*Alternate* Second Reading: Letter to Brian Doyle

The preceding essay was first published in Portland Magazine, the quarterly magazine of the University of Portland, in its spring 1996 issue.  A few weeks later I received a letter from Jim Wood, a prisoner at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, who has given permission for his letter to appear with my essay.    

Dear Mr. Doyle,

As a rule I avoid writing people I do not know; but, after reading “A Thin Ragged Man” in Portland for Spring of ‘96, I feel compelled to write you.  Please bear with me as I struggle with my emotions and the difficulty of expressing them, along with my thoughts, to a person who is a stranger to myself and my experiences.

Why do I feel so compelled to write you?  Because I believe that you want to follow God’s instruction and Christ’s example to love and to forgive, from that love, those who trespass against you.  I believe that I know enough about Walter to help you, for I am a man much like him.

When I read “A Thin Ragged Man,” I felt an immediate pull, a connection with all of you.  You see, Mr. Doyle, I am an addict like Walter.  I have struggled even in the deepest, most desperate times to throw off the chains of addiction, only to fail.  I, like Walter, have tried to salvage sanity and my humanity through honest labor and reaching out for some connection to “normal” people, only to fail because of my own feelings of inadequacy, shame, and apartness.  Please believe, Mr. Doyle, I am not writing you to complain about my life.  I believe that you truly meant what you said, “As long as love wriggles out of hate there is faith.”  I believe you hate Walter right now.  I believe that you don’t want to do so.  I also believe that love grows from knowledge, understanding, and (mostly) empathy.  So, please, let me tell you about Walter.

Walter, too, hates the life he lives.  He knows what he has become —“a hapless, ragged, polite thief, a liar, a heroin addict”— and every day he curses the self-made choices that brought him to that point in life; and because those choices were self-made, he hates himself.  Can you imagine the shame he felt sitting in your house?  This man wanted to work honestly to support himself, maybe even to begin the slow march back.  Knowing all that Walter has lost over the years—spiritual strength, family, home, self-respect, dignity, ad infinitum– it is not hard for me to feel the terrible ache, emptiness, and shame that he felt.

You see, Mr. Doyle, every moment that he was in your home, Walter compared himself to you.  He saw not what you have but what he has lost, and it tore him apart.  Walter had probably just gotten “clean”; otherwise, he could not have worked diligently for a half-day, let alone two full days, in your basement.  Can you imagine the turmoil Walter was in without the warm, numbing, emotion-dampening blanket of heroin and much experience in dealing with real emotions?  He may not have had adequate experience in dealing with them, but he sure knew how to kill the pain and the shame;  hence the “advances.”

The lie Walter told himself was that he could leave that second day, numb his pain with “just one,” and be all right.  Imagine the added shame as it sunk in the next day as he sat in your home relating to you all, while he tried to work up the courage to ask for another advance, just how impossible it was to do “just one.”  Imagine also that Walter knows that he has disappointed and hurt you; he does, and it is one more ache that he will use to beat himself emotionally.  Do not believe that Walter came to your family’s home to con you or to steal from you.  The fact that he is hated for his actions is evidence that he took from you emotionally as well as financially.

This letter is not for Walter’s benefit.  He and his life will improve only through much clean time, appropriate treatment, and God’s grace.  I pray that he either gets into detox or gets arrested to begin the journey.  This letter is for you and your family.  If you must hate, hate the behavior, not the man.  Understand that as poor, ragged, and hapless a thief as Walter is, he is a man who truly wanted to not be as he is.  Pray that your wife’s “beloved old backpack and sleeping bag” are keeping him warm and carrying his few possessions safely.  Someday he may forgive himself and he will seek to make amends.  Love the man, and Christ will shine forth through you.

For now, please allow me to apologize to you for Walter.  I know that he wants to himself.  Mr. Doyle, God bless you and your family.


Jim Wood

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