"He is so small and gentle. Honestly, I don't know how he makes it in prison."
This is how Nigel Poor, a visual artist who volunteers at San Quentin prison, describes Curtis. Curtis is serving a 50 years to life sentence for three separate robberies. During the last robbery, he stole $40 from a cash register. Due to the three strikes law, for the price of two twenty dollar bills, he received a lifetime behind bars.
We'll come back to Curtis's criminal record, why he began stealing, and his life sentence later. First, lets hear Curtis describe himself in his own words.
"My personality is that of almost... child like. Very playful. I've taken on some very adult responsibilities, however, I'm still child like."
When Curtis says he's taken on some adult responsibilities, I don't think he's referring to his prison sentence. I think he's referring to his adolescence, which was when both his parents abandoned him. He was left to fend for himself, having to make adult decisions on his own, all while wrestling with this feeling of rejection.
Around the time he was 19, he went in search of his parents. He found them, but he didn't find the love and reunion he'd been seeking. His dad had moved on and started another family, and he let Curtis know he wasn't a welcome part of it. Separately, he found his mom, and she made no apologies and regretted nothing.
Not even the fact that Curtis's childhood nickname had been "Ugly". And this was how Curtis felt - ugly. His derailed attempt at reconnecting with his parents broke something inside of him, and he went on a dark path, intent on destroying this ugly person through cocaine.
All throughout the 80's, Curtis self-medicated, becoming increasingly addicted to cocaine. He also got married during this time and had a daughter. But his addiction was spiraling out of control, and thus began the stealing.
Curtis's first two convictions were also for robbery. Neither was violent and neither involved a weapon. Curtis is the first to admit that what he did was stupid, but when he committed his third robbery, he couldn't believe he was being given life in prison. When Curtis first arrived, his non-violent persona was put to the test. A knife was put in his hand, and he was ordered to go kill a child molester. He wouldn't even consider it. He accepted any consequences this might incur - even if it meant he himself would be killed.
This desire not to lose himself was his primary goal. He felt if he kept his integrity, he could survive this experience. He wanted to make the most of it, and so he played sports, joined clubs, and became very active in the church. He focused on his health, both physical and mental. He also received a pen pal in the form of a couple who wrote him letters, a relationship that would play an unexpected role in the miracle of the diaries.
But before the miracle happened, something else happened that threatened to smother his inner light. As Curtis tells this part of the story his voice becomes quieter, and the impact of it, all these years later, is still palpable.
In 2008, after 13 years in prison, Curtis was raped. Rape, especially in a well-maintained prison like San Quentin, is not as common as people think it is. This incident was shocking, and for Curtis, beyond unbearable. For the first time, he considered ending his life.
As he says, “When the rape happened, it was like, ain’t nobody coming to rescue Curtis. Ain’t no way getting out of this. And this is what you have to live with for the rest of your life.”
This was beyond a low point for Curtis. He went into a shell and feared he'd never find his way out of it. But strangely enough, it was around this time, that the miracle began to unfold.
It all goes back to Christiana, the daughter he'd had before he was incarcerated. She'd just been five when he left, and his then-wife promised to bring Christiana around to visit. But she didn't. And she even went as far as disappearing. She moved to an unknown place, and from inside those gray walls, Curtis had no way of finding her or his daughter.
As the years went by, Curtis continued to hope he could somehow, someway reach Christiana. He wanted her to know he never forgot her, and so he began writing her letters in diaries.
"I wanted her to know that her father really loved her and this was not a reflection of her at all. This was a reflection of the turmoil within her father and not her. I wanted to be very clear with that. There's a voice inside of me that questions what was it about my own mom and dad that they didn't want me. So, I carry that voice. What was it about me? And I didn't want my daughter Christiana to have that."
Years and years go by. The diaries fill up, and he continues to write them. Meanwhile, the couple he was corresponding with, continues to write him. They live several states away, but he grows close with the wife, who becomes like a mother figure to him.
Eventually, he asks her if he can send her the diaries. He's worried they'll be confiscated, as the corrections officers are often in the cells and taking things away. The wife, who he calls J to protect her privacy, agrees.
And then, something remarkable happens. J is looking in the newspaper and sees a list of names of students in the graduating class. It's been 13 years since Curtis saw his daughter, and she's now 18.
In that list of names is Christiana.
J, who lives nowhere near where all this began, lives a stone's throw from the daughter Curtis has been hoping against hope to find. J is a school teacher, and she asks if any of her students know this girl. Someone does, and J learns Christiana works at a local pizza parlor.
J speaks to Christiana and gives her the rundown of her part in it all. She asks Christiana if she'd like to write to her father, and she does. After they begin this connection, J gives Christiana the diaries. Curtis, who had sent the diaries to J just for safe keeping, is blown away.
Let's just take a moment here and recap the astounding level of coincidence that went into this. Curtis is incarcerated in a prison in California. He meets another inmate who has a pen pal they don't care to write to. So Curtis takes up with J, who lives hundreds of miles away. Out of a sea of eight BILLION people, J is the one who writes to him for YEARS. And then it turns out, she lives in the SAME TOWN where his wife took his daughter. And when it came time Christiana was old enough to decide if she wanted to speak to her dad, Curtis spontaneously sends the diaries to J. This timing, in itself, is pretty profound. And J just happened to look in the newspaper the SAME DAY Christiana graduated and sees her name...
If that's not a miracle, I don't know what is. I don't think there's any way to explain that other than to believe, on some level, there are divine forces at work in our lives. They are working behind the scenes, moving pieces, arranging things, and taking care of us. These mystical forces make things happen that we couldn't make happen even if we tried.
After Christiana read the diaries she began building her own relationship with Curtis. Unfortunately, after a year of this, she decided that she needed to move on with her life. Curtis didn't get the outcome he had hoped for, but that didn't diminish the profound effect this experience had on him. Especially at a time when he needed it most.
And that my friends, is the Miracle of the Diaries. I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I did.
The "Miracle of the Diaries" is a true story that was featured on the podcast Ear Hustle. Ear Hustle is a thought provoking, insightful, and often times moving podcast by Radiotopia. It's made by prisoners inside San Quentin, who tell their own stories in their own words.
If you'd like to hear the full episode, check out "Left Behind", on season 1, episode 8 of Ear Hustle. You can also subscribe to it on iTunes, Podcast addict, or wherever you get your listen on. I'm a huge fan, and am so grateful to Curtis and the Ear Hustle team for bringing this powerful story to me.