Painted Neon Orange: A Teenager’s Perspective on the Incarceration of Her Father

July 25, 2013 | Heather Haberman, Program Associate, NCCD


The incarceration of my father when I was 15 impacted my life greatly. I struggle not to defend my father here. I believe in my father’s innocence, but I have also always felt it’s my role, as his daughter, to defend him.

The incarceration of my father when I was 15 impacted my life greatly. I struggle not to defend my father here. I believe in my father’s innocence, but I have also always felt it’s my role, as his daughter, to defend him.

My father’s charges and trial were very public, and when it hit the news I felt like my skin had been removed. I also felt sheer terror about what would happen to him, to us, to me. I remember a police officer interviewing me, and trying to get me to say bad stuff about my dad. I was worried that if I spoke of any of his flaws that it would be points counted against him in some sort of cosmic battleship game.

Testifying was a traumatic experience for me. In preparation for my testimony, my dad’s lawyer cautioned me not to speak about having a boyfriend, and told me that I needed to present myself in a conservative way in court; I needed to wear a skirt and a cross necklace, though I wasn’t Christian. What angered me most was that I wasn’t allowed to say what I wanted to say—not that anyone would listen. On one side of the jury box, a juror slept while I was testifying. No one said anything about it, and I was afraid to speak up.

The impact of hearing the verdict and observing others’ reactions to it was tremendous. When we were called back for the verdict, the courtroom was packed with lots of TV cameras. I remember that one community member stood up and clapped after the guilty verdict was announced. I couldn’t understand how someone could be so cruel.

After we left the courthouse, we went to my father’s house to collect things to remind us of him. The TV was still on, as he had left it, as were all the lights. We could hear the news of his conviction blaring from the TV. I remember that my mother was helping my sister walk upstairs, and that my sister was sobbing so hard that she was vomiting.

When I returned to high school a couple weeks after the trial, I felt like I was painted neon orange. Many of my friends avoided me, likely because they didn’t know what to say. In a way I was thankful; I was doing my best not to have a public breakdown. I was a mess, dealing with severe trauma symptoms. It was difficult to endure friends and family members struggling to understand my behavior.

Of all of my challenges, the biggest ones were spiritual. For a long time it was difficult to know the world and the people in it as essentially good. It was also difficult to move beyond the unshakable fear that someone else I love dearly would be taken away or meet with some tragedy.

A few of my teachers were very important in helping me endure and heal from this process. They came to comfort me and they said nice things about my dad, which were important for me to hear. It meant that someone besides me believed he wasn’t a monster like the news made him out to be. These teachers looked out for me, scolded me when they heard I was sneaking into bars, and supported my plans to go to college. One history teacher told me that he would “stand in” for my father, and my creative writing teacher kept an eye on me and checked in with me when she was worried. I also wrote an essay about this experience that she read to the class. Being heard was a huge step in my healing.

Though I’m now an adult, this kind of experience never leaves you. There have been times when I’ve feared for my father’s survival, particularly when he has lost jobs due to his conviction or struggled to find housing. It has also been difficult to see him feel the need to isolate himself. For me, there have been times when I’ve struggled to be known for me and not whatever people think of my father, and there have been fears of the potential impact of “judgment by Google” on my employment or other aspirations.

All survivors must find their own ways to heal from trauma. And when systems harm, there can be reluctance to go to systems for healing; there is a feeling that all operate from the same ideology. For my healing, I sought out elders in my community and other communities (First Nations and Tibetan Buddhists) who taught me about meditation and spiritual practice, taught me different philosophical views about suffering, and made me tea. I took refuge with Tibetan meditation masters and went to sweat lodges. These ways helped me to wrap my head around my experience and find a way forward, and I am grateful that they remain a part of my world.

There is also something to be said for the personal transformation that comes from simply surviving all of this. I and other survivors learn to become strong in ways that we were not before, and an increased sense of perceptiveness and skill in handing crisis situations that could cause others to derail is common for many survivors. It is also important to note that my family was not historically oppressed due to our race or economic standing; this resulted in my having greater access to college and graduate school, which have provided me more security and opportunities as an adult. I’ve always wondered what my outcome would have been if I hadn’t had privilege in those ways.

My past suffering has fueled my passion to create change on a wider scale. I have spent my adult life supporting systems-involved children in various ways. NCCD’s vision of “just and humane social systems that promote strong and safe communities” and NCCD’s value of social justice resonate deeply for me. If we are to discuss topics such as systems change or social justice, it is important that people who have been affected by systems are heard and their experiences taken into account in discussions around policy, practice, and how to move forward. Also, if people who have been harmed by systems connect, we can use our suffering for a collective purpose―and that is both personally and collectively transformative. 

Heather Haberman is a Program Associate at NCCD.