28 September, 2016

When Prison Culture Meets Black Lipstick

Tony and I were walking from the dining hall to the housing unit when he caught up to me. He'd seen the teaser for MTV's 7 September episode of Unlocking the Truth, the one introducing my case, and of course wanted to tell me so.

"They showed a picture of you in drag, all painted up."

I practically snorted, thinking, Good one, Tony. The photo in question shows my pale young face, cheekily glancing away from the camera, wearing eyeliner and a black-lipped smirk. My black velvet shirt and black coat can barely be seen. My fifteen-hole Doc Martens are out of the shot altogether, as are the silver chains draped from my right shoulder. I don't recall wearing jewelry more outrageous than my everyday piercings and two handfuls of silver rings that evening, but that doesn't mean I didn't. Jokingly calling this gothy getup drag was typical Tony, and I accepted the dig amiably.

Only later, replaying our conversation in my head, did I realize that Tony might not have been kidding around. He's been locked up for a long time; might he not know the vast difference between drag and goth? And if he doesn't, what could that mean for others who see the show — people around the prison who don't even know me as tangentially as Tony does?

For the very first time since Unlocking the Truth started delving into my case, I was nervous.

The average convict isn't known for his open-mindedness or reasonableness. Penned in by razor wire and walls, the tattooed swastikas, neighborhood affiliations, and gang code on most prisoners' bodies speak to their intolerance of the Other. Ask almost any citizens on the street and they'll likely supply two accurate facts about prison life: (1) it's governed by a rigorously enforced power dynamic; (2) it's run through with a current of barely contained sexual frustration. What might the sight of me in the summer of my eighteenth year, made up and dressed for a party, inspire in the mind of Billy Badass, DOC number 40926, who's been down since 1981 and ain't never seen no shit like that in his jerkwater hometown, where only whores and queers wear makeup, and the livestock are all a little jumpy? Would his shuttered mind compute? Or would he default to the old mental schema, Lipstick is for girls. The boy in the picture wears lipstick. So he must want to be a girl. I will make him my girl, thereby inciting an unpleasant circumstance for all involved? You can understand my concern.

The episode in question, when it aired, glossed over any meaningful definition of goth, probably because MTV's demographic has grown up in a culture that's more inclusive than those of previous generations. I suspect that every Millennial had at least one goth kid at their high school. My lawyer's description alone, that labeling someone "goth" was how law enforcement, post-Columbine, branded that person as "bad," didn't seem like enough for the population of Crossroads Correctional Center to comprehend the goth subculture.

Walking the yard with my friend and former cellmate, Zach, the following morning, every comment that came my way (there were more than I anticipated) was complimentary.

A neighbor said, "I loved how, in your interview, you threw in a little humor. When you said, 'I was a weirdo — I'm still a weirdo,' that really got me."

Some guy I'd never before spoken with said, "That's exactly what prosecutors do: they dehumanize you to prejudice the juries. You got right to the heart of it, there."

Another guy: "When they came, at the end of the show, and played that phone call, I was like, 'Damn, people, he didn't answer her question because he doesn't respond the same as other individuals would: he's weird.' I just needed to let you know, I believe you, man. Fuck that lying crackwhore."

And so on, from countless strangers and acquaintances alike, for days. No one made so much as a peep about the party photo Tony saw in the teaser. If anyone was struck by my smoky-eyed makeup in almost every other pic, they uttered not a word about it to me. It seems like my concession to weirdness wiped away any questions about my particular, peculiarly dandyish, brand of masculinity.

For decades I've held that the elegance of honesty needs no adornment. My outspoken truthfulness sometimes lands me in trouble, but this time the maxim is right.

19 September, 2016

The Fragile Collection

Where we lived in southern Wyandotte County, Kansas, was quiet without being too quiet. The suburban houses were widely spaced, constructed in a mishmash of styles, over multiple decades, an architectural grab bag. Most of our neighbors were older, and I was one of maybe five kids within a one-mile radius. A lot of the neighbors we knew by name but weren't close enough for block parties or borrowing cups of flour. What the neighborhood did have was an ample selection of nooks and semi-hidden passages that would've been irresistible to any free-range seven-year-old.

Mama and Papa's ease with their little boy's unsupervised traipsings wasn't negligent or crazy. The kid whose room was as organized as an entomologist's specimen drawer, who once laid a trash bag on the foyer floor before going tromping through backyard mud, and whose reaction to the "stranger danger" talk was a faintly irritated "I know" — he needs minimal minding.

I was forever picking up stuff while roving. Of the random rusty machine component half buried until my inquisitive fingers pried it free, I wondered what it did, then visualized some Rube Goldberg contraption it operated inside. If I found an out-of-place rock in a sand heap, I'd theorized about freak geological events that could've brought it there. Every child's curious about the whys and hows of things, and at least in this respect I was no different.

Lots of the objects I gathered got imaginatively repurposed. A seafoam-green glass insulator off a power pole became a bookend. Ball bearings found their way into my bag (which itself once sheathed a Crown Royal bottle) of marbles. A length of flex tubing made an arm for my robot costume. But not every object had practical potential. My "useless" finds usually gained a place of honor in the box.

If the box smelled weird because of what it held, I considered it a good weird. That scent: dry paper, soot, a hint of vinegar. Just sniffing the box could be gratifying. Careful not to tip it and disturb its contents, I liked lifting it from the shelf, bringing it near my nostrils, and taking in a deep breath. Maybe the box smelled the way Egyptian mummies do, the way ancient scrolls do, the way treasure buried on a desert island does. I fancied likening my stuff to priceless antiquities, since what I kept in the box was priceless — at least to me.

FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE, read the lid. Without measuring, I had concentrated very hard on making my letters big enough to span its width precisely. I also put permanent-marker cautions on the sides. Who might go into my room and rummage through its shelves of bric-a-brac, I hadn't the faintest idea, but wasn't safe better than sorry? Further insurance: a lining of cotton balls glued to the underside of the lid, and to the box's interior bottom and sides.

To open the box you pulled forward a fold on the front. Two tabs slid up, then the lid clamshelled open, revealing the trove within: my Fragile Collection.

My mental inventory of the box is still mostly intact, thirty years later:
  1. Ant, large unknown species
  2. Ash, volcanic (Mount Saint Helens)
  3. Butterflies/moths, various species
  4. Coral, fan
  5. Egg, robin
  6. Egg, quail
  7. Flowers, various species
  8. Honeybee, queen
  9. Honeybee, worker
  10. Honeycomb
  11. Nest, mud dauber
  12. Nest, unknown bird species
  13. Nest, wasp
  14. Oil, crude
  15. Poop, moose
  16. Quills, porcupine
  17. Skin, garter snake
  18. Skin, reticulated python (partial)
  19. Skull, mouse
Excessively keen of touch, smell, and hearing, my affinity for the delicate makes sense to me now. Saying that my sense of life's hardness developed prematurely, leading young Byron to marvel at how soft, brittle, gossamer, crepey, precariously formed things flaunted their easy destructability in our red-in-tooth-and-claw world, would be overstating it. But I had an inkling. When I weighed the robin's egg in my palm, feeling its tiny earthward pull, a kind of empathy was at work. We're all just barely here, flying through the void on this sphere, minuscule marvels of chemistry and physics. The blown-empty eggshell was a memorial to a life that might've been — except it, too, was doomed to destruction. The world couldn't let it last.

My Fragile Collection survived as long as I was its curator. Whatever happened to that box? Has the papery wasp nest crumbled to dust? Did the plastic bottle of Mount Saint Helens ash crack open and scatter its ultrafine contents with the wind? And what about me? Consigned to fire, I was somehow tempered, rather than charred. In the process I realized that the naive young collector's kinship with those fragile things was misplaced. He didn't consider the wide gulf, between existence and death, called living.

07 September, 2016

The Truth Will Set You Free: Will MTV's Unlocking the Truth Crack the Door for Me Tonight?

The last time a television series addressed the death of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen, the teenage friend I was wrongfully convicted of murdering, viewers got a sensationalistic crap-fest that On the Case with Paula Zahn titled "Betrayal and Regret." I was not impressed, and hammered out my response to Ms. Zahn's journalistic improbity, relying on numerous summaries from friends who actually watched. After getting those thoughts off my chest, the world looked bright and rosy again.

A year and a half earlier, Sharp Entertainment (a production company not affiliated with Scott Steinberg Productions, which excretes On the Case each week on Investigation Discovery) had contacted me by snail mail. They wanted me to submit to an on-camera interview for a new ID series that was in development. The producer who wrote was cagy about its title, though, which sent up a red flag. Following a bit of phoned-in googling, I learned what he'd been reluctant to reveal: the series was Dates from Hell. (David Randag, if you happen to be reading this, you're a shitheel.) I declined more respectfully than was deserved.

With two strikes against the TV weasels, a third production company reached out to my supporters last year. Their proposed series' format was pitched as "Serial for TV." We tentatively agreed to participate, but they were still shopping their concept around to various networks when a producer from Unlocking the Truth called.

The new MTV series wasn't called that yet, of course. It's working title was pretty meh, meaning that, unlike with Dates from Hell, there wasn't any way of knowing what might be in store if we signed on. Our only assurance was the producer's word that this investigative series would strive for an unbiased examination of the facts.

For years, my supporters and I have subscribed to the maxim that "Facts are our friends." As long as MTV hewed close to empirical truths, I felt at ease.

Multiple interviews followed. The familiar visiting room, cleared for cameras, light rigs, sound equipment, and coils on coils of wire, bore a slightly eerie resemblance to its usual bright, crowded self. But the interviews went well enough. The crews were professionally friendly to the point that I, having been duped more than a few times, began wondering when their line of questions would turn hostile.

It never did. Nor did they shy from asking the crucial questions (it was an investigation, after all). My lawyer turned over all sorts of information, but when it came to interpreting the evidence, they consulted their own experts, hired at MTV's expense. We don't know what all Unlocking the Truth learned, but we'll start finding out tonight, when the first of several episodes focusing on my case airs.

For the first time in a long time, I'm excited for the future.

Previous episodes of MTV's Unlocking the Truth can be seen on the network's website, while new ones live stream on the show's Facebook page and air Wednesdays at 10:00 PM Central Time.