Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons: Matthew Parker

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You know what struck me about Matthew Parker, one-time homeless wanderer, former drug addict with more than ten years of prison under his belt, between his ears, now a writer and graphic author?

A basic decency.

We met in the New York Botanical Garden in mid-January. The Bronx River was frozen with rich swaths of emerald in it. At times, Matt looked carefully out into the main space of the café where we finally sat. We were safe, against a brick wall and with a full view of the room. But I wondered if it wasn’t the ex-con in him warily peering out at the world.

When we left, Matt asked the young guy working the register if it was all right to leave him a tip. It wasn’t that kind of place. Matt’s money was already out. This wasn’t the only instance, I realized. He’d asked the young girl working the ticket kiosk at the front gate if she was warm enough. Basic. Decent.

He’s over fifty now, balding on top, which is a recurrent image in his graphic memoir Larceny in My Blood: A Memoir of Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education. I told him that his depiction of this bald spot made me think of the top chakra at the peak of the human form, the top of the head, an open conduit for forces from above—a scrappy, working-class, everyman enlightenment.

He laughed.

But it’s there, as sordid and messy as his story is: that humble decency, a hard-fought humanity.

***

The Rumpus: For a memoir especially, where the character in there is also the narrator, if it’s too angry and too bitter…

Matthew Parker: Nobody wants to hear it.

Rumpus: You feel like the Columbia MFA program helped bring you out of that, from a writing standpoint, or just personally?

Parker: Yeah, from a writing standpoint. Well, maybe from both. I was never really angry about doing time. I never had a problem with that because it was a part of my lifestyle: okay, I’m a junkie and this is part of being a junkie. I’ll have to go to prison every couple of years, so be it. Prison’s not that bad, you get your own TV. Once you get out of county jail.

Rumpus: What struck me in your descriptions of all these places—county, state, and federal—you seemed to have a lot of physical freedom, relative to other systems—going out on the yard.

Parker: The only place you don’t have physical freedom is in the county jails. And you’re locked up with a lot of really bad people—people who deserve to be there, frankly. I was locked up with a guy who cut his girlfriend’s head off.

Rumpus: Jesus, really?

Parker: Really sick shit. And you have to sit down and eat with this guy.

Rumpus: Where was that?

Parker: Maricopa County Jail.

Rumpus: That is fucked up.

Parker: Yeah. And he was a vicious guy. I saw him assault a guy in the pod, you know, really fucked him up, backstabbed the guy: waited ’til the guy turned his back and attacked him that way.

Rumpus: What kind of guy was he: old, young, white, Hispanic?

Parker: White guy. He was a little nuts. You kind of don’t know what people are in for. I found this out after. I knew he was in for some serious shit. You’re in there in maximum security. A lot of them are murderers. A lot of them have nothing to lose.

Rumpus: You never know, because all you get is their version of it. Maybe some rumor and gossip.

Parker: Yeah and then they ask you, “What’re you in for?”

(muffled) “Shoplifting.”

(louder) “What are you in for?”

(louder) “Shoplifting.” And they’re like, “Aw, fuck.” It’s like that Arlo Guthrie song where they all move away from you.

Rumpus: I appreciated the way that you seemed to hold yourself outside the nonsense and the craziness, all the little trivial shit, resisting the pressure to join the White Brotherhood, staying independent, just minding your own time. Do you feel like that has helped you out here?

Parker: Yeah, definitely, with the cliques and the groups—especially at Columbia. I was able to just kind of laugh at it. You know how in my book I compare the genre gangs to the prison gangs. It was even worse between the film people and the theatre people and the writing people. In the School of the Arts at Columbia you’ve got four disciplines. You have your little cliques in the writing group, but then you have the bigger cliques outside. Last night when you called me, I was doing alcohol proctor on campus.

Rumpus: What does that mean?

Parker: I basically check people’s IDs, or if it’s a grad student event I make sure no one gets out of hand. It’s basically a bouncer.

Rumpus: But they call it alcohol proctor?

Parker: Yeah.

Rumpus: Make sure people aren’t boozing. Do you drink?

Parker: A little bit, but not to get drunk. I only have a couple of beers or a glass of wine.

Rumpus: And a while back, Columbia fired you from that job because they found out you had all these convictions?

Parker: Yeah, they fired me from all my jobs.

Rumpus: And this is Columbia, bastion of liberalism, human rights.

Parker: What happened—what I think it was—you remember when that girl got killed at Yale? This was a few years back. She had a lab and there was a guy, a civilian worker, who worked in the lab with her and he killed her and he stuffed her in the wall. So right after that happened, Columbia decided to do background checks on everybody. Before that, when I first started applying for jobs at Columbia, I would tell them, “I’m a convicted felon, blah blah blah.” Nobody gave me a job. Except for the law school. The law school didn’t care. Law school still doesn’t care, because I still work for them.

Rumpus: Why are they different? Just because they have a better sense of crime?

Parker: Yeah, because they’re the law school. They see it as, This guy’s a petty thief with a history of drug abuse, that’s it. So I’m working at the law school. I’m also alcohol proctoring, and they do a background check. Of course I lit up the computer, bing bing bing, like a pinball machine. And I got an e-mail from Human Services and a letter in the mail saying Columbia can no longer employ you anywhere on campus because of your felony convictions. So I went to the Dean of the School of the Arts, and some professors I’m in tight with, and they all went ballistic on Human Resources, and they ended up hiring me back.

Rumpus: Maybe it was just an overreach in response to the Yale murder. But that’s the power of crime.

Parker: Well that’s what I think happened.

***

We’re above the frozen Bronx River.

Rumpus: I’ve been up here to the Gardens, but have not walked around like this. How often do you come here?

Parker: Two, three times a week. You can be isolated here. It clears my head.

Rumpus: You were talking earlier about anger and writing in a didactic way.

Parker: To me it was all about the system, right. In my mind, if drugs were legal I wouldn’t have a problem. All right, that’s how I thought because of course I was a junkie. I was fucked up. To me, they shouldn’t be locking people up for drugs. It’s just a personal choice. It’s a prohibition thing. It’s really all just business. So I was very angry about it.

Rumpus: You’re right about that. An easy and important distinction can be drawn between violent and non-violent, and they just don’t do it.

Parker: Nah, they don’t do it because they figured how to make money off it. They figured how to employ people. They figured out how to bring these ghost towns back to life.

Rumpus: You were in some ghost towns out there in Arizona? Name some of them for me.

Parker: Winslow is a big prison town. There’s a place called Buckeye, Arizona—big prison town. Florence, the whole thing revolves around prison. Douglas.

Rumpus: Did you feel those spirits out there, in the middle of nowhere?

Parker: I never got the ghost sense you got. I remember you wrote about that. Because most of the Arizona prisons were new. The closest I came to that was Terminal Island Federal Prison. That was an old, old prison, with the rack cells. You really get the sense there’s been a lot people in this place.

Rumpus: That was on your first bid, in the late ’80s?

Parker: Yeah, that was the Fed beef.

Rumpus: In your story, all the relationships come and go—all these different girls, your brothers, those tragic moments, which really hit me—but your mom is always there. She always seems to come through for you. But I could see where some readers would be like, Well, she’s the root cause of it all, because she was counterfeiting money. She was smoking weed all the time. She brought this whole “larceny in my blood” to the family.

Parker: ”Larceny in my blood” is basically an advanced degree in street sense. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with thievery. A lot of it just has to do with knowing how to survive on the streets. Now my mom is definitely culpable of certain things. But my mom’s redemption came in 1978, two years before my brother was murdered. When my mom moved to Arizona, that was it. She shut down everything. They wanted to start cooking speed because the counterfeiting thing fell through, and she said, “You know what, I’m done.” And she got a job and she’s pretty much been clean ever since.

Rumpus: Has she ever been to prison?

Parker: No. No, no.

Rumpus: That’s amazing, though. I mean, with the way you describe all the stuff they were into. She’s the luckiest one in the whole book.

Parker: Lucky and smart. The main reason I went to prison is I was high all the time. When you’re high, you’re not thinking too clear.

Rumpus: One of the blurbs on the back of the book talks about your story as a portrait of being desperate and lost. Through the course of it I got that feeling, like a lot of American lives maybe. You’re in Bridgeport, then you’re in Pennsylvania, then you’re out in Arizona, then you’re back in Bridgeport; then you start doing these prison stints, from one girl to the next. There’s this wandering.

Parker: Yeah, a lot of it is just self-marginalization, straight nihilism.

Rumpus: Not giving a fuck?

Parker: Yeah, you know. It’s a cop-out.

Rumpus: Another phrase related to your story: false protest. You came to this realization that a lot of your rebelling was hollow. I wanted to hear your thoughts on that.

Parker: It’s like that old James Dean line—or is it Marlon Brando? “What are you rebelling against? Well what do ya got?” It was kind of like that, especially growing up at the tail-end of the ’60s, the violent end of the ’60s. The way I chose to rebel against society was, “Well, I’m just gonna be a junkie.” Really, when you’re holding yourself that much outside of a group, you’re saying, “I’m better than the group,” which really makes you no better than the group. It comes full circle.

Rumpus: You think some of that is the ex-convict’s burden? I ask because I recognize this self-marginalizing, as you’re calling it, in myself. Something about the isolation, the ostracizing, that prison breeds in people?

Parker: Some of it. A lot of it is I don’t like crowds, for obvious reasons, because American prisons are very crowded. You’re never alone, ever—maybe when you’re in the shower, but even when you’re in the shower whacking off, on the other side of the curtain there’s twenty guys brushing their teeth—you know what I mean?

So my mom’s redemption came twenty years before mine. Then my older brother died, then my younger brother died, and her third son was in and out of prison constantly. My mom liked it when I was in prison. She knew I was safe. She knew I could take care of myself. Nothing was going to happen to me, whereas on the street, she found me OD’d a couple of times.

Rumpus: It’s seems amazing that you beat heroin, in 2002, right? How did you beat it? Is it still tempting?

Parker: No, not at all. For the first couple of years after I got out it was.

Rumpus: Why not now?

Parker: Well, I did a lot of research on it. It’s very clinical. What I found out is your brain is inherently lazy, so if it can get chemicals artificially, it’s gonna shut down making them by itself. Like endorphins. So once you stop doing the heroin, you may have convinced yourself that you don’t ever want to do it again, but your brain is screaming for you to send up more heroin, or else you’re gonna die. That’s what your brain is trying to convince you. Same with smoking, same with overeating, same with any kind of addiction on the planet. These receptors open up in your brain.

So I have a million heroin receptors screaming to be filled.

Rumpus: Understanding that gave you control over it?

Parker: Yeah, to a point, because those receptors close down in a year. Takes about a year, then they close up.

Rumpus: So you knew that and you thought, If I can just get through a year…

Parker: Yeah, that was one part of it. The other part was the rebellion thing. Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do, and if going to prison every two years is the price I pay for my freedom, then that’s it. I’m gonna shoot all the fucking heroin I want, and fuck everybody. Nobody’s gonna control me, nobody. And then I’m standing in county jail. This guard walks by and says, “Parker, what are you doing in here? You’re a smart guy. Why do you keep coming back?” And I couldn’t answer him. It was right around when I turned forty, and the judge had told me earlier that junkies usually get clean when they’re forty or they go all the way. They end up in prison or they end up dead. I realized that there was nowhere on the planet I could be in less control of my life, than I was in that fucking jail cell.

Rumpus: So you weren’t even living true to your conviction.

Parker: No, I realized it was all a lie. That guard kind of tripped it. And the judge kind of tripped it, because she told me eight years earlier, “Junkies don’t get clean until forty. You’ve got a good eight years left.” By me being a junkie, I was playing into the hands of the government, because I wasn’t being rebellious in any way that meant anything. Nobody gave a fuck that I was a junkie. I wasn’t changing anything. I wasn’t being active. I wasn’t political. My writing sucked. And basically nobody cared about me. That’s basically what it was. It was all bullshit, a sham. I realized that by me being a junkie, I was playing right into their hands, just like almost everybody in prison plays into their hands. Gangbangers on the streets play into their hands.

Rumpus: The same dynamic I thought you describe really well in terms of how you were trying to master your dick, not let your dick dictate your behavior.

Parker: Exactly. It’s kind of the same thing.  You know, I never really thought of it that way. That’s interesting.

Rumpus: It dovetails with your intellectual curiosity in evidence in the book. You getting into evolutionary psychology, biology, instincts, Darwinism. You dug into that stuff and it sounds like it opened doors for you. You realized, Wait a second. My brain is trying to trick me and I don’t want to keep doing the dope and I can’t just let my dick run wild.

Parker: Right. I have a girlfriend I love and that wouldn’t be right. When I first got out of prison, though, it was very hard. My brain was still screaming, Send up the heroin! What are you doing?! The way I resisted that was also through music.

Rumpus: I love that theme in your book. Talking about the biological insight you had into addiction and the way that helped you; talking about the biological insight you had into sex and lust, and how that’s helped you. Those are earth-bound, biologically-bound. It’s not a spiritual healing. But sometimes when you talk about music, the way it healed and helped you all through your life, that almost has a spiritual aspect to it, a magic.

Parker: Darwin had a theory about music being naturally-selected. Music makes you feel good just like drugs do. It’s a rush. You get a rush when you hear a good song that you haven’t heard in a long time, and it just washes over you. That’s like heroin, not as intense and it doesn’t last as long. It’s very natural. It’s just a boost of endorphins.

***

We’re in the café now, out of the cold but still surrounded by the peace of the park. Lady Day is soothing us sweetly over the speakers.

Parker: I was brought up going to all these concerts. We went to all these concerts when I got out of prison the last time and I was trying to stay clean. Remember I used a few times when I got out. Every time you use you go back twenty steps. Same thing with quitting smoking. I still haven’t quit smoking. It’s basically the same thing. You need to quit for a least a year, then all those receptors in your brain shut down naturally. So all of a sudden you don’t have nicotine receptors in your brain, you don’t have heroin receptors in your brain. They’re ways to speed it up. Exercise. Exercise is the best and surest way.

Rumpus: Amen to that.

Parker: Music is another way. Getting you the natural high you need to maintain an equilibrium without saying, “I need heroin! I gotta fucking have heroin!” It’s a way of telling your brain, “We’re not doing any heroin. Here’s some music.” Or, “You want some heroin? Let me go run around the block like fourteen fucking times. How’s that, motherfucker?” Then your brain is too tired to do anything.

Rumpus: I think most people don’t do what you’re doing, being able to recognize you’re your own worst enemy.

Parker: It took me a long time to come to that conclusion. In court-ordered rehab, it was all about God and all these abstractions. The whole point with me and the God thing: if God’s got nothing better to do than help me kick heroin, I mean, God’s got a million other things to do. Go feed some hungry kids. Go stop a war somewhere. I’m cool. Don’t worry about me.

So when the people in rehab told me the only way I’m gonna get clean is to link up with this higher power, I just couldn’t buy it. I had to look for other reasons. I had to look clinical. I started looking at what psychiatrists said. Starting looking at what scientists were saying. And what they were saying is that you can get addicted to anything. You can get addicted to beating your wife—where you’re not gonna feel that sense of equilibrium until you beat your wife and that’s really sick, but that’s basically how it works. Your brain thinks, I need to do this to feel good.

Rumpus: To snap that pattern is very hard, right? The patience and wherewithal to hold off.

Parker: Right, so I’m out of prison. I’m living with my mom. She finds me stark fucking naked, half OD’d, in a heroin stupor. My mom’s like, This is it. This is gonna be his life until he dies. This was 2002.

Rumpus: You do say that the prison time did serve you in the sense that you would clean out.

Parker: Yeah, you could clean out to the point that you weren’t strung out, but you could still fix on the weekend if you wanted to. There are plenty of drugs in prison.

Rumpus: But once you got out you knew you were just gonna tear it up.

Parker: ”Out the gate at eight, in the spoon by noon.”

Rumpus: Where did you get that?

Parker: It’s just a prison saying, a prison cliché. I wrote a short story called that. I don’t like reading addiction memoirs, though. According to Billy Cioffi, who is a musician and a friend of mine, you can write an addiction memoir in one sentence: And then I puked.

Rumpus: That’s hilarious. Right, with prison stories in general, how do you get past the clichés and stereotypes. How do you get past “And then I puked.” One thing I did admire in your story is how you let it hang. You really revealed yourself.

Parker: I shot too straight, to where people are holding it against me. One critic said there’s no redemptive arc. Another critic in the New York Journal of Books said, “Oh, he’s still exactly the same person that he was when he went to prison.”

Rumpus: Maybe it’s just that you don’t couch it in moral terms that they’re used to.

Parker: Yeah, I mean after prison I got two college degrees. I graduated with honors. You know how hard it is to graduate with honors from ASU? Then I graduated from Columbia. I got a book deal. I wrote, drew, and lettered an entire, two-hundred-and-eighty-page book. One critic said that “he’s still gaming the system.” My book is gaming the system.

Rumpus: That you’re making money off crime, drug addiction?

Parker: That I’m just a cheap liar. I didn’t meet his standard of redemption, whatever that might be.

Rumpus: The ex-con narrator is a real double-edged sword. Did your editor ever want you to be more explicitly anti-drug?

Parker: No.

Rumpus: Did your editor ever talk to you about wanting more redemption notes in there?

Parker: No. The only thing my editor didn’t like is I had a lot of politics in there. He made me take all that shit out.

Rumpus: I thought the recurring fantasy of you kidnapping Rush Limbaugh was funny.

Parker: But see that tied into the story because you can’t get a student loan with a drug conviction, but you can get a student loan with a “kidnapping Rush Limbaugh” conviction.

Rumpus: That’s fucked up.

Parker: It’s insane. There was another scene right after that where I kidnapped Ann Coulter and sewed her mouth shut. He cut it out.

Rumpus: Arizona certainly lends itself to some political conversation.

Parker: Going back to, “And then I puked.” That was kind of the problem I had and the problem my agent had.

Rumpus: You yourself saw the limitations of what you’d written?

Parker: Yeah, especially after A Million Little Pieces came out. The addiction memoir is getting kind of tired. How are we gonna make this different? One day me and my agent were having lunch down in Greenwich Village. I was done with course work at Columbia. I had three years to complete my thesis. I showed him this little five-page graphic memoir I did for a cross-genre class at Columbia. I’ve been drawing all my life. It was a hustle in prison. If you gave me a picture of your girlfriend, I could draw her and you pay me. What I found out is that you had to bullshit ‘em a little. Someone gave me a picture of his girlfriend and I drew it in one night and gave it to him the next day. And he didn’t like it, and the reason he didn’t like it is ‘cause it was done overnight. After that, if somebody gave me a picture I would draw it and then sit on it for a week and then bring it back and tell them, “Oh, I really worked hard on this.” And they would love it every time.

My agent said, “All right, I’ll get back to you in a few weeks.” By the time I got back to my apartment uptown, he had called me like six times. He said, “Drop everything. This is what we’re doing. We’re gonna make your memoir a graphic.”

Rumpus: Were you resistant to that?

Parker: Yeah, I told him, “You’re outta your fucking mind.” I didn’t know how to do a graphic story. I read Persepolis—that was it. But then I read Maus and said, “Ohhh, now I get it,” because I really didn’t get it with Persepolis, although I think it’s a good book. It was more comic-y and childish to me. Then I read Maus. I kind of based my book on a Maus format.

Rumpus: Do they still call it a graphic novel? Which isn’t precise. It should be graphic memoir.

Parker: Yeah. In fact, in Publisher’s Weekly it’s listed under graphic novel, under fiction.

Rumpus: For me that further blurs the line, and I think those lines need to be clear. Obviously in a graphic narrative there’s much less text. Did that force you to be much sparer and sharper? What are some of the advantages?

Parker: Well you can show a lot of things, but you have to be very sparse, very clever. It has to grab you, ‘cause you’re not just reading anymore. You’re looking.

Rumpus: On the other side of it, what gets lost?

Parker: A lot of detail is lost, a lot of background information. Telling a memoir in a graphic form, the reader is having to work harder in some ways to figure out what’s going on, even though you’ve got a lot of visual clues. The reader is still gonna have to do a little more work. You ever read Fun Home? Fun Home is kind of the same way. You don’t have pages and pages of background detail, and maybe the reader is gonna have to cut you a little slack at some point.

The writing part is hard. Getting through the editing is a nightmare. Then I got to the point where I had to handwrite all the lettering and do all the art, but that is very therapeutic, just sitting there doing the lettering. You wonder why people do calligraphy until you actually have to sit down and do it. It’s soothing. Just doing the art, you’re not writing anymore, so it’s not as tiring.

***

We take a break. Matt goes outside to smoke a cigarette on a hillside.  

Rumpus: How are Vonnegut and heroin related?

Parker: The postmodern thing. Vonnegut’s characters are always these geeky, off-the-wall guys, like Billy Pilgrim. He just didn’t fit in. I still self-marginalize myself, living in the Bronx. The Bronx is like the anti-Berkeley. Brooklyn is kind of artsy-fartsy, liberal, but the Bronx is the Bronx. I have a soft spot in my heart for it, always have.

Rumpus: Why? Is it the realness, the grit?

Parker: Yeah.

Rumpus: So heroin is postmodern, just because it’s outlaw and fringe?

Parker: The whole postmodern thing is life is really a random thing. There’s no heaven or hell. Basically you just live your life, then you die, and that’s it. You can turn your life into a struggle, which is what I did. By trying to escape you’re making it harder on yourself.

Rumpus: Escape what, the system?

Parker: Right. You don’t want to be like everyone else. The thing about prison is you’re right there in the middle of the system. You’re putting yourself into that position where they can victimize you. You’re playing into their hands. My way of not being bourgeois was being a junkie, living on the other side of the law. My nihilism was the destructive bent was turned inward. So you’re basically living out that postmodern thing, that Vonnegut character.

Rumpus: Were you trying to be that?

Parker: Yeah, in a sense, in a very real sense. I was trying to be a Billy Pilgrim. I was trying to be that person who didn’t fit. I didn’t want to fit in their system. I wanted to be outside. I buried two brothers. Everything was all fucked up. The whole system was skewed towards the poor and minorities.

Rumpus: Still is.

Parker: Still is. There’s a great book I just read, The New Jim Crow. Michelle Alexander. Once I figured out that by being in prison I wasn’t doing anything to hurt the system, being critical of it, like Alexander’s book, all I was doing was being a part of it. I was playing into their hands. I was just a number, just another convict.

Rumpus: Is it just a matter of not getting caught and not going in there or using your energy differently?

Parker: Using your energy differently to try to effect change. So by being a writer, maybe, but being a convict…

Rumpus: Being a convict you can’t do shit. You’re just banging your head against the wall, driving yourself crazy.

Parker: And my writing was just angry and didactic—the system sucks.

Yeah, well, we know the system sucks. Tell us something we don’t know. There’s a lot of things you could say about prison, like there’s a million non-violent drug offenders, but everybody already knows that. Everybody with any kind of a social conscience knows that.

Rumpus: When you read Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle in prison you say, “I’m surprised it didn’t make more of an impact on me at the time.”

What did you mean by that?

Parker: When you read The First Circle they were very intellectual, and I wasn’t. I thought I was. It should have encouraged me to turn to writing rather than heroin, that writing was a better outlet, that you can be rebellious in the writing. You can be everything that a junkie is by being a writer. You can be self-marginalized. You can be rebellious. And you can effect social change in writing. What I was writing in prison at the time was stuff that everybody had heard. Yes, you’re a junkie and you’re in prison, so what. Join the club. There’re a million of you.

Rumpus: And then I threw up.

Parker: And then I puked.

***

Rumpus: Your brothers. I got to tell you, I found that really affecting. I’m reading the story and it’s gritty, a kind of American picaresque, there’s this guy who is aimless and lost, drug-addled, and then I got to those moments where your brothers die. I was shocked. Fuck, now it’s for keeps, I thought. And it wasn’t just John—then it’s Mark later on. It adds a depth to your story. You can’t get any more dramatic than life and death, of course. It hit me hard, but I thought you did a good job with it, that there’s no self-pity in it.

Parker: No, I was just the opposite. I used my brothers dying to go further into heroin. Rather than lightening the burden on my mother and my sister and other family, I made it worse. I just made it worse.

Rumpus: When you reached the age at which they both died, twenty-three, did you think about that? That this was as much time as they got?

Parker: Yeah, but not enough that it would do anything to make me change. I OD’d the next day.

Rumpus: I was thinking of the line you’re fond of, where the doctor told your mom, “Go home and grieve.” Did you finally grieve or are you still?

Parker: You grieve a lot. But in prison you can’t show any kind of weakness, ‘cause they’ll eat you alive. If you have suicide scars, they don’t want you around, ‘cause they figure if you’re weak enough to commit suicide you’re weak enough to snitch.

Same with being a junkie. My younger brother was a total shock. What’s ironic about my older brother John dying was he was everything that I was becoming. He showed me that it’s kind of a dead end, even though he never used needles or anything. I didn’t learn anything from him, because I kept doing the exact same thing.

Rumpus: I really admire the piece you wrote for the Times about John’s murder. The grace you showed.

Parker: “Wanting to Kill.”

Rumpus: The resistance and refusal to hate. Is that a fair way to describe what you wrote?

Parker: Yeah, it was a very bizarre incident in my life.

Rumpus: I think that was a really powerful piece to put out there. I think that for a lot of readers that is a way to talk about revenge and hate and murder in a way that they’ve never heard before.

Parker: Yeah, that was kind of what it was all about. When I’m sitting in Arizona state prison and they told me you have a Do Not House in your jacket with this guy who murdered your brother. Well, if you believe in the death penalty, here it is. I believed in the death penalty at the time. It’s very easy to say, If they put me in the same yard as this guy, I’m gonna have to kill him. Because of my sense of duty, my own sense of revenge, my belief in the death penalty at that time, and my own sense of self-preservation, because he could come after me.

Rumpus: You’re such an anti-establishment guy, why would you believe in the death penalty?

Parker: Because my brother was murdered. In my little mind that’s gonna bring me closure. When really there is no closure. You never forget, ever. I don’t care how many people they killed. It doesn’t do anything.

Rumpus: Where is that dude now?

Parker: He got out. In fact I didn’t know he got out until I wrote that New York Times piece. The Times fact-checker found out. I knew people in prison who knew him. They called him Heart Attack Fred because he was always faking having a heart attack.

Rumpus: Any chance he read your story?

Parker: All’s I know is he did twenty-five years almost to the day.

Rumpus: It sounds like you’re pleased about that.

Parker: Well twenty-five years ain’t no cakewalk. What pissed me off about this guy most was that he was unrepentant. He’s got to be in his sixties now.

Rumpus: What was the response to that piece?

Parker: I did an interview with The Takeaway, on NPR. The response I got was all from anti-death penalty people. The death penalty really is just about revenge. What I realized is, Hey, if I don’t want to kill this guy physically, then I sure as hell don’t want the state to do it.

Rumpus: However fucked up people might take you to be, as fucked up and crazy as they might view your family and experiences, you never seemed down with the knee-jerk hate and the racial shit in the prisons and society at large. You have a tolerance about you.

Parker: If you think you’re better than someone else, it’s easy to look down on them and fling shit on them. And you’re not being any different than the white supremacist in prison. One thing I found out in prison is it’s easy to hate.

Rumpus: Easy to hate?

Parker: Hate is the easiest emotion in the world. See, they bring these kids in and they convince them. It’s very Machiavellian. See that twenty-year-old kid coming in doing a five-year beef. He’s never done heroin before. Within two weeks he’s shooting heroin, ‘cause that’s the easiest drug to get in there. And he’s also being taught that there’s going to be a race war. I can’t imagine what it’s like now with Obama as president, because they hate black people so much.

Rumpus: You were also in a very white part of the country. Has a Hispanic population, too.

Parker: In every prison in America you have to stay with your race. It’s self-segregating.

Rumpus: Even though you were an independent you had to play by white-boy rules.

Parker: You can’t even play basketball with them. There’s still that myth that if you touch a black man you’ll catch something. I got in trouble rooting for Serena Williams in a tennis match once. I couldn’t even watch Seinfeld because of the Jewish thing.

Rumpus: That’s just crazy. Are prisons that bad, or is it Arizona in particular?

Parker: I did time in California and it was the same there.

Rumpus: Did you feel awkward having to behave like that, not letting guys of other races ever sit on your bunk, for example?

Parker: Yeah, but there’s nothing you can do. They’ll kill you otherwise. That’s what’s different about the mythos of “larceny in my blood,” the family thing. We may be criminals, but we don’t hate each other. It’s like the Bronx. It’s very communal. It’s kind of what people miss in my story, because even though we were shoplifters and into drugs, we weren’t racist assholes. We weren’t religious fanatics. We weren’t judgmental. We were always close as a family.

***

All art © 2012 and 2013 by Matthew Parker. Excerpts from Larceny in My Blood, reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

Click here to read excerpts from Larceny in My Blood.


Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a 2008 Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and one of World Hum’s Best Travel Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Foreign Policy. He teaches writing at NYU. More from this author →