Nemo has been weighing on me lately. He spent many a night camped out in our living room during our younger son’s tumultuous teen-age years. We often had to step over several long-legged boy-bodies to get to the kitchen.
I once said to him, “I will always love you, Nemo.” My words served as a warm-up for a gentle confrontation, after a visiting friend of mine discovered he had stolen from her purse.
I do still love Nemo, though he and our son have mostly gone their separate ways. I associate him with the distress of those years, for us, for him. I recall the gathering in the hospital room after his mother’s sudden death, a death that he’d witnessed while alone at her bedside. My husband and I lingered there with his relatives that evening, hoping to be of service, strangers in a scene awash with horror and old family tensions. A few days later, we were the only white people at the funeral. Nemo hugged us, awkward and restless.
I offered to drive Nemo and his little brother Nick to weekly meetings at Fernside Center for Grieving Children. But their twenty-one-year-old sister, who had been granted custody, declined my offer. By that time we had made the most difficult decision of our lives, sending our own struggling son to a boy’s ranch in Arizona. I found myself missing the thump of the basketball in the backyard, the broad smiles and consistently respectful “Yes, Ma’am” of our son’s African-American friends. Our son, bi-racial and adopted, had always stood with a foot in two worlds. His friends were constantly shocked and mystified by his rantings toward us, his parents, and wondering why we didn’t give him a whupping.
Now, our son, who has indeed followed a convoluted path toward wisdom and maturity, shakes his head in sorrow for his old friend. He tells us that Nemo, age twenty-four, is “completely screwed.” He has a felony conviction.
And I wonder if in another, more compassionate society, Nemo would be so hopelessly screwed? The American Bar Association has listed over 40,000 collateral consequences for those who have been incarcerated. An eternal nightmare of roadblocks.
My heart wanders back toward what might have been. Suppose after his mother’s death Nemo had been surrounded by a strong, nurturing community? Supposing the courts had placed him in a diversion program, and given him the therapy and wise male mentoring he so needed, instead of throwing him into jail and issuing a death sentence for any hopes he might possibly muster?
But these questions sound to my ears like platitudes. They barely touch my anguish with a hard-ass universe and its most potent symbol, the law. My distress with the law is old and deep and core to who I am, though I don’t know exactly why, since my own mistakes never warranted its iron hand.
A friend recently reminded me that the law is necessary for human survival, that what’s wrong is that it’s totally corrupted in our country. But watching how the law routinely destroys young lives in the name of setting them straight, I can’t help judging that it is just too blunt an instrument to be used on human beings.
It’s not just a matter of rendering our criminal justice system more equitable. I have two sons, one white, one black. Would I have wanted them to have been treated equally before the law? No, because if my white son had been slammed with the same zero-tolerance for his foolishness as my black son, he would have suffered just as much, and what purpose does it serve the universe to multiply arbitrary suffering even two-fold?
When I read about people of means getting away with token sentences because of their clever lawyers, I am not particularly enraged. Why would I want one more person thrown into our archaic prison system, to waste endless months or years in a soul-numbing echo chamber of loneliness and unproductivity, and then to emerge forever stigmatized? I cannot think of a single human being (even politicians) for whom we could not do better.
My husband and I hired lawyers (whether they were clever or not, I can’t say) for both our sons when they got in trouble. This accorded with my white privilege, inherited from my colonialist ancestors and their slave-holding progeny, who helped shape our “liberty and justice for all.” Without my sense of entitlement it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind to hire clever lawyers or to rescue my younger son with expensive equine therapy.
No, I don’t begrudge individuals their ability to temper the law. But what enrages me is the near-inevitability of young black men getting slammed by smug white authority figures, mindlessly, heartlessly, visionlessly invoking the institution of the law, as if it is more absolute than God, as if we should worship at its very feet.
I am not impressed by this primitive institution we all take for granted. Its favorite form of penance, incarceration, would be laughable for its sheer wastefulness if it weren’t so unspeakably tragic.
In my experience karma is plenty effective in teaching us our painful lessons. “Logical and natural consequences” are built into the order of things. Human law, on the other hand, seems to be filled with contradictions that may well be inherent, and thus unfixable.
We can’t really have it both ways: law that is fair and just and treats everybody the same, whether they are “one of us” or “other;” and law that allows for human error, family trauma, and young men’s yet-to-be-developed frontal lobes. The first is heartless, the second bound to be inequitable. Misplaced flexibility leads to bias, good old boys’ clubs, tribal loyalties. Law with no flexibility is just cruel, unless we change the time-honored paradigm itself.
In a new paradigm, law would finally lay to rest its archaic fixation on punishment, admitting that it is an ineffectual tool for building safe and healthy societies. It would confess its sin of paying lip-service to rehabilitation. It would stop worshiping at the feet of a blindfolded ideal that it never had any intention of creating.
Anyway, if the law wears a blindfold, it can’t see into the human heart. Then nobody wins, not my white son, not my black son, and certainly not Nemo, who, so far, has never stood a chance.