My Darkest Hour: My Moment of Discovery

My Darkest Hour: My Moment of Discovery

By Jean-Pierre Bellemare      Files Prisoner’s Chronicle

I awake in the middle of the night beset by a nightmare. Shaken, tense, I have to write down the contents of my dream. I’m hoping to put my mind at rest, for once. I’m sure that doing this will help me find the solution to the conundrum eating away at my conscience.

The night before, I had been watching a TV documentary on evolution’s mysteries – specifically, how some fish rose from the depths untold millions of years ago to become land mammals. How such gradual changes occur is always a subject of debate among scientists. The coelacanth is one of the rare examples of an animal that has escaped this sort of evolution. A prehistoric fish, it was recently rediscovered after it was thought to be extinct, to have morphed into a more advanced species.

It got me thinking: How did I morph from citizen to criminal? When did the road turn for me? I’ve read untold papers on « The Causes of Crime », but I’ve never quite seen exactly myself in such erudite studies and research efforts. .

In my dream, I found myself in a super-max prison, the toughest of the tough there is, with 3 other dangerous criminals in a small courtyard. I’d have loved to take a powder and scram, but we were surrounded by the highest walls you – or I – could imagine, brick monoliths topped with wedding cake icing swirls of barbed wire.

We walked alongside each other. A cat’s wails caught my attention. I looked over – and its eyes betrayed fear. One of my fellow inmates was holding it, twisting it slowly.

No one would intervene. Total indifference – worse than evil. But indifference is the default survival attitude to adopt behind bars. Something to master if you want to live long enough to see freedom one day. One word from me could have ended the cat’s suffering. But did I say a word? Here in super-max, niceness is a weakness to be snuffed out like a candle flame before it infects the others. Some snuff the better angels of their nature with drugs, or with exposure to pain – their own or that of others.

Discreetly I approached my fellow inmate. The cat was now down on the ground – giving birth to a litter of adorable kittens. And not in good health, either, the mother or the kittens. I could do nothing to save the animals being brought into this world, nor the one giving life. At that moment, I awoke.

And it’s not a dream I had only once.

Sometimes I like to think the answer to a nagging question comes to you if you write all the salient facts down on paper. Ben Franklin was a big believer in this. He’d write the pros of an issue on one side, the cons on the other, and make his decisions accordingly. Writing down my dream, it hit me – sometimes these things actually work. My mind hearkened back to my childhood in the little town of Delson.

I was 9 years of age. My parents were divorcing. My mother had the brilliant idea of phoning one of my teachers to have him put me up for awhile. My sisters my brother and I found ourselves living in the homes of our respective teachers.

From the very first, I was made to feel like a member of the family. There was a piano in the living room, two cars in the garage, and a library with a dream collection of comic strip books. I explored my magic universe with the curiosity of a cat. Feeling lucky, I did everything I could to ingratiate myself with my foster family. I wasn’t used to such unconditional love. Marie-Claude, the couple’s only daughter, would practice the violin while I helped father wash the dishes. Jacqueline, the mother, was especially kind.

But the real head of the household was an adorable angora cat bathed in kisses and caresses. She was pregnant, and doted upon. Soon we’d have more cats to love. Marie-Claude and I were in seventh heaven.

This honeymoon ended with a thud. The kittens were delivered, healthy and playful. They were duly collected into a brown cloth sack, then transported to the car. Marie-Claude and I let the kittens out of their bag and did our level best to calm them down as we headed off.

Nearing a bridge, the car slowed down. Then stopped. In a cold tone I’d not heard from her before, Jacqueline ordered me to put the kittens back in the sack and to hand it over. Shocked by the indifference, I did as I was told. In my head I felt disconnected from my own body. It was a transformational moment in my life.

Looking down on that piece of paper in a prison cell 30-plus years later, I could  identify where my road turned. Where I’d built up my armor of unconcern, of indifference. Where I’d developed the chain mail necessary to hurt others. It was an epiphany.

My scars could now begin to heel in the warm sun of self-recognition.

It took me almost a quarter of a century to get to this point.

All in a dream. I was no longer doomed to remain a coelacanth.

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