****Some things to know before you read this post: This post is for me. For my family. For the families, for the moms, for the little sisters of criminals who are scared because they don’t know where to turn or what to feel. I wrote this for people who don’t understand how us, people who love “bad” people. I am, by no means, trying to invalidate anyone’s feelings or way of coping. I am not apologizing for anyone, lessening the severity of their crimes, or excusing their actions. I am writing about loving my brother and encouraging people to recognize that there are more than the bad parts of people. Spread humanity for those who need it most. Thanks for reading.****
My older brother, adorably pictured above, is currently in prison for murder in the second degree.
Many criminals will, and do, walk the same streets as you and I. They will share our roads, our hospitals, our campuses, our malls. We will, and do, watch the same shows, or listen to the same music. And really, many of us are but a mistake or few from becoming like them.
It’s important to situate this conversation into everyday context. Crime and its perpetrators have become so romanticized; this sells tickets and draws in ratings, but such dramatization threatens”normal” people’s ability to relate. Because not every felon is a serial rapist, not every criminal is a Law and Order murderer, and not everyone with a record is an evil, blood thirsty monster. Many of the people my brother shares cells and lunch with are those who fell prey to street violence and substance abuse, those disproportionately targeted by socioeconomic pressures or unprotected by certain institutions.
The way you view and treat these criminals says a lot about your character. Demonizing someone because they’ve fucked up is easy, a moral test lies within seeing apparent “bad” people as fellow, well, people. It takes an extensive employment of compassion and open-mindedness to look past the term “felon”, past the length of a sentence or the severity of a charge. Beyond empathy’s attractiveness is its quality of necessity– and not just for people who are directly involved. I mean, how do you expect criminals to come out as positive, functioning members of society if they aren’t given the bare minimum of a chance? How can we expect safer streets and more peaceful homes if no one is willing to try and help these people get off the path we condemn them to?
Criminals are humans. Worthy of love, of decency. Capable of remorse, of change.
It’s disappointing– albeit unsurprising–how shocking people find this proclaimation, especially when it’s applied to my own brother. It’s as though saying my brother, a convicted murder, deserves happiness and affection is a crime in itself! What these people miss, what my readers, my peers, and my community have managed to ignore, is the fact a person’s actions don’t necessarily damn or redeem them.
Mistakes aren’t inherently defining.
As I’m sure most of you know by now, I get pretty personal on my blog. I’ve often vented about my brother and his– our– situation. It helps tremendously to have the virtual perspectives offered through my site, as I’ve yet to come across someone who can actually relate. Still, posting online to seek comfort also opens the door to a harsh judgement and invasive curiosity protected by anonymity. I’ve received messages from people who’s confusion is wrapped in ugly, replies containing such disdain I can feel the sting through their typed words. I’ve heard the same bullshit pit in person, people purging their thoughts that were poisoned by my brother, poisoning me.
It’s hard to not jump up and defend my brother at everything being flung at him. In the beginning, I would sit at my computer for hours, typing, deleting, and re-typing responses to the bitter words, harsh accusations, and twisted news reports. My daily routine would leave me in the corner of my bed, face stained sticky with tears, trying to find the truth in my defenses. It took a very long time for me to stop taking it all so personal. I would use families of felons held subject to the same nosy, close minded, and unwelcome input as inspiration. It hurt to watch the news when I saw mothers like mine being broke down and forced to hold responsibility for their children’s actions. It hurt to see their siblings that were like my own, angry and embarrassed and scared, not knowing how to escape or process the judgments. I didn’t understand how they coped with having a criminal in their family, how they refused to abandon them or leave them to fend for themselves. Where did that strength come from? Where does that ability to love someone regardless of the morals they’ve shattered?
It was when I stopped looking at everything objectively that I found such resolve. It was when I began to look past all the different ways my brother was being portrayed. It became easy for me to see past the judgments, the articles, and even those tacky fucking shackles. When I thought about my brother, I stopped thinking of a felon. I stopped thinking of a drug addict. I stopped thinking of someone who broke down from untreated mental illnesses.
I started to think of my big bro! A nerd with the same glasses he’s had since like, 6th grade. A kid who came home bursting with excitement showing our family the puppy his friend gave him, the same puppy that he would later try to save from our neighbors fighting pitbulls. My friend who taught me how to pretend to have rhythm so I wouldn’t embarrass myself at my first party, even though he just looked like a bobbing bean sprout. The boy who taught me how to think for myself, no matter how different it was from what I’ve always known. The person who helped me discover the passion in debate, the strength in defending my opinions, and the courage to seek other perspectives even if they challenged my own. It was rare for a conversation between us to be absent of elements of argument, even when I was 8 we fought over what bananas were made of (he said when spiders would die, they’d decompose in a cocoon that became a banana. I said…no). As annoying as that as times, as young girl growing up in this society, I’m grateful for all the moments of exasperation. I know without having my opinionated brother, the convicted criminal, I would not be writing this piece. I would not have my against-the-grain opinions or excessive outspokenness if it wasn’t for him setting the example. I would not be trying to get strangers on the internet to be nice to murderers.
This receptive mindset has allowed me to recognize the reality of good, smart people being capable of messing up. Especially when these people turn to self medication, when their minds are tainted with drugs and their actions clouded with addiction. Even the best of people can have toxic ways of coping.
Looking at the family affected and thinking about the lives altered…I don’t try to understand what my brother has done, and I certainly don’t accept it. Still, though, I’ve learned that you don’t have to accept things someone has done in order to forgive and love them. You can love people who have done bad things. Hell, you can even love bad people! Giving unconditional love is something I’ve never thought I’d ever be able to do, but it came so naturally so fast.
There are endless facets to people. None of us are just one thing. Humans are far too complex to be restricted to set titles and definitions. Our actions don’t always define us, nor do they have to. People can do bad things–good people can do bad things–without necessarily being a bad person. You can look at someone who has fucked up with the absence of hatred. You can hold compassion in your heart for someone who’s inflicted pain. You can love someone without forgiving, or accepting, or condoning what they’ve done. Love and hate are not always mutually exclusive. Humanness is filled with contradiction, with hypocrisy, with exception. Humanity exists on a spectrum of morality superseding binary views on “right” v. “wrong”, or “good” v. “bad”.
Regardless of the times I wanted to punch those damned glasses of his face, I love my brother. Still. More even, because every phone call I am able to answer and letter I receive, I can see more and more of who my brother was, who he truly is. Although I could never lessen the magnitude of this situation, even if I wanted to, I refuse to allow my brother’s guilt to condemn me, I refuse to allow unsolicited opinions to seep in. He is paying for what he’s done. Day by day, hour by hour. He did not contest his charge and he accepted his sentence with a grace I could only dream of cultivating. And while he’s putting in this time, I will do what I can to make sure him, and people like him, aren’t failed further. I will remind others that this kind of love is not a sign of weakness or a point of embarrassment, but that this extent of empathy reflects utter strength.
We can always do better, we can always be good.
I love you, TJ.