Excerpt from A Little Piece of Light
“Say his name.”
I stand in front of the stainless steel mirror in my cell in the solitary housing unit. My face is bare of any makeup—there is nothing covering this up, no making it any prettier. This is me, facing myself. Facing what I did. “Say his name,” I whisper at the mirror. “SAY HIS NAME!”
I brace myself to sit on the slab of metal that serves as my bed in my cell. “Thomas Vigliarolo,” I whimper. “His name is Thomas Vigliarolo!” The crescendo of sobs breaks me. “I’m sorry, Mr. V!” I call out. Weak from the years of carrying this weight, my voice drops again to a whisper as I beg for his forgiveness. “I am so sorry, Mr. V. I am so, so sorry that I didn’t help you.”
Cries echo throughout the unit—my own, and the cries of the women around me. In this place, our cries are our only release. We cry for ourselves, and we cry for each other. With each other.
For many of us here, imprisonment began long before the day we registered in prison. Feeling trapped and isolated began years before we found ourselves confined to a six-by-ten cinder block room with no clock to mark the time. A prison worse than any government facility is the feeling that nobody loves you. Nobody wants you. You belong nowhere. As the men in my life told me from the time I was a child: Donna, you are nobody, and nobody will ever love you. Years…decades…lives of abuse and neglect spurred many of us to make one desperate decision that finally, ultimately led us here. Too often, by the time a woman commits a crime, her only goal has been survival.
For that lapse in judgment, that poor decision—that mistake—it’s likely she will forever suffer the worst prison of all: the inability to forgive herself.
I’ll never forget waking up to my friend’s words: He’s not breathing. It was a turn of events that I could not fathom. Even now, half a decade after leaving prison, not a day goes by that I don’t think about Mr. Vigliarolo. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of his family, the fear they must have felt as they imagined him in fear, wondering where he was for eleven nights and worried for what he might have been experiencing.
Say his name.
I’m sorry, Mr. V.
I know what it’s like to fear for the safety of the person we love. Family is protection. I know this because on the day I gave birth, that was my fiercest vow to my daughter: I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you. And I know this because, beginning in my childhood, I lived a life of suffering and tough choices for two decades, until I finally found my family in the most unexpected place: prison. In spite of all the pain I’ve experienced in my life, I’ve never wanted anyone to die. But it is here, in this most unlikely place, that I found the protection and support I needed to turn my life around.
I am Donna—but here, for twenty-seven years, I was inmate #86G0206.
This is my story.
Chapter 1: The Prisoner of Boynton Avenue
I was three years old, barefoot against the chilled concrete floor in the back of a pub on William Street in my birthplace of Port Antonio, Jamaica, surrounded by blue lagoons, white sand beaches, waterfalls, and caves. Wafting in from a street vendor outside was the aroma of roasted meat wrapped inside steamed banana leaves. My tummy growled with hunger for something to eat. My heart yearned with hunger for attention…affection. As if suddenly aware of me while she and her sister discussed some business in the pub, which they ran together, my mummy picked me up and squeezed me closely to her. she cooed, “I love you so much.” I splayed my tiny fingers across her shoulders, feeling the way her coffee skin held the sun’s heat even inside the cool of the dim bar.
At once, she released me toward the ceiling, my fall startling me when the breeze became my only security. The next second, I felt my mother’s hands braced around my body. Again, she launched me into the air—and this time I giggled with the thrill of it. A third time, she swung me high, and I flew like a bird with my arms outstretched toward heaven, squealing in laughter. When I looked down for the safety of her hands, our eyes met, but in an instant it struck me that her hands were no longer in the air, anticipating my return.
I plummeted to the ground, my head ing the concrete floor.
Even now, fifty years later, the sheer shock of it stuns me. After a moment of numbness followed by confusion and fuzzy disorientation, the sensation set in, making it certain: my mummy let me fall.
I screamed in pain.
“What’s wrong with you?!” my auntie scolded my mother. An argument erupted while I lay facedown, crying out, craving loving hands to pick me up and make this better.
This is my earliest memory. All these years later, my heart sinks to remember it. It remains a moment that symbolizes the first fifteen years of my life: adult hands harming me instead of protecting me. A touch that I should have been able to trust, but could not.
William Street was two blocks from the water and therefore a lucrative hangout for locals looking to make a few dollars from the tourists who came to the beaches of Port Antonio. It was an area known for its laid-back Rastafarian spirit and its tropical fruits, flowers, butterflies, and birds. When I chased the mango hummingbirds into the fields on the edge of town, they showed me how to suck the nectar from the honeysuckle and morning glories. Fast and graceful, boundless and free, these creatures seemed magic to me.".
My mother also believed in magic, but her fascination was different than mine. She was a devotee of the taboo practice of the West Indies called Obeah. Before it had been outlawed in the late 1700s, some observers of the religion believed it was a way to transmit harm to their slavemasters. They performed witchcraft and spells and sacrificed animals wildly and cruelly in public spaces. Some, like my mother, also used their children as real-life voodoo dolls.
I was born very shortly after Jamaica gained its independence from Great Britain in 1962. With the transition from British rule to independence came upheaval, a lack of systems, and centuries’ worth of hurt and resentment. At that time, some laws in Jamaica weren’t being enforced effectively. Systems also weren’t very precise when it came to recording births or administering birth certificates—especially not for a mother like mine, who once told me that I was born on October 29, 1964 inside a cave. I’m more inclined to believe the part about the cave than I am to believe the specific date of birth. Only when I grew older and more detached from any sense of security at all did I realize I wish I’d had enough time with her to ask who my father was, why my skin was so much lighter than the skin of most of the people around me…or more about where I belonged, in general.
Back then, in Jamaica or anywhere, there also weren’t insights or clear diagnoses for the problems my mother suffered. Today, we’d understand that her unpredictable mood swings, tenderness that turned to violence or indifference in a split second, were due to mental illness or a personality disorder, possibly bipolarism. One minute, she was bright-eyed and charismatic, while the next she was a monster, dunking me in scalding water, lashing me with a tree branch or rubber telephone wire that she found on the side of the road after a tropical storm snapped it to the ground. It was routine for her to burn me with fire and cut me with a knife. “Shut up!” she’d yell through gritted teeth while she lashed me. “You’re unclean!” Sometimes, after she finished hurting me, she would soothe herself with deep breaths then pull me close to hug me. “I am sorry,” she’d say softly in remorse. “My baby…I am sorry.” I would melt into her embrace, so achingly hungry to be loved in any moment.
Whether she was holding me close or harming me, there was no explanation for her emotional expression, no reason for her reactions. I simply nestled closely into her kindness when it was available and obeyed her when it wasn’t. She was my mother—as a child, I needed her. She was beautiful and passionate, and over and over, I found it easy to forgive her. On some level even then, I understood that she loved me the best that she could.
But a child who never knows what will happen next will find some way—any way—to flee the moments of trauma and pain. I remember sitting in the corner of the cave where my mother and the Obeah priest would hold their rituals by firelight. “Come,” my mother would motion to me. As a toddler, I would rise from my place against the wall of the cave and climb onto their stone table as their feathered costumes and head scarves now billowed above me. I kept my eyes on the glow of the fire on the rough rock ceiling overhead, focusing on that flicker with more and more concentration until their swaying and spells and cries out to their god sounded distant from me, as though I were sinking asleep and my ears became cushioned with protection from the sounds.
As my mother and her leader fell deep inside their prayers, their eyes closed and their voices hushed, I, too, would begin to disappear. In my mind, I began to rise up, out of my body, and look down on myself so that I was no longer feeling my experience from the inside, but observing it from the outside. I wanted to be out in the sunlight, chasing the butterflies. By the time I was four years old, blacking out to escape my reality had become my only way of emotionally surviving my dangerous childhood.
Early on, I devised a way to escape my mother’s harm. As soon as I could walk, I learned to run—. I’d run from home into the streets, always the same bare feet, looking for a safe place as my hair fell heavy like ropes down my little back. Because my mother often wasn’t home, I’d wander Port Antonio by myself, searching for some companion. Townspeople would allow me to duck inside their offices to hide from my raging mother while she made scenes in the street. To protect myself from loneliness, I created an imaginary friend—Michael—who would loyally roam with me to the shore.
At the age of six, I was offered a real escape. My mother introduced me to Roy and Daphne Hylton, a childless couple from New York. Mummy explained that both the husband and wife came from families of great status in Jamaica. They had no children of their own, but Roy was known to bring little girls to the United States with the promise of possibility, of dreams, and a good education. When I met them, Roy and Daphne exchanged a glance and told me about a happy, magical place with parks, rides, laughs, and cotton candy. “We’ve just come from Disney World,” Daphne said. Her hair flipped up at the perimeter with precision; her skin was cocoa-colored, and she wore blue silk pants that landed smartly just about the ankle and a matching blouse, buttoned straight to the top, with carefully capped sleeves. Everything about her—right down to her nose—was slim and direct. “Would you like to travel there with us someday?”
I lowered my chin, timid about the idea of going anywhere with two grownups I didn’t know. I turned to my mother, searching her expression for her role in this only to find an amusement in her eyes that seemed to urge me forward. Would she be coming, too?
For another moment, I stayed silent. “Do you know what Disney World is?” Daphne’s eyes were a see-through shade of brown when she bent to see me eye-to-eye—a nature of exchange that would later be rare between us. “It’s a magical place for children.”
She stood tall again, indicating with her expression that this was something I’d be silly to miss.
Standing under the certainty of the Jamaican sun, we all bought into Daphne’s story about magic. I would trust Roy and Daphne just enough to step onto an airplane and fly to the place of promises and dreams…but before very long, my childhood would turn into a nightmare that would be impossible to escape, no matter how hard I would run.