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Who Was Joe Kelly? Can memories be inherited?

When I was a little kid, I lived about half my life in a fantasy world. Of course, I had to go to school, and so that dragged me out of Never-Never Land for seven  hours a day, maybe nine months a year. But that notwithstanding, about half to three-quarters of my waking hours were spent daydreaming and fantasizing. And no, I didn’t pay a whit of attention in school.

Because…you understand (this is not an exaggeration)…I already knew all that. What I didn’t know, I learned by reading the textbook and doing the homework. All the teachers did, academically, was rehash the information in the texts. Otherwise their job was to babysit, which they did honorably enough. Well. Except for their failure to protect the Weird Little Girl from being tormented by all the other little darlings in the classrooms.


Eventually I grew up and escaped from the mania of loneliness. This happened when we came back to the States. The kids in my new school in San Francisco had no idea I was the Odd Brat Out. They accepted me and were nice to me and made friends with me and never once tormented me with teasing and mocking and ostracizing.

The fantasy worlds in which I lived faded away. The jungle where I was a kind of female Mowgli, surrounded by solicitous large cats and a community of wolves: that went away. The alien worlds I explored in my spaceship: gone. The ancient Egyptian society where I lived as a young slave girl: buried under the pyramids.

Only one of the fantasy worlds persisted.

It was the story of Joe Kelly, an underage criminal who was busted for some vile crime, convicted, and — at the age of about 16 — sent off to San Quentin.

Quite an elaborate tale grew up around Joe, richly populated with characters ranging from prison guards to fellow convicts to the warden and the prison’s pastor. Joe was richly imagined.

I could tell you what he looked like. What he did. What he thought. How he reacted to people around him…on and on. And the world — the story — that grew up around him was also vividly, richly imagined. It was a persistent story, one that did not go away after we got back to America.

And I could tell you about Mac, the big, tough prison guard who took Joe under his wing and did his best to reform the kid.

All very nice…but…


Now, fly through time some six or eight years later. I’ve grown up and gone off to college. My parents have retired to Sun City. My father, not having anticipated a major recession, has gone back to sea to try to rescue his crashed retirement investments.

It’s a holiday break, so I’m home with my mother. And somehow — I don’t recall how — the subject of my father’s upbringing and his parents arises.

He was a change-of-life baby. His father decidedly did not want another kid to raise — so my mother’s story goes — and he asked his pregnant wife to abort the pregnancy.

She refused to do so.

Distraught, he ran off into the boondocks. Some months later he was found dead by the side of a rural Texas road. His death was deemed a suicide by the local hayseed sheriff.


In the course of relating this story, she also tells me that at one point in his life he had been a prison guard.


Now you no doubt know, as I do, how brutal Southern prisons were back in the Day. If he had been a guard in one of those august institutions, he would have made a lot of enemies. And what do you suppose would have happened if one of those fellas had come across him out in the Texas boondocks?

Yeah. Would’ve been easy to shoot him in the head, put the gun in or near his hand, let his horse loose, and take off into the sunset.


Obviously, he could have shot himself in the head. Hard to know, all these years after the fact. Hard to know what some small-town Texas sheriff could have known or figured out.

But the question is…where did the “Joe Kelly” fantasy narrative come from? Why would a little girl develop a story about life in a state prison? A men’s state prison…

Is it possible — even remotely possible — that my grandfather’s memories of his time as a prison guard could have been genetically handed down through my father?


O’course, it’s an unanswerable question. But it’s interesting. Intriguing.

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