Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Essays

The Murderer’s Mother

John J. Lennon

Mother and Child, c.1945, by Will Barnet (1911–2012); Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY; art © Will Barnet Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

My mother paid for my trials, made my amends, then watched me get convicted.

Imagine it’s the 1960s and you’re eighteen, already married and pregnant and living in a cookie-cutter house on Long Island. Your husband is this Italian guy, ten years your senior, who makes you cook and clean and have babies. When you don’t do as you’re told, he slaps you around. You give him two sons and a daughter: first Joseph, then Eugene, then Michelle. You eventually file for divorce and leave him and the kids. It’s the only way out.

You look like a young Susan Sarandon, even after having three children, and the men can’t stay away. In the mid-seventies you marry a smooth Manhattan bartender, an Irishman who hides his alcoholism. He woos you with his brogue, gets you pregnant, then leaves you with a big fat baby boy, John.

Now, you’re on your own. It’s single motherhood. Public assistance. Long lines. Lots of applications. It’s raising John in a Brooklyn housing project. With cash you’ve saved from running hot dog stands, you get him away from the projects, sending him to private boarding schools (you get financial aid), Jewish summer camp (you say he’s Jewish to get a discount), and therapy, after the news comes that his father blew his head off (yeah, the Irishman who ditched you).

In the late eighties, you move from the projects to a rent-stabilized apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. It’s your third husband George’s place. He’s another Irishman, a longshoreman. With George’s connections through cronyism and nepotism, you get work in the Broadway theaters. You love the chic city crowd, your gay friends with whom you go on summer trips to Fire Island. But it’s the pivotal adolescent stage for John, and he gets a taste of the gangster culture stewing in the Kitchen.

Fast-forward to the late nineties. Your kids are all grown up, and you’re wheeling and dealing as the broker of a small but successful real-estate business. You know how to stroke your competition, the male brokers with big egos. You try to groom John for the business, send him to real-estate classes, urge him to go to meetings in church basements so he can get sober and humble and learn how to act right.

He doesn’t listen, and in 2001, when he’s accused of machine-gunning a man to death on a Brooklyn street, you think he probably did it. You hate him for it, and for the disgusting criminal lifestyle you know he’s been living. You still love him, though. Unconditionally—right? So you hire a lawyer. A good one.

But what’s the endgame here? To help him beat the murder rap? He may get out and kill again, or get killed himself. You don’t want to wind up like the mother of Alex, the boy your son killed. Alex had been tried for murder in the same Brooklyn court where John would be tried.

Alex wound up getting acquitted.

A few years later, John wound up killing Alex.

Now it’s 2004. It’s John’s second trial for Alex’s murder—the first ended in a hung jury. Your son, the lawyer you hired, the district attorney—they’re all egomaniacs. For them, it’s all about winning. You look across the aisle at Alex’s mother and realize that, for both of you, it’s all about losing. The prosecution presents pictures of Alex’s bullet-ridden body, testimony about the killing, blown-up photos of Alex in his younger, more vulnerable years—while Alex’s mother sobs in the gallery. During a recess, you lock eyes with her in the hallway and your heart melts and races and you’re scared and you don’t know what to do, but you realize what you should do. You embrace her and say, “I’m sorry.” You cry. She cries.

Your son is convicted.

* * *

This is my take on my mother’s experiences, which I’ve gleaned from conversations with her over the years. It’s the drama I created for her, the trauma I caused Alex’s mother. In the end, my mother paid for my trials, made my amends, then watched me get convicted. Alex’s mother helped her son go free at his murder trial, then watched him lose his way, and, finally, his life.

Because of me, Alex will never realize his potential, never discover the man he might’ve been. I’m deeply sorry for that. And that’s the sort of existential shame I grapple with: Here I am, years later, sober and learning and writing and finding out who I can be, and yet Alex can never do any of those things. Because of me.

After I go to prison, Mom’s real-estate business, in a Brooklyn neighborhood full of cops and firemen, begins to slow. She is now the murderer’s mother—the stares, the gossip, the shame. She gets diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. So, I imagine, fear creeps in, fears about her ability to function and the quality of her life—and, yes, nagging fears for my safety in prison. She cashes out and moves to Florida.

Then, in December 2012, Mom gets a dose of the pain I’d caused Alex’s mother. My bipolar brother, Eugene, is found dead in a closet-sized room in a seedy hotel near Times Square. It’s one of those rent-stabilized dwellings for people with mental illness, a token gesture by the city to house the ones who aren’t tucked away in prison or on Rikers Island or living in homeless shelters or halfway houses or aimlessly wandering the streets. It was the smell of a dead body that alerted his neighbors. Eugene died the way so many Americans die: from an opiate overdose.

It’s probably fair to surmise that my mother’s pain from losing Eugene was less than what Alex’s mother endured when she learned her son had been murdered. But how do I know? Eugene died by his own hand. So Mom endures profound grief with no closure because she thinks she could have done something more, something different, been a better mother. I’ve heard Mom grapple with this over the years. By contrast, Alex’s mother may harbor the dream that her son would have turned his life around, had I not ended it. Perhaps my conviction gave her the solace that at least justice had been done. (Ironically, that same conviction provided solace to Mom, who knew that my imprisonment was at least better than the death Alex met after his acquittal.) But who can accurately assess degrees of suffering? It’s not my place to say one mother’s grief overshadows another’s.

I felt somewhat responsible for Eugene’s death, too. Back in the nineties, when heroin was making its comeback, I’d flooded our neighborhood with it, and Eugene became addicted. When I went to prison, he continued to struggle with the smack. He sniffed it. Shot it. Even while trying to get off the junk, he was mixing concoctions—and that’s what did him in: methadone and pills. When I told Mom I felt guilty, she said, “Good. You should.”

At Clinton Dannemora, another maximum security prison in New York, I, too, got into heroin. It is the prison drug. It supplants the cold and dreary of prison with warm and fuzzy, an enveloping if temporary bliss. In my cell, I’d sniff a bag and get the drip. When the mixture of sinus discharge and powdered heroin hit my throat, I’d smile and snap my fingers. When I’d run out, it was hell in a cell.

During those years, I’d call Mom and manipulate her into paying for the drugs I’d get from other prisoners, which they would smuggle in inside their anal cavities. “I ain’t sending no money,” she would say. “I don’t care if they knife ya.” But she would send it.

I did wind up getting knifed in a prison yard, but it wasn’t for unpaid drug bills. It was payback for killing Alex.

Eventually, I found refuge in those meetings Mom used to tell me about. But these were held in the Attica chapel instead of the basement of the neighborhood church. Today, I don’t manipulate her when we talk. Because of Parkinson’s, sometimes her thoughts just bounce around. On bad days, she slurs her words and talks in short declarative sentences. “Can you understand me, John?” she asks.

“Five-word sentences are beautiful,” I say. “Just like you are, Momma. Of course, I understand you.”

Mom and I comfort each other from the discomfort of our respective prisons. She had and still has a bold strength from which I draw my own. In Brooklyn, she opened a real-estate office a block away from the one she used to work for—and against all odds, the single mother from the projects managed to succeed. Before she went out on her own, though, everyone she knew offered her those airy, almost condescending wishes of “good luck.”

Her nerve was her edge. Luck had nothing to do with it.

Undoubtedly, it’s been my mother’s unconditional love all these years that has given me my edge. It’s what has given me the confidence, despite all my failings, to pour myself into my writing and send it out into the world, often in the face of the same breezy and doubtful wishes of “good luck.”

Still, I can’t help but think what a poor return on investment I’ve turned out to be for Mom. Her classic rant will always ring in my head: “I killed myself trying to give you a good life…but you were dying to be with the lowlifes.”

I imagine that most mothers have similar reflections. When their kids succeed, mothers do, too.

Which is why for so long I’d feared that I would never make Mom proud, that she’d die having loved me in the shadows, ashamed. My oldest brother, Joe, assures me that this is not the case today.

Joe is a good man, a good brother, and a good son who visits Mom in Florida twice a year. On a recent trip, Joe told me, Mom was shuffling around her condo complex with him. One of her neighbors, a woman with slight dementia, asked, “Oh, is this the one who’s in the Atlantic?”

“Oh, God, no,” Joe groaned.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece in support of gun control in which I described how I shot Alex. (It was the first article I ever published.) So, understandably, Joe bristles when Mom brings up my writing, not only because it’s weird to hear her brag about me but because…let’s face it, it’s awkward for a murderer’s mother to be proud.

“No. This is Joe,” Mom says. “He’s the electrician. John’s the writer. He’s still in Attica.”

Inwardly, Joe cringes. Here it comes.

Mom tells her neighbor, “You know, John’s in the New York Times.”