August 13, 2012
When he was in the fourth grade at a Catholic school in Bridgeport, Conn., the nuns asked him to cut his hair. “But Jesus had long hair,” was Matthew Parker’s response. And he refused to trim his locks.
“My teacher, Sister Magdalene, would put pink ribbons in my hair and taunt me in front of the class,” Parker wrote in his newly issued – and first book – “Larceny in My Blood: A Memoir of Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education.”
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“Red-faced, I’d always remove them, and she’d always responded with violence. I failed fourth grade that year, and was kept back. Much to my relief, my mom moved me to public school the following year.”
But, Parker, who graduated from ASU in 2007 at the age of 47, wrote, “After that, whenever someone in authority would tell me to do one thing, I’d do the opposite.”
Parker’s graphic memoir, which he illustrated with his own drawings, tells his story of drug abuse, prison and jail time, theft, sexual promiscuity and addiction.
He was born in Bridgeport, one of four siblings. It was not a happy home. “My father was not only a drunk but was physically and mentally abusive – to all of us, but to my mom most of all,” Parker wrote.
“In retaliation, she stopped cooking for him, bleached her hair blonde, and began swearing like a sailor.”
His father moved out, and his parents divorced in 1965. “She took a low-paying job and almost immediately turned to larceny, mostly with crimes of shoplifting,” Parker said.
“She then collected welfare while working, a serious felony. Mom was evolving criminally.”
His mother soon began to sell marijuana, and so did Parker. “I sold it by the ounce. I made twenty grand my first year, when I was 13,” he wrote.
Three years later, he started the long road into and out of addiction to heroin. “I was 16 the first time I stuck a needle in my arm,” Parker said.
By 1977, he had already been arrested three times. Before it was all over, he would be arrested more than 30 times and spend 11 years in various county, state and federal jails and prisons.
All the while, his talent for writing lurked beneath the surface, and could, possibly, have saved him. He wrote, “As a child, I was enchanted by the magic I found in books. Reading books soon turned to writing. I wrote my first poem and my first short story in fifth grade and began a fantasy novel by high school, but I never took my writing too seriously.”
He chose, instead, to leave school, seeing “the illusion of magic” in drugs instead of the true magic of writing.
After his last release from prison, in 2002, Parker came to an enormous fork in the road of his life. He overdosed at his mother’s house in Scottsdale and almost fell back into the life of an addict. The look on his mother’s face, when she realized he had once again used heroin, changed his mind, however.
He wrote in his memoir, “The level of sad acceptance on my mom’s face motivates me to stay clean. I vow that it’s the last time I’ll ever stick a needle in my arm. I use once or twice after that, but the magic is gone. I decide, once and for all, to never use again.”
Heroin had such a grip on him because he “always abhorred control,” he said. “So I believed that, in being a junkie, I was very cleverly living outside the control of society and, specifically, the drug laws I'd seen as senseless. It wasn't until I realized, as I celebrated my 40th birthday in a Maricopa County jail, that nowhere was I more in the control of what I viewed as an unjust legal system than when I was in that jail and/or a slave to heroin.”
Parker enrolled in Scottsdale Community College and then Barrett, the Honors College at ASU. After he graduated from ASU, he earned a MFA degree in creative writing from Columbia University.
After years of mistrust and disappointment, Parker said his friends and relatives now trust that he will never use drugs and go back to prison again.
“It’s been 10 years, after all, since I last used an illegal drug. But believing in me came hardest to my mother. She’d seen the pattern repeated too many times in the past – a few weeks clean, then a hard fall followed by more jail or prison time.
“I don’t think she fully trusted me until 2003, a year after my release from prison. I became an honor student at Scottsdale Community College that semester, and also made the Dean’s List. It was enough for my mom to finally believe that education was my new drug.”
Parker said he tried heroin “because I was burned out on all the drugs of the day – barbiturates, amphetamines, LSD, PCP, and even pot and alcohol. It was the mid-1970s, and drug use was ubiquitous. Heroin seemed the logical next step, and was the right, or wrong, choice, depending on your perspective.
“The right choice because heroin is relatively clean when compared to amphetamines or even legal substances like alcohol and nicotine, and the wrong choice because of its highly addictive properties, and the penalties for choosing heroin over legal and socially acceptable substances were draconian.”
When he enrolled in college, Parker was unsure about what to major in. “I always had a love for military aircraft, NASA, and the science connected with the mysteries inherent in the universe,” he said. “But physics confounded me and my math sucked. I did, however, manage to incorporate science into my honors thesis for Barrett– specifically, Darwinian themes in literature.”
Though he had written poetry in fifth grade, Parker soon learned that his talent did not lie in this area, either. Cynthia Hogue, professor of English and Marshall Chair in Poetry at ASU, said, “Matt started out in poetry with me, for a year, at the end of which I said, ‘Matt, you have so many stories to give to the world (but you don't have poems!). Take creative nonfiction!’ And so began his odyssey, for he did take CNF, and then, God bless him, he got into Columbia!”
Parker’s professors at both Scottsdale Community College and ASU were, perhaps, startled when they learned the background of their “mature” student, but they soon realized how much he could add to their classes.
Sandra Desjardins, a professor of English and humanities and director of the Creative Writing Program at SCC, said, “I will never forget the day I first met Matthew. I was in my office grading writing, and there was a knock at the door. In came Matthew, wearing what I would come to recognize as his signature style: a very worn denim jacket and jeans. He reminded me of Bob Dylan. I remember his eyes, shy yet intense, as he told me about wanting to enroll in my creative writing class. I could not have known at that moment that I was embarking on a most remarkable friendship.
“He took the class more than once, and made many wonderful friends with whom he is still in touch. Matthew also took my humanities survey course where he excelled in connecting the conceptual dots among centuries of history, literature, music, religion, and art. I have always respected his analytical mind and his capacity for critical thinking. He was an exceptional honors student, and I never doubted that he could accomplish whatever he put his mind to.
“It was my hope that Matthew would attend my alma mater because I knew he would love New York City, and it would love him! When he had to take the entrance exams, he was so cared about by so many of us at the college, that a ‘Send Matthew to Columbia’ fund was created. Matthew’s journey to fully understanding and honoring his own integrity, intelligence, compassion, talents, and joy for life is certainly compelling.”
Matthew C. Whitaker, ASU Foundation Professor of History, said, “Matthew was one of the wisest and most determined students that I have ever taught. Indeed, his experiences and perspectives motivated him, gave him clarity, and transfixed his peers.
“Having him in class was like having a ‘co-structor’ at times. He was more than willing to legitimize much of what I said through the power of his own experiences and I was very grateful for his participation. His inspirational and righteous reclamation is one of the most instructive narratives I have ever known.”
Hogue particularly remembers Parker’s involvement in a service-learning program, which was an optional part of her “Poetics of Bearing Witness” class.
The service-learning project was to help establish an after-school creative writing club for sixth graders at Kenilworth School, many of whom were underprivileged and Hispanic.
“He also volunteered to pick the children up from their school every week because our SL office didn’t have enough drivers. That added an extra hour each week to Parker’s time, but in this way, he ensured that the children arrived safely,” Hogue said. “He wrote a reflective journal every week (part of the course work), full of details about the children, their differing personalities and the extraordinary poems they were writing. Full, as well, of Parker’s great heart.”
One of Parker’s journal entries included this thought:
“Afterwards I was driving home, just before 6 p.m., and a full rainbow spread from north to south, its natural color contrasting the grey sky and somber Phoenix skyline. Here’s an occurrence, I couldn’t help thinking, that should resurrect the poet in all of us, at least for a little while.”
Elizabeth McNeil, a professor of languages and cultures at ASU, was Parker’s academic adviser and had him as a student in her course on ecofeminism.
Over his time at ASU, she got to know him as a friend, as well as a student. “Matthew brought a lot into my life, actually – friendship, music, his family, a slew of creative people, and a perspective on prison that has supported my work with inmates as well as my ability to understand better the situations of some relatives and friends.”
McNeil started a book-donation and education program in prisons through the Department of English, and has collected and delivered more than 10,000 books to Arizona prisons and one out-of-state women’s prison. She also has taught poetry in several prisons.
McNeil said of Parker, “Matthew's openness, honesty, sense of social justice, and total confidence in his writing path have been inspiring to me and my family. His challenges and achievements have also been big motivators for other inmates and ex-convicts with whom I've had the pleasure of sharing Matthew's incredible story.”
Parker said that writing the book, and drawing all the pictures, was both painful and healing. “When drawing a memory, I was forced to dwell in that memory much longer than if I was just writing it out in sentences and paragraphs,” he said. “The plus side of this was that I would remember more, thus enhancing the experience as well as the writing. And although some of it may have been painful at the time, it was also wonderfully cathartic, akin to the grieving process.”
He now lives in New York City and is working on a prose memoir, and a novel, and he writes essays about “politics, felony disenfranchisement, the healthcare mandate that all jail and prison inmates enjoy, as well as many other topics.”
One of his essays, on the death penalty, was published in the New York Times Aug. 5.
When he’s not writing, he likes to take “long walks in the New York Botanical Gardens while music blares through my headphones. I also follow politics and sports pretty closely,” he said. “My TV is on all day as I write; politics during the day and sports – baseball, football, and hockey – during primetime. This is a consequence of doing time in noisy, bustling jails and prisons. I find that I need something going on in the background in order to concentrate while I write.”
Parker plans to marry his long-time girlfriend, a Colombian woman he met online in 2007, next summer.
He realizes that he is fortunate to be alive. “I did OD a couple times, was even taken to the hospital once, but the real danger came in buying drugs and/or the lifestyle. In buying drugs, the neighborhoods were often dangerous, particularly on the East Coast, and I’ve been robbed at knifepoint and shot at more than once,” Parker said. “I was also once pistol whipped severely by a dealer who believed I had robbed him. I thought for sure that I was going to die on that occasion.”
Parker said there are several themes in his memoir. “The main message is that spending money on incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders is counterproductive; that we'd serve the public much better by putting those untold billions into education, preventative or otherwise.
“Also of note is the healing power of music and education. It's never too late to learn, and I was always dismayed at the number of people who felt that they were incapable of learning, which was especially true amongst prisoners.”