However, a name wasn’t enough to protect Mac from a generational cycle of crime and brutality. It wasn’t enough to hide him from the life he was born to. It wasn’t enough to keep him safe from the kind of abuse that haunts every parent’s nightmares.

Today, at 44, he hopes that sharing his story can help people see the truth: that no past is an excuse to live a life you’re not proud of.

This is Mack’s story.

Mack grew up going between two homes that were complete opposites. His parents split when he was about three, but during their time together, his father abused his mother violently. Of course, Mack didn’t know this at the time. He only knew, he says, “my mother went to church Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night, most nights. When I was with her she’d take me to church or a Tupperware meeting.”

His father, on the other hand, was a lucrative drug dealer who didn’t hide his business dealings from any of his children, including Mack. His grandfather was a business owner, but also dealt in illegal activities. They were, in Mack’s words, gangsters.

And yet, as Mack says, “I knew my mother loved me, but that was the more hurtful house. I look a lot like my father, and I know now that every time she saw me, she saw him.” That was tough for Mack, who only wanted his mother to love him. She had 13 siblings, and, says Mack, “I got a lot of cousins. I can’t remember my mother hugging and kissing me, but she always hugged and kissed my cousins and my brother.” Mack tried his hardest to get her attention, often acting out. “I’d rather have her beat me than ignore me,” he says.

Her house also wasn’t safe for Mack. There, he says, her siblings “would ask me if I loved my father. If I said yes, they’d punch me or kick me down. It was violence, unnecessary stuff, but they hated my father for what he did to my mother.”

His mother’s house of God was also a house of danger and sadness to Mack.

At his father’s, things were completely different. “Boys weren’t really allowed to be children,” he says. “We got up in the morning, cleaned up behind the dogs, cleaned the house, and dressed like a gentleman. But it was good to feel like I was important, like I was his little man.” There, he also had his grandmother. “I never knew a moment of not having love and affection when I was with her,” he says.

Yet it was with his father that he learned the street life. “My father didn’t hide anything from me and my siblings,” he says. “When I was carrying little brown bags from one street to another, or to other projects, it never seemed illegal. I never looked inside the bags. I was just doing what my father asked me to.”

Early on, he found approval on the streets. His father was a musician – a guitarist – and everyone came to know Mack as “Sam’s son.” There were pats on the head, hugs, kisses. His father’s world was, for Mack, the one full of love and affection.

It was also, however, extraordinarily dangerous, as Mack would learn when a man his father assaulted exacted revenge on an innocent little boy. “My father beat him and made him suck on a gun barrel,” says Mack. “I guess he felt it was necessary to put something in my mouth to punish me for what my father did.”

Mack was only eight years old when it happened. In his world, he was taught to respect his elders; no one ever told him not to talk to strangers. Around the apartment complexes in which he lived, everyone knew everyone else, and people looked out for one another. So when a man he didn’t know asked Mack to show him to the back door to an apartment, Mack did.
“As soon as we got back there,” Mack says, “I felt his hand grab the back of my shirt. He didn’t say anything. He just started punching me. I wanted to get away but I couldn’t. He was so strong. I’m not even sure of any of the words he said. I wasn’t really paying attention. But the next thing I knew he put his penis in my mouth.”

It was then that a neighbor came out. She screamed and hit the man with a broom to get him away from Mack. She grabbed the boy and took him to his mother.

“I don’t remember crying,” says Mack. “I was upset. Embarrassed. But it wasn’t just over what was done, but that someone saw. On the walk home, my face and mouth were bleeding. There were kids all over. My neighbor told my mother what happened, and parents started dragging their kids away. I didn’t really understand.”

Mack’s mother washed his mouth out with Listerine and tended to his bruises, but they didn’t talk about what happened. The police came and caught Mack’s abuser. No one told him it wasn’t his fault. The next day his mother took him to church where, he says, “everyone is talking to me. They want to pray for me, lay their hands on me. But I didn’t want anybody to touch me, and I really didn’t want to be around men right then.” He kept waiting for his mother to explain what had happened, but she never did.

Nor did his father, at least not exactly. “I took care of it,” is all is father said. Later, about a month after Mack’s grandfather died, Mack saw his father cry for the first time. “I allowed someone to hurt you,” his father said, and Mack knew that what had happened was just as bad as he feared.

Things didn’t improve for Mack after that. It was the early 1980s, and Mack’s father told him, “I don’t care what he did to you, you ain’t never gonna be a sissy.” Mack’s father said to his women friends, “Teach my son how to be a man,” and a cycle of abuse at the instruction of his father through the hands of older women began that would continue for four years.

“It was flattering at first,” says Mack, who was still only eight when the abuse began. “But then it was awful. I mean, it was odd. I was embarrassed for the individuals I was growing up with. Some of them were their mothers. They didn’t know, but I knew.” He didn’t want to do it, but he also didn’t want to displease his father. He’d do anything to avoid the disconnect he felt at his mother’s house.

When he was twelve, Mack developed a crush on a girl in his class, and said to his father, “I don’t want to be with older women anymore. Can I have my own girlfriend?” His father told him if he was ready to go ahead, and the abuse stopped. “All I ever had to do was ask,” says Mack. But how could he have known that?

All Mack knew, from that point on, was that he never wanted to be hurt by anyone again. “I’ve never been a gangster,” he says. “My grandfather was a gangster. My father was a gangster, but not me. I’ve always been super aggressive because I was scared.”

He’d never back away from a fight, whether in school or on the streets. In fact, he’d escalate them. If a kid teased him, he’d punch him in the mouth. If a kid punched him, he’d pick up a board or a knife to fight harder.

He idolized his father and fell easily into his world from there. “I wanted to be him,” says Mack. “He was 6’5, 260 pounds of masculinity and everything I looked up to. I never learned to sell drugs with my homies. Instead I learned to sell drugs and use drugs with my father. ‘If you’re gonna sell drugs,’ he’d say, ‘you have to know what they’re using.’”

Mack’s street life escalated and it felt good. “We were hustling together,” he says. “He was my OG, my father, and if he did it, I did it. If I was on the porch and my dad was inside, people knew they could deal with me. I was invited to parties, to sell at clubs. I was ‘L’il Hell’ and they paid me to show up. I was somebody, you now? Girls love me, dudes respect me, and I’m never turning back. It was fun…for a while.”

As his life was moving forward, his father’s was declining. “My father had five strokes in two years,” he says. “I was staying with my mother more, and I realized: if I’m around you, I can’t do those things I like to do. So I moved out and started staying with my aunts. They knew what I was doing, but as long as I paid my rent, the cable bill, and gave them bingo money, it was fine.”

Most of his friends were older, and they were all doing the same things: driving nice cars, wearing all the right jewelry, convinced nothing would ever happen to them. “We were children trying to play grown men,” he says, in a world that was growing more and more violent. The fights of childhood morphed into shootouts at clubs. “I was in clubs six nights a week,” says Mack. “If I’m not getting in one shootout a week, sometimes two, it’s weird.”

Through it all, he never felt like a man. His grandmother always told him to grow up, settle down. “That’s hot how a grown man acts,” she’d say. “That’s how a little boy acts.”

“The streets made me feel safe,” he says. “The streets give you a false sense of identity. They give you a false sense of love and once you realize it ain’t love, it’s abuse, it’s too late. You gotta carry a gun to survive? How is that love? It’s just stress and strain. You can’t love yourself being involved in the drug ring. If you love yourself and you love life, you won’t put yourself in a situation where you can lose life.”

At the time, though, he didn’t see a way out. He tried to end his life. “I tried to shoot myself, twice. I pulled the trigger, twice. The gun didn’t go off. I had the same gun with me an hour later at a shootout. It was in the glove compartment and I pulled it out and I emptied the entire clip no problem.” He’s not sure how he survived. “I don’t know,” he says. “Luck? God? It wasn’t my time, but it was time to grow up.”

After a brief stint in Houston, where he was severely beaten and robbed when a couple of guys broke into his apartment expecting to find dope, he was sent by his parole officer back to Charleston. A snafu with the paperwork almost landed him back in prison, a frustrating setback that sent him off the rails again. “I thought, if they (officials) don’t have to have their ducks in a row, then why should I?” Soon  he got caught on a bank robbery and sent to prison for a 30-year sentence. “My first week there I watched a man get murdered in church over an argument over who’d get to play the piano. Week after week,” he says, “I watched men getting stabbed and butchered in federal penitentiary. And they told me jail would be safe?”

He had to fight to survive at first, though he just wanted to settle in and do his time. He started going to church, teaching bible study classes, and trying to focus on his own spirituality. But when that wasn’t sparking the internal changes he was looking for, a warden stepped in. “She told me, ‘When you take something we tell you to, it’s for us and not you. Y’all are grown men. Why not take something you don’t get credit for, but you can grow from?’” So Mack and some of his fellow inmates began SOS – Saving OurSelves – and began to put in the work on themselves. While there, Mack wrote to his original abuser. “I forgive you,” he said. “You must have been really sick to do what you did.” He learned about other ways to live, ways to let go of his anger. “Seeing what I grew through, it taught me how to help others. I knew my parents loved me the best way they knew how,” he says. “But if nobody tells you not to punish yourself for what your parents did to you, they’ll continue to live that way.” In short, you have to let go of the past to move into the future, and that’s what Mack is trying to do today.

His father passed away a number of years ago and his mother is suffering from dementia. Mack has been out of prison now for four months. He’s dealing with a lot of stress, but credits Turning Leaf for helping him get through it. “Life is stressful ,but I’m committed to the process of growing and changing,” he says. “I’m staying with my brother and his wife. I’ve got two part time jobs, I’m trying to make ends meet, and I’ve got a long road ahead of me.”

“Turning Leaf is the best thing for me. The emotions of being overwhelmed coming straight out of prison are hard enough. Not having outlets or resources would be impossible. I don’t manage well under stress, but Turning Leaf is helping. I’m not wearing a mask anymore. I always have been but I’m getting to a place where I can just be vulnerable. Wearing a mask, I won’t get any of the help I know I need to succeed.”

We are so glad you found us, Mack. With all you’ve seen and been through, and with your heart and understanding of the world around you, we’re just grateful to be here to watch you grow!

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne