 9 months later my little brother Frankie was born.  Within 6 months of his birth, my mother had a nervous breakdown, and spent a few weeks in a mental ward.  While she was there, Frank’s father loaded up his things, and some furniture, and left.  Different father, same story:  no visiting, no child support.

According to our mother, the third game of musical chairs was the charm – when the music stopped this time, the new Dad stayed.  And for our mother, he was the charm.  He worshipped her and was a wonderful husband.  And by far the most wonderful thing he did, according to our mother, was when I was seven and Frankie was three.  It was then that our “three times the charm” stepfather legally adopted us.  Still, it was hard to be happy about it–for us, this was yet another paternal let down; our biological fathers had now both given up all rights to us forever. Adios, kiddos!  sSee ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya!  That’s not exactly inspiring to a child.  And the man our biological fathers gave us to?  Our mother saw him as our savior, our “real father”, the man who put a roof over our heads, the man who deserved to be called “Dad”.  We kids, on the other hand, soon began to see him for what he really was – a father imposter.

Oh, he played the game in front of our mother.  Or manipulated the facts, if need be.  But when she wasn’t around–which was often, as she became a hypochondriac and spent a lot of time in bed with a “sick headache”–he was not a father.  He was mean, and ignorant, devious and (for me) dangerous, but my mother was either completely fooled, or, more likely, simply refused to see.  He drove us all away, one by one.  My older brother joined the Marines; I was kicked out at 18 “because you can’t get along with your father”, and my little brother Frankie dropped out of high school, and was arrested for the first time at 17.

In the aftermath, our “family” was broken for good, though my mother’s marriage to the imposter lasted till death did they part.  He got her, and my brother Frank and I lost our mother.  Marty moved to Florida with them, a choice I could never understand, and stayed a part of their lives till their deaths – it was only after their death that I learned that “Mom’s favorite” had instead been mentally abused by them both for years.  He now lives on disability and suffers from scoliosis and severe panic attacks.

My brother Frank and I instead sought out father figures.  Frank’s father figure was a criminal, who led him into a variety of crime and drugs.  My first marriage was to a father figure – not because he was so much older, but because he was as stern and domineering as the “father” I’d grown up with.  I would eventually seek out my biological father, and reconcile with him, and leave the domineering husband.

I guess we all learn in our own way, our own time. There’s a saying, “All that water and not a drop to drink.”  For my brothers and I, it was “all those fathers, and yet no fathering”.  Without a proper guide, we each stumbled through parenthood in different ways.

Marty married a woman who couldn’t read or write, with three children.  He later adopted a baby (a child of one of her relatives who had severe mental/physical handicaps, and was unwanted).  When she died, her children took her insurance money and left my brother with the burial bill and his adopted, physically/mentally challenged son.  Marty had to move back in with my mother and stepfather, and there he remained till their death.  No wonder he suffers from mental disability now.

Frank married young, had a son, and then spent the rest of his years in and out of prison, committing crimes and doing drugs.  He didn’t pay support, though he did see his son when he could.  He was a loving but absent father, and a very poor role model.  His son became addicted to crystal meth, and now suffers from schizophrenia.

I divorced my first husband, who had fathered our two sons, and when I met the man who would eventually become my second husband, I was very, very wary of bringing a stepfather into their lives.  Their own father was still in their lives, and I wanted to be sure that anyone I married would treat them right.  But my sons loved him almost from the start, and I soon became convinced, and rightfully so, that he would be a good father – and he has never disappointed me, or our (now) four children.  I am grateful, every day, that he is a loving and good man, and has been a positive influence in all of their lives.

So what was different about the men my mother brought into my life?

Let’s start with my father.  He spent the ages of 8-15 in an orphanage and when his mother finally came back for him, he told her he no longer needed her.  I found that out years later, when he and I were on a road trip to Bellingham Washington to see my oldest son graduate.  My Dad was telling me how his mother gave him and another sibling up for adoption when times were hard, and how he couldn’t believe she’d expect him to just welcome her back into his life when she finally returned for him.  I looked at him then and said, “Did you ever think about the fact that you did the same thing to me?  Only you never came back – I found you.”  My Dad was silent.  I don’t think he had ever considered that.

As for my younger brother’s father, I don’t know his story.  We never saw him again, and our mother never provided any details (we weren’t encouraged to ask about them, since she insisted our stepfather was our “real father”.)  But I’d wager a guess that his father wasn’t such a great example either.

Finally, our stepfather, too, was an orphan.  So he married a ready-made family, one which he had no idea what to do with, and obviously didn’t really want once he got it.

Compare those three to my husband and one thing stands out:  he learned by example.  My husband’s father, rest in peace, was an exemplary father.  He was kind, hardworking, loving and endlessly patient, both as a father and a grandfather.  He had a heart of gold, and my husband has many of those qualities.  The men my mother brought into our lives, conversely lacked a father, and their own parenting suffered for it.  The lack of a good parent can cause a chain reaction that continues on for generations – unless someone breaks the link.

That’s where I was lucky.  I am so thankful, every day, that my children have all their links intact (and an extra one to boot).  My older two boys have both a loving father AND a loving stepfather, and my younger two children have both parents, still together.  My eldest son has two children, and I am so proud of the love, time and devotion he shows them every day.

One good man can make a difference that can leave its mark on generations.  As parents, we all need to remember that, and if you’re not a parent, you can still have a positive effect on children whose lives you touch.

Here’s to all the good men in the world, whether fathers or stepfathers or uncles or anyone who positively influences a child:  you make the world a better place, for now and in the future.  Thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

We in the United States like to boast that we are the greatest country in the world.   That may be true, though I’m not sure what statistic(s) bears out that boast.

True or not, when it comes to crime and our prison system, I beg to differ:  we suck.

A few important statistics:

  1. Incarceration rate (United States):  700+ per 100,000 people
  2. Incarceration rate (Norway):  65-75 per 100,000 people
  3. Recidivism rate (United States):  estimates range from 50% to 60+%
  4. Recidivism rate (Norway):  approx. 20%

Commit a crime in Norway, and you will lose your freedom, but you will be treated humanely, with a focus on transforming you into a law-abiding citizen, through education, mental health and substance abuse programs, and a job to do. Commit a crime in the United States, and you will lose your freedom, be treated like a wild animal in a zoo, deal with persistent danger from other inmates and abuse from guards, and eventually return to society no better and likely worse than when you went in.

I wish I could say that I had no personal knowledge about this sort of thing, but I do.  Twelve years of trying to help my brother Frank, who suffered from addiction while bouncing in and out of the prison system, was a painful lesson in what we do wrong in this country.

My first experience with “justice” happened about 6 months after Frank moved out on his own, with a job and a place to live.  He hurt his back on the job and could no longer work; he then fell off the abstinence wagon with his habit of shooting cocaine; and finally, resorted to stealing a toolbox from Sears (in order to fence it for money), a toolbox that was expensive enough to qualify the crime as felony retail theft.  Did he deserve to be arrested?  Of course he did.

The crime happened in Cook County, Illinois, so he was thrown in Cook County jail, and was basically scared shitless.  Cook County jail is not a nice place.  Frank called me, begging for bail money, but I was divorced with two small children and barely made it from paycheck to paycheck, so I had to say “no”.  He did manage to get himself segregated from the more dangerous characters by requesting to be housed in the drug treatment area (he was likely going through withdrawal), so for now he was a little safer as he awaited his court date.  In the meantime, I served as his “voice” with the public defender he was assigned, and quickly found that public defenders often have too many clients to do a good job.  His first public defender called me at work one day, all worried and urging me to go to court on Frank’s behalf because of an outstanding speeding ticket.  He thought this was important, because he had never read my brother’s record – had he done so, he would know that a speeding ticket was the least of his problems.  I relayed to his public defender that Frank needed drug abuse help, and wanted to be considered for the TASC program (a non-profit group that offers drug rehabilitation).

Frank’s request for help was denied.

At Frank’s first court date, his public defender did not show up, and I met another PD who seemed to be more caring and knowledgeable, so we switched to the new guy.  I explained to him that Frank needed help for substance abuse more than anything else, but had been denied.  The PD informed me that unfortunately, there were few slots open in that program, which is probably why he didn’t get in.  He suggested I try again to get Frank in the program, and told me to write a  letter to the judge on Frank’s behalf, explaining his severe cocaine addiction, his non-violent character, and his need for a chance to get “clean”.

In the meantime, my friend Natalie and I attended another court date for Frank. This time, we were at least able to see him in the courtroom. It was not what I expected. My heart sunk as they brought Frank into the courtroom, shoeless, with his hands and feet in shackles. The harsh reality of jail was never more clear to me than in that moment. I couldn’t fathom how stealing a toolbox deserved this sort of treatment. Did he really need to be brought into the courtroom in chains, no shoes, and zero dignity?

Our final visit to court for this case was the day of Frank’s sentencing:  June 10, 1987.  Again, he was paraded past us in bare feet and shackles, and it hurt me just as much to see him this time as it had before.  Natalie and I held tightly to each other’s hand as Frank stood before the judge with his attorney. We felt certain it had to go in his favor. It just had to.

Well, nothing is certain but death and taxes. The judge didn’t grant the request for rehabilitation and, while he mentioned that Frank was lucky to have Natalie and me to support him, he still went ahead and sentenced him to two years in prison, or eight months with good behavior.

We were informed by his PD that only one of us would be allowed to see him, in a conference room in the courthouse, before they took him away and off to prison. Natalie immediately suggested that it should be me, since I was his sister.  I was instructed to stand across the table from him, in that small conference room.  No hugging, no touching, no privacy.  I suppose this was necessary, in case he was hiding a toolbox in his underwear that he was going to hit us with.

“I’m sorry, Sis,” said Frank.   He looked ashamed.

“Me, too, Frank.  I tried.  I don’t want you to go back to prison.”

“It’s okay, I’ll be fine.  It ain’t your fault.  I screwed up.  Don’t worry about me.”

My heart was breaking.  “I can’t help worrying about you.  You’re my brother.  I love you, you big dummy.”

“I love you, too, Sis.”

We said our good-byes, and then Natalie and I walked outside and waited to wave to him again, as they loaded him into the prison van.

Just like that, Frank was back to where he started. Nowhere.  In eight months, he was released with no money, no new skills, and his addiction intact.  It was a scene that played out in his life over and over again, until he died of an overdose in 1997.

I can’t help but think that in Norway, Frank would still be here.

C’mon, America – we can do better.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read more about these issues:

http://www.dropoutprevention.org/engage/incarceration-within-american-and-nordic-prisons/

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/why-scandinavian-prisons-are-superior/279949/

http://www.publiceye.org/defendingjustice/pdfs/factsheets/9-Fact%20Sheet%20-%20US%20vs%20World.pdf

http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2011/07/25/277771/norway-is-safe/

http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1986002,00.html?xid=huffpo-direct

“Start doing the things you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in free speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.” ~ Adam Michnik

me14_marty_frank_rev

Siblings

I remember seeing the movie “Boy’s Town” when I was a child, with Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan, and Mickey Rooney as the “super bad boy” he was dealing with (obviously Father Flanagan hadn’t met Jeffrey Dahmer).  What sticks in my mind, to this day, is Father Flanagan’s (Spencer Tracy) belief that there is no such thing as a bad boy.  I would like to believe that, and I think it’s mostly true but, like everything else, I think some people are damaged beyond saving – what I’m not sure about is whether or not there is a moment in time, specific years perhaps, when they could be re-directed to a less turbulent and risky lifestyle.

I don’t believe my brother was damaged beyond saving, not as a child.  He certainly wasn’t evil nor even mean; although, like all older sisters, I did think he was a horrible pest and a spoiled brat who had usurped my position as the youngest in the family and, therefore, should never have been born.  But he was born, and all my thumb sucking couldn’t get rid of him.

There were three of us, my older brother Marty, myself (the middle child…sigh :-), and Frankie was the baby, born four years after me.  We loved each other and fought like many siblings.  I don’t remember any early behavior that pointed toward a future life of crime, at least not until grade school.  He did have an early career as a snitch, but in his adult years, he had no use for that sort of behavior.  He was a bedwetter until high school, though I found this to be criminal only when my mother put me in charge of washing his bedding, at the laundromat no less.  It may have been a sign, however, that something was not quite right.

My first true glimpse of Frankie’s future career choice occurred in my room.  Repeatedly.  Things began to disappear, usually things that had pictures of presidents on them.  I had a piggy bank that I would add to whenever I could, and count maybe once a week, no doubt hoping it had magically doubled.  One day, I realized that the piggy bank now held only pennies.  The more valuable change had disappeared.  I went straight to my mother.

“Frankie is stealing the change from my piggy bank!” I told her.

“Well, how do you know it was Frankie?  Maybe you just mis-counted.”  she replied.  This was typical for my mother.  It wasn’t because she thought the best of everyone, it was really that she preferred to avoid having to deal with a problem.  If Frankie took it, that would mean she would have to do something about it.

“Mom.  Who else would take it?  Marty?”

“Of course not!  Marty would never do anything like that.”  True.  He wouldn’t.  But Frankie?  Well, Frankie had been getting in trouble at school, hanging around with some poor choices for friends, and had even been suspected of involvement with a fire at the school.  He’d been sent to counseling, but because my mother didn’t like anyone to think our family was less than perfect, she didn’t pursue the counseling any further than the school required.

“I suppose it just magically disappeared?  Only the quarters, dimes and nickels are gone.”  I continued.

“Still, you don’t know he took it.”  That was it, discussion over.  She walked away.

If she wouldn’t help me catch him, then I knew I had to do it myself.  Next chance I got, I added more quarters, dimes and nickels.

Once again, they disappeared.  Once again, I told my mother.  Once again, she did nothing.

I began to sleep with my wallet under my pillow.  And Frank now had a theft under his belt that held no consequences.

Is that how it begins?  If my mother had done something about it, or about later incidents that grew in magnitude – would Frank have led a different life?

********************************

For a more educational/theoretical look at this topic, take a peek at this blog post by a psychology student

To learn more about Boy’s Town

Are you experienced?

Posted: February 20, 2013 in Justice
Tags: , , , , , , ,

From 1985 till his death in 1997, my self-appointed “mission” was to save my brother from a life of drugs and crime.

Before then, I had never seen the inside of a prison, never stepped inside a courtroom, and  my only face-to-face experiences with police consisted of talking to them through the rolled-down window of my car, when they pulled me over for speeding.

Well, okay, I take that back – I had been inside a police station once,  thanks to a boy I’ll call “Alex” that I dated for a short time in my senior year of high school.  It was 1971, and I had a job as a clerk at Dressler’s Drugstore, a Mom and Pop establishment located in the midst of the main strip mall in downtown Fox Lake, Illinois.  Alex surprised me one evening by showing up at the checkout counter and offering me a ride home from work.  His timing was perfect, since he arrived about 9:50 pm and I was done at 10:00.  What I failed to notice, in my teenage hormone haze of excitement, was that Alex was drunk.  Drunk, underage and transporting open liquor to boot.  He wasted no time making that obvious, traveling only about 100 feet out of the parking lot of the strip mall before he swerved across the center line, in full view of an alert Fox Lake squad car.

I had zero prior experience dealing with the police, so when they pulled us over, and Alex started to panic over the booze on the floor of the car, I felt sorry for him but wasn’t worried about myself.  I hadn’t committed a crime, and how was I to know about the liquor in the car?  After all, he had just picked me up.  Facts are facts, right?

Not exactly.

When the officer said we had to get into his car and go down to the station, I tried to set him straight, explaining that I just got off work.  Couldn’t he just drive me back to the strip mall and I’d call my stepfather for a ride home?

No.

Before they decided to drag me down to the police station, I might have been grateful.  Grateful that they’d saved me from a possible drunk-driving accident on the way home with my inebriated date.  Instead, I felt frustration and disappointment at their immediate assumption that I was guilty simply by virtue of being in the car.

At the Fox Lake police station, they put us in separate rooms and “grilled” us, treating me as if I were an accomplice to a bank robbery.  They used that word a lot, too – “accomplice”.   I found the whole experience ludicrous and laughable, though I wasn’t dumb enough to laugh.  I mean, c’mon–the only way I could have been my date’s accomplice was if I had popped open the beer cans and poured each one down his throat while he held his mouth open…all in a matter of seconds.  Still, I refused to let the officer intimidate me.  I knew, in my heart, that he would have to make up a charge, because he certainly didn’t have anything to charge me with, and I told him just that.

As I expected, the police let me go, but not without a warning that “next time, I wouldn’t be so lucky”.   Lucky?  I sure didn’t feel lucky as I listened to my stepfather read me the riot act on the way home.  He and the policeman who’d “grilled” me had a lot in common when it came to justice.  They both seemed to suffer from justice dyslexia, managing to twist  “innocent until proven guilty” into “guilty because we said so”.

That was my first taste of police and the sort of “gestapo power” they can wield, and I didn’t like it at all.  I suppose that for a teenager, that could be a good thing – I certainly didn’t want to repeat the experience.  In fact, from that point on, I simply wanted to avoid the police and police stations like the plague.

Little did I know that my brother Frank would introduce me to them all over again.

Are You Experienced?
Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have

(excerpted lyrics from the song ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? by Jimi Hendrix)