by Jiles Wallace
As I stared into the mirror, an obstacle appeared in front of me, but I recognized the reflection as nothing more than a deception. I was staring into the eyes of a hardened criminal and convicted murderer. As I continued to look into the mirror, I began to ask myself one of the most important questions in life: “Who am I?”
If you asked me 24 years ago, my response would have been different than it is today. I probably would have told you I am a monster who doesn’t care about anyone or anything, including myself. I might have told you I am J-Ru, a member of the Eastside Piru Gang. If you pressed me further and continued to ask, I may have gone a little deeper and told you I am a fatherless and motherless child, an unimportant and powerless victim of circumstance, a young angry black boy in America, a statistic and nothing more. If you continued to ask, I would have replied, “Who cares?” I don’t matter anyway. At least that’s what I thought and felt at the time. I didn’t know who I was; all I knew were my childhood and adolescent experiences, and my distorted interpretation of them.
On March 26, 1977, I was born with a hearing impairment that was unknown to my mother, Lorine, who suffered from manic depression. My father, Jiles, Sr., abandoned me at the age of two, knowing the dysfunction in which he was leaving me. My earliest memories are of being snatched around like a rag doll. One minute I would be sitting in front of the TV watching cartoons, and the next I would be slapped or beaten. I know now that my mom had been calling for me to turn down the volume, and that my hearing impairment was misinterpreted as defiance. This went on until the age of five, when my impairment was discovered and tubes were placed in my ears. By that time, the seeds of fear, anger, and resentment had been planted. Those seeds would be watered in the years that followed.
At the age of eight, my sister Lanessa, who is four years older, began to abuse me sexually. As the youngest of four children, I was at the bottom of the pecking order. My brother Leon, who is six years older, did not want anything to do with me. When I tried to tag along with Lanessa and brother Terrell, they would run me off. Having been raised in poverty only added to the instability of my environment. I was shuffled back and forth between my mom and Grandmother Nettie; however, no matter whom I lived with it was always in one of Sacramento’s drug and gang-infested areas. By the time I was 13 I had lived in Oak Park, G-Parkway, Meadowview, Elder Creek, 29th Street, North Sacramento, 47th Avenue, and White Rock. We sometimes lived in motels paid for with government vouchers. I was teased for wearing generic brand clothing and bullied by other kids because I wasn’t from their neighborhood.
At the age of nine, my mom gave my grandmother custody of me. We had been evicted and she didn’t want to drag me around with her. My grandmother was physically and emotionally abusive. When I was 10 years old she made me pull down my underwear and lay across her bed on my stomach. She pulled out a handgun and threatened to shoot me if I moved. Then she proceeded to beat me with an extension cord. While living with my grandmother, my Uncle Lorenzo, who stood 6’2” and weighed over 300 pounds, physically abused me. When I was 13, he beat me with a two-by-four board, and then choked me unconscious.
These were just a few examples of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of the people who were supposed to love and protect me. This resulted in me developing distorted thoughts and feelings about myself. I thought my value as a human being was based on how I was treated by others, which made me feel like I didn’t matter to anyone.
These thoughts and feelings have been an obstacle throughout my life and continue to present challenges I have to overcome. What I know is that my worth as a human being has nothing to do with how I am treated by others. Self-deception is something I practice consciously and unconsciously. I struggle with love and acceptance of self; however, I still seek it from others. The question of self has been the biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome.
Who am I? Although I still do not know who I am, I have discovered who I am not. I am not a monster who doesn’t care about anyone or anything. I am not J-Ru, a member of the Eastside Piru Gang. I am not an unimportant and powerless victim of circumstance. I am not any of these things, though I convinced myself I was all of them. What I have learned from these experiences is to question what I think and feel, and examine to see if it is, in fact, real.
Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.