Have you ever had to utter a sentence so mortifying that your body actually rejects your choice to say it?
It’s not like I’m a stranger to embarrassment. I’ve spent a goodly part of my life in a hospital, with doctors asking about bowel movements and sexual desires the same way most people ask about cookie preferences. I’m a geek, from the non-popular era, with a penchant for scene-making and klutziness. I’m a middle child in a family of weirdos.
Still, every time I try to type this story– my story– my hands freeze and my throat closes, and I can look down at my shaking body as if it belongs to someone else. But I’m determined to say what I’m going to say.
I was accused of committing a felony. The likely sentence? A few decades in prison.
The accusation tore a gash in my soul— one that festered, and finally calmed. I wear scars– emotional ones– and I’ve paid penances– real ones– to survive to now. I made it to today, and that is no small victory.
I still have to heal, though, and I know part of that journey is in telling this story, which is why I asked for a spot here. A safe spot. It’s a sad little story, so to brighten it up a bit, I’ll make all the penances green, all the scars orange, and all the celebrations purple.
Forgive the frivolity– but trauma isn’t black and white. It’s bright splashes of colors that erupt behind your eyes like a cycle of fireworks and fill you with the flavors of raging fires and bitter remains. Color and ash. Color and ash. The color blinds as the strength inside you rages and burns out.
I was never much concerned with inner-workings of justice. I tried to be a good person and do the right thing, and I assumed that the law would support me. If you live the honest path, as they say, you never have to look over your shoulder.
Did I hear you scoff?
I would scoff too… now. I was 26 years old when I learned that I had the naivety of a small child. I am no longer so naive.
A felony, in the US, is what we call any serious crime– like murder or rape. Maybe this is the same system everywhere– I really don’t know and I don’t have the heart to research it. Someone who is charged with a felony in a court of law is called a convicted felon.
I never went to court.
I was not convicted.
I am not a felon.
And, for what it’s worth– I did not commit the crime. I did not steal half a million dollars.
As the years pass, and the accusation amounts to nothing, more and more people believe me. At this point, the faith of other people is meaningless to me.
My accusers were good men. Or, I thought they were. I was like family to them for a long while.
In the midst of it all, I felt foolish for thinking that. I felt silly for thinking I was ever loved like family. Today I see that love is not a lie, is never a lie, and that it was real to them at the time. But desperate men do desperate things, and love doesn’t stand a chance when fear attacks.
They were my employers and they called the police on me the day after I resigned.
I was confused and scared, but still thought things would work out. I envisioned a police officer coming to my door to interview me, and learn about my side. I envisioned a review of my bank records and household items, and other things that would serve as proof of innocence. I figured I’d employ a lawyer, for a short bit, to guide the way smoothly.
Though it cost me dearly, I thank God that I employed a lawyer.
I wasn’t so silly as to think the police would immediately be on my side, but I thought they would give me a chance. Without an interview with me or reviewing any of my information, the police passed the case to the District Attorney with a report based entirely on what my accusers said. I would like to think this was sheer laziness. I prefer my theory to believing that it had something to do with the fact that my accusers were white, Christian, middle-aged men with high-paying jobs, children, and friends in the District Attorney’s office. I prefer to believe that I wasn’t discriminated against because of my life choices, skin color, and income level. This is, after all, America– the country I’ve loved since childhood.
The truth is, this country — and its legal system– failed me. It trapped me in a system where a false accusation could send me into an unhappy whirlwind that has yet to officially end, even now, 4 years later. Standing up for myself cost me everything, plus some, and left me without the means to actively fight.
This part of the story is a blur– a comedy of errors, really, of Shakespearean levels. I had just emptied my savings into a small business. I had just told them that they could pay me next time for the salary they weren’t able to meet. They didn’t pay me, of course– not for the month due or the month past due. I couldn’t find a lawyer who believed me, and the ones who would take my case anyway were out of my price range or so shady as to be frightening. I finally found a good man to represent me, even though I didn’t believe in good men anymore. To pay for his services, I sold everything I owned. Everything. The wedding ring off my finger, my art collections, my dishware, and my clothes. I closed down my shop. I moved into a rat-infested, bug-crawling hotel where my husband and I lived off of $5 hot-and-ready pizzas that had to last us several days. I took jobs at a fraction of what I was making before, when I could find them. I was homeless. I was hungry. I became so sick with the common cold– untreated because I couldn’t afford to treat it– that my fever caused minor brain damage. They called my freelance customers– a list we shared, because as I said, we were like family– and slandered me to the point that I had no resources to fall back on. Not that it would have mattered. My mind and heart were wrecks and I couldn’t work up the energy to do much more than mope around in a bathrobe. I asked my best friend if I could borrow her dress to wear to my court case, and she cried as if I said funeral.
Other things happened. Bank fees, tax problems, homelessness, and abuse. Etcetera etcetera.
I decided not to fight. The cost of fighting would have been more than I could afford to pay in a lifetime and, for what? To probably lose because I was out-gunned?
At this point, two stories happened simultaneously.
The world turned on me.
The world saved me.
People I didn’t expect came through with bright shining colors.
People told me to get rid of my cats–
some even suggested putting them down.
I was told to get divorced, to save my husband at least.
I was on the phone, paid for by a friend in another state,
talking to a friend in another country
about a friend in yet another state who paid for my lawyer.
My online ads where I sold my things began to smell of desperation
and I received countless emails asking for sexual favors in exchange for money.
I considered them seriously, of course. I needed the money,
but couldn’t arrange a meet up simply because I was too broke to have a phone.
I considered suicide, but I’m a poor planner.
“Fight,” they said, “Fight,
and if you need more strength, we’ll be there to give it.”They didn’t even ask the question– not silently or vocally–but I answered anyway:
“I didn’t do it.”
“Of course, you didn’t.” they’d reply,
and their faith in me was so true that I was humbled by my blessings.
As I lost “things”, I lost friends.
People looked at me with doubt in their eyes and broke promises–
promises that, to me, made the difference between keeping my family alive
and not. Some didn’t even return my calls.
This side of the story made me stronger.
To this day, it is this part of the story that makes me cry,
and feel small and ashamed. I lived a good-hearted life, yes–
but I can’t help but feel unworthy of so much love.
I likened myself to a spartan–
nearly naked, with the tools I needed to survive, surrounded by people who would die for me– no more, no less.
Today, I live in a space that is less than a 10th of the size of my previous homes. I can count my friends on my hands, and fit everything I own in my car. I am still married. I still have my cats. I am alive. I’ve never had to sell my body. I’m a little less patriotic. I am poor. I don’t believe in superheroes anymore. I still believe in love. Most days, I can see straight without the blinding colors of penance, regret, and trauma lighting up my vision. Most days, I can smile and not taste bitter, disappointed ash. I am a warrior. I am not worthy of the my blessings– no one could be– and I will spend a lifetime trying to pay back the gifts so graciously given to me.
The world saved me and today, every day, my gratitude journal starts with a sentence I once upon a time would have never thought to celebrate:
I am not a felon.
Originally posted to Black Box Warnings, 2013. Dates and times updated as relevant.