Prison Stories

The Boy Who Lived

What the gift of Harry Potter meant to this closeted gay prisoner

Illustration: Dadu Shin

I’I’ve been caged for seven months now, and I’m beginning to forget what it feels like to be free, to be a human being. I subsist on a diet of self-pity and molded bologna smacked between sheets of white bread. Months ago, I was the son of a guru living on an ashram eating a vegetarian diet; now in jail, I don’t know what or who I am. If I’m honest, though, I was never truly free.

Addiction does that, locks you inside a body and mind that feel foreign and hostile, a quadriplegia of the conscience. So does growing up in central Florida and hiding that you’re gay. I wonder if I’ll ever be comfortable enough to have a boyfriend, to watch badly acted rom-coms while cuddling on a couch with another man. I don’t think people like me deserve that.

The actuality of jail is designed to sever the spirit from the body, to break the inhabitant. I feel broken, and brokenness is insidious. It slowly seeps into the soul, drip after drip, drowns its vessel in hopelessness. Days drag on, one after the other, in a never-ending series of sameness. This is incarceration.

It’s a Tuesday, which means nothing in jail. After breakfast, it’s mail time, and a few lucky inmates in the block have their names bellowed by the guard. Men scurry to the steel door to receive a parcel or an envelope that might remind them that there is a world out there, that maybe we are not alone. The guards used to badly butcher my name during mail call. But now that I’ve been here for months, I get mail so infrequently that the opportunity to mispronounce my name has greatly diminished. Friends and family who stayed strong in the beginning, who wrote letters and visited, dropped off after a few months. It’s not their fault, merely the natural evolution in the stages of incarceration. Still, it hurts.

A corrections officer with glasses and a military haircut yells my name for mail; miraculously, he pronounces it correctly. I sprint to the door as fast as my jumpsuit and ripped flip-flops will allow. The guard hands me a large manila envelope. It’s heavy, and the return address is from my college friend Jeannie. The envelope has already been opened, as is every piece of mail we receive, but I still tear away some of the buff-colored paper to trick myself into believing that I am the first to see it. It’s the little things, you know? I peek inside and see a Xeroxed color copy of the cover of the seventh Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows.

I stand there, stunned. Tears cascade down my cheeks, soaked up by the orange threads of my jumpsuit. I’m sobbing in front of everyone, which is dangerous, but I don’t care. All of the toughness and bravado I’ve projected these past few months is gone. I am stripped down to my humanity. This final installment of the Harry Potter series should not be in my hands. The book is only out in hardcover right now, and inmates are prohibited from receiving hardcover books, lest we use them as weapons. But these pages are color copies. I slide them out of the envelope, careful not to disturb their pristine crispness with my falling tears. There’s a note.

Dear Chunny,

I know you can’t get this book and that you really wanted to read it, so I went to the library and Xeroxed the first 200 pages. I’ll copy the rest and send it as soon as I have time. I love you.

Love, Jeannie

I lose it. I have to run to my cell because, although tears obscure my vision, I can hear the other inmates laughing at me. I sit down on my plastic mattress, which makes the customary hiss as the air finds its way to the many rips in the seams. The package from Jeannie rests on my lap, and I stare at it as if I’m an archaeologist who just found the Holy Grail. This envelope is a relic from another time, from the land of the living, where avocados and kisses on the mouth still exist.

So many aspects of my life have changed between the ages of 15 and 25, but two things were constant: painkillers and Harry Potter. The first book came out in 1998, and like so many others, I was completely captivated by it. Harry’s story swept me up out of a small Florida town and transported me to a land of magic, where an unwanted boy becomes the most powerful wizard the world has ever known. It wasn’t just the escapism of fantasy. As a closeted gay teenager who desired nothing more than to feel wanted, Harry’s story represented a hope that one day I would be whole.

Reading Harry Potter was the only time, in the ten years of my addiction, that I didn’t need a pill to feel alive.

I would stay up all night, promising myself I would find sleep after one more chapter, intimately aware I was lying. One of the books was released during a winter when Jeannie and I were rooming together during college. She witnessed me brew pots of coffee to stay awake, wrap myself in a blanket, and flip page after page. Maybe she understood my need to stay in Harry’s world, her intuitive eyes watching the words cauterize wounds she could not see. Reading Harry Potter was the only time, in the 10 years of my addiction, that I didn’t need a pill to feel alive.

My cellmate somehow grasps that I need space and quietly exits, leaving me alone with Harry. How could Jeannie love someone like me this much? I am a 25-year-old incarcerated addict with no self-worth and no belief that I matter. But Jeannie looks past the jumpsuit, the steel bars, the addiction, and stealing. She sees past all that to the boy who is enough. Jeannie leaned over a copy machine and turned page after page for hours in what she likely assumed would simply be a kind and loving gesture. What she didn’t know, couldn’t have known, is that this act would change everything.

I make a promise that Tuesday morning in 2007. One day, I’m going to get out of this jail. I’m going to eat avocados and kiss a man on the lips while Shakespeare in Love plays on our TV. I am going to fall madly in love and go back to school and never eat another bologna sandwich again. And far off in the future, when I have kids and they get to the final Harry Potter book, I’m going to pull these photocopied pages off my shelf. I will sit down in a comfy chair next to their beds and tell a story about a boy who was saved by the power of friendship and love. Magic doesn’t only happen in books. I am going to be the Boy Who Lives.

Chun Rosenkranz is a formerly incarcerated writer, social worker, and the founder of the non-profit, I’ll Be There Project. He is currently writing a memoir.

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