By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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In 1976 I had finished some business in Raleigh, North Carolina, and hitchhiked to Virginia, where my aunt Claire and two of my cousins lived. My intent was to celebrate the Fourth of July with them, then make the long journey home to San Diego.
I arrived and relaxed for a couple of days, and that weekend the four of us drove to Colonial Williamsburg. Several souvenir stands were displaying full-size Confederate flags for ten dollars. I was a naive twenty-one-year-old. To me that flag represented nothing more than generic rebellion. I bought one.
I felt no unease or remorse until a few months later, back home in San Diego, when I moved in with my friend Oscar. My bedroom had a large window that overlooked the front yard. I had no curtains, so my first night there I hung the Confederate flag on the bare rod. It fit perfectly, so I left it, intending to buy some cheap curtains on payday.
One afternoon Oscar and I were relaxing in the living room when a knock at the door surprised us. A scrawny, older man stood on the porch, shuffling his feet. I could tell he was a bit drunk. He asked if the Confederate flag belonged to me, and I told him it did. His eyebrows shot up, and he smiled. Confident that he was in the presence of a like-minded soul, he leaned back on the porch railing and began making racist comments about people of color.
He invited me to attend a meeting in nearby El Cajon on Saturday night. “Lots of great fellows to talk to,” he assured me. I told him that I wasn’t much of a joiner but thanked him for the invitation. He left me with an independent newspaper packed with hate-filled articles. Oscar and I laughed about the ridiculousness at first, but soon we stopped laughing. I’d known racism existed but had never experienced anything so vile.
Why hadn’t I made the connection between the Confederate flag and racism? I felt like I needed a shower. I substituted a bedsheet for the flag in the window.
Los Osos, California
When I started to seriously starve myself, I had no idea what I was doing to my health; I only knew that this made me feel powerful. I prided myself on the notion that I did not need to eat. I could not be tempted. I was not weak.
Within a few years I was weighing myself twice a day and exercising fanatically: jogging five miles, swimming sixty laps, and working out for two hours. I subsisted on a carrot and a tomato daily. If I exceeded that intake, I would exercise more.
My five-foot-four frame was soon down to eighty-one pounds. I was full of self-hate, but I still did not see the damage I was doing to myself.
One morning I realized I had a choice: I could continue to starve myself and die, or I could try to get well. I recognized that I could not save myself, so I went to the county health center and asked to see a psychiatrist.
The next three years were erratic. I increased my daily food intake to a poached egg, a green salad, and steamed vegetables, but when I gained weight, I would be so distraught that I would begin dieting again. Before long I was bingeing and fasting. Some nights I would stop at convenience stores and buy ice cream and giant cookies, but then I’d hate myself so much the next day that I wouldn’t eat at all.
I eventually established healthier patterns with food, but to this day I still hate any fat on my body. I am extremely conscious of my weight and judgmental of other people’s. Anorexia also ruined my voice. I had anticipated a career as a dramatic soprano, but straining to sing at eighty-one pounds ruined my middle register. I never had children, fearing the possibility of birth defects. My obsession with not eating completely changed my life.
Los Angeles, California
When I was an evening law student in Los Angeles in the early seventies, I worked during the day at a company that made portable buildings for temporary offices or storage — anything more permanent required a building permit. I made an 8 percent commission on sales.
One day I got a call from a prominent local food producer. The CEO of the company was a leader in the Hispanic Republican community and a proud supporter of Richard Nixon. They wanted a large permanent office for their warehouse. I made it clear that the portable office we sold did not meet building-code requirements, and I made the customer sign a waiver acknowledging this. The office was delivered and paid for.
In those days it was not unlawful for businesses like this food producer to employ undocumented workers to lower payroll costs, but various unions were trying to organize those workers. One Friday morning the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raided the food producer and arrested seventeen workers, who were quickly deported. The company kept their paychecks.
It seemed the company had called the INS on its own workers to break up a labor-organizing drive. I had no illusions about corporate ethics, but it was disheartening to be confronted with such blatant hypocrisy. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got.
About two weeks after the INS raid, the county Department of Building and Safety received an anonymous tip that there was a nonconforming structure in use at the food producer’s warehouse. After several days the company called me, angry that I had sold them such a structure. I reminded them of the waiver and suggested we work together to solve their problem.
One month later the company took delivery of an office that complied with building codes. It cost them about $15,000. Around the same time a radical Chicano political party received an anonymous donation of approximately $1,200 — 8 percent of $15,000.
I got pregnant when I was twenty-seven and my boyfriend was just twenty-two. I was working as a temp secretary, and he was building trade-show exhibits. We had no savings and no health insurance. We weren’t even sure we wanted to stay a couple, let alone start a family.
My boyfriend said he would accept whatever decision I made, and I chose to have an abortion. I had to wait until I was at least eight weeks pregnant before having the procedure. For two weeks I talked to the little bean in my belly, explaining that this was not a good time for it to come into the world. I was sorry that I couldn’t provide a home where it could grow up safe and secure, and I wasn’t sure I would be a good mother or that my boyfriend would be a part of its life. I didn’t even know how to take care of myself yet.
A couple of years later we got married, started careers, and bought a house. I never got pregnant again, and I was secretly relieved. We built wonderful relationships with our nieces and nephews instead. But when they started having children of their own, I realized I would never be a grandmother. And that hurt.
My husband and I are happy with our life, which is rich with friends and interesting experiences. But if I could talk to my younger self, I would tell her to have that baby.
Stone Mountain, Georgia
Several years ago my primary-care doctor said I had iron-deficiency anemia and sent me to a gastroenterologist, who ordered a CT scan of my belly. There was no sign of bleeding in my gut, but the scan showed cirrhosis. I had never been a heavy drinker — the extent of my alcohol intake was a glass of wine before bed — so I dismissed it, but the anemia didn’t go away.
After I moved to a rural area of Wyoming, I saw a new GI team. Another CT scan still showed cirrhosis and also found a portal-vein thrombosis, so my doctor put me on a new blood thinner. One Saturday afternoon, feeling weak and dizzy, I went to the emergency room in town. After more tests a doctor told me I needed to be flown to a larger hospital in Casper. I vigorously objected, but the doctor said I might die otherwise. That got my attention.
On the helicopter ride I was given two liters of blood, and the GI doctor in Casper confirmed that I had cirrhosis with possible GI bleeding. I demanded to know why this was happening, and the doctor sat down with me and explained that the most common cause of cirrhosis is not alcoholism but fatty liver disease, which is related to diet.
Oh, the irony. My job involved building local systems to bring healthy, affordable food to people, but for years I’d eaten mostly processed junk food, which had killed my liver. I knew then personally how the industrial food system causes untold harm to millions of people.
Fort Washakie, Wyoming
The first time I tried to hurt myself, I was eight years old. Alone in my room I stuck myself with pins, cut myself with a knife, and burned my flesh. It was oddly freeing. I couldn’t control my emotional pain, but I could control this. By the time I was thirteen, I had developed body-image issues, gotten drunk, smoked pot, had sex, and had my first abortion.
I am now thirty-six and the mother of a shy sixteen-year-old boy and an enthusiastic six-year-old girl. I love both of them tremendously. I have worked hard to lift myself and my family out of poverty and the cycles of addiction and violence, and I’ve dedicated my life to helping others do the same. Last fall I finished my bachelor’s degree, nearly twenty years after I started. I am the first person in my family to do so.
People say that broken people bring more trauma into the world, that we go on to break others. But I’ve proven them wrong: being broken makes me stronger than they could ever imagine.
South Royalton, Vermont
In 1990 I was laid off for the first time in more than twenty years of working. The U.S. economy was in a downturn, and my company had lost many of its contracts. My partner and I were also days away from closing on our first home. We considered calling the mortgage company to pull out of the sale, but we were too excited, and I was certain I could get another job. So we went through with it.
Within a week of moving, I was hired at a consulting firm. The salary was better than at my last job, I had a great boss, and my coworkers were fun and creative.
It didn’t take long before our dream home became a money pit: the roof needed to be replaced, the dryer stopped working, and the stove died. All of this quickly ate up our savings. A few months later I arrived at my office to find that federal authorities had shut down the entire operation overnight. The owner was charged with racketeering, and we were all out of a job.
Of course, the mortgage payment was still due, so I applied for a position at a credit union. I had everything they required — except a college degree. So I doctored my résumé, adding a four-year degree from a college I’d attended for only one year. I was sure they would never check to see if it was real. The college didn’t even exist anymore.
I was hired, and for a few months everything was fine. Then my boss got a call from a friend whose daughter had just graduated. She was looking for a job, and the only way the credit union could hire her was if they let someone go. My boss rechecked my résumé and discovered that I’d lied about my degree.
I had never been as ashamed as I was the day my boss confronted me. She gave me a choice: resign or be fired. I resigned.
That year I lost three jobs, my self-respect, and, ultimately, that relationship, all because I couldn’t wait until the time was right to buy a home.
Kerry Lee Daniel
Asheville, North Carolina
When I was in medical school, I worked for two months at Yale New Haven Hospital, where I helped take care of an elderly man with chronic pancreatitis. I made the mistake of assigning him a regular diet, not the very-low-fat diet his condition required. When he was served pork chops, he ate them with gusto, and abdominal pain followed. I felt terrible. As I rewrote his orders, I was almost in tears. The attending physician laughed at my distress, saying, “I hope this is the worst mistake you make as a doctor!” (It wasn’t.)
Later I entered the patient’s room to apologize to him and his concerned daughter.
“Are you kidding?” his daughter asked. “He knew he wasn’t supposed to eat a pork chop! Don’t worry about it!”
Mistakes are our teachers; forgiveness helps us learn.
It flapped at my feet, half buried in the sand: a five-dollar bill.
I scanned the beach to see if anyone was looking for it, but there were just picnics, frisbees, bikinis, sandcastles, and selfies. I looked back down at the bill. Five dollars was a big deal to me; I was putting myself through school on a very tight budget.
I knelt down, shook the bill off, and tucked it into my pocket. “Thank you,” I said to the sand.
I carried the five in my purse all week and took it out when I went to pay for gas or textbooks for next semester, but each time it felt wrong to spend it. Not yet, I’d think.
On my weekly grocery run I was sitting in the car, consulting my coupons, when I heard a voice: “Just a couple dollars to spare?”
“I don’t have anything,” another voice answered.
I glanced in my rearview mirror to see a gaunt, unshaven man walking toward my car. When he got to my open window, he repeated his question.
“What will you do with it?” I asked. I didn’t want to contribute to drug and alcohol abuse, though I was ashamed that my mind had gone there.
“McDonald’s has a two-for-one deal on fish sandwiches,” he said.
I reached in my purse for that five-dollar bill and handed it to him. He took my extended hand in both of his and said, “God bless you and your family.”
I went on with my shopping and forgot about the exchange until a week later, when it was time to go to the grocery again. I returned to the same store, stocked up, and wheeled my cart outside. That’s when I saw it by my car.
On the ground, unclaimed and waiting, was a five-dollar bill.
Los Angeles, California
One spring in my early twenties, I went for a drive to see the newly blooming flowers. I spotted some daffodils growing wild in a ditch, so I pulled over and started to dig them up. I felt a little guilty, but they were so brilliant and delicate. I imagined them thriving and spreading in my yard over the coming seasons.
Suddenly a woman was walking down the road toward me. I wondered if I should run. Were these flowers on her property? What would I say? Perhaps I was wrong to take them and was about to pay for my foolishness. But her expression as she walked up to me was kind.
“Hello,” she said warmly. “I have more starts at the house if you’d like some.”
Embarrassed, I accepted her offer. I never saw her again, but I still remember her generosity nearly forty years later.
My husband and I were desperate for children, so we turned to assisted fertility. The mysteries of reproduction were reduced to mechanical indignities as specialists injected me with hormones, extracted my eggs, and combined them in a glass with the sperm my husband had ejaculated into a plastic cup.
We were told that transplanting four fertilized embryos to my womb would maximize our chances. Only one or two would likely make it. When we learned that all four had implanted, our elation was quickly followed by apprehension.
We were referred to a hospital specializing in fetal medicine. That’s where we met Angelos, an obstetrician who shared our Greek language and culture. He and his wife were also expecting a child. He spoke bluntly: “You won’t be able to carry four healthy children to term.” His advice was to selectively reduce the number of embryos to two.
Angelos’s wife miscarried a short time later, but he was with us on our delivery day, cheerful and encouraging. Our daughter was delivered easily, but our son was burrowed high in my womb, so our female obstetrician asked Angelos to step in. He pushed down hard on my belly, exhorting our son in Greek to join us. Together the doctors pulled him out, and when we heard his long cry, we wept ourselves.
We now have two healthy, beautiful, and complicated young adults who have challenged us in every way imaginable. But even the most difficult times have been worth it.
In the mirror I see a large blue-and-yellow bruise on my right shoulder. Both my knees have scrapes and bruises, and my left shin is gashed. Bruised arms were a common occurrence for me twenty years ago, when I was an alcoholic in an abusive relationship. I wore long sleeves even on hot days to hide the marks and sunglasses inside to hide my tears.
“He’s a psycho,” a friend had warned me when I’d first met the man who would become the father of my younger son. I didn’t need my friend’s warning. I had been raised by an anorexic mother and a codependent father, and I’d absorbed the unspoken message that alcohol is the solution to all problems. The patterns I’d seen in my parents’ dynamic became part of my own.
Being locked in a relationship with this man was like seeing the world through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. Death by alcohol or suicide seemed like my only ways out.
Then a friend got sober. If he could do it, maybe I could, too. I spent four days in detox and entered an outpatient program, where I learned the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. These principles taught me how to live in the world without alcohol, drugs, or toxic relationships.
Today my bruises come from falls I’ve taken while hiking. Now my injuries are badges of honor, not marks of shame.
One of the thematic units in the fourth-grade language-arts class I taught was “Risks and Consequences.” My students often had limited definitions of consequences:
“It’s a punishment.”
“When you lose privileges for doing something wrong.”
Each year I’d explain that consequences aren’t all negative; they can also be positive. They’d look at me skeptically.
“Here’s an example,” I said one day. “When you eat healthy foods, don’t drink soda, brush your teeth twice a day, and floss, what might the consequences of that behavior be?”
“No cavities?” one student replied tentatively.
“Right! That’s a good consequence,” I said. “If you study your spelling words every day, what do you think will happen on Friday’s spelling test?”
“You’ll get 100,” another student said.
“And?” I prompted.
“That’s a good consequence,” a chorus of voices answered.
Los Angeles, California
My spouse and I try to follow a very logical parenting style: our children are free to make their own choices, but they must live with the consequences. When they don’t want to complete their homework, rather than spend an hour arguing about the importance of homework, I just tell them that whether they finish or not is their choice, but the consequence for not doing their homework is a loss of privileges at home and at school.
This approach has been fairly successful thus far, but I wonder whether the logic will seem flawed as my children get older and see that people can suffer consequences in life for things that are not a choice: the color of their skin, their gender identity, their sexual orientation. How will I explain that?
By the time I moved to San Francisco in my early twenties, men had begun to make me mad. I decided I didn’t need one. I found my first girlfriend sitting alone on a blanket outside city hall during Pride Weekend.
Several months later I told my mom over the phone that I was dating a woman. She wept and said she felt like she had lost me. Two weeks later she was still crying, so I sent her some literature and told her not to call me until she had read it. It helped her enormously, but she advised me not to tell my dad. An Irish Catholic attorney from the Brooklyn of another era, my father smoked, drank, and didn’t eat well. He was not in good health, and she didn’t think he could handle the news. But I felt he deserved to know. It seemed like the best thing for our relationship.
About six months after telling my mom, I met my parents at a hotel in Las Vegas for a long weekend. Dad was lying down when I went to his room to tell him. He loved the story of how I would nap on his chest as an infant, so I lay across the mound of his belly and said I was in love with my friend Ella. He got up, panicked, and asked if the windows opened. For a second I worried he was trying to commit suicide. When we said goodbye at the airport, he was in tears. The next day my mom called to say he was in the hospital having a stent put in. I felt like I had broken his heart.
Whittier, North Carolina
When I was thirteen and visiting my grandmother, I slid a chair over to a closet to help me reach the top cabinet. There were seventy years’ worth of odds and ends in there. I pulled out a manila envelope that had my mother’s first name, but a different surname on it.
I walked to the front room, where my mother sat, showed her the envelope, and asked who this person was. She gave me a look that could have sliced me in two. I walked back to the closet and returned the envelope to its hiding place.
On our walk home my mother told me that she had married her high-school sweetheart when she was eighteen. He had been drafted to fight in Vietnam, and six months later he’d been killed. A medic, he had died trying to save someone’s life.
The woman walking beside me transformed in my eyes. From that day forward she would never be “just” my mom.
Los Angeles, California
© Gina Easley
There is no sound as final as the clang of a cell door closing. Twenty-five years ago I sat in jail in Key West, Florida, dope-sick, dehydrated, and defeated. I couldn’t sleep, so I watched through the tiny pane of glass above my bunk as the sky changed from gray to black and back to gray. I had a lot of time to think about my choices, but it was hard to see clearly when my mind was trapped in an opium fog.
After a few days I felt better physically. The hopelessness persisted, though. My cellmate told me there was a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the jail that night. I had been directed to meetings before but had never attended one. She said they offered doughnuts, which was just enough motivation.
As I sat and listened to a woman’s story of addiction, so similar to mine, I couldn’t help but be amazed that she had willingly come into the jail on a Friday night to volunteer. That meeting gave me hope that I, too, could change my life. Twenty-five years later that stranger’s message is still with me.
I don’t know if it was because I was the baby of the family, or if I was just lucky, but my dad never whipped me, though he came close once.
I was about four years old when I took a dime out of the old grandfather clock. My mother found the coin in my pocket, and I confessed. She told my father, who ordered me to go outside and cut my switch from the willow tree beside the house. I dreaded this. I had seen the welts on the legs and buttocks of my eight- and twelve-year-old brothers and heard their crying. Dad gave me his knife and pushed me out the door.
I remember it was cold and just getting dark. I couldn’t reach high enough to get to the thin switches, so, after a few minutes of shivering, I grabbed a thick willow branch from the ground and took it inside. Dad looked at it and then at me, and his stern expression softened into an almost grin. He sent me away with a light smack on my behind.
My brothers later kidded me about my mild punishment, saying that the next time they were caught in some mischief, they were going to bring Dad a two-by-four.
In 1986 my Japanese husband and I moved from California to Aichi-ken, a small village in Japan, to live with his parents in the home where he had grown up. The house had a coffee shop on the first floor, and we opened an English-language school in the back. We’d already had two children, and over the next eleven years we went on to have two more. Meanwhile our school did well enough that we could hire more teachers.
My in-laws were wonderful with the kids. My husband had lots of free time to do as he liked since Obaa-chan (Grandmother) and Ojii-chan (Grandfather) were always available to babysit and cook while I taught classes. (I didn’t speak Japanese, but my husband helped a lot with the classes.) We borrowed some land a fifteen-minute drive from our house, and my husband spent a lot of time there, gardening, camping, and jamming with friends. He was a good musician and quite charismatic with his long, wavy hair. Though I loved Japan, I was lonely. After thirteen years together, my husband no longer seemed attracted to me.
I began to fantasize about having an affair with one of our good-looking friends, but then I realized: I was a thirty-five-year-old mother of four in Japan, where it seemed most men fantasized about schoolgirls in uniforms.
Two days later, playing tennis with a friend, I met Taka. I was a beginner, and Taka, who spoke English, was experienced but patient with me. He was cute, a little stocky, clean-cut, and younger than I was. We arranged to play more tennis together, and I didn’t wait long to ask if he liked me “that way.” He did.
From the start I told him I would never divorce my husband and break up my family, the way my parents had done. I didn’t want my children to suffer as I had. Taka understood. But then, just a week into our relationship, he told me he loved me. Taka made me feel appreciated in a way my husband never had. I couldn’t let him go.
My husband sensed something was going on, but for six months he never asked me point-blank if there was someone else. The day I sat him down to tell him, he anticipated my revelation: “Is there another man?” I could only cry and nod yes, sick with sadness over the pain I was about to put my family through.
It was 1997, and divorce was uncommon in Japan. When my mother-in-law found out, I was told I could either take the kids or leave them there, but I could not stay. This was the custom in Japan: the guilty party was expected to go far away as punishment for shaming the family.
But I wasn’t Japanese, and I wasn’t going to follow their custom. A long-time friend of the family offered to mediate a discussion with Taka, my husband, my in-laws, and me. I couldn’t understand what was said, but later I laughed to hear that my father-in-law had asked Taka to “pay” for me.
I didn’t get bought and paid for. I moved myself and the English school three blocks away, into the house we had rented for our teachers. It was hard for the children, as I’d feared, and for their father, but twenty-three years later we are all well. The kids love Taka, who’s been a great stepfather, and now a step-grandparent. We give thanks for every single day we have together.
Santa Cruz, California
I was around nine years old when I started restricting food. I had dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, and one of my grandma’s neighbors had told me I looked “round.”
My body was quite athletic and muscular, thanks to four-hour dance classes six days a week. But all I saw in the mirror was unnecessary bulk on my frame. I learned about calories and began not eating everything on my dinner plate.
Our ballet teacher announced one day that she would start weighing us weekly. That week I ate only dinner, because it was the one meal my parents watched me eat.
The following year, after our annual ballet competition, a principal dancer from the National Opera came to meet with the participants. He said that we should be embarrassed to dance on stage in such shape; professional dancers should eat only eight hundred calories a day.
By the time I was seventeen, I was a professional at hiding food. After I lost a dance competition, my parents took me to a psychiatrist. It was clear I had developed an eating disorder. My body was wasting away.
At eighteen and about sixty pounds, I woke up in the ICU strapped to a heart monitor. I looked to the left and saw a seventy-year-old man on dialysis. To my right was a woman about the same age with heart disease.
That’s when I wished I had eaten everything on my dinner plate.
I’ve spent so much of my life struggling to adopt and then raising my two kids that when they head off to college, I know I have to find something to fill the hole they left behind. One day I see a post looking for mentors to help kids in need, and I decide to check it out. When I get the call asking if I would be interested in mentoring five-year-old twins, my immediate reaction is: I am too busy to take that on. But the program coordinator explains how their mom is a single parent of five and an immigrant from Sudan, and she really wants her girls to be able to have experiences she can’t give them.
My introduction to the twins takes place in their small apartment, where they hide behind the sofa while the program director tries to convince them how much fun they are going to have with me. They are small for their age, and I am given two car seats to take them on an outing. I figure a church carnival is safe. The first comment I hear upon entering the carnival is “What beautiful daughters you have.” I don’t have a response. As the white mom of an Asian son and a Latina daughter, I am used to getting occasional stares in our not-very-diverse community, but I don’t want these girls to think I’m trying to replace their mom. I quickly say, “Thanks, they are beautiful, but I’m not their mom; I’m their mentor.” Silence. Thankfully a few furry baby animals ahead catch the girls’ interest.
I wonder: Did I say the right thing? They don’t yet comprehend what it means for me to be their mentor. I don’t have the courage to ask how they are feeling.
For our second adventure we bake cookies at my house. (This will become their favorite activity. Being able to bring home cookies they helped to bake makes them feel like superstars.) I’m surprised when they immediately bestow hugs on my husband, Larry. Why the greater affection for him than for me? Then I realize they don’t have a dad around, and getting attention from a man who truly enjoys being with them is an unexpected blessing.
The twins experience many “firsts” with me: Their first carousel ride. Their first visit to a library. Their first time fishing. Their first time on a college campus. Our daughter is a freshman, and I decide to bring the girls to an open house. On the way there they ask, “What is college?”
Over the next eight years we spend many weekend afternoons together. Our bond grows deeper with each passing year. Then one day, shortly after we celebrate their thirteenth birthday, I get the call from the girls that their family is moving to Alaska the next day. The mentoring program has no information about where they are going or why, and there’s no opportunity for me to see them before they go.
I try and fail to contact them for many months. Social media turns up nothing. I miss them terribly and think about them often.
Five years later I open the door to find the girls have come to visit me. They still have relatives in the area and remembered where my house is. I am thrilled. We talk about our past experiences and look at all the photos I took of them.
I’m surprised to hear they vividly remember the visit to the college. They are both applying to various colleges next year — one to study criminal justice and the other premed.
Over the last few years the girls have both joined the National Guard, served in Kuwait, and are now attending college in Anchorage.
You never know the impact you might have on another person.