Voices

For the better part of four years, I’ve kept this story tucked safely away. I don’t know why, exactly. It was once published in a student newspaper, and most people who know me also know this part of my past.

But for whatever reason, I’ve kept this story close to the chest. Maybe it’s because the writing is rough around the edges. To be sure, it’s one of the first stories I ever wrote. I think I’m more self-conscious about my prose than I am the content (I resisted, with great pain, the urge to change a word here, or tighten a sentence there).

But I suspect that’s not the whole reason why I feel vulnerable. And maybe that’s the reason I’m reposting — to understand a little better. That’s pretty much the reason why I write in the first place.

And why not? Life is too short to keep our thoughts tucked safely away.  So here goes.

By Mario Koran

May 6, 2010

The morning of Jan. 5 the sound of the jailer’s keys woke me up.  The steel door popped open and I slid off my bunk.  In the locker room, I exchanged my orange two-piece for frayed work pants, grabbed my bag lunch and walked out of the Wood County Jail into Wisconsin’s winter.

It was day 103 in confinement and I had recently been allowed to leave for 8 hours of work before returning to the cell-block at night.  I would clean houses and chew tobacco and feel lucky for it.

On break I set down the vacuum and picked up a Rolling Stone. A flyer for its 35th annual college journalism contest slid out.  I read the rules: “Must be a current student. Must submit article published in a student newspaper.” I dropped the paper, dejected. I wasn’t a student and saw journalism as too objective and heartless to express the whole truth.

But I wanted to write how I traded a college degree from The University of Wisconsin for two felonies, a probation agent and a withheld prison term.  I wanted to write about jail and what I think it means to swallow failure and fear and start over…

Almost a year before I saw the flyer, I taught American Literature in a high school outside of Denver. In February 2009, after six months of sobriety, I came to school legally intoxicated.  I walked into the administrators’ office with a 24 oz. can of Bud light and explained that I couldn’t work and wanted to go home.  I was fired immediately.

I left work and drank whiskey in a downtown Denver dive bar.  I smoked crack cocaine near a homeless shelter underneath a sign that read, “Jesus Saves.” I took a cab to the airport and boarded a flight home to Wisconsin to enter substance abuse treatment for the second time that year.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed mood stabilizers along with Antabuse.  I completed rehab and just as quickly relapsed.  I drank against indications of my meds and I turned my destruction inside-out.  I needed others to experience what it felt like inside my brain.

I acted the lead in a made-for-TV addiction drama: a real-life, volatile cliche.

When I was 18, smoking pot daily and watching episodes of Northern Exposure instead of training for college football, my mom urged me to see a therapist.  “He can fix your brain so you want to play football again,” she told me.

For the past 10 years I have worked with a counselor named Ken Berg.  “As one who has read your record from the beginning as well as interviewed your mother about your childhood: fear is predominant,” said Berg.

I’ve never been able to pinpoint the source of my fear.  It seems hard-wired, chromosomal.  At times its voice is loud, sometimes it’s a whisper.  But anxiety has been constant and feels as natural as the booze did which I drank to silence it.

At 27, I was sleeping on my parents’ couch, physically ill and violently sad.  I was humiliated and unemployable. I walked to the bar every night and stumbled home babbling.  Drunk one morning, I split my knuckles shattering my reflection in the mirror.

I broke into bars and drank their liquor.  I never looked for money.  Once I sat down and poured myself a mug of beer and waited for cops who never came.  In the morning I remembered only fragments; the stolen bottles my only proof the crimes occurred.  The liquor wasn’t the goal; it was to feel anything but dead.

On the night of April 14 I was drunk and walking past a closed bar.  I remember kicking the door open, walking in, taking a bottle, walking out, and turning right, directly into a squad car.

The official police report, written by Officer Beauchamp, reads, “I stopped the defendant to see what he was carrying.  At that time the defendant pulled a 1 liter bottle of Vox Vodka from beneath his coat.  I asked the subject where he got the bottle and he stared at the ground and told me he screwed up.”

I was taken to the station and questioned on two other burglaries.  I would later be charged with all three.  My dad appeared the next day in court and asked the judge to keep me in jail.

I could not see my dad’s face but I heard in his voice that he was crying. He said I was a danger to myself. The judge agreed but offered a cash bond on the condition that I kept absolutely sober.  I was never able to keep that condition.

That summer I spun the doors of jails, rehabs and liquor stores.  Berg said, “At one of your appointments you smelled of alcohol.  The crimes began more frequently; along with the violence. Your state of mind was soaking.”

Joe Stroik was the city’s chief of police.  I played football with his son and he drove us to camp one summer.  The day of my final arrest, I fought police in the station parking lot.  I stopped resisting when I saw Stroik.

I was hand-cuffed, sobbing and apologizing:  “I’m sorry, Mr. Stroik.” Stroik took me by the arm and guided me to the back of the squad car.  He said quietly, “It’s time to be a man, Mario.”

Stroik later wrote me, “I was disappointed to hear about your connection to the burglaries but I wasn’t surprised…your behavior was not typical of you.  But you have always been passionate and competitive to the point it could help you or get you into trouble.”

Sept. 23 I was booked in jail for the final time.  I had accumulated 13 felony charges: mostly “bail-jumping” for breaking conditions of absolute sobriety.  Prison was a real possibility. My family stopped accepting my phone calls.

The jail psychologist placed me on suicide watch.  My clothes were taken and I was placed in the hole. I wore heavy, green, tear-proof fabric meant to prevent hanging myself.  On my 28th birthday I read the Bible but would remainunaffected and jaded until the night I surrendered to fear.

Part II

The morning of December 7 I called my mother and told her to bring a pair of jeans for me to wear home from my court hearing. The District Attorney was recommending no jail time in exchange for a guilty plea.

Judge Mason presided.  Dusty paintings of former county judges hung on the wall.  Mason had the power to accept the DA’s recommendation or to sentence me to additional confinement.

As he proceeded, Mason turned the papers of my criminal charges faster, his tone of voice sharpened.  I had a speech prepared, but by the time he reminded me how many times I’d been handcuffed, how many chances I burned, I had nothing to say.  The official court transcript reads as follows:

THE COURT: “Mr. Koran, why shouldn’t the court say to you: confinement?  Go and do the time that sadly, your behavior has brought upon you so that nobody has to put up with this abysmal behavior, this waste of a human life that you are presenting.  Tell me, in your own words… why?”

THE DEFENDANT: “…That’s a very good question, sir.”

I was sentenced and immediately transferred from Wood County to Waupaca County Jail.  It warehouses 320 inmates behind one-way glass and blue steel jail doors that clank shut.  Nights I laid awake reading graffiti written on the walls by humans that had slept there before me.

My attorney, Michel Zell, visited and explained the terms of my sentence.   I would serve 300 days in jail and 7.5 years on probation. 300 days framed by a steel door sliding open each morning and shut each night.

“I’m 28.  I shouldn’t be here,” I told him.  “People younger than me are doing amazing things with their lives.  The guy that wrote Obama’s speeches was younger than me.”

“Yeah, Mario,” said Zell.  “People do amazing things at your age.  Some people write speeches, some people have families.  But some people get cancer.  Some people die.

Everyone is responsible for their own lives.  I don’t think I accepted that until I had kids of my own.”

Insomnia has haunted me for as long as I can remember.  No longer able to drink myself to sleep at night, I felt solitude as noiseless and crushing as I imagined the ocean floor.  One night, I stopped denying fear and let it wash over me. I began to sleep.

I met Mike Phillips, a 40-year old inmate who’s been locked-up or on probation for the past 20 years, he said.  He was 6’4”, 285 lbs, and convinced other inmates to donate their lunches by explaining why the food was inedible.  He taught me how to laugh in jail.

Hunger was a constant, irksome murmur. One day I asked Phillips if it bothers that he would not have sex with a woman for at least a year. “It bugs me more I won’t be able to eat a pizza,” he said.

Phillips and I paced in our cage for exercise.  I asked him how old he was when he first considered himself an adult.  He said he never thought that way.  “People don’t mature in here,” he said.  “They just wait. It’s emotional cold-storage.”

Two days before Christmas, I heard my name over the PA telling me to pack my belongings.  I’d been granted work-release privileges and would be allowed to work or attend school during days.  I’d be able to hug mom – and phones and Plexiglas would no longer be part of a weekly transaction.

On Christmas we were served hot chunks of turkey and church members delivered bags of popcorn and peppermints to our cells.  I thanked them and meant it.  It was hurting less to smile.

On January 25 I walked the sidewalks of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point feeling like a tourist.  I registered for classes but felt suddenly invisible, alien, detached – lost in a sea of chatter.

I enrolled in social work and told the professor about my criminal record and that I wanted to help ex-convicts.  She praised my curiosity, my insight, but did not placate me: felonies pose serious obstacles to grad school and careers in social work, she said.

Felons are American exiles, forever-flagged job-seekers. After the visible punishment, there’s the stigma: “once you’re in the system,” etc.  I wear the label.  But how I apply it is a choice – and it can be a shameful stain or a combat badge.

I took journalism because I wanted to write about humans living in jail and how they forfeit dreams everyday without nostalgia or ceremony.  I felt the greatest tragedies are the ones that are never told.

I told Professor Steve Hill where I spent my nights.  He didn’t flinch.  Maybe you can work out some issues in the process of writing about them, he said.

I wrote a story about lack of rehabilitation programs in jail.  I interviewed inmates, jailers and a pastor. Hill recognized my efforts, my ability to “write cleanly,” but said these topics may be too sprawling for the typical space of news journalism.   He suggested I sharpen my focus.

To me, more than a question of topic, it was of reality.  And I needed a method of writing it, presenting it, truthfully.

It’s a matter that’s infinitely more important and elusive than balancing fact and emotion.  Truthful writing is our best attempt to stab moving targets with precise language and it’s the play-by-play of the effort.  It’s a transparent practice of exploration.  It’s the act of finding a voice, and it applies to everyday living.

I met a girl called Moogs and after class we shared sandwiches and stories.  She told me her father died last year for alcohol-related reasons.  Moogs knows disappointment and anxiety.  The skin near her fingernails is frayed and chewed.  We read each other “Onion” articles and smile and keep good company.

Sometimes Moogs seems frozen and needs help hanging words on emotions – like ornaments.  Sometimes it’s me that gets stuck and needs helps unthawing parts of myself.  We can’t save each other, but we help each other find our words.

Like all romantic futures, ours is ambiguous and unpredictable. But Moogs has taught me that love is not a sentimental mystery.   It’s shorthand for a practical, ongoing process that starts with saying what I mean and doing what I say.  All these ideas- the theme of countless movies and novels – seemed boring and abstract, until I tried them.

In 2005 author David Foster Wallace spoke to Kenyon College’s graduating class. He addressed the cliche that college can teach a student “how to think.”  The phrase, he said, has little to do with academics and everything to do with simple awareness.

“…Being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.  That is real freedom.  That is being educated, and understanding how to think,” Wallace said.

The semester is ending and students are transitioning to other lives.  I have 7 more years of probation and prison continues to loom.  By June 17 I will have spent 10 months getting an education I couldn’t learn in any college.

I’ve learned that we all have voices in our skulls and we must constantly decide which ones to trust. Some come from fear and want us to hurt.  But some want us to transcend the clutter – the bullshit and daily minutia – to help others and ourselves.

By listening to this voice, this composite creation of the best words our brains have to offer, it becomes a constant friend.  We adopt it as our voice, and we learn to use it. And if that voice is authentic, meticulously honest, others will hear it and believe in it and feel with their nervous system.

By sharing our voice, we can help others to find theirs -we become their teachers.  But more importantly, by learning to recognize and trust our voice – we become our own continuous teachers.

It is spring.  I am graduating, but not from education, and this is my speech.  It is for you.

This story ran in the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s student newspaper in May, 2010. 

Writers note: “Moogs” in this story is Megan Koran. We got married in July, 2012. We live in San Diego with our daughter, Lucia, who is the light of the world. 

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12 thoughts on “Voices

  1. Very sincere, humble, and honest Mario!!! I’m glad you are in a better place and can see a light in the place you reside. I like to believe; knowledge + experience = wisdom… Take Care and Thank You for sharing!

  2. Utterly impressed, mario. What an amazing journey. I am a high school teacher and work with many kids I fear may be on the same destructive path. I may share this with them. Take care!!!

  3. I don’t typically read with such fervor but this was an exception and I found myself overcome with anticipation and empathy. I appreciated Mario’s honesty, determination, and courage and ultimately sharing his success and hopefully giving others the confidence, optimism, and the bravery to conquer their own demons.

  4. Thank you for sharing your journey Mario. I applaud your openness and honesty. You are helping countless others who are struggling. I cheered for you on the football field and continue to be a big fan! Wishing you nothing but the best in the future~

  5. Mario, thanks for sharing. So many of us live w/out the courage to open-up and share our humanity. You used “vulnerability” as a descriptor. So true. I’m writing a piece called “A Year in the Desert” about “vulnerability” and institutions like the one that I’m leaving-Minn. State. The piece is about my own struggles as I tried to create change for people w/disabilities. You’ve inspired me. Thank you.

    Sent from my iPhone

  6. Mario: You interviewed me at UW-Stevens Point. I don’t remember when exactly but the topic was related to veteran’s issues. Reading this has “changed” my perspective of you. When I first met you and we talked, you shared in a very vague way your past. I knew you were not proud of it. I could tell. However, I remember thinking, from the very beginning of our brief interactions and the exchanges between us, you were a good, real person. I sensed and felt it.
    After seeing the progression of your life on the Bookface and reading this post, my perspective of you has “changed” to one of increased admiration and a very true feeling of personal happiness for you. I am proud to know you.
    I hope for you and yours all the best. Get some!

  7. I’d like to thank you all for taking the time to read this story and for leaving such kind responses. After all, we’ve all suffered in some ways, and many people deal with tragedies they didn’t bring upon themselves. Posting this has been a great learning experience for me. Thank you for being a part of that. I feel very lucky and humbled.

  8. I read this when you first tweeted it and then thought of this again today to re-read it. I appreciate the honesty in the writing as it helped me broaden the level of empathy I have. The incarceration rates and callousness toward human beings by the legal system in this country is a constant source of sadness for me. Between you and Kelly Davis at City Beat, I hope others in San Diego can try to appreciate, understand and hopefully be an advocate for a just, sane, and kinder world.

    • Thanks very much, Sam. I really appreciate that. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing stories about incarceration, offenders, etc. For me, there’s a good deal of tension. I feel like I have a solid understanding of the criminal justice system because I’ve seen much of it first-hand. But there’s also this idea that a reporter should be separate, or neutral from the topics they cover. It’s ironic: the one issue I understand best becomes the one topic I can’t write about — without being seen as biased, at least.

      I reject that argument, and recently have felt an overwhelming urge to begin writing about criminal justice again. The possibility that people see me as biased will always be there. But in many ways, that’s not really about me, or is there much I can do about it. But I can approach it the way I would any other story, making sure to check facts and bulletproof the work the best I can.

      I’m realizing this might all sound a little self-interested — it’s just you caught me at a time when I’m trying to figure things out, is all. Thanks again for thinking of me and for taking time to drop a comment. I’m sure we’ll talk again soon. -Mario

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