Michael Patrick MacDonald
MPM: Me (second from right) and friends (originally planned jacket of Easter Rising)
"Finding my voice made me want to live"
Interview by Tim Broun, Part 3 of 3
PSF: What was that organization you started working (with) at the time?
MPM: They were called 'Citizens For Safety.'
PSF: You mention that it was surprising to that you were working with a black woman.
MPM: And also that she was embracing me because initially, when you work on these issues and you're going to meetings in Roxbury, which is all black, you know, they see a white guy come in and they just think you're another do-gooder. You know I still haven't met a black person with a story like mine. The stories in Southie were worse than any black stories I've ever heard. I've met plenty of people who had one kid in their family murdered, but that's like nothing. I shouldn't say that - it's not nothing. Pain is pain. I was always very aware of that, but people were blown away at all this stuff that I was talking about that happened in South Boston that was never making the news.
People in Roxbury were so isolated in their neighborhoods that they didn't realize there was such a thing as poor white people in Boston. They thought all white people had it made and so they were blown away about that. They really appreciated that I was talking about those things. A lot of people in the black community also had issues with busing as it was implemented in Boston. In All Souls, I write about busing a lot from a child's eye view, but with the retrospective of opinion that it was a complete disaster, that it was class- manipulative, that it was setting up poor blacks and poor whites against each other, and nobody was getting opportunities to better schools, which is what they were supposed to be doing - giving black youths access to better schools in white neighborhoods. But see, the white neighborhoods like Southie were so preoccupied with pretending that they were not poor that you would never know that their schools were just as bad as the black schools.
So the black population didn't know that when they went to Southie they were going to schools that were as bad as their own, and the people implementing the bussing were from much higher class and from the suburbs. So for me, the first time I started working with black activists in Roxbury, what was mind blowing to me was how easily we connected because all you ever heard in Boston was how impossible it was to bring people together across race.
What pissed me off was how easy it is actually! It's very easy! It's a lie that it's difficult to bring people together across race. There are so many people with so much in common with a lot of common ground on class issues for number one. There are a lot of poor white people in this country, and unfortunately, poor whites and working class whites tend to want to pretend that they are middle class, so they won't identify as having any problems for the most part because they are white and they are not supposed to. So you have to get people to acknowledge where they stand on the spectrum in order to then build some common ground across ethnicity. That's always been the hardest thing, but really, once you do that it's very easy. That's one thing they didn't do with busing.
So the way Easter Rising works, the way I think of it, is the whole first part of the book - the punk rock escapes are life saving, and as important as they were for me they are all about breaking away. About detaching, about individualisation. The latter part of that book, in the aftermath of all those tragedies, is beginning to find my voice by my first trips to Ireland, and getting closer to home, closer to my family, closer to understanding where I come from. The latter part of the book is about reconnecting, so it's like individualisation and reconnecting with community. That's how I see that book.
I also see it kind of like the slogan "in order to create you must destroy." Also, one of the things I had in mind when I was writing it was that kind of... I get into Hindu archetypes, and Hindu gods and goddesses, and the whole Sheeva thing. You know Sheeva is the god of destruction and creation? It's the same god - it's the flip sides of the same coin. So I always had that in my head too. That's what I was working on.
PSF: Remember Kraut?
MPM: Oh yeah...
PSF: They had a song called "Onwards"... might have been on their second album... I can't remember - anyway, it went "you gotta go backwards to go onwards."
MPM: Yes, exactly. That's how I think of the book. It's about that breaking away, but now I'll reconnect to a lot of people from that era. It's interesting because some people are still stuck on the individualization thing even into their 40's and 50's, and that can lend itself to a different kind of politics than I have. It lends itself to a kind of libertarian politics which is fine, but it's very different to what I have. It's, you know, "everyone needs to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" and I'm more communitarian. So I think punk politics, for a lot of people, can go either way. I think that certain bands represent different directions. I think the Clash would be more communitarian. The Sex Pistols would be more individualistic - "tear it all down," "I'm an individual," "fuck you and your problems," "pull yourself up by your bootstraps." The Clash would be about "what are you going to do now you've torn it all down?" So my politics are more communitarian, and I'll reconnect with people for whom it just went not just libertarian, but almost right wing. Because libertarian can go either way. It can become liberal but it can also become right wing. You know, "fuck these people with kids. They had kids - that's their problem." Not really a sense of us being responsible for each other.
PSF: Where did the writing come in - what made you decide "I'm going to write a book?"
MPM: I feel like the writing is connected to my childhood. As a kid, a lot of my own time was spent drawing, so I didn't write until when I went to college at U Mass. I wrote papers but for the type of writing I did in All Souls, which is my first creative work - that happened at 30. I had never done any writing like that before - where you fall into a voice and keep things kind of at a pure perspective from the moment you are experiencing it, you know? That was very different from anything I had ever done. So it didn't feel like it had a connection to any of the writing I did prior to that, but it felt more like the drawing I did as a kid.
PSF: Was there a thought process to it over a few years? Like "One day I'm going to write a book about my life?"
MPM: Once I became an activist in 1990, I tended to be around a lot of survivors. A lot of people whose kids were murdered, or family members who were murdered, or whose family members died from a drug trade. And in any kind of activist action, like say the gun buy-back program, you would hold a press conference, and you would have survivors or victims, however they would define themselves, get up and tell their story. And people telling their story has a huge impact on the media. The media (click fingers) always wanted it. We would always use our stories, and a lot of times these mothers with murdered children would get up and tell their story for the sake of impacting the issue. For the sake of getting people to turn in their guns, or getting people to speak out and break codes of silence. But I also saw their telling of their stories wasn't just benefiting the community or the issue. It was also transforming the people telling the story, and I hadn't really been transformed. I'd put these others, these mothers of murdered children and other family members up there at the podium, but I never put myself up there because I still wasn't thinking of myself as someone at their level who had been through that. I was still was kind of separating myself from the tragedies, but I started to see how it transformed them.
One time I got up there and told a little bit, and then another time, I got up there and told a little bit more. So more and more often, with press conferences, I would get up and use my own story in order to impact the issue that I was working on, and I started to feel also the transformation that comes with that. The important thing about that is that you have to be in control of how much you are going to tell, and you have to be in control of whether or not you want to tell it or not. Whether or not you want to speak even on that day. One day you might not feel like it, so I always knew that from working with some of these people. Sometimes they said "You know what? I don't feel like it. I can't talk - I can't tell my story today." And you're like, "Ok, that's fine." But it's really important for people be in control of the telling of their story.
So I was very much in control of it. But in press conferences and in activism, even in interviews with newspapers or magazines, there was only so much you could tell. It started to become frustrating because I wanted to go deeper and that's when I knew I wanted to write a book. So all through the '90's, I just had it in my head that I wanted to write a book because all this stuff is starting to come together to be about all the observing I've done in my whole life is coming together, and it's about race and class more than anything else for me. So All Souls was written with the theme of race and class in mind.
Easter Rising... they are both memoirs. They are both around the same time but they are about very different things. Easter Rising is more about resiliency and how you carry on in the aftermath of tragedy and trauma. So they both have a theme, but All Souls was coming together for about ten years as this story, as this book. I needed to write about everything I experienced and that relates to race and class issues.
Some people mistake memoir for autobiography. They think your memoir should have everything in it... "Where's this? Where's that? How come you didn't talk about that?" But that's not what memoir is. It's an impressionistic strand of stories that are about a particular thing you know. So in All Souls, when the tragedies start to take place, when siblings are dying and the neighborhood is dying, I as a character kind of recede into the background, and the tragedies take over and then I become a reporter of the tragedies. And then I don't appear again in full force, in the round until my little brother is in trouble. Then I went from the quiet one in the family to this activist that won't shut the fuck up (laughs). You know what I mean? I went from this quiet one to this person who is really passionate about these things and...
MPM: Christine and Springa (they dated... they look like New Romantics here.
Springa was a total fashion plate -- in a good way, stylin' I mean -- before SSD)
PSF: The leadership role...
MPM: That's the transformation that happens there, but it all happens within the story that I needed to tell, around race and class and even empowerment. Around those issues is a big part of it so Easter Rising is the opposite. I'm in the foreground and the tragedies are in the background. So they kind of go together, but they are just like sequels. They are just two separate worlds so I had to keep them as two separate worlds.
PSF: What are you doing these days and what's next?
MPM: I just finished this screenplay for All Souls. It's way over written but the director told me to over write it, and we're going to start trimming it down. He's Ron Shelton. He did Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, and Blades. He did the movie about Ty Cobb if you remember that with Tommy Lee Jones.
PSF: Yeah, he was a real prick.
MPM: He was good at that! He did a really good movie recently that I liked a lot called Dark Blue with Kurt Russell. It was acclaimed but it wasn't seen in a lot of theatres. Great movie though, one of my favorites by him. Anyway, he's a great friend of mine at this point. We've been working together on this for years, and he's kind of my mentor in the writing process. So I do all the writing, but he gives me the feedback through meetings with him and talking to him.
So that's been a long process because adapting a book is difficult. But adapting your book is even harder. Adapting your book that is also your life is really fucked up!
PSF: I can imagine!
MPM: Because you have to fictionalize for one thing. In order to turn some corners. In order to do things that are necessary cinematically you have to fictionalize. And when you are that attached - I mean All Souls is all about truth telling - and so when I was writing it I was so afraid of fucking up the color of a car! If the car was green and I said it was blue it was so important that it all be the truth. And I've been confirmed on so much with All Souls by so many people. People would tell me "The way you described so and so next door was exactly the way i remember them." So that's been great.
But doing a script you have to change some things in order to get from point A to point D instead of going you know A-B-C-D. You have to go right to D. You have to invent a whole new corner. Sometimes there are some things that work in a book that don't work in the cinema.
What Ron told me, for example, when my mother, in All Souls, walks up the front stoop with a shotgun and then sits in the window with it night. That works in a book because in a book, you are allowed to be internal and talk about what that meant to you in a way, but Ron said that because you are not allowed to be internal in a film, there has to be some action there. And the other rule of thumb is you can't show a gun without shooting it. My mother sat in the window all night with the gun and that got us accepted into the neighborhood, right? Ron asked "So what's the point of the story." The point is that the threat of violence got us in - we were in. It doesn't mean like shooting somebody, but to make that same point. To tell that same truth. My mother sees something suspicious going on outside, she points the gun up at the night sky and fires. And everybody is like "holy fuck!" And then you're in!
It's a truth I've come to terms with, but at first it was really hard. Even a detail like my mother pointing the gun at the night sky. It wasn't a big deal, but to me it was a big deal. When I wrote All Souls, there were people ready to attack me, and to say 'that's not true, you're making it all up,' all that denial and code of silence stuff. I've have been very concerned with telling the truth around that book. But Ron said there is a truth and there are accuracies, and we are going for the truth and that's the difference here. So that's been a real learning experience.
It's also been a little bit of a dabbling. I'm allowed to be more creative. It makes me want to write another screenplay that's not memoir. That's totally just fiction because now that I have the whole structure of the screenplay down. I would love to do something where I am allowed to just play rather than sticking to "Is the car green or was it blue or does it really matter?" and just making up a fiction story.
Another thing I'm doing is embarking on another book, and it's gonna be working with kids who are gang members or ex-gang members. Following them through the transformation process out of a gang lifestyle. Its going to be in Chelsea, MA which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. It's been in receivership for a while and it went bankrupt a few years ago.
PSF: Whereabouts in Massachusetts is it?
MPM: It's right outside Boston. It's a city of its own - very urban, but it's right outside of Boston proper. It's much poorer than Boston. 85% of the kids entering first grade speak English as a second language, so it's that heavily immigrant and all the countries that they come from are pretty much all the war torn countries of the past 40 or 50 years. Everything from Vietnam to Cambodia all the way up to recently Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia. I guess the most recent immigration is the kids from Rwanda, and so they come to this community, these families, and their kids get sucked into the gang life. They are coming from all this trauma in these countries that they've escaped, and then end up in these poor neighborhoods in America - Chelsea being one of them.
The kids get involved in gang life and what's happening now with all the police raids and all that. The kids will be arrested and because they are illegal immigrants, they will be deported back to the country they came from all by themselves. The families are not going to go. The families are here and they are staying here, so a 15 year old will be sent back to like El Salvador. As a result now, in all these countries, all these gangs with the names of streets in America are forming in places like El Salvador, Rwanda, everywhere, so we are exporting our street culture by deporting a lot of these kids.
The book follows a lot of kids out of the gang lifestyle, out of this organization that I used to work with that does incredible work with kids, helping them to transform from gang members to community leaders. They are so successful at it that I know I'm going to follow a lot of really successful cases, and a lot of the people who run this organization are former gang members too, so I can start with them. There will also probably be some kids that don't make it out, and end up in jail or whatever, but I want to tell that whole story.
But the reason I want to go there is just because it's the most hopeful in spite of all the poverty and the gang shit. It's probably the most hopeful place I've seen in years because of the work that this organization is doing. They do work that no one else is doing - basically about truth telling. So, back on the theme of the memoir stuff, they've gotten the courts to agree to, instead of sentencing kids to prison, to allow them to go into these community circles. They are called either 'healing circles' or they are called 'peace making circles.' They have a number of names, but they are based on the Native American tradition of justice, and a lot of the kids are really into sitting in circles. At first, they think it's weird, but basically the way it works is you have a victim and a perpetrator, and their families and communities - whoever, however they define family and community. It could be other gang members sitting in the circle.
PSF: All together?
MPM: Yeah, all in a circle. It's literally in a circle. There will be someone from probation, someone from court represented. There'll be people from this organization, people from social service networks are involved like child protection services. Whatever is needed. It starts going round - everyone tells their role in this conflict, and everybody gets to speak, and everybody gets to be heard. When one person is speaking, nobody butts in. It's only the person speaking and then it goes around in the circle, and it keeps going round and round for 4 days. If it takes longer they will do it longer, but the going rate is about 4 days. Everyone in the circle, including the victim and the perpetrator, have to agree on the punishment for the perpetrator, or the whatever you want to call it, the resolution or whatever it could be. Something that seems like punishment. It could even be jail.
Sometimes, the perpetrator says "Fuck this, I want to go to jail." What every kid that has been involved in these circles has said is that jail is actually easier than sitting in these circles, and having to face your victim, and ultimately yourself. So this is kind of changing these kids lives completely because what happens, when you go round the circle and people tell their story, their role in whatever conflict is going on, or their role in the streets, or why they are who they are... when people are telling their stories, they all end up breaking down. So you get these gang members and cops crying in the circle. It's really mind blowing. I never thought it would ever work but it's really successful.
So I'm going to write about that a little bit. I'd have to introduce that process half-way through the book or something because I want to introduce people to the characters first and then have them go through the process of transformation with them. When you first describe it to people, it just sounds too "kumbaya" for people to be down with it. It sounded like that to me. I was like, "...this is ridiculous. This is like new age or something." But you know what? People are tired of things that don't work, and the chief of police in Chelsea has retired from the police department to go work for this organization.
MPM: And this was like a rough Southie type guy. He had no tolerance for these fucking kids, these gang kids. "Lock 'em up throw the key away!" And now he's changing his life job, his calling.
PSF: Amazing! That's great...
MPM: So that's my next book... I'm sorry, am I talking too much? I drank too much coffee so I'm blabbing away.
PSF: So besides working on the next book, are you directly involved with any activist stuff besides maybe reporting on it at this point? Or are you writing?
MPM: I think that's the role I'm going to take. In All Souls, there's a point where my little brother is falsely accused of murder, and then when I realize the level of corruption involved... when I found the falsified transcripts of his call to 911, where they had on type-written transcripts, "I just shot my friend in the head..." When I found out that was a lie, I get to this point in All Souls where I want to either kill myself or stay alive and do something about this shit. So I kind of made a life long commitment to activism at that point and my activism will take different forms throughout my life.
In the '90's, it was like in the trenches...working directly with people, organizing coalition meetings, organizing meetings between like police and mothers of murdered children... Now it's taken the form of a writer so I'm writing and wanting to be kind of reconnecting to the artist that I was as a kid. I'm able to kind of reconnect to that in a way, but to do it with an activist purpose in a way and I'd like to continue to write.
I think another phase I might move into is as a teacher. I'd like to teach, and I'd like to teach at the college level at a college that's accessible, where you are going to come across kids who are the first in their family to go to college. Whatever form it takes, I'll always have social justice in mind. I just knew that I couldn't work in the trenches like I was for more than the ten years that I did it. One of the things that I find too often is that people end up staying in the trenches for their whole lives and they get burned out, and they are not really helping the cause after a while. They are also not promoting new and younger leadership which is what you have to do in any kind of activism. In any kind of community organizing, you should always be looking to the next generation to take on leadership roles and be able to get out of the way. I feel like I was able to get out of the way in the writing.
I began with this memoir that was All Souls which was very social justice oriented, and Easter Rising is a little more able to veer off into just story telling. It does have a purpose around resiliency and so forth. It's also connected to music, so it's a little lighter in a way than the blood bath that All Souls is. Now I can take it back to the grass roots, and get close to people who are in the trenches, and maybe telling their stories. But I'd like to do fiction some time as well. I was just offered a gig at Northeastern University once a week in Boston.
PSF: That's great.
MPM: Yeah, for a semester either this spring or the fall... we're not sure yet.
PSF: So back to Boston...
MPM: Yeah, but just one day a week. Boston is a completely different place. Their murder rate is higher than New York's per capita. It went way down in the late '90's... They went two years without a single juvenile homicide, and that was when all that coalition organizing was happening and movement was building in Boston around gun buy-back and so forth. But then after that they got kinda lazy and were resting on their laurels, and now the murder rate is sky rocketing. It's involving whole new immigrant groups.
New York's murder rate is nothing compared to Boston per capita, and in Boston, there's such an extreme disparity now. There's increased poverty in the neighborhoods, but some neighborhoods like Southie, that have gentrified, where you won't find a meal for less than 45 dollars... it's seriously more expensive than Boston!
PSF: With the music you grew up on - and it's obviously influenced you a lot - are you still going out to see shows? Do you still listen a lot? What kind of role does it play in your life these days?
MPM: For some reason, I can't do the reunion thing, or even the nostalgia thing. The Buzzcocks are reunited for good now, but I have a hard time going to see the fat bald old Buzzcocks, you know what I mean? It's too depressing! I saw them in like '81... I saw them at the Bradford Hotel in Boston. I think it's fine that they are doing that, and that people, that they are helping kids to be more aware of the lineage, but I can't go to that because I just get too depressed. I feel old, and I'm not that old! I feel as old as them and I'm not, so I can't do that.
I will go to see people from the old days who have evolved into other incarnations. I saw Elvis Costello at Carnegie Hall with the Brooklyn Philharmonic... that was amazing. I saw him at a relatively small place doing his rock & roll stuff back in the day.
For new younger shows sometimes my niece will get me to go to shows, and I just can't do it because that's also difficult because I just feel old. I don't want to feel old. We're at this point where we're not young and we're not old.
PSF: Every once in a while I run into somebody... I mean people tell me I look good for my age... I'll run into somebody I went to high school with who definitely looks our age, or a little bit older, and I'm looking at them, and it just reminds me!
MPM: Yeah, that's scary. We're at a weird point and I want to hold off on that, and so being at the too young shows is difficult too. But I'll keep up on stuff, and a lot of the new stuff actually sounds a lot like the post-punk period you know? The band I have on my main mySpace page right now is Quixotica... I think that's how you say it. Do you know them?
PSF: I don't, no...
MPM: They are pretty amazing because they really sound like the best of that period that you like and that I like. It's girl harmonies, it's a mix of a bunch of influences that you'll recognize. I should play it. They're good so I like some newer bands like that. I listen to a lot of reggae and dub still from the old days.
PSF: Is there anything else you'd like to add... to wrap up with?
MPM: The question about aspirations in youth... I always get asked, "Did you dream of someday being a published author?" I really did not expect to live much longer. The more people died around me, the more I had to ask "who's next?" And I was preoccupied with my own impending doom.
This is kind of a natural response to that much death around me. That's what people in my family do, I figured... we die. So I thought every day was my last. In some ways it made me live a very full life early on, but it also sent me into fits of anxiety and fear. Anyway, I just wanted to say that about the whole aspirations thing. I never became so sure of living until I outlived my deceased brothers by a number of years (they stopped aging at 21, 23 etc...), so it was weird to start to live beyond those years. I was fortunate to find a VOICE in both community work and in writing. Finding my voice made me want to live.
And it was THEN, ironically, after I published All Souls and I really wanted to live, and I knew HOW to live, that I started getting death threats!!! Just my luck. But fortunately, I got through that too.
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