Get Well

Self and the City: Identification Please

by Jessa Chargois

Self and the City is a column intended to increase visibility and dialogue surrounding mental health, relationships, harmful stereotypes, and the necessity for self-care and vulnerability. Self and the City will be headlined by Jessa Chargois on a bi-weekly basis. Submissions and guest columnists are welcomed to send work to hannah@chillhouse.com. 

I believe the holidays belong to the fighters. I believe the holidays belong to the survivors. I believe the holidays belong to the caregivers, the lovers, the grieving, and the lonely. I believe in the magic selflesss love can breathe into our souls as we near the end of yet another year. I believe in recognizing the forgiveness we have to give, and the light we may receive. I believe in the necessity of dark times, in order to appreciate the holidays brimming with support. 

This year, as I return to my childhood home for the holidays, one stocking hangs noticeably empty. There is one less seat at the table. One less voice to echo through the decked halls. 

“Look straight ahead.”

“Do not smile.”

“Do not blink.”

“Identification Please.”

“Have you been to this facility before?”

“Who are you here to see?” 

Regardless of how many times I stand in front of the camera perched atop the guard’s desk, walk behind the barbed wire, breathe in the cool sterile air, the thundering orders barked by lifeless officers of the law cease to paralyze me with fear. The deafening buzz of the locking bulletproof doors leading to and from the yard continuously echoes in my mind.  Burned into memory are the marked rows of available visitation seating, numbered from left to right for identification purposes. Dark green used to be my favorite color. Now, his jumpsuit is an ironic mockery of the once-festive color. My younger brother’s toothy grin keeps our spirits alive, his pale skin matching the white-washed floors and walls of his temporary home. Our Christmas dinner will consist of vending machine delicacies such as Slim-Jims, Mountain Dew, Skittles, and the highly-coveted Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies. We will hold hands, our family unit tested, stronger through grief, forgiveness, and acceptance.

Two years ago, I received a call from my university’s police station, requiring my presence at the precinct. I was notified that my father and younger brother had been arrested and processed for an array of felony charges centered on the illegal manufacturing of a weapon. In the span of forty-five minutes, my life fell apart, shattering the idyllic perception of my family, my father, and my upbringing. Hours from home, my parents forbid me from returning to my town, urging me to focus on my senior year. Within days, the news in my small town flashed processing photography of the men in my family across their websites, unrecognizably portrayed as monsters, ripping my heart out with every repost on social media.

Grappling with the reality of their charges, their decisions, mistakes, and wrongdoings, my mother and I formed a united front, holding the family together while we all processed the fact that undoubtedly, the men we love, would end up behind bars. We faced inconvincible critique. However, we became overwhelmed with limitless support, an outpouring of love from our local community, long lost friends, and strangers who knew of my father’s lifelong commitment to our neighborhood. While my mother and I came to terms with the fact that the men in our family committed a serious crime, one including illegal possession of weapons, our friends and neighbors lifted us up, defending the character of my father and brother. For legal reasons, the details of the case are for other news reports to comment on, however, the true support and love offered by the upstate town I call home is for my family to continuously appreciate, carrying this with us for the rest of our lives. 

On Valentine’s Day, my father was sentenced to six months in county jail with five years probation. My brother, one week earlier, was sentenced to two years in federal prison with three years probation. At both hearings, the court was required to move into the largest ceremonial building in the county due to the sheer volume of supporters present. On February 15th, I walked into my local coffee shop upstate to find a picture of my father, mother, and I plastered to the front of our local newspaper. Capturing the single darkest moment in my life, local reporters snapped an image of my father grasping at his wife and daughter moments before officers escorted him away. While I had imagined this painful memory as just that, a memory, a single camera had managed to digitize the second in history, permanent for all who wish to see. Frantically, I stood with a coffee in hand, tears streaming down my face, as I used all of my cash to buy up the newspapers in order to hide my shame that my father, my hero, the kindest man I know, was now to be permanently considered a smear on society. 

This will be my family’s first holiday season without my brother. This will also be the first holiday season since my father has served his own time. Over the two years, the internal structure and understanding of my family has transformed, a shell of the idealistic childhood I was privileged to have grown up with, shattered. The destruction of the false construct has broken, leaving room for a more raw and honest understanding of what support and forgiveness may look like. While the Chargois name now comes with an extra-hurdle, my mother and I must constantly remind ourselves that at the end of the day, our men are still healthy, alive, and full of perseverance. 

Over the last two years, I have had to examine my own societal bias and prejudice towards those who don the dark green jumpsuits. Humanizing the dehumanized, I have recognized my own lack of awareness towards the racially charged and socio-economically targeted disparities within the Department of Justice and the American Criminal Justice System. The inhumane treatment of our incarcerated and the systematically oppressed representations of these systems through media are deeply ingrained in our culture. I am acutely aware of the privilege my family, and more specifically, my brother and father bear when it comes to the justice system, having white identities. I recognize the privilege I hold having the ability, education, and access to platforms such as this to share my voice and story. I recognize this privilege grants me the ability to visit my brother on a monthly basis, allows my family to reunite sooner than other families may have faced if they were charged with similar crimes, and the privilege of forgiveness within my community based on my father’s and brother’s social identities. Ultimately, this awareness and the chance to hug my brother and tell him everything will be okay is the best Christmas present I could ask for.

This story is a reminder that you are not alone. In a time of year that is extremely charged, triggering, and insurmountable for many, extend love and empathy this holiday season. We are all enduring hardship in some form or another. Support those around you. Forgive past mistakes of those around you, and possibly even more important, your own wrongdoings. While this is far easier said than done, communication is one of the truest gifts you can bless your holiday season with. Recognize the caregivers, the survivors, the less fortunate, the lonely, and everyone in between.

I believe in the necessity of dark times in order to recognize the light. I believe in supporting those who have supported you. I believe in thank you notes. I believe in words of affirmation and gratitude. I believe in recognizing your privilege. I believe the best gifts are those of being thankful for all you have while still listening to your own needs. I believe that the holidays are more appreciated after you understand how fast you can lose all that you take for granted.

For this holiday, grant someone a chance to tell their story without preconceived notions of bias, judgement, or critique. Grant forgiveness.

Feature Image via Jessica Golightly

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