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Tribute to a Genius: Lessons in Civility

An Essay by JW
The Yale Law Journal Writing Contest-Essay Topic:
Notable or Surprising Experience with Someone in the Legal System

 

It was mid-summer in Florida when 60-something year old MF limped up to me in the prison chow line.  He wore a long sleeved shirt, despite the midday heat, a large straw hat and medically issued bifocals.  He had cataracts in both eyes, but since he could see better out of one eye he squinted like a pirate.  I didn’t know at that time how much of a positive influence this odd looking man would have in my life. I will be forever changed and forever grateful.

I guess I had mentioned something about the Bible or religion to someone in the line because whatever I had said caught MF’s ear and caused him to leave his place in line.  He limped up, squinted at me, and asked, “Do you believe that every word in the Bible is true?”

Back then, all I knew was what others had said, and since they had told me that the Bible had no error that’s what I believed.  “Yes,” I answered, not sure what the old guy was up to.

“Okay,” he continued, “do you believe the Noah’s Ark story is true?”

I thought for a second.  “Well, yeah, it’s in the Bible.”

“Did they ever find the ark?”

I had read somewhere that some archeologists had in fact found the ark but that the Turkish government had forbidden publication of the matter.  Nevertheless, I remembered the “secret” report and the photo of the alleged piece of “gopher wood” from which the ark was constructed that they had smuggled out of Turkey.  “They said they found it between the two peaks of Mount Ararat in Asia Minor,” I answered.

“I see.  Well, do you think there were kangaroos on the ark?”

“Of course.  The Bible says all creatures.  I guess that means kangaroos too.”

“And where do they have kangaroos?”

“They’re  in Australia; isn’t that right?”  He was a little more challenging now, and I was beginning to wonder what was going on with him.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Australia is separated by a lot of water, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then, how did the kangaroos get from the ark to Australia?”

I shrugged and blinked a few times.  “Hell, I don’t know.  Maybe they swam or something.”

Judging by the look on his face, he knew I didn’t believe that kangaroos swam the distance of continents.

Thus began my relationship with MF, a scientist and minister, a criminal and a saint, a friend and a mentor.

As it turned out, MF had taught nuclear physics in the United States Air Force during part of the Cold War in the 1960s.  Two of MF’s professors were Nobel Prize laureates, and one of them actually won the Nobel Prize for reaching a state of coldness that had not been reached prior to that time, very near to zero degrees Kelvin.  MF is, I believe, the most intelligent person I’ve ever met, but my opinion here does not rely solely on his scientific knowledge.

When MF grew dissatisfied with his career in the military, a good friend of his, Dr. JL was influential in MF’s decision to enter a Methodist Seminary where he studied for three years.  Upon graduation he returned to his home state (Florida), married a school teacher, had two children, and even had dinner with the Governor of the State of Florida.

Remember, however, that I met MF in prison.  You see, he had had trouble uniting his scientific knowledge with his religious knowledge, and this caused him a lot of stress.  On the other hand, he felt his life was agreeable, which only added guilt to his stress.  He felt compelled to hide his troubled emotions from his family and the church.  All of this led to bouts of depression, and depression can act like a strainer that sifts out good thoughts and prevents the mind from seeing pleasant, hopeful perspectives.  He finally decided that he was tired of the mental conflict and gave up all hope of finding peace.

MF accelerated his car as fast as it would go and drove it into a cement pylon.  The crash knocked all neuronal circuits off-line, broke some bones, and shattered the femur in his left leg.  The repair would leave that leg two inches shorter.  When he woke, he told his wife that the “accident” was actually a suicide attempt; she forbade him from saying anything other than an accident had occurred.

Her decision and his acquiescence would prove to be fatal.  While the doctors could mend his body, they could not mend his mid.  The year was 1977.  MF was experiencing the same trouble as before, too much mental conflict.  He awoke one night, resolved to get away.   Somehow, he decided that killing his family was the only way to solve the problem.  He knifed his wife and 12-year-old son to death.  His older boy, who was 14 at the time, fled to a neighbor’s house and called the police.

MF’s attorneys were certain they could get him acquitted on the basis of an insanity defense.  (This was before John Hinckley’s shooting of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent strict M’Naghten standard that courts would apply to such defenses.)  However, MF accepted full responsibility.  He refused to challenge his guilt.  When the attorney for the state offered a “plea bargain” for two counts of second degree murder, MF accepted the two life sentences that came with the change of plea.

[…]

I met MF 19 years later at Columbia Correctional Institution.  He had spent nearly two decades reading, studying, and searching—trying to figure out the differences and similarities of science and religion, trying to figure out what had gone wrong in his mind.  Why were his two educations so different? Could they be reconciled? By the time he introduced himself to me outside the Columbia C.I. chow hall, he had gleaned some very interesting answers.  Fortunately for me, MF felt a deep compulsion to share his discoveries.

I say fortunately because I was one of those people for whom, educationally and socially speaking, Murphy’s Law had definitely applied: seemingly, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.  In fact, I only managed to complete the fifth grade before I became a ward of the state, ushered off to various institutions.  From age 11 to 15, I lived at Montanari Residential Treatment Center, an institution that would later become the subject of many Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post articles regarding death, violence, rape, overmedicating, and an overall foul, antisocial atmosphere.  My experience at this “residential community” was so difficult that I developed asthma and stomach ulcers, both stress-related illnesses, both indications of how troubled Montanari really was.  My life before, during and after Montanari was, as one judge would characterize it, “bleak at best”.  Between the automobile accident, molestation, beatings, neuroleptics, illicit drugs, alcohol, an overdose, mentally ill influences, ostracism, lack of education, and absence of social skills, I was not exactly a picture of health and stability.  Stated bluntly, I was damaged, and I had not yet reached my sixteenth birthday.  Having no home, I did what every other ill-advised, ignorant and ignoble boy did.  I wandered the streets.  My only skill was theft and that only led to my being waived over as an adult.  I was in prison by age 17, and then again at ages 19 and 22, the latter of which to serve an 82-year prison sentence.  Counting my stay at Montanari I had been institutionalized for about 15 years when I met MF at Columbia C.I. in 1996.

He had been eligible for parole back in the mid-1990s, but the Florida Parole Commission suspended his parole date. Likewise, the Florida Department of Corrections raised his custody to “close” and transferred him to a maximum security prison.  In fact, the commission and department acted similarly with almost every parole-eligible inmate in the state.  The cause was unfortunate: a Florida man (not an inmate) killed his wife, placed her body in the trunk of their car, drove to a local shopping center, parked, and, leaving the keys in the ignition, walked away.  Once he returned home, he reported the car as stolen.  Lo and behold, an inmate who happened to be absconding from a work release center saw the car with the keys in it and decided to steal it.  The police broadcasted the matter as an inmate who had “escaped” from a minimum custody facility, raped and killed a woman, and stole her car.  The commission suspended all parole dates.  The department raised the custody level of hundreds of inmates and revoked work release status for many.  The truth of the matter eventually came out, that the inmate had not raped or killed the woman, but MF and similarly situated individuals still suffered the consequences of the rash, statewide response.  This was how he ended up at Columbia C.I. with me.

We were very different people.  I had very little education.  Though I had earned a G.E.D. and was certified as a prison legal clerk a few years earlier, my mind was fundamentally uninformed.  Thankfully, MF was patient.   Thinking he might die in prison, he shared as much of his knowledge as he could once he found someone with at least some capacity for learning.

[…]

(…)his goal was to help those within his reach learn how to think maturely about science and religion, about the intellectual and the spiritual.  […] MF’s method of orderly, systematic thinking, as well as his approach to disseminating complex thoughts, became indispensable to my evolving from an uncivilized beast into a thinking human being.

He taught me about many things: subatomic particles, nuclear reactions, covalent and ionic bonds, and chemical reactions; the quantum and cosmic worlds; the history of things, like the church, mathematics, and the evolution of the writing process; and much more.  The cataracts in his eyes prevented him from reading at times, so I spent long hours reading aloud to him from nonfiction books: The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre De Chardin, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, As I See Religion by Harry Emerson Fosdic…Eventually, the lenses in his eyes were replaced, after which he could see just fine.  We shared dozens of books and magazines.

His peaceful, intelligent presence was a stark contrast from that of my own father, a large, booming man with a penchant for carousing and fighting.  As a consequence of poor parenting, I was perhaps one of the more ignorant people around, having more psychiatric diagnoses than I care to mention, more head injuries than a young boy should have had, and more problems than a person should have had to bear alone; yet there in prison, away from the slums, away from substance abuse, alcohol, and outlandish social settings, this old, compassionate murderer took the time to do what no one else had done.  He taught me how to think.  He taught me that my mind was like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, it works if you work it. He taught me the importance of respecting the rights of others, even when those others, including the ones in authority, did not reciprocate.

We came to understand each other’s despair.   We learned about and from one another.   His face would often contort into a grimace whenever he thought about his wife and youngest son.  Knowing what he had done weighed far more heavily on him than his two life sentences.  I asked him why he had done it; he said that he just wanted to get away.  I asked him why he didn’t just leave; he said he didn’t know.  Even with all his intelligence, he couldn’t figure out that one simple thing, and it tore him apart.

 

Prisoner Letters

Latest Issue: 92

 

 

One day I wrote him a brief note, maybe a half page.  I suggested that his “victims” were more alive than he or I were able to tell.  “If your wife and son were able to,” I wrote, “I believe they would tell you that they love you and forgive you.”  Even today as I write this page, I still believe that this is true.  He longed to hear from his other son whom he had not seen since the evening of his crimes.  A cousin of his […] occasionally wrote and informed him of his surviving son’s affairs.  It was bittersweet for him.

Because of his crimes, he understood that injustices occurred in the world.  There were always reasons to be angry, aggravated, and unhappy, but there were more compelling reasons to be grateful and forgiving.  Sometimes, when I would complain about harsh prison conditions, he would say, “Hey, man, it could be a lot worse.”  It took me a couple of years before I stumbled upon the response, “Yeah, but it could be a lot better, too.”  And he agreed.

[…]

I, on the other hand, have never physically hurt anyone, yet I have been institutionalized for nearly my entire life, longer than 30 years.  Is this not reason to be angry and to defame the system? “No,” says MF.  Suffering is not a reason to cause more suffering.   Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth leaves everyone toothless and blind.  Of course, this does not work for governments and military campaigns, but it’s okay, I guess.  It has to be.  Sometimes justice is unjust; sometimes injustice is just.  MF insisted that society, religion, and science are always reaching toward better things.  Despite occasional setbacks, progress is always made…eventually.

[…]

Paradoxically, though there are injustices in the immediate sense of things, there are non in the ultimate sense.  Instead, we just have a planet full of people who take their inconsequential differences more seriously than they should.  MF, in contrast, asserted that it’s more important to be caring than to be correct, because most things about which we feel we are correct are subjective and transient.  We draw lines in the Earth and say, “That side’s yours; this side’s mine.”  And then we war over the lines. We draw lines in our minds, frequently contrary to natural laws and common sense, and then we war over the lines.

MF’s teachings helped me suspend my frustration about all that had happened to me and all that I had been through.  Scales of ignorance were removed from my eyes, scales that had been constructed layer by layer from inane social influences.  Now detached from a personalized view of myself, I was able to contemplate my history and problems from a clearer perspective.  I could identify the sociological and neurobiological bases for my developmental woes.

But it was MF’s who provided the insight necessary to understand civility, respect, and sociability.  I learned that the people in our communities, though having different ethnicity, lifestyle, religion, or ideology, were my people. They were not objects or spicks or queers or pigs or niggers or crackers or whatever, they were folks who brought water and electricity, took away trash and wastewater, grew food and raised livestock,, created vaccines and cared for the infirm, built roads and vehicles and performed all things necessary to build and maintain infrastructure.  Prior to my meeting MF, I was not taught this key detail about society. I was not one of those exceptional kids who was able to rise above society’s clamorous and pluralistic activities, myriad opinions, infighting and out-fighting, conflicts and alliances, backbiting and back patting, religion and politics, ethnicity and cast, lifestyle and class, and whatever other influences there were.   I was not exceptional unless you’d say I was exceptionally stupid.  I was not taught that, though the people around me were different, they were still  my people, deserving the same respect that all humanity deserves.

In my view, this touches on the public dilemma created by criminal thinking, corporate greed and us-and-them mentalities, and it reaches into all layers and levels of society.  Social fidelity should be much more important, but it appears that politicians and media outlets foster dissention by pitting group against group and class against class.  Diversity and plurality are great things to have in a society, but cohesion erodes when they are used to villainize, cause division, and undermine civility.  If we continue to objectify and target one another, what atrocities will we ultimately commit?  History has many examples.

The last day that I saw MF was 12 November 1999 when I was transferred to another prison.  I gave him a big hug and was surprised at how slender his frame was.  Thinking back, I wish I had kissed him on his neck, like a son to a father.

[…]

Due to MF’s age, as well as his may psychological and physiological stresses, his health was not the best, and the prison environment was not helpful.

[…]

I wrote a letter to Dr. JL, MS’s long-time friend, and told him of the medical and prison conditions under which MF found himself. I asked Dr. JL whether there was anyone he could contact, someone who could help MF get paroled. (…) He never replied to my letter.

However a couple of months later, I received a letter from MF saying, “Hey man, I’ve been paroled!”  He now lived in a halfway house in Bradenton, Florida, called the Jim Russo Development Center.  His release date was 8 August 2000.

MF and I never lost touch with one another.  He was an ally for me on the street.  Once he got a phone, I called him once a week.

For years, he lived nicely.  He moved into a retirement community and bought himself some nice things, including a big red tricycle.  He even had a girlfriend for a time. (She moved up North.)  As of 8 August 2008 he was free exactly eight years.  He died a year and four days later.  I spoke with him a couple of days before he passed.  By this time, I had become a son to him, and he a father to me.  His surviving son never did allow contact, which saddened him immensely, but for MF, remember, there were always reasons to be grateful, to move forward and to make a difference for the better.  After his release he had made it a point to write to me at least once a month.  His letters always closed with these words: “Keep doing what is right.  With my love and prayers,” and by the time we reached 2009, he no longer signed his name but a much better word: dad.