Thanks, Mom

I watch a lot of true crime and prison shows. It’s always an exciting surprise when I click through episodes of Forensic Files and randomly come across one I have not yet seen. Spoiler alert…the husband did it.

60 Days In. Cold Case Files. Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons. Jailbirds. The First 48. I Am A Killer.

On a recent, lonely two week work trip, my late night binging included Kids Behind Bars: Life or Parole. Each episode is the story of a guy (haven’t come across one about a woman yet) who committed a crime while he was a minor and then was promptly arrested, found guilty and given a life sentence. The interesting twist to these stories is that in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that a sentence of life without parole given to children, some as young as 13, was unconstitutional. So the now men, sometimes 30+ years later, are lawyering up or appealing to nonprofit legal justice organizations to help them file for resentencing.

No one would be surprised that one common theme in Kids Behind Bars: Life or Parole is the tough, often violent, upbringing of these children who committed the crimes. Broken families. Poverty. Lack of education and opportunity. Mental health issues. Drugs and alcohol. Verbal, mental and sexual abuse.

A particularly disturbing episode involved four young adults, ages 15-21, who kidnapped a college student at night, took her to a deserted area where two of them took turns raping her, including the 15 year old. They took her car and left her there – bloody, beaten up and naked. She made her way home, called the police, and only hours later they were arrested when her car was spotted at a local convenience store and the four of them were caught on the stores’ cameras.

The episode focused on just one of the perpetrators – the 15 year boy, now 32, who was seeking resentencing under the 2012 Supreme Court ruling. He had not entered into any plea deals, went to trial and received an 141-year life sentence. The argument was that this sentence was akin to life without parole and should be considered unconstitutional.

He was black, grew up in a poor neighborhood in Ohio, and his father had been murdered defending himself during a home invasion. He reported being molested by a neighbor when he was 7 years old, started selling weed at age 9, then crack and was first consensually sexually active at age 10 with a 21 year old.

I can understand the argument that many, many people go through terrible, awful, violent, abusive childhoods and do not commit crimes like this boy. However, an overwhelming majority of men who do commit these types of crimes come from backgrounds like this one. It’s a recurring theme on this show. One mother hooked on crack gave her son to foster care where he was sexually, physically and verbally abused before running away to live on the streets. Another episode was about a poor young man of 15 who was exhibiting signs of mental health problems when he shot his neighbor.

You don’t typically see young boys/men grow up in a middle or upper class family with stability and opportunity, not even considering love, and then go out and kidnap, rob and rape.

I’m not sure why, or if it was even during this particular episode, that something my mom said probably 35 years ago resurfaced while I was watching.

She said she want to break the cycle of abuse.

I immediately teared up feeling overwhelmed with gratitude as images of my mom throughout my childhood flashed through my brain. Working late nights at different jobs that were just paychecks. Going back to school after I was born, at age 32, and then going on to not only receive her Bachelor’s Degree, but then two Master’s Degrees – all while raising three children. Going to therapy every week. Working on herself, her past and building enough strength inside herself to leave a marriage of 20+ years that was not serving her well.

My mom was born in 1944 in rural Kentucky, the middle child of three with an older brother and younger sister. Her father worked in the mine along with most of the men in the family. I never met him, but I recall from a few pictures that he was quite thin and scrawny-looking. I only met my mom’s mother once when she came to my sister’s high school graduation. I would have been 8. I’m not sure if her mother worked, but she was also an alcoholic, thin and frail.

Many of mother’s extended family were alcoholics – all who my mother blamed for losing the farm land they owned in Missouri. Her very favorite grandmother committed suicide when my mom was 10 because, my mom believed, that her husband was such an abusive alcoholic.

My mom’s sister and her two sons were alcoholics – they were apparently violent. One of these cousins actually lived quite close to me when I lived in Richmond, VA, but my mom never told me. She never wanted me to have contact with my aunt or her two sons. I met them all only once when my mom’s brother died.

My mom’s brother’s son was also an alcoholic, drug addict who went to jail for domestic abuse.

My mom doesn’t talk much about her childhood, but from time to time when I was younger, we would somehow get on the topic and she would let a few stories out. Mostly she talked about verbal and physical abuse. I have wondered if there was sexual abuse, but she never spoke about that.

Something about that show made that decades old comment about my mom wanting to break the cycle of abuse click together.

She not only wanted to change, but she actually did the incredibly hard work to make it happen. She worked, helped raise three kids, and went to school. She went to therapy for help, strength and to build herself into the person she knew she could be. She also had to handle my dad in all this, who was not at all enlightened about his own emotions, forget doing self-improvement work like going to therapy.

My life could have been very different if she had parented the way hers did. I actually saw firsthand what verbal and physical abuse looked like growing up. My childhood best friend, who lived in the same neighborhood, and I met when we were still in diapers together. We were very close until I went away to college and our lives started taking different paths.

She was the oldest with two younger brothers. They were all verbally and physically abused by their mother. Probably hundreds of times over our 18 year friendship growing up did I witness her being called downstairs and yelled at for eating one too many cookie or not finishing a chore. The screaming was accompanied by being grabbed, smacked in the face and/or hit anywhere her mother could make contact. Her brothers endured the same and her father looked the other way.

I don’t know what struggles and challenges she has faced coming to terms with her abusive childhood since we haven’t spoken in 20+ years, but I hope she has sought help and support.

What my mom did was beyond fucking powerful.

I always knew that, but I realized it in that moment of connection watching that show just how powerful and how grateful I am that my mom broke the cycle of abuse. What a fucking amazing gift.

I’m not saying that if she hadn’t I would be a drug addicted, kidnapping robber, but she did the work so I didn’t have to go through what she did, so I didn’t have to deal with the pain and the lifelong challenges that all brings. I wonder if she understood that so clearly when she was putting in the hard work.

I started at a higher rung socially, economically, physically, intellectually, and even sexually in life and I believe have been able to achieve so much more than I would have thanks to her working on herself.

In my late teens and early 20s, my mom was stuck for a few years feeling guilty for leaving me home alone several nights a week to go out as she rebuilt her social and romantic life after my parents divorced when I was 12. I recall being lonely in my teenage years – I was shy, introspective and depressed. Nevertheless, when my mom would bring up this topic, I would always respond with two questions.

“Did you love me?”

“Did you do the best you could with what you knew at the time?”

She would always answer yes to both, and then I would say,

“Then I’m happy. You loved me and did the best you could. What more could I ask for?”

God, I had no idea just how much she loved me through my childhood and just how simply amazing her best was. Thanks, Mom.

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