The scars of my childhood are the very parts of me that so many men like me, incarcerated men, want to keep locked away from the rest of the world around them. The Alternatives to Violence Project workshops bring out the courage in men that you would never expect to witness within a prison.
This weekend was like a whirlwind of emotions and laughter that left many of us crying, yet with the realization that our personal afflictions are so much bigger than just ourselves — they also belong to so many others within and outside of these granite walls.
Fatherhood/Parenting was the focus of this weekend’s workshop. New faces, some familiar, yet uncharted territory for many of us to share due to the scars that are concealed beneath the billboard display of tattoos that take up much of our bodies. It is a well-known fact amongst us prisoners: The Alternatives to Violence Project is designed to make you uncomfortable in order to make you comfortable. There is no growth without the pain of finally beginning to confront the damage that’s been done to you, including the damage we’ve all been guilty of doing to others.
That’s the beauty of these workshops: We learn to love, trust and support men around us regardless of where it is that we’ve been, all within a crash course unfold of three days. In the bigger picture, we’re restoring our humanity while helping one another heal.
For me, this workshop hit closer to home than all the others I’ve been so fortunate to experience because it is my deepest void: having a traumatic childhood that influenced my relationship with my mother as well as my life as an adult. I believe in God’s compass, His timing, and I knew in my heart that the men around me needed to hear it just as much as I felt compelled to share it.
So, through many moments of staring down at the floor beneath me, through the tears that swam around and fell to the ground like drips of water from a sink spout, I told them my story.
My father walked out on us (my brother, my mother and myself) when I was 3 years old. Shortly after a stepfather came into the picture who had become an abusive heroin addict that beat all of us under his roof on a regular basis. Those years of my childhood were developing under the negative influences of abuse, control, dysfunction and extreme violence mixed with cruelty.
At the age of 11 my stepfather finally put his hands on me for the very last time; he nearly killed me. Much of my childhood at that point was spent in the care of foster homes and boys’ ranches throughout California. My stepfather went to prison and my mother/brother too were finally free of this man’s control. It was me that continued to feel the aftereffects of this man’s damage.
The damage was done long before I’d even developed into a man, and I believe wholeheartedly that this happens to most of the men that end up spending so much of their lives incarcerated — it was no different for my own self. Prison would become my permanent home for the rest of my adult life.
You never quite realize just how quiet a room full of 25 men is until you can actually hear your own heart beating within your chest. It was time. I needed to show my courage. So, I revealed the deepest scars of who Keith is behind the tattoos and the past reputation of a prison gang member. There was so much more to me.
It was a late Friday night in 1993. I had been out of prison for well over a year, and working as a roofer here in California. Though a prison gang member with a past that would not let me go, I was still trying to live a life that gave me some small sense of normalcy. I took any amount of normalcy I could hang on to because I’d never had much of it.
The phone in my bedroom rang late that night and it was my mother calling me from a payphone just minutes from her ranch home where she lived with a boyfriend. I knew little about this man on a personal level, yet I knew that he was an alcoholic that became a Jekyll and Hyde split-personality when he would drink. It wasn’t the first time that my mother had called me at home where I lived with my girlfriend and her parents, sobbing hysterically as she went on and on about his drunken antics.
That night it was much deeper. Her words cut me like a knife, and it was as if in those moments I was just a child all over again watching my stepfather inflict his abuse upon my mother as if it were a reunion of torment. This time, however, it was a man that I knew little about.
“I need you to come out here and do something, Keith,” she pleaded through her sobs. “Pack up your things and I’ll come get you,” I told her through my agitation. “I can’t just leave all my things behind” is all that she kept saying. Then, the silence happened. She cried for what felt like an eternity, and the guilt in me began to rise in me like a thermometer rising past its breaking point.
And the words finally came through the phone line that no man ever wants to hear coming from his own mother, let alone believe that she could ever ask of him something so dark and sinful.
“Will you come out here and get rid of him before he ends up killing me?” is all that I heard as my body went numb. “Are you serious, mom?” I asked her. In my heart, I knew my mother was serious. That evening my mother drove out there to pick me up from my home, as we drove out there to her ranch much in silence, with less to no eye contact whatsoever.
A part of me knew that I was making the greatest sacrifice of all — my life for hers — but another part of me felt this greater need to protect my mother under any circumstance, and that’s where my misconception of loyalty came into play. As she handed me the gun while her boyfriend lay sprawled across his bed in a drunken stupor, we looked each other in the eyes for the first time that awkward night.
I think about that night often, and if she would have said, “No, we can’t do this,” I would have stopped, but, she didn’t. I did what I thought was going to protect my mother. I went into her bedroom and shot this man.
Weeks later my mother and I were arrested for the murder of her boyfriend, and eventually convicted of first-degree murder. That was nearly 23 years ago, and so much has changed since then.
Last year my mother was granted parole by the parole board, as I remain behind these walls serving out my life sentence for the life we had taken, as well as additional life sentences for in-house prison crimes. While incarcerated, my mother sent me as many greeting cards and no letters as I can actually count on one hand — still, I felt that sense of loyalty towards her because she brought me into the world.
We do this, so many of us — love, honor and protect our parents despite their faults because we’re made to feel that we “owe” this to them. I know so many of the men sitting in the room this weekend felt the same way, because many of the exercises revealed it; though we expressed our pain and heartaches relating to our parents, it was hard not to want to still protect them from anyone else’s judgments.
I looked up at the faces in our circle. I wanted them to do more than just see my honesty and sincerity. I wanted them to feel my need for forgiveness. And I re-read the question written in the board at the center of the room one more time:
In order to forgive yourself, or receive forgiveness from others, what would you need to let go of that night because it caused you a great sense of pain, yet freedom at the same time?
This was the question, and I knew my answer long before I’d even entered this workshop. I spoke as if I were talking directly to my mother after all these years of guilt, shame and confusion dictating so many poor choices in my life. It was time to let go.
“Mother,” I said, “I love you because I want to love you, not because it’s my duty to love you. I will always miss you because there’s a big part of you that I’ll always want to protect, but there comes a time when you too will need to accept responsibility for the lives you took — not just Ronald’s, but my life as well. I no longer resent you for the hardships of my childhood, and I no longer resent you for my own actions as an adult. But today I am letting go of this loyalty that no child ever owes a parent. Loyalty is earned by love, protection and guidance, not obligation. More importantly, it’s unconditional, where expectations should never be imposed for its validation. I love you, but I’m letting go. I want forgiveness for taking another man’s life, and if I cannot forgive myself, then how can I expect God to forgive me with a sincere heart? It’s time. I love you.”
It was a moment to surrender that took minutes to conquer, but I found courage where I knew it would be at the right moment and this weekend’s Alternatives to Violence Workshop was that moment.
My story was not the only scar revealed this weekend, and I’m honored to have shared another experience like this with these men on the same conquest of redemption. I learned so much about myself, fatherhood and allowing others to see the best of yourself despite where we have been or what we have done wrong in our pasts.
We created a banner to show our love, support and unity this weekend as a collective group with one heart/one soul. We hope that the kids in our communities will find the joy and encouragement to follow their dreams no matter where they may be. Many of us, like myself, are living our own dream by finally giving back to our communities.
We love you, Alternatives to Violence Project. We love you, Prison Letters for our Struggling Youth. We love you The Beat Within, and we love those who support a world of positive change.
Keith Erickson, 46, has spent three-fourths of his life incarcerated. He entered the foster system at age 11, when his stepfather almost killed him. He was first sent to the California Youth Authority (youth prison) at age 14. He was convicted of murder in 1993 and is in Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.