‘Our Father Didn't Show Up to Court for the Child He Ruined’

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

The latest story in our reader series comes from a young woman, Ngeri, who is “still personally working through my anger with my father for taking away my best friend”—her brother, who’s currently serving a lengthy prison sentence. Her deep resentment toward her father stems from his absenteeism, flagrant infidelity, and the domestic violence that nearly killed her mother. She suggests that her brother’s close but toxic affinity to their father contributed to the “adventurous and inquisitive boy”’s eventual depression, bipolar disorder, drug addiction, and violent outbursts—even toward Ngeri, using a knife.

But let her tell the long story—one of the most compelling and well-crafted ones we’ve received thus far:

My younger brother is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence for dropping off two friends at a house where he did not know they had plotted to kill an elderly couple.

It’s hard to hear him referenced now as an Inmate with an identification number. I have many other names I apply to him, all with loving or funny stories associated with them. These days I know he hardly hears any of those stories, and that hurts.

We are 14 months apart. He was my first best friend. We did everything together. We shared a room with a bunk bed, went to the same school, shared many of the same friends, and even shared meals. Why did our lives end up taking such different paths?

Him being in trouble had become a norm in my life. When we were younger, it was the little things like climbing the shed in the backyard and other dare devilish stunts. Most of them could be chalked up to him just being an adventurous and inquisitive boy. I had no idea then that his trouble would leave the comforts of our home, and begin to involve law enforcement.


My brother adored our father. He always wanted to make him proud. Our father called him “Agu-Nna Ya,” which stands for father’s lion in Igbo. My brother loved hearing that. Our father would promise him endless things and leave much to be desired every single time.

If our father did show up or mention it at all, it was with some excuse as to why things did not work out. I caught onto that game early. I also had my mother and big sister as role models, so not having my father play an active role in my upbringing didn’t cause me to miss a step. He made it very clear to us in his actions that he did not want much to do with caring for us.

Or so I thought. My brother viewed him through a different lens, one that extended grace often. He thought Daddy worked too hard and was busy; that’s why he couldn’t make time for us. Sadly, that often left him disappointed and confused; and as his big sister, I tried my best to soothe the pain, but he was not as receptive to me. Only Daddy could fix that.


Then there were the times that our father took my brother and I with him to cheat on our mother with his “secretary.” Now that I am older, I know what that means but as a child, I knew something was off, but did not quite understand. We would go to visit this woman, who lived in a yellow brick apartment building (to this day, I HATE yellow bricks). They would sit us in front of a TV with cartoons playing on rotation and some kind of treats. I was always suspicious, so I would go back and knock on the locked door asking my father to come out. I would ask my little brother what he thought was going on and he would always just say to me, “Just eat the cookies.”


I’ll never forget the night our father tried to kill our mother. It was some time after my sixth grade graduation. One of my favorite aunts had a celebratory dinner for me at her house, so my brother and I had a sleepover there. In the middle of the night, the phone began to ring and there was lots of commotion in the house. Every so often, my aunt would come to me and ask me some question related to my mother and make up some believable (or so she thought) excuse to keep me calm. I knew something was up.

After many hours, my aunt and uncle brought someone into the house who was under a blanket and walking really slowly. I thought they were being good Samaritans and randomly bringing someone in off the streets. I was nervous as I walked down the hallway to see what all the commotion was. I heard a familiar voice but it was distorted a bit, so I didn’t know what I would expect. There this person was, sitting on the edge of the bed, struggling to speak but getting out a few words. I am staring and staring .. who is this person?? Then it hits me—“Mommy!?”

I could not recognize my own mother. She looked up and tried to smile. Her face was so black, blue, and swollen. I was running off at the mouth asking her what happened. I had just seen her the night before and she was fine!

Eventually I found out our father tried to kill her, and she had to run out into the street to find someone to take her to the hospital. She told my brother and me that she was thinking of us moving out on our own. I was overjoyed to hear that. I hated living in the house with our father. He made home a living hell.

But my brother started to cry and said he could not imagine living without Daddy. So she went back for my brother … until our father tried it again. That time, she didn’t ask us a thing. We just moved out and finally had a peaceful home.


That peace did not last too long. When my mother finally divorced my father, my brother began to act out. My mom caught wind of this and immediately intervened by signing him up for after-school programs to keep him occupied. He began to skip those. She put him in military school. He got kicked out the next year. She tried so hard, worked three jobs and made enough money to provide him with options. He rejected them all.

There was a time when he was diagnosed with having bipolar disorder, depression, and addiction. He was prescribed medication that made him somewhat normal. He would have normal conversations with us, but the mood stabilizers made him sleep all day. I remember having to check around his nose to see if he was breathing most days.

When would I get my best friend back? Eventually, I had to come to the harsh conclusion that I may never get him back.


When I was in high school, the police were at our house every single day. They knew us by name and knew exactly where we lived. At least three times a week, we either had to call the police because he was being violent, or someone in the neighborhood would call because he or his friends were acting out. I would sit on the staircase as my mom talked to the police officers. I just wanted to make sure she had someone alongside her each time, so she knew she wasn’t alone as she dealt with things.

My brother has plotted to get me jumped, has held a knife to my throat, has physically harmed me, sold my belongings and much more. All of this to score drugs or while under the influence of drugs. Having a brother who suffers from addiction is not easy. Drawing the line between where he has a meaningful choice and mental illness is very challenging.

While I was in college, he had stints in jail. My school wasn’t far from where he was, so I would visit him on my break before my night class. Most of my friends had no idea that’s where I would go during break. I would always have my change of clothes because the dress code was so strict. I could not wear underwire, so my bra had to go, and I would just pile on layers of clothing to ensure that nothing appeared to be tight.

Once when he was locked up, I had to talk to him through glass with the phone. I could not believe that something I had seen in the movies was right in front of me, applicable to my life, because my brother was incarcerated.

Some nights, my mother and I would have to drive around looking for him. We would drive around his common spaces. We would go through his social media accounts searching for clues as to where he was.

I felt bad for my mom because she was always very uneasy when she didn’t know where her child was resting his head at night. My mother also suffered from a heart condition that she developed from our father’s attempt to murder her, so there were moments of high stress where she would have to go to the hospital.


When I moved off to law school, I was grateful to leave that part of my reality [on the East Coast]. There was a weekend where my brother, mother, uncle, and I took a roadtrip to drive me back to [the Midwest] for school. My brother had been trying to get clean and wanted a change of scenery, so against every good sense I had in my body, but in an effort to help my best friend, I offered him the opportunity to stay with me.

One night during that visit, my brother stole my mother’s car in the middle of the night to go score drugs. I found needles in his pockets when I was doing his laundry. In that moment, I realized how much of a mistake it would be to have him bring the memories of home to my new cozy reality in law school. I rescinded my offer.

Like clockwork, once he was back in [our home state], trouble struck again. He told my mother he had a job interview and wanted to borrow my car to go. He promised her that he would bring it back, long before I would even know it was gone. Later that day, he stopped answering his phone. My mom knew by then he likely did not attend the interview and was back in the city to try to score drugs. She had the whole family keep quiet on my car so I wouldn’t be distracted during finals.

Eventually, he had a heart attack (at the age of 25, mind you) and totaled my car. I try not to talk to him about that much, because while I know I should be concerned about the heart attack, I am more concerned about my car. I know that comes off as truly selfish. I struggle with the concept of selfishness in all of this because my brother has put us all through so much.


I just recently graduated with my J.D. and Master’s in Public Policy. I am currently working on solidifying what my career goals are. I am employed as a Clinical Legal Fellow and absolutely love my job. Soon enough, I hope to tackle family planning.

All without my first best friend. My brother didn’t get to attend my graduation. My brother didn’t get to meet my new friends at my graduation party. I have learned to set myself up for expecting the worst in situations due to all that I have encountered during childhood, so I anticipate that my brother won’t attend my engagement party, won’t make my wedding, and it absolutely terrifies me that if we lose a family member, he won’t be able to grieve with us.

Nowadays our conversations tend to be short and lacking in substance. There isn’t much to talk about anymore. I do ask the generic, “How are you?,” to which he responds, “Fine.” Sometimes we talk about what I have going on. Other times he tells me about his peers in prison. Since he hasn’t been around to know what daily life entails, we sit in silence a lot. I already know to an extent what his daily routine consists of so, I don’t need to hear it from him.

On the flip side, I know his human contact tends to be limited and that he appreciates every opportunity to talk about what he has going on. There was a time that the water was shut off in the facility. It was so bad that he wanted me to make calls on his behalf. Half of me wanted to, but the other half did not want to be bothered. I did not sign up for this. I had tried to push him to be on the better path, but he had to go ahead and not listen … now he is pushing me to suffer as if I am alongside him.

Sometimes he needs me to send text messages for him or his peers in prison. Other times, he needs me to make three-way calls, so I have to sit on the phone awkwardly listening to someone else’s conversation so I know when to hang up or make another call. Every so often he gives a cellmate my address because he needs a pen pal. I try my best to be gracious, but I DID NOT SIGN UP FOR THIS.

Now that I am involved with the legal field, my brother’s reality is more in my face. I had absolutely no interest in delving into the ins and outs of the criminal justice system in the manner that I have, but my brother’s incarceration is present in every facet of the work I do. As a Civil Rights Activist, a lot of the work feels even more personal because I see my brother in the narratives I constantly engage. From him passing the phone off to others who are seeking legal advice, to him asking me legal questions about his case, my reality is now consumed with the criminal justice system. It’s mentally exhausting, and I truly have no escape.  


It is really challenging being the sibling of someone who’s incarcerated. The day he was charged, it was in the news. I was sitting in a meeting when my phone started buzzing. Social media isn’t the kindest place when controversy erupts, so I was getting tagged left and right, reading comments I wish I had not encountered. That was a very difficult day. It got to the point where I wanted to untag him as my sibling on social media and not post any photos of us together out of the fear that someone would call him out.

Then came the day he was sentenced. I have realized over the years that a lot of what I have been exposed to has given me a tough skin, which I was grateful for that day. Seeing him in shackles is never easy, but I have grown so accustomed to it that it didn’t phase me. I felt bad for him. I was also angry our father did not show up to support the child he had ruined.

The Judge said 19 years. I was not surprised, nor did I cry. Over the years, I had cried many times, but this time, the well had dried out.


I cannot feel ashamed about my brother. He is my brother, and I love him dearly. He has made many mistakes for many reasons, but he still deserves to have his big sister by his side, and I am working on figuring out how to do that again. I cannot hide from that anymore.

Some days I wish I had protected my brother more. Some days I wish I had said more to get him to understand how he should not be so eager to connect with our father. But other days I lean on the fact that I know everything happens for a reason. I am still personally working through my anger with my father for taking my best friend away, but that has been easier to deal with because I now live in a different state.

A lot of people in my brother’s friends circle have unfortunately overdosed over the past few years. My mother believes his incarceration saved his life. While it’s a very tough pill to swallow, I have to take solace in the fact that an incarcerated brother beats a brother who’s buried six feet under.