The following essay was written for The Beat Within, a prison writers’ workshop.
In a previous essay, “Violent Beginnings”, I discussed my parents. Let’s just say that the only true function of my home was dysfunction….My middle brother, who is 16 years older than me, fed me drugs from an insanely early age, which had me in the grips of a full-blown addiction and sent away to rehab at the age of 12.
I was an altar boy in a Catholic Church, [even while] running the streets and using drugs, and trying to emulate an ego-maniacal mob enforcer that I called Dad, never learning to defer to or respect the person that had carried me for nine months and brought me squalling into this world.
Fast forward to the summer of ’95. I had recently been released from state prison and my father was due home from federal prison within a few weeks. My mother was taking care of the home. …and with my father out of the picture and unable to contradict her, she decided to finally stand her ground.
Unfortunately, at 23, I was already at a level of self-hatred that no matter who was in front of me, I was not to be refused, especially by a woman who all of a sudden wanted to play the parent. I needed the car to go to a friend’s house. Yeah I’d been drinking and doing cocaine, so what? You telling me I can’t go where I want to go ‘cause you all of a sudden want to play mom?
“Mark, you do what you gotta do, but you are not getting the keys.”
Now here I am, nearly seven feet tall, 298 lbs., and I never heard “no”—and even if I did, it never stopped me.
At this point I smiled, and this was probably where the situation began to sink in for her, for I rarely if ever smiled, and it usually came as a precursor to a switch being thrown that allowed me to manoeuver without remorse or feeling. I’ve been told (unfortunately by two of my family members) that it is like watching a pricked balloon burst: One minute it’s there, and snap! Gone.
Only instead of hot air, what leaves me [are] all traces of humanity. And as I walked into the kitchen my mom said “She knew, she knew; she should have picked up the phone, dialed 911, something,” but she didn’t.
When I returned from the kitchen with a butcher knife, in her mind it was already too late.
Again, in my mind, due to some cruel trick of fate, I have perfect recall of the events as if they are recurring on my own personal IMAX.
The look of resigned comprehension on my mother’s face as I walked up to the couch, flipping the blade around to a back-handed grip. The look as I straddled her, pinning one of her arms to her side and as I slid the blade under her chin, putting its edge against the skin of her throat.
At the time I remember feeling absolutely nothing; No anxiety or fear, no hurt nor pain, nothing.
There we were, locked in an unthinkable situation with naught but an unforgivable outcome as the only possibility, and the phone began to ring.
Now when I say what happened next was surreal to me, I understand that this situation its entirely would seem surreal, even unbelievable to most; for me it was a reality that I was committed to. So everything that transpired next happened as though in a dream.
My mother took her one free arm, and very slowly without breaking eye contact in the slightest, reached over her head and removed the phone from the cradle, put it to her ear, and said, “Hello, yeah.. yeah, he’s right here,” and handed me the phone. I took it and without moving the blade so much as an inch, put it to me and said, “Yeah?”
[It was my] sister’s voice saying, “Mark, what are you doing?”
She added: “I’m sitting here trying to relax and watch TV and something keeps telling me to call my brother, call my brother, and it will not let me rest, so again, what are you doing?”
“I’m arguing with my mom,”
Then she said, “Look, Mark, whatever you have in your hand, put it down; put it down and walk to the front door. When you get to the door put down the phone and leave the house, walk to the corner, and I will be there in five minutes.”
And as I began to tell her how that wasn’t possible for she lived at least 25 minutes away, she snapped, “Mark, just do it and I’ll be there!”
I remember removing the knife from my mother’s throat and passing it within inches of her face and placing it on the table above her head, [then] getting up and walking away without a backward glance—and doing exactly as she said.
Wouldn’t you know it, [my sister] made it. Against all logic, she was there.
The whole way to her house (which by the way took 23 minutes), neither one of us said a word, not until we were sitting on her couch.
“How did you know?”
“Mark, I was sitting right where I am sitting now and something kept telling me to call my brother, and it was being real persistent so I did; and I’m glad I did. Are you gonna be okay?”
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll see?”
I wound up staying at my sister’s until my dad came home and though I never asked, I knew my sister talked to my mom and that they had come to an agreement on that, and believe me, they didn’t agree on much.
A few days after my returning home I had a parole appointment. I knew, just like my sister knew, that something wasn’t right. My dad tried to tell me everything was okay, but when I looked at my mom, I knew.
I told my dad when we were walking out the door, because I paused and looked back at the house and said “this is the last time I’m gonna see this for a long time.”
I remember when my PO was walking behind me to her office, I heard her playing with her handcuffs and when I walked into her office, there were two police officers there to take me into custody. I’ll never forget the look on my parents’ faces when they saw me roll past them in a back of an unmarked police car.
There was the look of genuine surprise on my father’s; on my mother’s, of genuine relief.
See, Dad didn’t know it but mom called my PO and told her what had happened. I guess I can’t blame her, ya know, all things being considered.
Of course, my dad wasn’t happy. Rule no. 1: family deals with family. No one else needs to be in our business.
It was no surprise to me when they booked me. I asked what I was being charged with. They started with “attempted murder of one Virginia D’Ascenzo.”
From then on, it was a blur until I finally got to court, [where] the real surprise came. The charge was dropped. I still had enough offenses behind that to put me back in prison, where I stayed for the next three years.
Things were never again the same with my family at home. My parents wound up splitting up quite noisily, ending with my mother disappearing with my brother.
It’s now nearly two decades later, and I have yet to break the cycle of incarceration or abuse. My father passed while I was in jail and I haven’t spoken to my mother in nearly eight years.
To tell you the truth, she is still deathly afraid for me to know where she lives. She even went as far as remaining distant from my daughter, her granddaughter, for fear of her telling me where she is.
I always say that if you have to say I’m sorry, it’s already too late. The damage is done, and it is, and I am.
My sister Bobbi continues to be an anchor in the ocean of possibilities that is me. Although things in our family fell apart, she will always be my sister. But that night, she was truly a Savior.
Mark D’Ascenzo is a writer and teacher from the San Francisco County Jail in their A Pod facility. This is an abridged version of an essay published in The Beat Within, a prison writers’ workshop. In an earlier Beat Within essay re-published in The Crime Report, he described the impact of witnessing domestic abuse in his family as a small child. He welcomes readers’ comments.