I haven’t spoken to my father in over four years. I haven’t spoken to my sister in nearly one. She won’t return any of my letters and he won’t return any of my calls. Sometimes I blame them. Most times I blame the Prison Industrial Complex. But lately I’ve been blaming myself for their emotional and physical absences. The reasonable side of me knows that I have no fault or claim in his past and her current imprisonment. However, their unresponsiveness forces me to consider the ways in which I’ve chosen to communicate with them and how these behaviors alter and affect our relationships.
Each time my father returned home from prison, he was always greeted by new people. His children grew significantly, his wife remarried, and we had to reintroduce ourselves, again. As I grew, so did the distance between us.
And upon our meeting, like waves, we crashed. Ironically, many of my fondest memories of my father come from moments when he was incarcerated when I was small. Though these memories are a mixture of him gently scolding me for eating M&Ms off the floor or being held in his arms while cheesing for the even more cheesy prison family photos, I sincerely believe he and I were connected. Even if it was once a week for no more than 60 minutes.
Upon his fourth or fifth release from prison – months after I turned 12 – my father remarried and moved to Atlanta with his wife. That summer he invited my younger brother and me to visit. Initially, I was reluctant and after much convincing, I caved and agreed to go to look out for my brother, who always fell prey to my father’s inevitable fits of rage.
After six weeks of blatant disinterest in reconnecting with a man I felt bound to solely by DNA, my father sat me down in his living room and attempted to connect. Because of his combative approach – undoubtedly influenced by years of imprisonment – I became less and less inclined to converse.
Frustrated, he shouted, “Why won’t you look at me when I’m talking? Why don’t you talk to me?” In a similar volume, I retorted, “Because of stuff like this!” Before I could finish the sentence, he smacked me. Almost as if he could not believe himself, he retreated into his bedroom and further into himself. Without even thinking, I did the same for nearly a decade.
For the duration of that summer, I refused to call him “Dad”, a title he probably had been yearning to hear for years. A responsibility he probably had been yearning to resume.
What was supposed to be a moment to honestly connect quickly transformed into a seemingly inescapable cycle of him reaching and me pulling away, or vice versa.
Since that day, I can hardly recall my father and I sharing moments where we weren’t at odds whenever he returned home. I blamed him for being a volatile stranger and a deadbeat. I blamed him for my brother’s unruly behavior. I blamed him for his constant incarceration. In retrospect, I blamed him for not being enough, something I now know to be more than unfair. Lately, I fear I don’t know how to receive loved ones returning home, and fear is the opposite of love.
In a way, my father – already dehumanized by The System, was further undermined by a daughter who hardly knew him outside of a dozen or so visits in and out of prison. I wonder, once someone’s worth is questioned by society, then declared as less than enough by his kin, how does that feel? Holding his past against him doesn’t help his reintroduction into our home. It’s done nothing for our relationship.
At the more enlightened age of 22, I can admit that it is damaging to judge someone for being caught in the web of a System so flawlessly designed to keep recidivism rates high.
The insidious nature of that same System acts as a vacuum, sucking in generations of families. Though my sister is a first time offender, her chances of being wholly welcomed back into our community is compromised tremendously. Her life ultimately mirrors my father’s: isolated, increasingly challenging, and in need of rebuilding. Analyzing the distance that has formed between them and me influences me to consider the ways I can adjust communicating with them.
The disconnect between us is not unprecedented. Countless family members affected by the PIC sever communicative ties for countless reasons. Most times, those who have not been imprisoned are the ones who choose to disengage, thus perpetuating an already overwhelming sense of isolation. Who would want to come home to that? How are we inadvertently enabling recidivism rates in our communities? Could our inability to empathize with family and community members be aiding their returns to isolation?
As a Philadelphia native, Natyna Bean Osborne, is an emerging playwright and arts educator. She listens, hears, and writes the world around her. She is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and recipient of a 2014 Kennedy Center Playwriting Award. Natyna writes plays, essays, poems, and the occasional love letter. Foremost, she is always discovering ways to offer light and love in her community.
Look for Part 2 of Natyna’s personal essay on Monday.