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‘Unlikely Brothers’ Chronicles Forging of a Unique Bond for 2 Men

June 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Siblings don't always have to share a mother or a father to forge a lasting bond. Human rights activist John Prendergast and "little brother" Michael Mattocks speak with Gwen Ifill about the highs and lows of their unlikely "brotherhood" and their new book.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, siblings don’t always share a mother or a father. Some forge lasting bonds that go beyond family.

Gwen Ifill has this story of two unlikely brothers.

GWEN IFILL: Their lives could not have been more different: John Prendergast, son of the suburban middle class; Michael Mattocks, a product of urban poverty.

MAN: Thank you for all that you have done.

GWEN IFILL: One went on to become a White House adviser who travels the world with celebrities.

JOHN PRENDERGAST, “Unlikely Brothers”: And they’re just sleeping in the rain, basically.

GWEN IFILL: The other dropped out of school in seventh grade, opting instead for a lucrative life selling crack on the streets of Washington, D.C.

Their paths converged, then diverged, and now have become intertwined again, this time as co-authors of a new book documenting their 25 years of friendship, near-death experiences, family trauma, and, finally, survival and success.

John Prendergast and Michael Mattocks, thanks for joining us.

The title of your book is “Unlikely Brothers.” I get the unlikely part, looking at you, but what about the brother part? How did that start?

JOHN PRENDERGAST: Well, I was visiting a buddy of mine who was overseeing a homeless shelter back in — in Washington, D.C., back in 1983. I was 20 years old.

And this guy, age 7, and his little brother, age 6, came scrambling into the room where we were sitting, tumbling and tossing. And we just started playing and talking. And it just got into my head, why don’t we go to the library, do a little reading, do some other stuff? One thing led to another, and we became brothers, little brother and big brother, Michael and I.

GWEN IFILL: Michael, how would you say the two of you are alike, and how are you different?

MICHAEL MATTOCKS, “Unlikely Brothers”: He had the good job, and I had the bad kind of job.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: You know that’s the God honest truth.

GWEN IFILL: You got to bond as a little boy, going fishing in the Potomac River with John.

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: Yes. Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Did you think who is this strange white guy taking me out in the street like this?

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: In the beginning, yes. But I really, at that time, didn’t care, because we was having so much fun with him. We never, like, explored the different types of things that he had us doing, fishing, and taking us to all these different parks, and we’re on canoes.

I never, like, experienced them types of things when we were small. You know, a lot of my family, they had a lot of problems with that: Who is this white guy coming in here taking them kids out? They was always telling my mom, you need to stop letting that white man take them boys. You know what I’m saying? Who is he? He don’t know this.

And — but, you know, it — my mom knew we was in good hands with John.

GWEN IFILL: You were kind of a do-gooder.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: I was a do-gooder in the — sort of, you know, in the universal sense, but not necessarily in the interpersonal sense.

So, Michael then became someone who pierced right through my heart. And I had a lot of shells around my heart. And I just felt very early on that he — that we were family.

GWEN IFILL: This was a part of your lives where you did very different things.

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: John, you went to Africa. You became an activist on behalf of issues for underserved population.

And I would like for you to read a little bit about your experience in one of the places you went, which was in Uganda.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: OK.

“In Northern Uganda, I once befriended a former child soldier who had recently escaped from captivity, and who had endured some of the worst horrors I had ever heard from my years in war zones. Seeing his hard eyes, his cruel demeanor, the dangling cigarette, and the ever-present vaguely concealed weapon, I couldn’t help but think how similar these child soldiers in Africa were to the child soldiers in the streets of D.C. making money for older people who were willing to use them as pawns.”

GWEN IFILL: Now, Michael, if you read that literally, you are one of the child soldiers.

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Read for us, if you don’t mind, the section of the book where you talk about your experience.

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: “I used to walk around with my buddy Tony’s sawed-off pump shotgun up under my coat. I had the barrel in my pocket and the butt up under my shoulder. We robbed crackheads with it. We would only get 50 or 60 bucks, but it was the fear in the faces when I whipped out — when I whipped that big thing out that I liked — respect, man, fear or respect.”

GWEN IFILL: Respect, fear and respect. That’s why you were in the life?

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: How much did you enjoy doing what you were doing, even though you knew you shouldn’t be doing it?

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: I enjoyed it. I really did. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed everything.

GWEN IFILL: So, what made you get out of it?

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: I was tired, you know, and I basically knew that it was — there were three things that was going to happen. I either was going to stop, I was going to die, or I was going to go to jail.

And I didn’t want to die or go into jail. I wanted to stay living. I have my sons. I really love them a lot, and then also my wife.

GWEN IFILL: Why did you decide to write this book? It’s hard.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: It was all Michael’s idea. I got to give him the blame or the credit, whichever it is.

And he felt like his story could be an example for other young people who go through really difficult circumstances, come out on the other side OK. If you had a poster, a 12-months calendar for best big brothers, I wouldn’t be on that calendar. I failed him. I wasn’t part of his life at the critical moments when he was going down some of these paths, dealing drugs, getting kicked out of school, or leaving school, and all these other things.

And so, even though, despite all that, the bond that we had over the years helped be a compass, in some ways, for him to navigate out of all that life. And so I thought maybe that could be the best recruiting tool ever for getting more volunteers for Big Brothers and mentors and tutors if they could see that, yes, you can fail, yes, you can let the kid down, yes, you don’t have to show up every day for — you know, and still can make a difference in another person’s life.

GWEN IFILL: Both of you separately, and I get the feeling you told each other about it for the first time in this book, had moments of depression in your lives where you considered taking your own life.

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: Yes. Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Is that — did you tell him that for the first time in this book, writing this book?

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: Yes. Yes. I didn’t tell no one until they read this book.

GWEN IFILL: Describe it.

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: I wanted to kill myself. I was tired. And I was young. I just — I was tired of living. I was so stressed out.

And I look back on it and being that young and stressed out and depressed, the way I was, I just didn’t want to be here no more. I wanted to end it.

GWEN IFILL: How old were you?

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: I was probably like 14 years old.

And — was I 14?

JOHN PRENDERGAST: I’m just crushed to hear it, man.

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: Yes.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: You know it’s just crushing to know that you were going through all that, and I wasn’t there for you.

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: Man, I wanted to kill myself. I really did.

GWEN IFILL: You went through something similar, not maybe as young as he did.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: Yes. I was in high school, and I — through a variety of things, the really difficult relationship with my father, the social sort of alienation I felt as a teenager, I also felt like, am I really — should I really go on?

And I almost walked in front of a train one night, and just pulled back at the last second and decided just to soldier through it.

GWEN IFILL: I want to end this by talking about the dedication you wrote in the front of your book.

You wrote: “We dedicate this book to our fathers and our brothers, both the ones who are still here on Earth and ones that have departed for what we hope are greener pastures. We are sorry for so many things that happened, and finally forgive you for the rest.”

How important is the forgiveness part of this, Michael?

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: I forgave everybody who ever they did anything wrong to me or — I asked God for forgiveness of everything that I done did to everybody myself, because I did — I hurt a lot of people.

GWEN IFILL: Have you forgiven yourself?

MICHAEL MATTOCKS: Yes. Yes, I have. Yes, I have.

GWEN IFILL: And you, John?

JOHN PRENDERGAST: For 20 years, my father and I didn’t speak. For 20 years, I didn’t look at him. Literally, I would be in the same room, wouldn’t acknowledge his existence — a very, very complicated relationship.

We found each other. We went and built a bridge back to each other and built the — rebuilt the relationship in his later years. It was very, very hard to forgive some of the things that had happened.

But, once I did forgive, the proverbial weight lifts off the shoulders, and I’m able to sort of move on with a lot of things in my life that were impossible when I was holding all that stuff inside me.

GWEN IFILL: Mattocks is now the father of five, happily married, working two jobs, and living in suburban Maryland. Prendergast is getting married, and planning return trips to Sudan and Congo, hoping to draw fresh attention to old conflicts. And they are brothers for life.