I can remember that hot, sticky night so many years ago, laying in front of a fan blowing air in through the screen door, and pretending to be asleep while the adults had the kind of conversation they would not have had if they realized an eight year old boy was listening. My father had recently died, and there were always people at the house, making sure that my mom was okay and that me and my two younger brothers were being taken care of. I had used my own grief to leverage a campout in the living room so that I could listen in as they told each other their adult secrets.
When my mother and grandparents gathered me and my brothers to explain what had happened to our father, they said it was an accident. Maybe it was just a boy’s confidence in his dad, but this just didn’t add up to me. I was already suspicious of this explanation, so my mind was primed to lock onto the drunken conversation my mom, aunt and their friend had as I feigned slumber.
That night the three women shared far-flung theories based on five percent rumor and ninety five percent pure imagination. The central theme was a drug deal gone bad, a man in a wheelchair, and an unexplained Coca Cola bottle. I latched onto this story. I preferred this story, that my dad was just trying to enjoy some drugs and accidentally got involved with some murderous fiends, over the narrative that he had fallen victim to some meaninglessly mishap like a weakling or a fool.
This became the driving force of my life, to find out what really happened, and get justice for the coward who killed my father. I figured the best way to do so was to become a detective, so that I could also give the gift of closure to other people who had a loved one stolen from them.
I never did make detective. They said I was too hot-headed. I said I was eager. They said I was too impatient. I told them they were just too slow and lazy. And so I was just a regular cop, because I had never wanted to do anything else with my life than become a legendary crime-fighter, and had no idea how to start over. As I grew more dedicated to the profession I also grew more bitter. Justice was no longer part of the equation. People were just the thing that made my job more difficult than I thought it needed to be. My frustration and anger with my own failure to avenge my father’s death fell onto the people I was allegedly responsible for serving and protecting.
My disillusionment swelled over time. The detectives I knew were simultaneously arrogant and ineffectual, leaving more violent crimes unsolved than otherwise. I also had no delusions about my role. I was not fighting crime or preventing it. I was criminalizing the poor so that the city council could meet their incoming finance goals from municipal fines and fees. At the same time, I despised the victims of this scheme, so I didn’t care. Not because they were unworthy of my understanding or compassion, but because they were my job. Almost everybody hates whatever it is they are forced to toil against day in and day out. For some people it is an errant machine or unreliable computer, but for me it was people.
For years I managed to suppress the worst of my hatred and rage, taking it out on whatever girlfriend hadn’t yet wisened up about me, or drowning it out with cheap vodka and the occasional pain-killer binge. I think that some part of me believed I could still get back on track and rise in the ranks, no matter how much evidence grew towards the contrary. I amassed complaints form citizens for various excesses and a human resources file bursting with claims of insubordination, as well as other violations, from pretty much all of my superiors. However I knew there was a line that could not be crossed, where I could not even be protected by the fierce loyalty within my profession, and I tried my best to stay on the right side of it.
As you know, I did eventually cross it, and it cost your son his life. When I was first charged with his murder I was indignant. This was not supposed to happen. I was one of the good guys. That is what I had been telling myself for years, and it became even more convenient to believe it then. Every hour I spent in that jail cell was an hour I would make the world pay back when the system did what it was supposed to do, and released me. As days turned into months, my rage and defiance grew more desperate, and I turned it on everyone who would still listen to me.
Then one day my mom came to visit. I could tell right away that this was not just going to be a little chat session by the stern look on her face. I had said some pretty awful things to my brother a few days before, so I was guessing this was going to be a lecture about family, but it was something far more grim.
She told me that before her father had died, he revealed to her that my father’s death had been a suicide. My grandfather had used some sordid connections he had with the local police chief to cover it up, to save us that pain of knowing that he left us on purpose, and for insurance purposes. I told her about the conversation I had overheard all those years back, and she confessed that she did believe those things for years herself, but had no idea that I knew about that. I asked her why she had not told us when she found out, and she said she couldn’t explain it. There were times when she was almost driven mad wanting to tell us, but could not bring herself to do it. That was the first day that me and my mom have cried together since my dad’s funeral.
Over the next days and weeks I began to unravel the lie I had lived all those years. The entire foundation of who I was had been built on something untrue which I had desperately wanted to be true. All of my ideas about justice and heroism and everything else were sanctimonious illusions that I clung to even as they became forces of self-destruction and mindless aggression. It was not at fault for the fact that this had happened to me, because it began was I was a vulnerable child, but I was the one who failed to recognize it, admit it and put an end to it before it got out of control. I had abused my reasons until they were no longer reasonable, let alone humane. I had become the bad guy.
I know this will not bring your son back. I do not expect you to understand or forgive me for telling you this. I just want you to know that I understand why I was wrong, and how I got there. I accept that. Your son did not die for any other reason than that I failed to check my baggage and used my badge to abuse others as punishment for my own sense of failure and shame, until finally the line was crossed.
I have instructed my lawyers to deliver this letter to you, and change my plea to no contest. I will not drag you through the pain of a trial or the further cruelty of the media circus which has grown around this situation. My counsel will also be giving similar statements to several major news outlets so that I become the sole focus of their scrutiny and your family can be left in peace to mourn your son.