The Last Kings of Plague Mountain

I hiked up an unkempt trail, past what battered signs promised was a scenic overlook. Even if the sign was a lie, I figured, I could at least stretch my legs. I had been in the car for several hours now, driving home, approaching what I could charitably call the final segment of the trip. I needed a break.

The day prior, I spent most of it huddled in an enormous auditorium with several hundred other people, mostly younger and with more hair than me than me, filling in little circles with a No. 2 pencil: A, B, C, or D. The bar exam was something I had built up in my mind to be this insurmountable obstacle over the years, and now, it was done. I would not know for some months yet whether or not I passed, but that didn’t matter. I felt good about my odds, but in the end, I did my best and could accept whatever would come.*

I reached the end of the trail and discovered that the signs had been true. Lot of problems in Appalachia. Lot of beauty, too. Snow began to swirl around me as I looked out across a wilderness and onto a mountain town. A close friend of mine lived extremely far away, in Honolulu. She had one of those couches that turned into a bed, which she generously offered up to me as a post-bar exam vacation.

Shoving my hands in my pockets as the temperature continued on its southernly trajectory, I decided I’d take her up on the offer. I had a bunch of PTO saved up from work I’d not taken in almost two years. I desperately needed a vacation. I smiled at that mountain town, and for a moment, things felt okay.

I took some pictures, and hiked back to my car to finish my drive home. I asked Siri to remind me next week to book a flight to Hawaii. My fuel pump would give out the next day. It was the end of February, 2020.

One of the last pictures I took from normal times, from that overlook.

Think about the time that you’ve spent in isolation this year. About quarantine. Missed birthdays. Canceled weddings. Funerals that didn’t get to happen. That trip to Hawaii you didn’t take. Think about the last time you hugged your parents. The last time you had a full night of sleep. People you lost.

Most people would probably say that this year, with the pandemic and the required adjustments to nearly every aspect of our lives, has been…difficult. Humans are social animals. Loneliness and isolation have a tremendous impact on people’s health. Even now, as the virus surges to new heights in America, people are flocking to restaurants, bars, and home for the Holidays — giving real texture to how abhorrent we find isolation.

Some celebrities this year were panned for comparing their quarantine to being in prison. To be sure, staying at home and being in isolation is not the same as being in prison. But there is a loose analogy.

Despite how corrosive we know — and perhaps now know in much finer contour — loneliness and isolation to be, they have long been prominent features of our criminal legal systems (and more broadly, perhaps society at large). Sometimes, as is the case with prisons and solitary confinement, that isolation can be quite physical and literal.

But we also foment the same sort of isolation and sense of disconnectedness that many people have experienced this year in those who leave prison, as well:

Many men on their release carry their prison about with them into the air, and hide it as a secret disgrace in their hearts, and at length, like poor poisoned things, creep into some hole and die.  It is wretched that they should have to do so, and it is wrong, terribly wrong, of society that it should force them to do so.  Society takes upon itself the right to inflict appalling punishment on the individual, but it also has the supreme vice of shallowness, and fails to realise what it has done.  When the man’s punishment is over, it leaves him to himself; that is to say, it abandons him at the very moment when its highest duty towards him begins.  — Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

We brand people ‘felons’ long after they’ve stopped committing crimes, and long after they’ve shed prison garb, locating their humanity in their worst moments. We call people the things that we don’t want them to be. For people who are required to appear on some sort of a public conviction registry, exclusion and isolation are often mandated by law, if not by the psychological gravity of shame.

Being on a registry is a kind of internal exile. A constructive banishment. You are expected to participate in a society that actively tries to preclude that same participation. It is being asked to run in a race by someone who lashes concrete blocks to your ankles, promising to punish you for failure.

Laws in roughly half the states banish people on registries from living within certain proscribed distances of places that are imagined sites of sexual danger, resulting sometimes in rampant homelessness and housing insecurity (and, per DOJ, don’t make anyone safer). Until recently, people with a past conviction for a sex offense were banned in many places from even using social media — a critical tool for staying connected in these times. In Louisiana, they still are. Facebook and Instagram still ban the accounts of anyone with a past conviction, regardless of how long ago, and regardless of their current behavior.

In some places, you’re banned from going to parks or other public spaces. If you’re on supervision, you can’t associate with known felons. Someone once e-mailed me, wanting to know how they could help people who were on a registry. We planned to meet, but before we did his supervision was revoked for e-mailing me. I next heard from his wife, asking me for help.

We taken oftentimes broken people, and break them more, and call such an arrangement justice. We call people criminals, and hope they don’t take us at our word. We keep people isolated — socially, economically, and physically — and expect it to make us safer, expect it to help people change.

Now, perhaps, you have some sense of why that might not be the case. I realized that the isolation that many people experienced this year, perhaps for the first time in their lives, was something of an old friend to me.

Though, it wasn’t always a friend.

A man I didn’t know stepped out in front of me, on the sidewalk, blocking my path. He clearly knew me. I expected a knife. Got a handshake instead.

That day, the local paper carried the first thing I ever wrote publicly about myself. An op-ed. It was about me, my ill-fated bid to take the Kentucky bar exam, about punishment, about redemption. Despite my terror, I had decided to lean into the national coverage my case had received.

That’s how I met Dale.

His tailor shop was right around the corner from my office. He told me how brave I was. He had an easy way with people, the gift of gab. He was funny. Kind. He always had a soft spot for me, doing tailoring work for me at a very reduced rate. I’d sit in his shop sometimes and we’d just shoot the breeze. He made me feel welcome.

This April, I opened my phone to check the news. I saw his face, and smiled, before I processed the headline. He died of Covid. I didn’t even know he was sick. I initially thought it was some mistake. It wasn’t.

I’ve had many people go way out of their way to help me. People that saved my life time and again, when I simply wanted to give up. A recovering drug addict. A priest. A doctor. A lawyer. A jail guard. A judge. A politician. A law professor. Two blue-haired grandmothers.

A tailor, too.

I never told him how much his kindness meant to me. That at a time when I felt most exposed, and vulnerable, and alone, he offered me companionship. Friendship. Kindness. Antidotes to a poison that I did not yet fully understand, or appreciate, that was coursing unseen through my blood. That in shaking my hand with a smile, he let me know that I was not alone.

Johann Hari once observed that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but human connection. That’s always rung true in my experience. I’ve written before about the effects of shame, how it’s like a death, but one where you do not die.

And that, not unlike solitary confinement, it is a special torture.

I have had many people rescue me from that, and I am remarkably fortunate for it. Many people aren’t so lucky.

For whatever it’s worth, and wherever you are, thank you Dale.

*I passed.