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Letter to my younger self: hard-won insights from an incarcerated writer

As he serves a 45-year prison sentence for robbery and murder, the author reflects on how a misguided perception of masculinity warped his life.

The author addressing the audience at a Concerned Lifers Organization Conference at the Washington State Reformatory, 2017.
The author addressing the audience at a Concerned Lifers Organization Conference at the Washington State Reformatory, 2017.Christopher Blackwell

Dear Chris,

You’re 16 now, but I’m writing to you from your almost-40-year-old self. Wild, right? I never thought I’d make it past 20, yet here I am. It’s been a hard, hard road, and I’ve been in prison for a long time already, with a long time still to go. I made bad choices rooted in false and harmful beliefs that boys and men have to be tough to be real men. This is called toxic masculinity, and I’m going to try to undo some of that damage to you with this letter.

Being vulnerable is not the same as being weak.

When you try to avoid feeling vulnerable, you end up hurting others. Vulnerability is key to finding true love. You won’t even understand what that is until your late 30s, when you meet Chelsea, who will become your wife. She’s incredible: beautiful, empathetic, loving, and she has a PhD. Yeah, dude, you marry a doctor.

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If you met someone like Chelsea now, you’d probably think you didn’t deserve her, but that’s just toxic masculinity talking. Everyone is worthy of this kind of love. Right now, you think girls love a tough guy, but that isn’t true. And if they do, they’re not the person you want to be with.

Women like Chelsea wouldn’t have been interested in me if I jumped to punch someone every time I was offended. Chelsea’s idea of a tough guy is someone who can walk away from a confrontation and look inward. Now, when I’m offended, I investigate why. That takes vulnerability, and it’s the furthest thing from weakness.

You are still a man if you cry.

Toxic masculinity says otherwise, and that’s a lie. In the last several years, I’ve learned that crying isn’t just connected to pain and frustration but to joy as well. When Chelsea first read my juvenile court records, all she had was empathy for a young boy who experienced a traumatic childhood. She had empathy for you.

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I had never been loved like that. The gift of being seen for who I am rather than judged for my worst choices made me cry tears of joy. I didn’t care that I did so while surrounded by hundreds of men who mistake fear for respect. I was no longer ruled by toxic masculinity or limited by its expectations. Crying helped me get there.

Don’t be ruled by greed.

I get it, you are growing up poor. The duct tape on your shoes is only temporary, I promise. You will rise out of poverty. When you steal, you tell yourself that you are just taking care of your own the only way you can, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. You just feel shame for growing up poor — blaming the world and holding all in your path accountable.

That time you broke into the elderly couple’s house because you knew there was money in a safe? That was their life savings. They needed that money. You will think about that all the time, and I promise you, the memory of it will stain you like graffiti on a beautiful building.

Stealing, selling drugs — these are shortcuts, attempts to chase an ideal of extreme wealth that toxic masculinity has told you to value. When you go slowly and actually earn something, you enjoy it so much more. You will fight through a lot to earn your college degree. The feeling you’ll get when you receive an A in finite math will be unlike anything you have ever felt. You will know that you could have cheated but you didn’t.

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Violence isn’t the answer, and guns won’t make you safe.

You think that because of the environment you are growing up in, you have to be violent. But that isn’t who you are. Every time you hurt someone, you will feel guilty.

Picking up a gun will be the worst choice you ever make. You think you need a gun to protect yourself, but you don’t. I get it, everyone in your neighborhood carries one, but you’re not a follower, so don’t act like one. Guns serve one purpose: to cause grievous harm. If you pick up a gun, you’ll end up in prison for most of your life. Even worse, you’ll take someone’s life. You will destroy families and a piece of your own soul. Believe me: This kind of wound doesn’t heal, not even with time.

Consider your young cousin. When he moves in with you because his dad goes to prison, you will groom him to solve problems the only way you know how: with violence. You will teach him to shoot a gun to keep himself “safe.” You will always regret that. He will later lose his leg in a drug robbery and hurt others countless times doing exactly what you will have taught him to do. You could save him all that pain and the pain he will cause, but you haven’t learned this lesson for yourself yet.

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If you choose to heed only one thing in this letter, let it be this: You are meant to add to this world, not take away from it. You will never forget the harm you cause, so do as little as possible.

I love ya man. Good luck.

Christopher Blackwell is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Wash., and is writing a book about solitary confinement. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @chriswblackwell.