Tori Telfer | Longreads | June 2018 | 14 minutes (3,622 words)

Issac Bailey was nine when he watched his hero get taken away in handcuffs. It felt like a bad dream: the police were closing those handcuffs around the wrists of his older brother Moochie, the charming, athletic, charismatic father-figure who’d protected their mother from their dad’s beatings, whose checks from a stint in the army kept their large family afloat, and who was “like a god” to his little brothers. All that changed in the blink of an eye when he murdered a white man and was fed into the maw of the criminal justice system.

Moochie was a murderer. But he was also a person, a big brother, a black man who’d absorbed a thousand and one shocks for his little siblings, a kid born into the sort of soul-crushing racial environment that made it a sin to wear dark skin, as Bailey notes below. Had his worst act put him beyond the possibility of redemption? This is the question Bailey sets out to ask in his latest book, My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South (Other Press, May 2018).

Through a childhood and young adulthood spent with his beloved older brother behind bars, Bailey experienced firsthand how callously the families of perpetrators are ignored by the criminal justice system, and how little nuance is afforded both black men who’ve offended and the families who love them. “The more hideous, the more one-dimensional black men who kill…are portrayed, the better,” he writes. “It’s easier to hate them that way…and if they are monsters, they likely come from monstrous stock, meaning the broken families from which they hail aren’t worthy of the resources needed to repair them.” After thirty-two years behind bars, Moochie was unexpectedly released. By then, Issac had grown into a successful journalist who’d grappled with his brother’s crime for his entire adult life—a crime that had left Bailey himself with a stutter, and a bad case of PTSD, both remnants of the trauma that had radiated throughout his family for decades.

Bailey has set out to tackle a Gordian knot in this book. The problems he lays out seem too heart-wrenching, too systemic, too insidious to bear—but just when you think you’ll be puzzling them out forever, something slices through, quick as a knife. His mother’s dignity. The word “grace.” None of these things are answers all on their own, but they bring with them a moment of relief.

Tori Telfer: I was hoping you could talk a bit about the catalyst that led you to put all this material into a book. I know you’ve written, taught, and lectured about these subjects before—you mention having given speeches about Moochie and “the importance of seeing the full complexity of deeply flawed men.” And you also mention that actually managing to see this full complexity can be very hard. So given the fact that you’d dealt with these hard themes before, what led you to finally tackle them in book form?

Issac Bailey: I’ve been struggling with this since before my now 16-year-old son was born. Before that, I largely avoided the subject, at least publicly, when I was in college. When I became a journalist, I was advised that some kinds of stories about certain kinds of people would be unlikely to connect with readers. I knew instantly the “certain kinds of people” definitely included men like my brothers. I understood why editors and colleagues were advising me that way, because that’s all they’ve known, not a racist attempt to further imbalance news coverage. But I understood things they didn’t, that even people who have done awful things are more than their worst act — because I knew such people and loved such people. That’s when I decided it was important for someone like me to use the platform I was developing to push back on the notion that audiences wouldn’t be able to connect to certain kinds of people. It’s been a painful process, honestly, but one I don’t regret.

Then, as I touch on in the book, I was diagnosed with PTSD twenty-five years after my oldest brother killed a man. I was having increasingly ugly, violent daydreams, so much so that I was afraid I was going to hurt my family. I finally got help from a psychiatrist who taught me how to face up to those daydreams to understand them better rather continuing to run away from them. And she suggested I go hunt the truth about what had happened a quarter a century earlier, to use my journalistic skills and write about it. I didn’t know it would become a book then, but once I began writing about it, it’s been really hard to stop.

I decided it was important for someone like me to use the platform I was developing to push back on the notion that audiences wouldn’t be able to connect to certain kinds of people.

Let’s talk about the idea of dignity, which runs powerfully through this book, especially in the sections about your mother. I feel like it’s something society at large often overlooks when thinking about ways to “help” other people. We think of food, and shelter, but dignity is amorphous…and yet so powerful. What does dignity mean to you? Was this a theme you consciously chose for this book, or did it emerge while you were writing it?

To know my mother is to know dignity. She was forced to marry a much older man when she was a 13-year-old girl. She had to endure physical beatings inside the home and emotional ones outside. She has an incredible, nimble mind but was forced to forfeit her formal education in order to pick cotton and tobacco and cucumber in the fields. She’s had to watch nearly half her sons get into real trouble and end up in prison during some point of their lives. And, still, she’s never allowed herself to get mired in a “why me” pity or become embittered or lose her faith. No matter how hard things got, she’s always held onto reasons to believe a brighter day was coming, if not for her, then her children, and if not for all of her children, at least some of them. When she’s needed help, she’s asked for it. When she’s been in position to help, she has gone above and beyond the call of duty to help those who had been discarded by society for supposedly being unworthy. If there is a theme about dignity in this book, or in my life, that’s largely an outgrowth of what I’ve learned from her.

And that’s definitely something we all need to keep in mind when we set out to help the already-vulnerable. Yes, food and shelter and safety are vital and must be part of the foundation of that help. But providing space for people to hold onto their dignity, their hope, is no less important, and sometimes is more important than any other kind of help we can provide. We needed help and received some. But I don’t believe those of us who were able to overcome would have overcome had we not had that sense of dignity encoded in our DNA, essentially, because of my mother. It’s the glue that holds your faith together during the most difficult moments. It’s that critical.

Your book lays out, in frustrating clarity, just how complicated situations of victim/perpetrator are. There is no easy answer here when it comes to crime and rehabilitation…and the complicatedness of this is especially clear when you look at what happens to a perpetrator’s family. Before I got your book in the mail, I was clicking around the internet, looking for organizations that help perpetrator’s families—I couldn’t find any. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to puzzle through these ideas that don’t really have easy answers? Did you work things out in your head before writing, or did you sort of figure out your own thoughts on the page as you were writing?

Honestly, I think I’m still trying to figure them out. It is that complex. It became somewhat clear as I wrote, because I committed to examining the issue from as many angles as I could think of, and that meant the ugly, the beautiful and everything in between. And I had to contend with a truth that has humbled me more than anything else, that had I been born the first boy in the family — like Moochie — instead of the fifth child, that one change would have likely meant the difference between my ending up in prison rather than being invited to study at Harvard University for a year.

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We talk a lot about personal responsibility and discipline and making good, wise choices, and being committed and working hard, as we should. Those are critically important traits and behaviors everyone should believe in while trying to become our best selves. But we don’t talk nearly enough about all the things out of our control that also help shape who we become and how successful we are. Birth order is just one. Being born healthy is another, especially when you’ve been blessed with a personality and propensity to stay away from things such as illegal drugs and other destructive behaviors. As we say in St. Stephen [Bailey’s home town, in South Carolina], I was born with a good head on my shoulders, which made academic work easy, which ended up granting me a lot of leeway from my teachers I otherwise would not have. And in my case, my having developed a severe stutter complicated everything and humbled me and redirected my energy inward in ways I am convinced shielded me from some of the ugliness and temptation lurking around me.

All of that matters. That’s why I tell everyone I can that though our fates have diverged, I’m not all that different from my brothers who ended up in prison. Seemingly small decisions, which were in our control, and factors that were not in our control, made the difference.

In today’s world, mercy is an act of courage — and I wish more people had courage. This world can use a heck of a lot more of it. Without mercy, there is no way to get through some of this.

Speaking of complicated situations, as I was reading your book, I kept thinking: okay, for situations like Moochie’s parole (or lack thereof), it seems that someone, at some point, has to show mercy. In so much of the legal system (in so much of life!) there’s not an immediate, obvious, crystal-clear answer—everyone has an argument, an angle, a bias, etc. So some human eventually has to choose to break through and show mercy. And then I got to page 269, where you talk about how the sisters of the murdered man never spoke to you after 2005, but when Moochie finally got parole, you say that “it wouldn’t surprise me if they showed my oldest brother mercy.” I thought that was so beautiful. I know “mercy” isn’t the answer to every issue that your book raises — crime, poverty, racism, bias, mass incarceration — but is it the answer to something? Maybe I’m getting way too optimistic here, but is there hope to be had in the idea or practice of mercy?

In today’s world, mercy is an act of courage — and I wish more people had courage. This world can use a heck of a lot more of it. Without mercy, or in another parlance “grace,” there is no way to get through some of this. Without it, there is no other place to go after something awful has happened, except into a deeper, darker grief, into bitterness and pain and eventually vengeance.

Mercy, by the way, doesn’t mean there should be no accountability for wrongdoing. The Bunch sisters definitely wanted Moochie to be held accountable, which makes sense, given the awful thing he did. But I never got the sense that they wanted vengeance, even in the depth of their very understandable grief. I wasn’t expecting that. I had fully prepared myself mentally to have them hate me and my family. That didn’t happen, and I’ll forever be grateful for that. I’ve used that example in the years since, that when something awful happens, I get that the perpetrator has to be held to account, but after that’s happened, there must be space for redemption for everyone.

That doesn’t mean the victim has to help facilitate that redemption; it just means — sometimes, anyway — making sure you aren’t allowing hurt and pain and anger to convince you to block the path to someone else’s redemption door. Mercy can’t solve all our problems, no doubt. But without it, I’m not sure many of our most vexing problems can be solved. That’s why I think there is hope — even at our angriest — because we still have the ability to grant someone else mercy, grant grace, and have others extend it to us as well.

I found one of the most heartbreaking images in your book the image of the family who gets left behind. We see this in both the Bunch family [the victim’s family] and in the Bailey family [the perpetrator’s family]. The idea that on both sides of the coin, people have lost a brother — that was so, so powerful and heart-wrenching. But no one talks about how the perpetrator’s family has also lost a brother, a son! I feel like your book is saying: look, there’s a script for the victim’s family, but not for the perpetrator’s family. And then for black families, there’s this very rigid script (like when you talk about how, in the parole hearing, your success could be read as proof that Moochie could have succeeded; your lack of success could be read as proof that Moochie was inherently bad) — and that rigid script is enabling racists and harming black families. Could you talk a bit about this idea of the script, especially how you’ve seen it play out in the legal system?

Earlier, we talked about the role of mercy and hope. The criminal justice system, from what we’ve experienced, has snuffed more hope out of me than just about anything else. The racial disparities are legendary, of course. But it’s worse than that. Even when good people are part of the system, they oftentimes seem locked into the idea that the most important thing is protecting what they believe is the integrity of the system — even if it hurts individual men and women and already-vulnerable families. Too many people have come to believe that justice is this one, narrowly defined thing, that once a conviction occurs, that’s the sum total of justice.

Even if people can’t be convinced that the perpetrator’s family needs to be cared for as well, they should at least recognize that if what we want is a safer society, caring for the most vulnerable eventually helps us all.

But when we look at it that way, we end up creating greater injustices. If you remove a pillar from an already-broken household — even for good reasons — but don’t much care what you are leaving behind, you are seeding the ground for more awful things to sprout. That goes for the victim’s family and the perpetrator’s family. The justice system has begun recognizing this for the victim’s family, which is why there are many more victim’s advocates who work in prosecutors’ officers and elsewhere. That’s a welcome change, and such programs need to be more widespread and better funded, honestly. Victims and their families need more support than they currently receive.

But the change that’s long in coming — and I hope it comes soon — is the system’s recognition that the family on the other side of the equation often needs a lot of help to overcome what happened, especially when there are kids involved. I was a nine-year-old boy when this happened. I had nothing to do with it but have been punished, in a very real way, nonetheless. It’s one of the reasons I’m convinced I still speak with a stutter all these years later. Trauma often manifests itself in unexpected ways. Unacknowledged or unrecognized trauma makes people desperate, and that can lead to bad things. Even if people can’t be convinced that the perpetrator’s family needs to be cared for as well, they should at least recognize that if what we want is a safer society, caring for the most vulnerable eventually helps us all.

So much of your book had biblical resonances for me. Was this intentional? I’m a pastor’s daughter, so maybe I’m more likely to see this stuff than other people, but even the title felt biblical and I kept thinking about brothers in the Bible: Cain and Abel, the Prodigal Son. And then of course the idea of redemption and second chances is central to a lot of faith. Now, speaking of faith, you write in painful detail about how hard you tried to be a presence in a conservative white church, and how you finally couldn’t do it anymore. I’m curious how much your faith informed your writing, and what your relationship to faith is now?

You have a good eye. I even toyed with the idea of building the title around “St. Stephen.” It’s the town where we grew up, the name of the first Christian martyr, and Moochie was the first sibling and the first who went to prison. Moochie isn’t a martyr in the way St. Stephen was, because he’s the one who committed the awful act. But in other ways, he is a martyr. He was born into extremely tough circumstances and faced the worst of what any of us had to experience as the oldest boy in a household in which his father was an alcoholic who beat his wife. That doesn’t even account for the overall racial environment that made it a sin to wear dark skin, which made it extremely difficult for families like mine to get ahead.

I can’t stress enough how soul-crushing it is to have to contend with such circumstances. My father came up through a time when the justice system was used as a de facto slavery for hundreds of thousands of black men in the South, and when lynching was still a very real threat. The literal burning of black men and women alive in the public square to keep other black people in line was extremely real. My parents had to deal with that, and my brother was born in the tail end of that era, an era that was all too real in the minds of many black people in our area for decades.

How do you reconcile the two? We take responsibility for the bad acts we commit but are constantly told to not talk about the bad acts committed against us, bad acts that created generational poverty in our family and seeded the ground for other awful things. I’m still struggling with that. That’s why I’m struggling with my faith. There are no more faithful people on the planet than the people who raised and grew up around me. No matter how bleak things got, they held fast to God. And yet, all these ugly things kept befalling us. Why? What good has all that praying done? That’s where I am. I’m still questioning. I’m still doubting. I haven’t let go of my faith, but it is definitely at a new place. I haven’t shied away from these other tough, complex issues, so I won’t shy away from acknowledging that truth, either.

As a trained journalist, you seem to inhabit this role of perpetual outsider, even in your own family. At one point in the book, you’re sitting in a courtroom for the trial of your younger brother, and you briefly note that you’ve sat in many courtrooms as a journalist. Were your journalist vs. brother roles hard to reconcile?

Initially, they were hard to reconcile. It felt like a tug of war between my heart and head, as though if I committed too fully to one I’d be betraying the other. But it’s easier now because I better understand that I need my head and my heart to do this job well. Everything I am has shaped who I am as a journalist. And that’s not only OK, that’s a good thing. I know I bring something to the table many others don’t. Because of my brother—my brothers—it will be impossible for me to forget the full, complex humanity of those I am writing about, no matter what good or bad they’ve done. Because of my journalistic passion, I’ll never stop asking the next question, even when it reveals truths I don’t want to be true. I’m hoping that comes through to everyone who reads this book, because that was the goal.

Last but certainly not least: what is Moochie up to these days?

He’s doing OK. He’s been trying to get more stable work, which has not been easy — which is the case for too many of the formerly-incarcerated. And, of course, he’s not the same person he was in 1982, not only because he is three and a half decades older, but because prison changes people in ways large and subtle. That included a seven-year stint in solitary confinement, a time during which Moochie admits he was sometimes “crazy.”

I see him struggling with how best to not only fit back into this strange new world, but also to figure out where his new place is in our family. He was the hero big brother before he left. That role, naturally, has changed. We are all adults now with our own careers and families and outlooks, and he’s trying to adjust to the fact that we no longer need a hero big brother. But I can say I’ve seen growth in him since 2014, when he was first released. And I’m hoping that continues. Our love is still there, as is his; it’s just manifesting itself in new ways. He is really committed to redemption, to serve a greater purpose in the world going forward, to become a positive force for good. I’m hoping he succeeds in that quest — and think he will.

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Tori Telfer has written about crime, history, and strange people for the Atlantic (online), Smithsonian, Vice, and elsewhere. Her first book, Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History (Harper Perennial, 2017) is about all of those things, plus arsenic! She also hosts a true crime podcast called Criminal Broads.

Editor: Dana Snitzky