When Being Locked Away Opens You Up

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This reader grew much closer to her brother while he was in prison:

I was raised in a nuclear family in a Midwestern small town. Like so many small towns across the heartland, we had a drug problem, and one my brothers fell victim to it. He was sentenced to five years in prison for drugs during my sophomore year of college.

Between the age difference (six years) and the Midwestern culture, I was never “close” to my brother, or any of my siblings—not in the way where we shared honest and open communication. Our family was one of avoidance. We avoided talking about the hard things, even when they were right in front of our faces. We avoided confronting them, even in ourselves. It seemed that we pushed everything down until all our emotions manifested into anger. Sadness, disappointment, pain, hurt, embarrassment, guilt—all of it denied until it became anger—forcing itself out in the most inconvenient times.

When my brother went to prison, that changed. We began talking more, either because we were older or he had little else to do in prison. I would visit on the holidays and we would really talk. I got to know my adult brother while he was locked up. We talked about the hard stuff—the shared pain, the mistakes, how we really felt about all of it.

It was uncomfortable and often sad, but it was also cathartic. It was honest. Sadness was sadness. Guilt was guilt. Anger was anger.

He was released years ago, and we don’t talk as much as we did during his sentence, but the honesty is still there. We still communicate with trust and respect. We still cry every once in a while. We still get scared and we even avoid things still, but not as much as before.