Twenty-eight years is a good long time to review one’s life. And it has taken me that long to make sense of what I did.
I have heard it said by some that we in prison are more than our worst mistake; that our lives cannot and should not be judged by a single misguided decision, a single bad act, especially if that act was immediately and forever regretted.
But the reality is that I judge myself for this act. My sense of self, my very identity, can never be separated from what I did that day 28 years ago.
When I look in the mirror, I see a man in his fifties, still physically fit but well into the second half of life, greying around the edges. A man capable of goodness, given to self-reflection. An avid reader, a consumer of knowledge, a conversationalist, an accomplished cook and someone who loves to laugh. I see a son, a brother, a friend.
I also see a young man who, in a fit of drug-fueled rage, killed the woman he loved. Stabbed her, leaving her in a pool of blood.
This is me. I did that. I did that to a woman who I claimed was the love of my life, the center of my world. I could not let her go; I preferred that she die a bloody death rather than go on living without me.
I am, in other words, the poster-child of a domestic violence abuser.
Count the signs. Abused as a child myself. Fought my father at age 12, was nearly killed by him. At age 13, began to abuse alcohol and drugs. Dropped out of school after ninth grade.
Told by my mother that I would never amount to anything. In the depths of my soul, believed it to be true. Prone to rage. Smart, though I didn’t know it, and used my intelligence to manipulate. History of violence in my family; one of my brothers killed himself while awaiting his own trial.
I desperately wanted to be loved and was hungry for acceptance. That meant I was ready to fight when it wasn’t given.
We met in a drug treatment program. Her name was Tracy. She had more clean time than me, but I could act the part of someone in recovery, and we fell for each other. The love was dazzling; being with her made me feel more wanted than I ever had before. She was my new intoxication. I would look at her and shake my head, thinking, “Damn, son, she is yours!”
We both had good jobs; I was working as a chef for a museum. We married. She was grounded and spiritual, committed to her sobriety and always seemed to see things from a higher perspective than mine.
But I had never really stopped using, and it didn’t take long before she saw the signs. She caught me in lies. Her warnings that I couldn’t have both her and the drugs didn’t sink in until she kicked me out. She was right, of course. I was scaring her; my personality, when jacked on drugs, became quarrelsome, mercurial and dishonest. I lost all sense of judgment, of time or place or proportionality.
But my response to getting kicked out was as immature as ever: I took more drugs to cover the pain. And my brain conflated her rejection with all my past life’s humiliations. I blamed her for every bad thing that had ever happened to me.
That day. Oh, but if I had the power to go back and live that day again and make different choices. But I cannot. In the nearly three decades since, I have tried all sorts of things to obliterate the memory, but it has become seared into my brain.
I went to her house to beg her to take me back. Did I really think she would? I knew that I frightened her, that I was not safe to be with, that it was not her fault, that she was doing what she needed to do. But in my spiraling rage I blamed her, and, of course, in the most predictable way, my imagination could not bear the thought of her with someone else.
There, in the doorway, we argued. She tried to get me out. I slipped past her, grabbed a knife from the kitchen and went after her.
I was told that I struck her with the knife, with violent force, 13 times. The hit to her throat is what killed her. They said I fled on foot, hid for a brief period, then turned myself in with the help of my sisters.
At first, I could barely remember.
The haziness of my description here, that mental fog, was and remains a kind of self-preservation, like when your body goes into shock. It has taken years for the memories to surface and for me to admit my perfect culpability.
I needed to blame everyone else first, though. It was my parents’ fault; it was the fault of alcohol and drugs. It was because society had dealt me a bad hand.
Slowly, painfully, I began to discard all that, to untangle the bindings of my life and get to a gut-level honesty.
First it was through reading. I immersed myself in books; in prison you have lots of time for them. Everything from "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" to Dr. Phil to C.S. Lewis.
Then someone told me about the Turning Points men’s program in Dumfries, Virginia, which connected me with Mrs. Bea Lee, who became an angel in my life. She hooked me up with a series of materials on domestic violence known as the “Duluth Model,” which was simply transformative.
I read an article in the Washington Post about a survivor of domestic violence, who with the help of another program called Homestretch escaped her abuser and rebuilt her life. I wrote to the executive director of that organization, which led to a years-long correspondence that helped me recognize that I still could bring value to the world, despite my evil deed.
I am serving a life sentence. I do not know if I will ever get paroled. I dream of getting out, starting a new life, eating good food again and making a delicious meal out of truly fresh ingredients, something that I will never do in prison. I imagine walking in the woods, by a stream; putting my feet in the cold running water; walking barefoot in plush grass; eating fresh corn and sun-ripened tomatoes in summer. I have become enchanted by plants and flowers: living things, fragile and transient but exquisitely beautiful.
I have become more aware of beauty, of love, of goodness.
Yet I struggle with the concept of forgiveness. Can I forgive myself for what I did? I cannot imagine Tracy’s family forgiving me and would not ask that of them. But I owe them the chance to tell me just how badly I have ruined their lives; I am ready to do so, and want to.
Still, I know that my saying, “I am deeply sorry,” will be insufficient. Perhaps the knowledge that I am doing all I can to help others escape our fate may reduce the pain just a little. Or maybe not.
I struggle with guilt and shame. Guilt is the acknowledgment of having committed an act that is wrong or hurtful, while shame is a deep inner sense of personal unworthiness. Guilt is easier to deal with than shame; both are painful, but one is about the act and the other is about the person.
I must accept guilt but reject shame.
I am more than my worst act, yes. What I still need, though, is to somehow atone for what I have done. There is no perfect atonement, except for that which Christ paid on the cross. But I dream of somehow using my experience, my own story to reach other men who are in danger of doing what I have done—before their own rage turns fatal. If I could save one man from doing what I did and save his loved one from Tracy’s fate, then I will have found a calling for my final years.
Some communities engage “peer advocates,” or men who have committed domestic violence but have reformed, to intercept other men before they commit worse acts. (Just as it is often recovering addicts who make the best drug counselors.) This is what I’d like to do.
I may eventually get out, or I may die in here. I do not know where I will end up. I have limited choices. But among the choices I can make is this: to lend my voice to one of the most important conversations of our time, about empowering women. A voice from the side you rarely look to—the abuser, who has done the awful deed, but who has the credibility to speak with candor and wisdom to other men in danger of destroying many, many lives.
I think of King David, who himself committed murder, and his pleas of repentance in Psalm 51, which have been a refuge for millions of sinners: “My sacrifice is a broken and contrite heart,” he said, “a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Daniel Adams, 58, is serving a life sentence at Deep Meadows Correctional Center in State Farm, Virginia.