Ruins to Redemption: From the Beginning

“Eugene is a student in the Tufts Education Reentry Program, which is run by the Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College. After his release from prison, where he was a student in Tufts’ college-in-prison program, Eugene joined the Civic Studies certificate program that offers reentry support for returning citizens. Tufts’ certificate program also provides the opportunity for students from the Medford campus to take classes with formerly incarcerated students on Tufts’ Boston campus. This is the first part in a two-part series written by Eugene.”

I was born in Los Angeles, California in 1977. Shortly after, my mother moved my brothers and me back to Boston. I am the only child from my parents’ union, the youngest of my mother’s three children, and the middle of my father’s three children. 

My father was absent my entire life until the day he passed away from AIDS. The few times I met him, he was either high or pissy drunk, which added to the anger I felt for him not playing a role in my life. 

My stepfather was not with my mom, but he was present in my brothers’ lives. He would take me, my brothers, and their siblings on fishing, bowling, roller-skating, and swimming excursions. These are some of the happiest moments of my ephemeral childhood.

My mother, tasked with taking care of three boys on her own, raised me. We endured many hardships from being poor. Some days were longer from hunger pains and some nights colder from not having enough heat. Despite the adversities, we made it through as best we could. 

My mother was a fighter. All 130 pounds of her. She worked numerous jobs, legal and illegal, to take care of me and my brothers. We moved around a lot, but Roxbury is where everything originates. I remember getting picked on because I was small in stature, had crooked teeth, and was “too black.”

One time, I had gotten into a fight with a kid from the neighborhood when I was eight years old. When my mother came home from work, I immediately began crying trying to explain what had occurred. She told me to stop crying and that the next day after school she would be waiting for me at the bus stop. As soon as the boy and I got off the bus, I was to whoop his ass or get my ass whooped by her. She told me to “never allow anyone to put their hands on you” and “do whatever you have to do to protect yourself.”

Knowing I couldn’t come home and express my true feelings, I began to bottle them up along with the frustration I felt towards my mother. Her lessons, beatings with switches (small tree branches) and belts, caused me to become aggressive which affected my schooling tremendously and resulted in two expulsions in the third and fourth grades. I was sent to see a psychiatrist, but I was recalcitrant. The only thing I learned from the doctor was how to play dominoes.

Despite my anger at my mother, I loved her dearly. She was everything and more to me. I trusted her with my life. I was her “road dawg” (sidekick); she took me everywhere with her. In my eight-year-old eyes, my mother could do no wrong.

Then came the move to Trenton, New Jersey in ’86. We lived there until the end of ’89. It was there that I stepped off the front porch and began to venture into street life. I began hanging out with the older kids, skipping school, smoking cigarettes and weed, drinking, and learning about the drug trade. My mother allowed me to hang out with older guys, as long as they brought me home unscathed. She didn’t have a problem with them keeping me out late or overnight. When I think about it now, I can’t help but feel appalled. What was my mother thinking?

Before I knew it, we moved back to Massachusetts. The chaos and dysfunction that enveloped our family ripped us apart. We were constantly fighting amongst ourselves; my mother began using drugs and drinking alcohol to cope with having AIDS (unbeknownst to me), and I fell into the street life.

Then I learned that my mother was dying of AIDS. Walking home from school one day, I had an uneasy feeling; something in the air seemed different. I continued to trudge along until I made it to the lip of our driveway. The house was a lime green, two-story home that was converted into two apartments. I opened the door to utter silence. 

I found my grandmother and oldest brother, Chris, sitting in the living room. The far-out expression on their faces alarmed me. I asked my Nana what was wrong. She told me to sit down. My Nana said, “It’s your mother, she has AIDS!”

To me, hearing that my mother had AIDS meant that my own life was over and that my mother would die. A part of me was in denial that any of this was true. I asked what hospital my mother was in and immediately left to see her. I climbed on my dirt bike and cried on my way to the hospital. My tears flowed and blew into the air as the cold crisp wind hit my face. The pain and hurt were unbearable. 

I made it to the hospital as fast as I could. When I walked in her room, I saw the woman I loved so dearly and believed was indestructible lying there, looking weak and fragile. I made a beeline to her and we hugged each other tightly and cried for a while. 

It was extremely hard for me to accept the fact that my mother was dying. I did what I always did with my feelings: bottled them up and immersed myself further into the streets. I had a warped sense of manhood. I thought being a “man” was being tough, having a lot of money, sleeping with many women, not snitching, and being able to do a bid. Those were the “Rites of Passage” I naively subscribed to and believed would make me a man. 

I executed those Rites of Passage with robotic precision, devoid of all emotions. I sold drugs without considering how or who they may harm. My only concern was generating money to benefit me, my family, and my friends. However, I didn’t last long in the drug game.

I was cast into the Department of Youth Services. My initial stay in DYS did nothing to change my behavior; it was merely a notch under my belt, boosting my status in the “Hood.” When I was released, I dived right back into the same dysfunction. A few days after my release, my oldest brother Chris was arrested on murder charges. For me, this was a very traumatic experience. Chris was the second most important person to me and now he was also being taken away.

After my brother’s arrest, I was arrested several months later and committed to DYS again. My mother came to visit me and did not look good. I remember hugging and crying together before she left. It would be the last time I would see her alive; she died a few months later on Feb. 9, 1992. 

I was 14 years old and still in DYS. I was allowed to attend her funeral. Seeing her lying in the casket, I was embarrassed and ashamed because I had to attend her funeral in waist chains and shackles. Sitting there, I felt like a leper. 

My mother’s death rocked me to the core. I carried around a lot of anger about her death for a long time. I felt hollow inside, like a scooped-out pumpkin. In response, I did what I always did with my primary emotions when confronted with a traumatic situation: I masked them with anger. I found myself easily agitated, which led to more altercations with other residents and more restraints by staff. I was emotionally immature and believed that by being rebellious I was staying true to myself and my distorted morals.

Not long after my mother died, my girlfriend Alexandra was supposed to visit me at DYS. Unbeknownst to me, her mother, Joanne, wanted to know who her daughter was so adamant about going to see, so she accompanied Alexandra to the visit. As I made my way into the visiting room, I noticed Alexandra sitting there with an older lady. 

I said hello to Alexandra, then introduced myself to Joanne. Her first question was, “What are you locked up for?” I proceeded to answer her question, then went on to tell her everything about myself and my life. Surprisingly, she took my hand and held it the entire visit. Reminding me of my mother, she made me feel loved.

Eventually, I was released from DYS into my grandmother’s custody. She lived in a senior citizens residence. While there, I enrolled in Brockton High School. I momentarily tried to do better for myself, but after a month or two of living with my grandmother, she told me I couldn’t stay with her. I felt like she didn’t love me like she loved my brothers. I was uprooted again; it was the story of my life.

Homeless, I slept on friends’ couches and went back to selling drugs to feed myself. One day, while speaking on the phone with Alexandra, her mother told her to ask me if I wanted to go to dinner. I accepted the invitation. 

At dinner, Joanne explicitly told me that if I got rearrested, I wouldn’t be able to have a relationship with Alexandra any longer. I completely understood her concern for her daughter. 

I was arrested two days later on drug charges. I wrote Joanne a lengthy letter thanking her for dinner and apologizing for disappointing her. Without my knowledge, she called DYS to find out my whereabouts. From that point on, she became a mainstay in my life, ultimately adopting me when I was 16 years old.

I went to live with Joanne, Jack, and Alexandra after my release from DYS in August 1994. I was excited by the prospect of a new beginning. I enrolled in Weymouth High School at the 11th-grade level. I made some friends and got a job. On the weekdays, I would go to school, work, and hang out with my new friends playing video games, basketball, and attending football games. And on the weekends, I would travel to Brockton to see my grandmother and some old friends. 

Here I was in a loving home and peaceful, stable environment, but I was struggling internally. I was so accustomed to chaos that I felt out of place. A battle began to rage in me of whether I should stay with my new life or return to my old life. In the end, I chose my former life: the life that I always knew. 

I sat down with Joanne and had a long talk about things. She asked me why I wanted to go back to the streets. She didn’t want that for me, but wouldn’t stop me from leaving. My only reasoning was that I had to be out in the streets. Joanne told me that if I left, I would get locked up. Her intuition came to fruition a day and a half later. I was rearrested again, indicted on a murder charge.

As I have reflected on my illogical decision to leave, I can’t help but think that there was some mental health element in play like Stockholm Syndrome. The streets were my captor and I their victim.

The following two parts of Eugene’s story will be released in the following two issues of the Tufts Observer.