Mitchell S. Jackson on Changing Paths

Alicia Menendez sits down with Mitchell S. Jackson, a drug dealer turned author and justice reform advocate, as he discusses the moment he realized he needed to change paths.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Our next guest looks back to the moment he decided to rebuild his life. Mitchell S. Jackson was a teenage drug dealer and he ended up behind bars before he was old enough to legally drink. Fast-forward and today he’s an award winning author and well-known criminal justice reform advocate. His memoir, “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family,” takes us through the calculations he made to overcome his trouble youth, as he told our Alicia Menendez.

ALICIA MENENDEZ: A lot of people have described this book as like a black family growing up in Portland, but it’s way more complicated than that. What is — how would you describe your experience of growing up in Portland.

MITCHELL S. JACKSON, AUTHOR, “SURVIVAL MATH”: When people say this is a black story it almost puts all the onus on like being black rather than the circumstances that oppress black people. And so, I really think this more of like an exploration of the systemic forces that kind of push black people into these circumstances to have to survive.

MENENDEZ: Right. And yet you managed to thread that needle without ever falling into a one dimensional portrayal of the people in your life as victims. So for example, very complicated and front relationship with your mother.


MENENDEZ: Can you tell us a little bit about her?

JACKSON: Yes, well my mom struggled with addiction from the time I was about 10 years old until I think I was into my — maybe in my 30s or at least into my late 20s. And there’s an essay where I’m trying to kind of reckon with that. And the analogy then I use is that long term addiction is almost like long term marriage in that there’s all these kind of fallout from it. There’s also what she was also committed to something for that long. So I analogize it to a long term marriage. And that was me, I guess, trying to figure out a way to kind of — just kind of trying to reckon with the kind of disappointments that I was feeling. But I — but I also have an old mentor, the editor named Gordon Lysch who used to say never put yourself above the other in your work and so I really do try to do that. Right. Like if you can see critique in someone else you have to be able to turn that back on yourself. And so that’s really how I look at all of the people that I right about with compassion and then like I’m not better than anyone else on the page. So I think that really helps me see people who kind of would be subjected to very harsh criticism with the most compassion.

MENENDEZ: When you look back at your own life though, what do you see as the moment where it became inevitable for you that your life would intersect with crime?

JACKSON: So I grew up in a neighborhood and there were — at this time there were drug houses kind of popping up in the neighborhood. So it’d be places where people who were using would congregate, usually some dilapidated house. And there would sometime be guys outside like looking out to make sure other people didn’t wonder up to the house. So I remember had been gone, I don’t know how long, a few days or something. And she came back and I wanted her to stay but she didn’t stay. She came back and like got some money and then she left but I was looking out of the window and I saw that she had gone to this house that was like a kiddy corner from house. So like a block or so away from my house.

I must have been like maybe 11. And I watched her go to the house and then I — when she walked in I walked out of my house and walked around to what now I know was a drug house. And there was a guy and he answered the door and he was like what’s up little man. And I was like hey man, is my mom in there. He was like your mom; no, no, she ain’t in here. And I just remember feeling like defeated in that moment because I saw her go in that house.

And I think something in me was like I got to figure out a way to get on the other side of this. And the other side of this to me meant I was not going to be victimized, which ended up me victimizing other people by selling the same thing that my mom was addicted to. So I started — it took probably three or four years but I started selling drugs pretty earlier. I mean I was maybe 14, 15 years old, and by the time I was 21, I ended up in prison.

MENENDEZ: Wouldn’t be the last time your mom’s drug use and your drug selling would intersect in the story.

JACKSON: No. Yes, right about that moment. I guess I must have been in my 20s because I hadn’t gone to prison yet and I had a guy that used to sell drugs for me and called me. I thought to pick up some product. And my mother was in there at — I mean I can’t imagine how — how, I guess, far she had fallen into her addiction that she had the audacity to ask me for drugs but she did and it was very upsetting to me. I didn’t give them to her and I — you know I yelled at her.

And I think that was a moment — so if I could think of the moment that kind — that started it was a moment of walking around to that drug house. The moment that ended it was my mother asking for drugs from me. Because it, to me, that confirmed — or maybe not confirmed but it — it — it kind of implied that a drug dealer had become an identify rather than something that I did. And I — I never wanted that to become who I was.

MENENDEZ: Let’s talk about the title of this book.


MENENDEZ: “Survival Math,” what does that mean?

JACKSON: Well, it came from an incident that happened to me in my early 20s. I was selling drugs at the time and one morning I woke up and my partner’s children were screaming that someone was trying to kick in the back door. And so I ran downstairs to kind of see who it was, and luckily my neighbor scared off the would-be assailants. And then a few weeks later — a week or two later I was talking to a guy who was like my mentorship in the – mentor in the community. And he was like, “Yes, I heard it was this guy named Stitches,” who was a gang member that I actually had gone to school with.

And then so, I don’t know, a month or so later, I’m coming out of a house very early in the morning and I see a guy bicycling towards me in all black. It’s like summertime, and by the time I figure out who it is I’m, like, at my car searching for my keys. And he jumps off the bike and he was like, “Yo, I heard you was looking for me,” and I was like, “What?” And then he says, “Yes, you looking for me,” and he pulls out a gun and points it at me. And between his question and my answer, I started to do all these kind of calculations, like, would he shoot me, where would he shoot me.

I had looked down the street. There were no witnesses that early in the morning. I had a gun in my car. I’m like, if I let him go, could I get in my car and chase him down. Would there be repercussions on my family, all of these things, and really in, like, a few seconds. And then ultimately I said “No, I’m not looking for you.”

And he pointed his gun at me and he was like, “Yes, yes, because I’m a real killer.” And he got on his bike and rode off. And then, I don’t know, a year or so later, he actually did kill someone. And so that literally made me start reflecting on that incident, years later, when I was writing the book, and I was like, “Oh, what do I call those calculations.” And ultimately, I christened it survival math.

MENENDEZ: Right, because those calculations happen in those moments, but then it’s also a larger algorithm –


MENENDEZ: — that anyone who lives in a marginalized community makes all the time.

JACKSON: Yes, there’s the kind of immediate survival math and then there’s the, like, long form, you know, kind of algebra you have to keep on trying to perfect, you know. I know a lot of people that weren’t able to do that, but luckily I was one of the ones.

MENENDEZ: All of the photos on the cover are from men in your families. You also include them in your survival files.


MENENDEZ: Tell me a little bit about that part of the book.

JACKSON: So, when I was reflecting on my kind of incidents, I was like, oh, I think that men in my family have gone through, if not something like this, but their own kind of survival incidents. And so, I asked 16 men in my family to sit for me for a portrait session. So I shot them and then I asked each of them, what’s the toughest thing you survived. And then I wrote their survival stories as second person narratives, choosing the second person because I thought that the second person works as like an “I” so it makes it very intimate, but then it also works to kind of involve the reader in a more intimate sense, like make you imagine yourself as the protagonist. And I really wanted to close what I thought might be empathy or experience gaps between reader and the person in the story.

MENENDEZ: So much of this book is about grappling with America’s complicated history. It’s also about grappling with your own complicated history.


MENENDEZ: No section speaks to that more than your past relationship with women, sometimes incredibly problematic.


MENENDEZ: Why choose to include that as part of the book?

JACKSON: I challenged myself to critique my own behavior and because I had — it was the last essay that I revised and the other essays I really try to, like, historicize whatever the idea is, so to kind of look — frame it in history and culture. I also knew that I had to do that with what I call the men on the scale which is really, like, the kind of degrees of womanizing. And so I ended up doing a lot of research, but I was also, the whole time, very fearful that what — where was the line between contextualizing, historicizing and, like, making excuses for myself. There – it was only my voice in the essay –


JACKSON: – so that’s when I came up with the idea to offer former partners the chance to speak about our relationships and not to edit it down but just to present as they told it to me.

MENENDEZ: What was the hardest thing to hear?

JACKSON: The hardest thing to hear, really, was about what my — the way that they felt about themselves while I was doing these things and, like, the way that they were trying to rationalize my emotional traumas to themselves.

MENENDEZ: So how would you characterize your own behavior during those relationships?

JACKSON: I mean, I say it. It’s very emotionally abusive. And I had, you know, I think, in reflecting on it, I had – there were – there were, like, I guess, they’re not coping mechanisms but there were ways in which I was trying to cut myself off from intimacy because if this works out like I think it’s going to work out, like I’m really going to be hurt at the end of this. So, like, how can I both, like, be involved in this and then also prepare myself for this hurt? No way, obviously, to be in a relationship, right?

MENENDEZ: You talk about systems and structures. You write about your personal experience with the criminal justice system.


MENENDEZ: During the time you were in college.

JACKSON: Yes, yes. Good college student too. I was on the Dean’s list.

MENENDEZ: That is one hell of a double life.

JACKSON: Yes, it is. It is. But again, it’s like the first identity that I really committed to I think was being a writer. So before that I was like I sell drugs, and I go to school. Like I’m not a student necessarily, but I do well in school because that’s important to me. I’m not a drug dealer because I don’t want to commit to all the things that necessitates. But I do sell drugs. And then I guess it was like me trying to figure out what was going to be a purpose in my life before I kind of decided OK, this is who I am.

MENENDEZ: Did being a writer give you cover for selling drugs? Like you didn’t have to think of yourself as being the drug dealer if you could think of yourself as being a writer?

JACKSON: No, because I didn’t think about writing until after prison. I wrote the first — I guess my first kin of attempt at writing seriously was while I was incarcerated.

MENENDEZ: Tell me about that.

JACKSON: Guys in prison often like — well if someone wrote my life story down like it would be a bestseller. So we were all in there trying to one- up each other. And I actually got restriction which is where I was it was like the version of — we didn’t have a whole guard. But I had to stay on my bunk for like a week. And I was like — and I was also getting ready to go back in to college because I had mu scholarship held for me. And so, I was like well maybe I should start preparing myself. I think I’ll start writing. And so initially it was going to be my life story.

And I was going to fictionalize it because the stuff — some of the stuff that I was writing about involved people who were still in those activities. And so, I came home with like — I don’t know, 50 or 60 loose- leaf pages of my fictionalized life story. And I remember telling my partner at the time very early when I got — maybe the first day I got home I am going to be a writer. Having no idea what that meant. Years later, I ended up in graduate school at Portland State University, and then I actually moved to New York and went to New York University, all the while I was just working on that same book. And luckily I finished it and published it in 2013.

MENENDEZ: It’ll be very easy to read your story and be like this is a success story.


MENENDEZ: He has it all figured out.

JACKSON: Yes, yes.

MENENDEZ: That how it feels?

JACKSON: Absolutely not. I recognize that I was always — I think one of the things that I have in my 40s realized how I was always holding these paradoxes in me like I’m just like the people from my neighborhood and I’m also exceptional. And that I have to believe myself exception to kind of scale what seemed like booby-traps but then also like I recognized so many of my paradigms, so many of my characteristics, so many of my experiences and the men that I grew up with. And even in these — the generation that I go home and see now. And so, no I don’t have it figured out but I’m very happy that I’m a writer and that I can work through some of these things on a page.

MENENDEZ: Given your front relationship with your mom, I think a lot of us want to know where that relationship is now.

JACKSON: My mom was — she’s the most generous person that I know. And I say that because I decided to be a writer, she didn’t. But she has been in both of these books really the central figure in the books. She was also the person that I called most often to like verify family lore, or to ask about her own experiences. And like I cannot imagine what it’s like to have to relive those traumas really for no kind of immediate explicit benefit for yourself, other than you want someone else to in someway see this an for it to be helpful for them.

And this was no more I guess evident to me than the day that book published, I had an essay ran in the New Yorker. And the New Yorker is famous for their fact checking, and the essay they ran was on my mother’s addiction. So she had to fact check with the New Yorker about her addiction, about the first time that she used drugs. And she called me afterwards and was like “Mitchell, wow, like that could’ve triggered me like that was traumatizing.” And I thought — like I don’t know what the question — I mean I know what I out in the story, I don’t know what questions they asked but to me for her to do that for me is the most gracious loving thing that she can do. And also knowing that this is going to be published, so not only am I fact checking this, like this is going to be in the New Yorker, which I would imagine has a broad reach. So, there were like two levels of like grace.

MENENDEZ: Mitchell, thank you so much.

JACKSON: Thank you for having me, yes.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Nancy Pelosi in an exclusive interview about Brexit. She also speaks with historian Simon Schama about Notre Dame Cathedral’s place in history. Alicia Menendez speaks with Mitchell S. Jackson about his path from drug dealer to justice reform advocate.