“There is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues – the most dominating virtues of human society – are created, strengthened and maintained.”
Joseph Miles is 51 years old, but says he spends a lot of time today thinking about this quote by Winston Churchill because it helps him understand everything that was missing in his own childhood. Joseph is currently incarcerated and serving a life sentence. He is a regular participant and leader in SALT: Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation, a participatory educational community inside Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee. Many SALT classes include students from local universities coming into the prison to learn alongside students who are residents of Riverbend. Rev. Janet Wolf, a Children’s Defense Fund organizer, is one of SALT’s founders.
In a recent workshop Joseph joined others in discussing the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research which tracks the impact children’s stressful and traumatic experiences can have on their adult health and opportunity including future violence victimization and perpetration. These experiences are an important public health issue, too often ignored. Many incarcerated students spoke about how difficult it is for any studies to fully capture the trauma and terror that defined many of their childhoods. And as importantly, what if the right resources had been available to help them then? Several shared their stories. This is Joseph’s.
Joseph’s father left his mother while she was pregnant with him, claiming the baby wasn’t his. As he says, “It is my belief that my daddy’s disloyalty to their marriage left my mother broken and blaming me for ruining their marriage. Over time, I believe she developed a hatred for me.” His father alternated between refusing to see him at all and taunting him: “He would trick me by talking nice to me, and once I went to him with that little boy smile on my face, he would say to me ‘you little ugly mother***, get away from me, I ain’t your goddamn daddy,’ and he would continue that verbal assault until I was standing there crying and shaking in fear. Just imagine this big man with this strong voice yelling those words down on the little friable boy . . . The only time my mother ever hit me was when I cried after my daddy or for something he had promised me and did not do, and that was every time he picked up [Joseph’s older siblings] and left me standing there crying. Eventually, to hear my daddy’s voice would start my little body to shaking with fear.”
As a child Joseph tried hard to stay on his best behavior because he thought that might make both parents finally love him. But he says everything changed on Christmas Eve, 1980, when he was 13. “My daddy had never given me anything but a hard time, and a promise that I knew he would not keep. Nevertheless, he was promising to buy me a bike for Christmas, a bike that I wanted very much . . . My mother told me to stop talking about that damn bike because he was not going to get it, but I was so excited about it because he had bought my sister a bike, and I could not stop talking or thinking about my bike, or wait for Christmas Day. I needed to see my bike before I went to sleep.” Joseph went to his father’s house to try to peek at the gift he was so sure was waiting – but there was no bike, just his drunk, enraged father.
“He woke up and saw me through eyes red as fire and his voice was louder than I had ever heard it before and his words were terrifying as he called me all kinds of little ugly nappy head mother***. Those words cut through my little heart unmercifully, paralyzing me with fear; I stood there shaking with tears streaming down my face. He got up off the bed, took me by my arm, walked me to the front door, opened it, and pushed me out of his house.”
Then Joseph’s mother found him walking home distraught. “I got in the back seat of the car and momma said to me, ‘Shut your mother*** mouth!’ I tried my best to stop crying but I could not. We got home and she told me to go to the back room and shut the door . . . My mother had a club that she carried around in her pocketbook. It was approximately 13 inches long and about 6 inches round at the bottom and it got smaller as you moved up to the top of it; it was shaped like a baseball bat. (How do I remember it so well? That night is forever etched in my mind) . . . Now, one would have thought this is where my mother would have consoled me as her child, but she attacked me as if I were her enemy.
“Momma said, ‘Didn’t I tell you to shut your mother*** mouth?’ Before her words ended, she had hit me twice with that club. I crawled to the corner of the bed, and put my arm up to block the blow and she beat it down. I lay on that bed with my head taking every blow. ‘Pop, pop, pop’ was the sound the club made inside my skull as it struck my head. My sister stood in the door yelling for my mother to stop. The club continued striking my head, ‘pop, pop, pop, pop . . .’ My eyes locked with my sister’s eyes, and whatever she saw in me caused her to let out a loud piercing scream, and she grabbed the club from my mother’s hand.”
He says: “I realize now that all of my mother’s rage toward me came out in that room that night, and if my sister had not followed my mother down that hall to that room that night, there is not a doubt in my mind that my mother would have beaten me to death. That beating left me traumatized and afraid of my mother, and determined to never again be anyone’s victim.”
In an instant Joseph’s response to a lifetime of rejection and abuse switched from that of a child desperate to please to a young man determined to harden and protect himself at all costs. It was a life-altering moment – and one that put him on a destructive path for the next 15 years that ended with his incarceration and life sentence at age 28. That was 23 years ago.
Joseph looks again now at Winston Churchill’s words: “That statement helped me to understand why there was so much trouble in my life as a child. Moral excellence was not taught in the house I was raised in . . . As a child [I was] beaten by my mother and bullied by my daddy for no other reason than loving my daddy. My parents’ actions left me deeply scarred in my heart. I would carry this pain and suppress it with any and all other adversities that touched my young life. Eventually, that pain would be unleashed on the people in those streets and I would be judged as a bad child, with no one understanding, not even myself understanding that pain that was destroying me from within.
“I wish I could have met the person that coined this phrase: ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ I would like to tell him or her how detrimental that phrase became to many children, children who really needed help from people or the person who was bullying them, children who consciously or unconsciously, verbally or silently, to no avail, called on that rhyme as if it had some kind of mystical power that would fend off the verbal assault that was being inflicted upon them. Many children lost their way because of words that were so emotionally damaging and penetrating much deeper than a child understands, and in some cases, those words were directly responsible for children committing suicide, or the taking of human life. Sticks and stones will break your bones; however, words used in a destructive manner have and will continue to destroy lives.”
How many children’s lives are being destroyed right now without attention and help from any caring adult? How many children face teachers who don’t know their students or stop to explore what they may be experiencing and instead focus only on their behavior, leading them to suspend or expel children from the classroom for days or weeks at a time? How many social workers or detention staff who welcome new children in their caseloads have the expertise and take the time to look at experiences that brought children into what we at the Children’s Defense Fund call the Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ and then find them the help they need? How many of us as parents see friends of our children who we sense are hurting but don’t ask why or try to get them help?
We must never give up on any child. It is never too late. Caring and love are always needed.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.