Matthew Parker’s graphic novel illustrates his personal journey from heroin addiction and petty crime to the Columbia MFA program.
Matthew Parker tucks into his lobster and crab quesadilla and explains a few things.
“Federal prison was high class. The health care is phenomenal. State, it gets lower. County, forget it. I used to have to put paper clips in my cavities. In federal prison we had a potato bar! It was much higher class.” He pauses a moment to take another bite. “That’s why I say: county prison: community college; state prison: state college; federal prison: Ivy league!”
The comparison is one that uniquely illustrates Parker’s personal journey. Addicted to heroin, and reared since childhood on an education of petty crime, he spent nearly 15 years in and out of prison and jail. He’s done one stint in federal prison, four times in the Arizona state prison system, and too many stays in the county jail to tally on the fly over lunch. Did I mention that I met Matthew Parker at Columbia University?
At 51 years old, his arms covered in blurry prison tattoos, Parker cut an odd figure in the tastefully decrepit classrooms of Columbia’s Dodge Hall, homebase for the graduate MFA program. We were both in the nonfiction program—a kind of liminal space between the poets, fiction writers, and journalism students. I was writing about my own history of familial violence: murder, drug-use, suicide. But it was not until I was among the Ivy league that I met Matthew Parker, my first real convict.
In his new graphic memoir, Larceny in My Blood: A Memoir of Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education, Parker chronicles his years as a heroin addict, inmate, and eventually, a graduate student at Columbia. He compares the divisions of a writing workshop with the sectioning off of prison gangs; he chronicles the downsides and surprising advantages to being an ex con at Columbia, and depicts trust fund kids waxing eloquent about Joan Didion alongside descriptions of beat cops talking trash with junkies. In a way that is both surprising and inevitable, it’s all pretty much the same.
The book is told in black and white illustrations and handwritten text. Parker detailed for me the laborious process of creating the book. He’d already completed and workshopped more than 400 pages of prose when his agent saw some drawings and encouraged him to pursue the book in the form of a graphic memoir. So he edited his draft to the bare bones narrative, handwrote the lettering, taught himself to draw, and finally illustrated each panel.
“You’ll notice,” he tells me, “the drawings get better as the book goes along. It’s kind of a happy accident because my life gets better as well.”
The narrative moves back and forth in time. As a guide, the reader must rely on certain visual cues from the illustrations: there is young junkie Matthew, long haired and scruffy, and there is the older Matthew, clean shaven, his face marked by lines. There is young Matthew walking among the cacti of the Arizona landscape, and there is new Matthew strolling the verdant Columbia campus.
Parker offers me a bite of his quesadilla and explains, “With the bouncing back and forth I wanted to convey the sense that one day you are on the streets, the next day you can be in jail. In 1995 I got arrested five times. I have five different mugshots from that year. You never know when you are going to go to jail because you always have warrants because you never pay your traffic tickets. You always have traffic tickets because you are always getting pulled over because you are always driving junk cars. Or speeding. Going to the dope house, you are doing 90 mph. Coming back from the dope house you are like a happy old lady cruising along nice and slow.” He laughs, shrugging when I decline a taste of his lunch. “You’re sure?” he says.”It’s really good.” He puts down the chunk of lobster. “But yeah, one day you are in jail, the next day you can be at Columbia.”
The journey of course, was not quite so simple. Along the way, Parker lost one brother to murder, another to suicide. He has a son he has not spoken to in years. He’s seen the hatred and violence bred in the singular pressure cooker of the penal system. And eventually he decided it was not worth it. By continuing to use, he realized was playing into the hands of the very system he wanted to escape. So, maybe not all at once, but pretty much on his own, he quit heroin and enrolled in community college. He’s been clean since. From community college he went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University, and eventually his M.F.A. from Columbia University.
“Looking back, was it all worth it?” I ask. It’s a silly question, I realize, a trite summing up and I’m a bit embarrassed as Parker is not a man who suffers fools. But he answers quickly and directly.
“Every day of it,” he says. “After being in prison, the rest was easy. It’s easier to live out here. You don’t have to worry every day about getting beat up. It’s harder too, because you have to work, but once you accept the fact that you have to work for a living, you know, everything’s cool.”
The next time I see Parker it is at a party celebrating the release of his book. Held in the tony Upper West Side apartment of a classmate and friend, he seems, while not necessarily at ease hobnobbing around a cheese plate, grateful for the opportunity. His niece, a curly-haired toddler, with enormous dark eyes rebuffs his request for a kiss and coyly buries her head in the crook of her mother’s arm. Matthew Parker stands in front of a pile of his books, his editor and publicist and friends and family around him. He ruffles his niece’s curls and smiles. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’m kind of a scary guy.”
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