Into the Prefrontal Cortex: A Profile written for English 353, creative non-fiction Fall 2009

At nineteen-years-old I was about to make a really colossal mistake, and did.  I was in a relationship of ten months that felt like it should be over and done with already, but for a myriad of reasons, I still wasn’t.  The guy, we’ll call Boris, was smitten with me and I hated to see him hurt.  I had broken off an engagement, but after a ‘heart-to-heart’ talk decided we basically wanted the same things, to be happy, have fun, play in the outdoors and travel, not have kids anytime soon; and so we ran off to Vegas and got married.  Damnable undeveloped prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain located in, you guessed it, the front.  As with most parts of the brain, this area’s specific function varies—problem solving, emotions, social behavior, personality, but more importantly this part of the brain, “is thought to be involved in planning complex cognitive behaviours” (brainexplorer.org).  Dr. Anne LaFrance, PhD in psychology and employed as a professor and counselor at Washington State University explains that the prefrontal cortex is a section of the brain that more and more studies are showing is responsible for the ability to understand consequences.  Additionally, more and more studies are showing that this ability is not fully developed until our mid-to-late twenties, thus, running off to Vegas at nineteen to get married.  (Not currently married in case you are wondering.)  All this prefrontal cortex business is recently acquired knowledge as a result of an interview I had with an individual we’ll call Chip, though I would like to note that his real name is beautiful and very regal.

I first met Chip in Newark, New Jersey, late June of 2009.  I was a bit wired because of running on my second day of sleep deprivation after a day of traveling for twelve hours to get to New Jersey from Pullman, Washington.  We were sitting in a conference room of the Newark, New Jersey Hilton getting our complementary breakfast and coffee before orientation.  His black hair was perfectly slicked into a ponytail and shone like new piano keys; accenting his face and jaw line was an immaculately groomed short beard.  He wore dark jeans and a vivid yellow long sleeved shirt despite the humid Jersey summer.

As our orientation conference continued, his flawless visual representation of himself made sense.  At one point we were given a list of questions to ask everyone in the room (about twenty of us).  The idea was one of a few activities to ‘break the ice’ and get to know each other.  As I moved around the room asking different people different questions, I approached Chip.   The question I had in front of me read, ‘Would you say you are more of leader or a team player?’ He almost didn’t let me finish the question with his rapid-fire, “Leader.  Definitely,” response.  The group of us, gathered for a summer study abroad program to Liverpool, United Kingdom, originated from a smattering of places all over the lower forty-eight; California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York, West Virginia, Utah, Washington and Detroit, Michigan, where Chip was born, October 26, 1981.  And not just anywhere in Detroit, it was in the Irvin Gardens, a notorious Detroit project.  He was raised and has lived his whole life in Detroit.

Presently, he attends Marygrove College majoring in psychology and social work.  He works as a Resident Assistant for the college’s dormitories, is a barber and owns his own business that provides publicity and promotes events for other businesses.  He is also working with the Dean on an idea to get programs into the Detroit schools that focus on decision making. Detroit can be a scary place and is deteriorating so much that it made the Times March 2009 issue as the cover article, the last line of the article’s introductory paragraph reads, “Asked recently about a dip in the city’s murder rate, a mayoral candidate deadpanned, ‘I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn’t anyone left to kill’” (Altman).  Despite this, Chip has no desire to leave; he wants to make Detroit a better place and bring the world to Detroit.  When we landed in Manchester, UK, and I was badgering everyone with the video camera asking, how do you feel, he said, “We got Detroit up in here!” (we were all very sleep deprived) I responded with, “But we’re in England!”  “We have brought Detroit to the UK,” he explained.

Nothing about Chip seems amiss or indicates that he’s ever been anything but content and happy in life. When asked, ‘How would you describe him?’ Members of this study abroad group responded; creative, outgoing, smart, caring, loud, awesome, passionate, real, fun, sweet, opinionated and, “a change—the—world kind of attitude” (InLove, 10/28/09).  Outgoing and smart or intelligent were listed by several different members.  If your house burned down, he is the type of person that could get you laughing and convince you that everything was going to be all right, even as you stood in warm ashes.  But midway through the first week in Liverpool, we were taken on a tour through a ‘ghetto’ area for the purposes of the class.  I’m pretty sure they chose a neighborhood that wasn’t so scary, because well, it was a place we could go and so long as we weren’t by ourselves be perfectly safe.  We walked through government housing and rows of vacant houses.  While I was a bit nervous and very grateful for the safety of the group, Chip was completely at ease, and not just because he’s a solid, formidable if need be, 5’10” ‘black guy,’ who could pick me up on the dance floor like it was nothing.  He walked right up to a local resident and talked with him and his daughter. “That was their ghetto?” Chip commented later, “That was a pretty nice ghetto.” I realize all the scary things I’ve heard about Detroit, Chip must have seen and experienced.  It is easy to forget, because Chip isn’t angry or scary or intimidating, he shows no signs of being hardened from adversities present in Detroit.

The first night in Liverpool, we somehow managed, in our jet-lagged state to stay up until 3 am (local time).  I’m not sure if this behavior refutes or supports the prefrontal cortex theory, either we were being completely daft or completely aware of the fact that this was probably a once in a lifetime event for us.  I showed him the collection of travel quotes I’d found before this excursion.  One of them by William Least Heat Moon, “What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.” I said how I was loving this opportunity to be who I was right there and then.  Chip was quiet for a bit, then he said, “Yeah.  I like that, yeah.”
“My earliest memory?” Chip clarifies.  I am sitting with my digital recorder laid next to the phone, the phone on speaker for the interview, because we aren’t in Liverpool together anymore, it’s October.  I’m in Pullman, Washington and he in his hometown Detroit, I wonder what Detroit looks like in the fall and tell myself I must remember to ask him before the interview is over.  I tell him “Yes, your earliest memory,” and he says, “Well, it’s kinda sad, is it okay if it’s a sad memory?”  I tell him that I’m sorry to hear it, but of course it’s okay.

His first memory is when he is about three or four years old.  He says the details have been told to him as he got older, but he remembers, it would be a very difficult thing to forget.  His mother was trying to leave her current boyfriend who was verbally and physically abusive.  This man put a shotgun in Chip’s older brother’s mouth, “I think it was a 12-gage,” he says.  The man told his mother if she left, he’d blow her son’s head off.

Chip has five siblings from different parents.  He says this is pretty common, and that he isn’t very close with any of them, which is also common from what he’s seen.  “There’s a lot of single parenting,” he says.  It’s a structure that seems damaging overall and is something he hopes to see improve, but it’s difficult if you’re say, a 28-year-old trying to make a good life for yourself and others, and simultaneously be a parent to your 12-year-old son; that is exactly what Chip is trying to do.  Listening to the depth of tone in his voice while he talks about his son is an intense experience.  Chip realizes he has to dedicate as much as he can to his education, if not all of himself, and also realizes how important having a good male parent role model is.  He’s a man with experience in how damaging not having a dad around enough can be; he understands because his dad wasn’t always around, because so many of the people he knows don’t even know who their dad is, and because the ability to see and weigh consequences of his actions has fully developed.  This is in part because of his age, and in part because of a program he participated in while in prison.  The news of his son, Dominique, came to him via letter, while he was in the first year of his prison sentence, at age of 16.

Chip doesn’t remember a lot from elementary school, although one thing he did remember was one of the worst beatings their school had seen; a boy was beaten with a lunchbox.   In junior high he wanted to fit in just like any of us do at that age.  He began selling marijuana to enable him to dress to fit in; for himself he skipped school and smoked weed to pass the time.  The first time he was arrested was for truancy.

During this time he met the mother of his son.  She was twenty-seven years old.  Before he went to prison it was understood that she was going to get an abortion, a sad relief, who is ready to be a parent at 16?  Especially if you recall that your prefrontal cortex is far from finished in development at this age.  Chip didn’t know all of this at the time, of course.  He wasn’t able to fully  weigh the potential consequences when he had his younger brother assist him in a carjack, either.  All Chip had for a weapon was a broken bb gun, he stole a car with it, was arrested, and sentenced to 2-10 years in prison.  “Isn’t that too young?” I ask, “I thought you couldn’t go to jail until you were 18.  Before that, it would be some sort of juvenile detention center.”  “Not in Michigan,” Chip explained, “You can be locked up as young as twelve.  My cell mate was 14.”  “What are they trying to accomplish?” I wondered, to which Chip explained the corruption in the legal system in Detroit, how it was in the interest of corrections officers to have prisoners.  There aren’t a lot of people that would want to help someone in a situation like Chip’s.

Chip served the full ten years because of bad behavior.  One of the first times he was written up it was for smuggling alcohol, he spent 120 days in the hole and years were added to the 2 year minimum.  Despite this, he finished his G.E.D., became a certified carpenter, a barber, and towards the end started taking classes like C.H.A.N.G.E, and strategic thinking.  These courses changed his life, he says.  They taught him, helped him to realize that he would rather be disrespected by a cell mate and take it, then punch him out and spend 120 days in hell, and longer in prison altogether.  There wasn’t this kind of education available to him before, and it wasn’t taught to him at home.  And now, his prefrontal cortex was ready to take it all in.  Chip snuck into the strategic thinking class to take it a second time.  These are the skills and courses that he is working on getting into the schools of Detroit.  Maybe if that kind of thing were in his schools, things would have turned out a little differently.

Chip has been out of prison for two years.  He tries to have as much of a relationship with his son as he can, having not known him for the first nine years of his life. He’ll graduate and earn his bachelors degree in May 2011 and he wants to go on to get his doctorate.  He writes poetry and performs spoken word.  Chip attends church every Sunday and in August he played a part in a modern adaptation of the bible story of Cain and Able.  I couldn’t be there unfortunately, but in the pictures he posted to his Facebook account he is looking as sexy and charming as ever.  His shirt is a loud and angry orange and red plaid shirt, chosen no doubt to fit the character he’s playing.  A well-groomed beard against his beautiful brown skin is just as I remember and his big brown eyes still have that up-for-anything glimmer.  From the pictures and from what Chip told me while we were still in Liverpool, I imagine the crowd is small, and the stage smaller.  the corwd fills the seats to capacity as does the actors and props on the stage.  Chip takes the stage solo, at the beginning of the play, My Brother’s Keeper, to perform a soliloquy that I had the privilege of hearing a sneak-preview recitation of.  I bet you can’t tell he’s nervous, or that this is his first time ever acting, and you definitely can’t tell he served 10 years in prison.  The part he plays? Cain.

Chip is a very likeable guy, but sometimes his exuberance was bit hard to take.  Within a week of meeting him I discovered I liked him much better when he wasn’t telling me about women as equals, because it involved the caveat that men and women had different, specific roles they needed to fill.  I don’t think separate but equal works in any social structure.  Telling me I needed to come to Jesus didn’t go over so well either.  I explained to him that as an ex-mormon, I had had my fill of Jesus, (and gender roles for that matter).  The infuriating part in all discussions on such topics was Chip’s lack of close-mindedness and disrespect; he’ll never concede on the belief that Christ is the way to happiness and salvation, but he will engage about the topic without condemning the other person to hell.  Chip is passionate about his believes but he isn’t ruled by them unquestioned.  After an insightful discussion on religion and gender or how they sometimes intertwine, we would agree to disagree and share our poetry or go out for an awesome wine-filled dinner with members of our study abroad group instead of arguing and getting angry.  I like to think our prefrontal cortexes went on a date, because maybe they, maybe we, realized the consequences of being around someone so different from the other was ultimately a good thing; maybe Chip and I were all that we appeared to be, just ourselves, even with the past that could beg to differ, because we were long past car robberies or eloping to Vegas.

“A lot of people would be angry at the world after being what you’ve been through Chip, how is it that you are not?”  I asked Chip, shouting just a bit to make sure my voice carried through the speakerphone.  “What good would it do him?” he responds, “Nah, anger’s not going to do anybody any good.” He tells me how he focuses on moving forward, and that he sees anger destroy people a little too often.  Someone who has a positive attitude after being through all that makes me take a good, hard look at myself.  The ability to live a life that doesn’t carry around hate is a pretty valuable attribute.  So I asked in a survey of the Liverpool group what they thought his best trait was.  The responses included, his positive attitude, he brightens your day, when he cares for someone he is very passionate about it and his infectious laugh.  But perhaps the hardest and most impressive part of all, “He is himself,” (Spaz).