Usually getting a personal letter in the mail is a joyous experience, but yesterday’s was an exception.
The letter was from Craig Townsend.
The address was Pinckneyville Correctional Center.
I first met Craig close to two years ago, when I was working on a story about children with incarcerated parents.
We spoke briefly and I gave him a business card.
A few days later, his first letter arrived in neat black cursive writing.
It was from Craig.
I answered, and a biweekly correspondence began.
Through the course of our correspondence our relationship began to change. Craig wrote about his wife and daughters, all of whom I met, and I in turn shared information about Dunreith and Aidan.
We had to navigate boundaries.
Understandably, Craig took my openness to mean that we were becoming friends, said so and asked me to help him find work. In declining, I wrote that I was still operating within the framework of him as a source – a statement that took him aback for a while.
Nevertheless, we moved forward.
Highly intelligent, Craig is a voracious reader who speaks five languages. In addition to my letters, I started sending him copies of The Chicago Reporter and print outs from this blog.
One of the posts was about our dear friend Ava Kadishshon Schieber, a Holocaust survivor who, like Craig’s wife, comes from the former Yugoslavia. Ava survived during the war by pretending for four years to be deaf and mute, and later wrote Soundless Roar about her wartime experience.
Craig was enthralled by Ava’s story; and, at Dunreith’s suggestion, I sent him a copy of the book.
He loved it, and started asking about Ava in each letter he wrote.
Craig got out of prison last summer.
Last July I wrote about hanging out with him as he started to piece his life together.
In August, Dunreith, his wife Marjana, Craig and I spent the afternoon at Ava’s apartment. At the end of a post about the time, I wrote:
Eventually, Craig and Marjana left to go to a birthday celebration for her father’s 67th birthday.
Craig continues to look for work, to reforge connections with his wife and to try to rebuild his relationship with his daughters.
I wrote after the first time I saw him that I did not know what would happen to him.
I still don’t.
But I know what I’m hoping for.
And I know I’m glad that the daughter of Serbian immigrants, her husband who speaks five languages and was just released from prison, my lovely Dunreith and I gathered in the home of a indescribably wise and generous spirit, her artwork and the encyclopedias she read while in hiding all around us.
I do know that the meeting brought together many strands of my life – our family’s history of the Holocaust, my sharing my life with Dunreith, my love of being with elders, my belief in social justice, the possibility of redemption, the challenges of parenthood and the bone deep love for our children-all in one emotion-drenched afternoon.
We shared being with each other and we all knew something meaningful had happened, even if we couldn’t pinpoint exactly what.
The experience is still with me, and will be for a long time to come.
This I know for sure.
The months after that seemed to be going well for Craig.
In September he spoke at a hearing about children with incarcerated parents and was quoted in several area newspapers. He, community organizer Alex Wiesendanger and I served on a panel about breaking the cycle of incarceration sponsored by Roosevelt University’s Mansfield Institute.
Beyond that, he was getting more steady work and saved enough money to buy a van.
But things remained hard with his kids.
He and I didn’t talk as regularly after the new year began-a development I thought was a positive one.
Then the bad news started coming.
Eventually, Craig was found in a car in a forest preserve. He had one of his daughter’s prescription medication, which police then considered a controlled substance.
The police arrested him.
Now he’s in prison. For a year.
In yesterday’s letter, Craig asked for copies of the Reporter and print outs from my blog. He asked me to mail Ava a separate letter he had written to her.
And he also wrote, “You opened your life to me to some degree and I became more than a story to you.”
More than a story.
Being a reporter is a privilege and an honor, and one that comes with responsibility. People opening their lives to you is not something I take lightly. And, once Craig got out, I no longer considered him a source.
I have not sorted through the range of emotions swirling through me since I received the letter. I still do not know what will happen with Craig and his family.
But I do know that parenting adolescents is a very hard to thing to do under the best of circumstances.
I do know that shared experiences do matter, even if they don’t change life outcomes.
I do know that I’m grateful that I’ve met Craig and am still hoping that he and his family find happier and more peaceful times.
And I do know that tomorrow I’ll write him another letter.