Word from the Editor

In a chemical reaction, when compounds combine to create something new, or when one compound breaks into two or more new materials, some form of energy is expelled or absorbed. Heat, light, electricity. Things light up. They flicker, blaze, melt test tubes. Out in the world, they can burn mountainsides. Later, we pull over to the shoulder of a freeway and gaze at an entire landscape altered. We tell our kids, half bitter, half sweet, about the olden days, and about the moment—violent, maybe; achingly long, at the time—when the geological and cultural terrains changed. The burned towns, the heated debates. The hot disputes that carved cockles through cities, fault lines through families.

If chemical change requires or results in heat, so too does social change. In her AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference keynote presentation this spring, poet and cultural critic Claudia Rankine spoke about “what keeps us uncomfortable in each other’s presence.” Uncomfortable is a good word. When a light is shined on social imbalance, we can feel emotions begin to boil. I sat in the audience, like everyone else, flushing under Rankine’s spotlight: each one of us has benefited from privilege in one way or another, because of our race, ableism, gender, class… or, most uniformly in a conference aimed at writing programs, education.

Rankine asked us to consider what—and whom—we erase in our work. She urged us to question which details the dominant culture expunges in order to make literary and visual art more “palatable” to the mainstream. Sitting in the darkened theater, in my peripheral vision I noticed fellow audience members squirming in their chairs; I noticed myself trying not to. As writers, we all grapple with what to put in our work and what to leave out. But turning the mirror on myself and my own written work, what have I sidestepped, intentionally or subconsciously, in acquiescence to some silently powerful rule of acceptability? What aspects of myself or of the world have I deemed unacceptable, unpalatable, to my imagined audience? And why, and to whom, am I pandering? Furthermore, how do my choices as a reader, editor, and future teacher either concede or renounce complacency?

A woman several rows in front of me left the room, and I remember hoping that she left for the restroom, rather than out of emotional discomfort with the commentary from the stage. Often, the hardest action to take is to stay.

I allowed Rankine’s words to stoke a fire within me that had, perhaps, dampened. Her words were a bellow. She spoke calmly and magnanimously, but her unflinching criticism implicated all of us in the room, including herself, along with every graduate and undergraduate writing program, publishing house, agency, book store, and literary journal. Like YA author and cultural essayist Daniel José Older says in this issue’s Lunch Special, white supremacy does not just come from white people; it is so pervasive that it weaves itself into brown and black cultures as well. This does not just apply to white supremacy. Everyone of us is in the hot seat.

To our readers, Lunch Ticket is a literary and art journal. Yet, to those of us here on the editorial and production teams, it’s a community of nearly half the students in the Antioch Los Angeles MFA program. We live all over the world: Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Canada, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Though we rarely sit in a room together, we enjoy robust discussions about the work we receive from writers and artists across the U.S. and world. I use the word enjoy, however, not to imply that the conversations are always easy. We come from wildly different backgrounds, and what one reader deems engaging dialogue, another considers rehashed tropes. As Jeanette Winterson writes in her book Art Objects, “It is right to trust our feelings, but right to test them too.” So we engage each other in conversation about the submissions we receive and about our unique perspectives that influence our experience of the works. The pieces we ultimately choose to publish carry, for us, what Winterson calls a depth-charge. They electrify us. They turn us on.

Rankine writes in Citizen: An American Lyric that we all have an “historical self” and a “self self.” Both selves must be welcome at the literary and cultural table, because when one is erased, the other cannot stay whole. Every work need not be explicitly about politics and social justice. Stories of love and grief and poignant moments do, and should, continue to abound. But as in this issue’s stories and art about identity, including Fatima, the Biloquist (fiction), The Streetlamp (Writing for Young People), The Half-Buttoned Effect (creative nonfiction), and Obsession and Idolization (visual art), a moving narrative digs beyond the surface of skin or sketch. It mines the bones of body and experience. It questions its creator, interrupts the reader.

We are all mortal creatures who wrestle with loss, illness, change, grief, and shame. In the end, despite our unique differences, wide swaths of our experience are universal. To see those experiences reflected in art helps to illuminate the dark corners of life. In several pieces, including The Day (fiction), Dress the Mouse in Black (Diana Woods Memorial Prize finalist), and Placeholder: Waiting for the Biopsy Results (poetry) we visit death, grief, and illness. In Down in the River to Pray (creative nonfiction), an aunt searches through hospital archives and NYC alleys for clues to what became of her nephew amid the late ‘80s AIDS epidemic. In our featured essay, Thank You for Sharing, Patrick O’Neil explores the vulnerability that accompanies writing and publishing the true stories of past transgressions. And in Stories about Bodies, our feature on Narrative Medicine, Emily Rapp Black, Juliet McMullin, and Phillip Mitchell discuss the importance of asking what does it mean to be embodied.

Stories, poetry, and art broaden and deepen consciousness in a way that science, math, and other disciplines never can do. That is not to diminish the importance of those other studies—or to dismiss the acute metaphors they provide. But, as novelist Nina Revoyr says in this issue’s interview, “Folks are never going to just change their mind about something because you tell them they should. They are going to change their mind because they feel a stake in it. Art is a tremendous way to create that kind of stake because it enables you to enter the experience of another person and see the world through their eyes.”

As the U.S. primary election season now closes and we edge toward electing a new Presidential administration, the temperature of the nation is rising. Conversations within the political arena have exposed a fiery friction of discordant values across the country. Those who have been comfortable with the status quo, or who believe in the status quo of a Hollywoodian yesteryear, will try to douse the disparate voices lifting up. Or worse, those who have been extinguished will yield. But, as Roxane Gay writes in Bad Feminist, “Make the effort and make the effort and make the effort until you no longer need to, until we don’t need to keep having this conversation.”

Words are kindling. Light them up.

Take good care,

Arielle Silver
Editor-in-Chief

A Little Poetry Machine Among Them: Seeing Eloise Klein Healy

Eloise Klein Healy is a poet and the Founding Chair and Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing Emerita at the Antioch University Los Angeles (AULA) MFA program. Eloise has written eight books, and been a literary beacon as editor, educator, mentor, LGBTQ advocate, and feminist pioneer. In 2012, Eloise was appointed first Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. Her resonant poetry, mentorship, and advocacy have fed writers and readers in Southern California and beyond. In addition to Antioch, Eloise has taught at Immaculate Heart College, The Women’s Building, and California State University Northridge. Arktoi Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, was established in 2006 by Eloise to publish literary works of high quality by lesbian writers. Eloise is the 2016 recipient of the Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. As poet Celeste Gainey said in a recent email, “2016 is the year of EKH!”

 

GRAPPLING AND SELF-DOUBT (or: WRITING ABOUT ELOISE)

It’s unnerving to write about a writer, specifically, unnerving to write about someone as radiant as the iconic Eloise Klein Healy. How to capture in words the splendor of her spirit, the music of her voice? Her impish, powerful engagement with the world? But considering her work ethic, here Eloise might advise me: debunk whatever self-doubt you—as non-poet writing about poet, for instance—knock against. Leave that empty carton by the side of the highway. Let it drift off to wherever the trash belongs. It does you no good.

*     *     *

Eloise described this view on her work ethic in a Rumpus interview on March 23, 2013 with Wendy Ortiz, writer and author of the memoir Excavation. In speaking about an office space that she was offered as LA’s first Poet Laureate, at the LA Central Library or Mayor’s office, Eloise says, “I asked instead that I be able to get a meeting room, in case I need to meet with a group. I am working the street a bit, stopping people, telling them I’m Poet Laureate, and talking a little about poetry. The grocery store is a great place for this, as is the gas station, my tai chi class, and all the places I go where people don’t know by looking that I am a little poetry machine among them. Being Poet Laureate gives me permission to be a troubadour of sorts and that makes it more fun for all of us. I am leaning toward the fun side for people. There is wisdom in fun.”

*     *     *

There is wisdom in fun. A tribute celebrating Eloise and her work was held in Los Angeles on April 1, 2016 at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. The tribute was created by poets Robin Becker, Peggy Shumaker, Alicia Ostriker, Amy Uyematsu, and facilitated by Celeste Gainey. Many gathered to revel in Eloise’s poetry, mentorship, and advocacy, after which Eloise shared her work. The room was alive. It was a well-deserved lovefest for EKH.

*     *     *

And the lovefest was not recorded, which makes it feel even more sacred and magical. (Maybe it didn’t happen; maybe it was just a wonderful dream.) As I grapple for imagery, the firefly comes to mind. (Just thinking about metaphors and Eloise in the same breath is daunting. For, as poet Alicia Ostriker said at the tribute, Eloise, “is such a good metaphorician.”)

*     *     *

Eloise Klein Healy

photo credit: Jamie Clifford

Firefly or California highway headlights, it’s impossible for me to write about Eloise without invoking glow: her smile, her spark, and her aliveness; she shines light into places we humans sometimes choose to ignore; her visage and what’s behind it define the word radiant.

 

HINTS FROM ELOISE

When I was in graduate school, Eloise talked about revision, what to do with beloved lines of poetry that don’t fit or don’t work. I recall her saying she keeps a jar to hold those scraps of paper, those darlings, rather than throwing them away. I do this with my prose: cut and paste bits I love but can’t use into a fragments file, rather than deleting them. There is something important about honoring these pieces, something about preserving them, even if I never need them again, or they have no use. Whenever I do this (often!) I think of Eloise.

*     *     *

And Eloise first introduced me to the notion of using formal poetry (was it a sestina?) to contain the uncontainable. (If I were a poet, I’d remember which form she described.) I share this idea with my students: sometimes a tight form is called for: ten paragraphs, a list, a limited number of words. A constraint can help when we feel hesitant to approach what seems too sprawling and messy. You have a shape and you have to write. I can see the element of puzzle—the artful caging of what’s wild—in the work of writing formal poetry. I imagine Eloise delighting in that part of the work.

*     *     *

On the other hand, from the Rumpus interview, on her writing process and maybe about containing vs. not containing, Eloise said: “Always I started in long hand and think, for the most part, that I really favor writing by hand on unlined paper or graph paper. Something about lines confines my imagination or forces me into ‘direct rationality.’”

 

HOW IT IS NOW

Because everything circles back to me, at AWP I wondered if Eloise would recognize me. Between 1999 and 2001, I attended the Antioch Los Angeles MFA program, where Eloise was the founding chair and inspirational core. I hadn’t seen her since 2007. In April 2013, Eloise experienced a very serious case of encephalitis. In the aftermath came aphasia, which affects a person’s relationship to speech and language (as Eloise said at a Red Hen reading on February 3, 2015, “Some other parts of me started to say things,” and later in a poem, she describes “flipping on the flying words.”). From that illness Eloise made a superhuman recovery, but brains being what they are, I wasn’t sure, just didn’t know whether she would know me. (She did. I attribute this more to her strength and recovery than to my singular importance.) As it has always been, at AWP her presence was the best kind of sunshine, all the glow, none of the UV danger. And her relationship with language continues to amaze me.

*     *     *

In a 2014 LA Times article, “Eloise Klein Healy finds poetry in her recovery from encephalitis,” Patt Morrison writes:

Here is Healy talking about her roller coaster: ‘Since I had the real spookiness, I did have slips about normal things. Even sometimes with a certain proposal, I think I’m going to say something but I can’t, so I have to back up and call it something else. It was a different reality.’ Her mind still crafts and shapes phrases, as she realizes, but differently: ‘The way things are now, I’m in a little bit of what you might call a mess…. I have the parts that are complete, like all of us, but now I know there are parts of us that have thoughts, we can’t say them, like people standing outside a house and they can’t leave a message. I say something about things that do not speak to me as they used to. I’m an old poet—I can say silly things.’

*     *     *

After a grief like this, there’s a need to knit stories and make meaning—about what the health crisis did to the poet, to the poetry. I try to name in metaphor the scaffolding that emerged from underneath Eloise’s living and work. A scaffolding that, maybe without the crisis, we never would have glimpsed. The access we have, now, to Eloise’s expression of her humanity is a power tool in cutting through artifice. The word “authentic” has been used until all meaning is wrung out. But this is my experience of seeing Eloise now: In a process that seems like poetry itself, the spark that has emerged in her new relationship to language is closer to real, is a thing pared down to what’s alive underneath any word. Is a music, a distillation that can describe, without effort, what is lit behind a thing like beauty.

*     *     *

The poet is still there, she’s like a poem stripped of everything inessential, a poem shining through; she’s been through so much that we can’t know or imagine (or maybe we can only imagine) and now radiates unfettered access to the heart of what it is to be alive. Such triumph. It seems now she has entry to the hidden core of language, that which is connected to the body, the mother ship, the helix of the heartbeat. Layers have fallen away. What I observed is the triumph of what counts. It’s like her heart is closer to the outside. As I watched Eloise smiling beside her friends and colleagues at the AWP tribute, I spied her wings emerging from behind her black blazer: silver, huge, glorious, the wings of a poet.

*     *     *

Or, as poet Peggy Shumaker put it at the AWP tribute, “The way that Eloise loves things returns the world to intimacy.”

*     *     *

[Some fragmentary impressions:
the pared down, the bones of the architecture of language, the access increased the lessening
of bullshit or artifice while still having the architecture…
what’s beating under language, under one layer of layered language, the feeling beneath
the craft…
the beat of heart and what IS there vs. what is not there, the presence vs. the absence…
the tree with its leaves becoming superfluous, its superfluous leaves superfluous to the tree…
the line drawing seems more enduring than its decoration, not that the decoration
wasn’t enduring, but what’s underneath, what’s obscured by the more straightforward
and mundane humanity, it’s what’s beneath that endures…
A heart reaches out through the ribcage to meet another.]

*     *     *

Eloise Klein Healy

photo credit: Jamie Clifford

“Maybe it’s in my office,” Eloise says at the tribute, and laughs, when she cannot find the piece of paper she needs, and goes from podium to table to look in her book bag. (Although, also, this seems like something Eloise might have said Before.)

*     *     *

This distillation of a poet down to her essence seems, itself, poetic, although I’m sure the humans involved (Eloise, her beloved partner Colleen Rooney, and everyone else) would not have wanted this (the huge THIS which has a Before and an After, and brought us to this moment).

Boil the bones and you get the rich broth; take the bones and hold them to the light and see them gleam, mineral, elemental, eternal. Here you find what was always here, named by poet Amy Uyematsu: “Eloise Kind Healy.”

*     *     *

The first time I traveled through Italy to Greece, I became sated with the over-rich decoration of Italy. When I got to Greece, I was relieved to find art stripped down to the origins, the bones. Without distraction, there is a reaching of human heart to human heart that (to me) seems more bona fide.

*     *     *

Or grapple for another metaphor, one of Eloise’s favorites: Baseball, specifically, I see a diagram of a baseball diamond, its direction, its wind.

*     *     *

Or: When the leaves fall off, you can see the tree’s architecture, its dreaming, the dreaming mind of the architect.

*     *     *

Or best yet: quote Eloise, in her own words. At a Red Hen Press reading at Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, on 2/3/15, Eloise read a new poem, “Talk of the Darkest.” She said the poem had “only been out since February 3rd. So here we are, I guess that’s pretty close!” Here’s the poem (with my presumptive, heard line breaks, transcribed from the youtube video):

Just talk of the darkest/probably similar to my hand/or somebody to remember/not any gravity anymore who wants me to memorize/the love which is a small picture. Somebody has/and I’ve watched her color and a shape, the idea I’m waiting for/and not just thinking I am. My trouble to learn/what love spent or wasted a time/before my long pity. /I wish I could feel again/just care/just plainly.

 

MORE ADORATION

At the Antioch Los Angeles MFA graduation on June 23, 2002, Eloise’s colleague and friend Tara Ison read a message from Sharman Apt Russell, which has stuck with me ever since, because it captures so well the essence of Eloise. In Sharman’s words, “Not many people know that Eloise wears an invisible wreath of jasmine, tiger lily, and hibiscus.” (Sharman saw the laurels long before the Laureate.) When Tara introduced the Laureate for Eloise’s recent Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, she said that the Antioch MFA program, which Eloise founded, had the “unofficial motto…Your story is worth telling. We are here to help you tell your story.” (This aligns with my experience of the program, and with what I intend to carry forward in my work teaching. In 2007 at an AULA MFA alumni residency, about Horace Mann’s edict, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” Eloise said, “Want to win a victory for humanity? Teach composition!”) At the Publishing Triangle in 2016, Tara spoke of how much she has learned from Eloise, “about teaching, about writing, about running a writing program, about literary citizenship, about how to be not just a writer, but a person in the world. I wear an invisible bracelet that says: WWED?” Yes.

*     *     *

In a creative writing class I taught at Antioch College this spring, we read Eloise’s poem “My Shoes” as a prompt for students to write about shoes. Her metaphor of shoes, the poem was a doorway into their lives, how they walk the floors of their living. I think a lot about those who, through their work, grant permission. Eloise grants permission. She has been a mighty influence on my becoming serious about my writing. I think about Eloise often…when I think about sound and words and the urge to write, and the many ways that urge manifests. I think of Eloise when I think of that light. In the words of Alicia Ostriker, Eloise is “deeply wise and sane.” And again, Amy Uyematsu’s “Eloise Kind Healy.” Yes. Yes.

*     *     *

In his song, “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen writes, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Last winter I wrote these lines on the chalkboard for the students in my Antioch College creative writing class, and for some of them, I later learned, those words allowed writing to happen. Now as I approach writing about Eloise through my own self-doubt, Cohen’s song reappears.

And now, too, I think of Cohen’s song in terms of Eloise and her victories. How there is a crack in everything. How Eloise always shone, and how she still shines. How, in the simple act of seeing Eloise, the light gets in.

 

WORKS CITED

Gainey, Celeste. Email to the author. 3 May 2016.

Ison, Tara. “Introduction of Eloise Klein Healy.” Publishing Triangle. Tishman Auditorium of the New School. New York, NY. 21 April 2016

Lindberg, Wayne. “Eloise Klein Healy—Red Hen Press at Armory Center for the Arts.” Online video clip. Youtube. 6 April 2015. Web. 4 May 2016. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nu_IGAouJTU)

Morrison, Patt. “Eloise Klein Healy finds poetry in her recovery from encephalitis.” LA Times. LA Times, 8 January 2014. Web. 4 May 2016. (http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-eloise-klein-healy-20140108-story.html)

Ortiz, Wendy. “Saturday Rumpus Interview With Eloise Klein Healy.” The Rumpus. The Rumpus, 23 March 2013. Web. 4 May 2016.

Rebecca KuderRebecca Kuder’s short story, “Rabbit, Cat, Girl” (which previously appeared in XIII: Stories of Transformation) was chosen for the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 3, forthcoming from Undertow Publications. Her work has been published in Mothering Magazine, The Knitter’s Gift, Midwifery Today, The Manifest Station, Jaded Ibis Press, and The Rumpus. Rebecca has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Rebecca leads workshops on writing as a healing practice, and teaches creative writing at Antioch College. She lives in Yellow Springs, with her husband, the writer Robert Freeman Wexler, and their daughter. Rebecca blogs at www.rebeccakuder.com.

Thank You for Sharing

51vC1fW-RqL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Last month I was the guest author at a writing workshop. I’d been invited to talk about memoir and the complicated and often discouraging journey of getting published. I had just finished reading an excerpt from my book, an addiction memoir about my former life as a junkie bank robber, and I was fielding questions from the audience.

“What’s wrong with you?” said a woman dressed in a yellow Marimekko, an expression of annoyance across her face. “Are you on drugs?”

Her questions took me totally off guard. In fact, I didn’t know how to respond. As I mentioned earlier, my memoir is about when I used to be addicted to heroin, but I’m in recovery and it has been over fifteen years since I have taken any drugs—although to be honest, I probably don’t look like someone that’s on the straight and narrow path of sobriety. I grew up in the ’70s punk era, worked in the music industry, and still dress accordingly—basic all black, spiked blonde hair, leather jacket—and perhaps my appearance still evokes my former desire to overindulge in opiates. Plus, I’m not exactly passive. I’m an animated person. I’m passionate about what I do, and I can get a little excited when I speak, especially about a subject I care about, like writing. When this happens I tend to talk really fast, swear a lot, mumble my words, and slip in a self-deprecating comment or two. So yeah, maybe my appearance and demeanor put this woman off, and she just assumed I’m still that same person as in my book.

This will always be one of the dilemmas in writing about yourself and a certain period in your life. No matter how long ago that was, or how much you have changed, readers have a difficult time differentiating that that was the past, and are inclined to think that it is still who you are today.

Unfortunately, regardless of image or attitude, this will always be one of the dilemmas in writing about yourself and a certain period in your life. No matter how long ago that was, or how much you have changed, readers have a difficult time differentiating that that was the past, and are inclined to think that it is still who you are today. The truth is, the “me” I wrote about wasn’t capable of writing a book, nor did “he” even care (if he had he would’ve taken copious notes so that the future me would have had an easier time of it). Strangely, there are people who have actually said they wish they had known me then—which, if you know my story, is a little weird as the “me” then would have invited himself into your life, drank all your alcohol, used all your drugs, borrowed money, had sex with your best friend, and then stolen your car.

One can never fully understand just what it is that someone reading your work really gets from it. There are those out there who read books about addiction and take notes for future reference. Why do I know this? Because when I was sixteen, I read Burroughs’ Junky for exactly that reason. There are also the folks who like to feel better about themselves by comparing their fucked up lives to yours, or the ones who are smug in their self-satisfaction that they did more drugs and lived a harder life than you. Then there are those who just like a good story of struggle and redemption.

Yet, no matter the reason behind reading memoir, it still seems that the author is forever critiqued for the life they lived, not for the actual writing or craft and technique of their book. There have been many instances where I have a read a review and it was all about the author, not the actual writing. You would almost never see this with fiction, but then I guess that it is all just part of the deal when exposing your life to the world.

The truth is you never know what you’re capable of until you have to deal with adversity.

I would be lying if I told you that this did not influence the way that I wrote my memoir. While I wanted my language to grab you, I also wanted to tell my story from a totally real perspective, not through the euphoric patina of drug-aided fantasies. Too often, I have read a memoir where the author justifies or even brags about their part in a horrific story, making them one step lower than unlikable, and I decided early on that I was not going to fall into that trap. Yes, I did all this horrendous shit. But that was me then, this is me now, and the “narrative arc” is the internal change that happened as a result.

Oftentimes, telling the truth isn’t very pretty. There is no way to make yourself look good when you are describing a scene where you couldn’t possibly look good. Even worse is trying to justify why you did what you did. It is better just to describe what happened and leave the readers to form their opinion. In that same vein (forgive the pun), I didn’t set out to write a cautionary tale to prevent any future budding drug addicts. Yet, I didn’t write a pro-drug addict book either. If by chance someone is still compelled to follow in my footsteps after reading my memoir, then so be it.

Oftentimes, telling the truth isn’t very pretty. There is no way to make yourself look good when you are describing a scene where you couldn’t possibly look good. Even worse is trying to justify why you did what you did. It is better just to describe what happened and leave the readers to form their opinion.

Earlier that day, on the way to the workshop, I’d been feeling really good about myself and confident about my writing, but now, after that woman’s outburst, I felt like I was being judged and under attack. Some days it’s just like that. A person’s comment, a hard look, a misunderstood gesture, and I’m left wondering what the hell I did to deserve such disapproving scrutiny. I know that at times I can be way too sensitive, especially when the subject of my writing is involved. Like most authors, I want to be taken seriously and here this woman had reduced it down to who I was twenty years ago, not the quality of my writing or the person I am today. Sadly, it felt like not only was my credibility being questioned, but I was also somehow not living up to the embodiment of who and what an author should be. I already doubt myself. Not the “staying off drugs” part, but the “I’m a real author” part. I always think that people just view me as an anomaly. Like some dope fiend who must have had a lot of help forming enough sentences to actually make up a book’s worth of words. Obviously my self-esteem can be ridiculously low.

I don’t know when I became this overly sensitive. I certainly wasn’t at all worried about what anyone thought of me when I was on the yard at San Quentin kicking it with the homeboys, or going toe-to-toe with the skinheads, or getting stabbed in county jail. Thankfully, back then I had the correct mindset for incarceration. Straight from the streets and a few decades of running with thugs and thieves, my outlook was just as damaged as theirs. If I had to do it now, I think I’d be in trouble. But the truth is you never know what you’re capable of until you have to deal with adversity.

Yet it all changed for me on my forty-first birthday. I was in prison and contemplating my life, and realized that if they were to let me out right then and there, I had nothing waiting for me and nowhere to go. Essentially I had destroyed everything. My very existence was meaningless, and I vowed that I was never going to be back in this same place faced with this same dilemma again. There was too much that I wanted to accomplish, and time was running out. When I was finally released on parole, I sought out the help I needed to get my life back on track. I went into rehab, I got involved with a support group of like-minded recovering drug addicts, and I worked in my community giving back to a society that I had only taken from before. On a more personal note, I made amends and financial restitution to the family and friends whom I had harmed, and made a commitment to be a better son, brother, uncle, friend, and boyfriend. Over the years since then, I have striven to continue to improve myself. I completed grad school and obtained my MFA, gained employment teaching at the college level, and recently have been granted the restoration of all my rights, through a certificate of rehabilitation from the State of California, with a possible governor’s pardon in the works.

The “ me” then would have invited himself into your life, drank all your alcohol, used all your drugs, borrowed money, had sex with your best friend, and then stolen your car.

I know this sounds like a cliché or a cop-out, but these days I don’t even recognize the person I was then. I can’t imagine pulling an armed robbery or jabbing a needle in my arm. Although I did have to relive all of that when I wrote my book, in doing so I was able to put it to rest, and the results were cathartic. But, of course, my readers don’t really know any of that, and to some of them I’m still just that junkie bank robber, forever frozen in time. Even though the dates in my book indicate it was a long time ago, I will forever be known as such. But then again, I can tell myself it doesn’t matter what other people think of me:  I’m who I am and I should be proud of it. Yet there I am giving a talk about memoir, and some budding writer says one negative thing and I’m off to the depression mills grinding my soul to shreds.

In all actuality, that woman’s words were not that offensive. Yet in my mind, what I heard her say was, “I read your book. You suck as a person,” which is seriously lame and, really, why should I let one person’s judgment bother me? There are always going to be people who do not like me, no matter what I do, especially seeing as I have written a memoir telling everyone about how fucked up a person I was. I realize that I shouldn’t have been behaving so badly in the first place; at the same time, I could use just a smidgen of validation to confirm that I have accomplished something good. I don’t want to continually be judged for who I used to be.

I glanced over at the instructor who was facilitating the event. She was the one who had invited me to present my work and talk to her students. Now I wondered if she, too, thought I was an abnormality of sorts: a carnival sideshow character who’d stopped being a freak and gone straight. But she just looked at me and smiled without missing a beat and yelled, “He’s clean and sober. Get over it.”

That should have been my cue to let it go. But that woman’s words had fucked me up. For the rest of the afternoon, I felt like all the internal work I’d put in was meaningless and nothing had changed. I was still that same criminal junkie, even though I hadn’t committed a crime or used heroin for over a decade and a half. Never mind that the other students hadn’t questioned my legitimacy. Actually, their responses had all been positive. More than a few came up afterwards and thanked me. But I held onto that one woman’s opinion because deep inside I, too, view myself as being a horrible person. And here, finally, when she said it out loud, was the proof that I always knew everyone else saw. Am I forever to be doubted and labeled a drug addict? Probably yes. But maybe when I stop beating myself up about it, I can move forward and forgive myself enough to let it all go.

Patrick ONeilPatrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Juxtapoz, Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, AfterPartyMagazine, and Razorcake. Patrick holds an MFA from Antioch University and teaches in AULA’s Inspiration2Publication program. He currently lives in LA’s monument to broken dreams, the über hip downtown district, with his fiancée and two giant Maine Coons. patrick-oneil.com.