Rebekah and her mom on Alcatraz Island, the former federal penitentiary (Photo courtesy of Rebekah Demirel


An excerpt from her new book: “Nothing’s for Nothing” (Rose Hip Press)

by Rebekah Demirel, Contributing Writer

They were kept separate from society, banished to an island, where they would pay for their crimes. Humans instinctively know that the worst kind of punishment is isolation, because it dehumanizes both the captive and the captors. At Alcatraz, you were not supposed to feel human. You’d lost that right.

In 1989, Mom and I made a rare trip together to visit my sister Nora in the San Francisco Bay area. I was working for the ambulance service and also in college, studying sciences, thinking of becoming a chiropractor.

Traveling with my Mom to see my sister seemed like such a “normal” thing for us to do together and now we were all going on a little excursion. For an outing on our first day there, Nora suggested a “nice boat trip,” which Mom was excited about. Mom loved boat rides. It’d be grand.

With the sun shining and wind blowing in our hair, our boat approached the island.

Alcatraz loomed, ominous and menacing, just like in the movies. My guts churned, my neck prickled and I tried to stuff down a strange and growing dread by crunching on a couple of Chicklets from my purse.

Like watching apes behind bars in a zoo, this whole thing felt wrong and I didn’t know how to express what I felt, so I tried to pretend I felt something else. It wasn’t that hard to do. I was used to ignoring what my guts told me…

As we filed off the boat, we were blasted by a carnival-like loudspeaker voice carping: “Welcome to Alcatraz! You’re visiting one of the world’s most famous prisons, where criminals like Al Capone and the Bird Man of Alcatraz did hard time.”

I watched the color drain from Mom’s face and she screamed at Nora and me, “What kind of place did you bring me to? I want to get out of here right now. Are you out of your minds? I’m getting back on that boat.”

I could feel Mom’s horror and without even realizing it, something like horror also churned in my guts, seeing what was slowly unfolding. Mom was having a fit, yelling at us in front of the startled passengers, moving down the boat ramp, while I just tried to numb out and pretend I didn’t feel anything. After all, she’d looked so happy on the way across. We were all doing so well, being a normal family, on a nice outing. Why did she always have to fuck things up when all the attention wasn’t on her?

“Come on Mom,” I sniped. “You don’t always have to be Mary, Mary, quite contrary. You can’t go back right now. We’re here for a couple of hours, so just come inside and go on the tour with us. It’ll be interesting.”

“I’ll wait outside. You go. I’m not going in there.” Mom sulked into a sunny spot on the rocky shore, perched tensely on her jacket and looking like she wanted to disappear.

I remember feeling nauseated and looking back over my shoulder as I walked in to Alcatraz, seeing Mom sitting alone, isolated and sulking. I pushed down the urge to run back to her, hold her and tell her how sorry I was that she was hurt.

Instead, I put on a set of headphones and walked along the eerie walls and barred cages, stopping in front of Al Capone’s cell.

I’d been standing there a while, when out of the corner of my eye I saw Mom in her yellow jacket. She’d moved in slowly then she stood close to me, silently gripping my arm and staring straight ahead.

Without a word, just her presence and gestures made me understand why we should never have come there. I had not wanted to be in touch with what tore at me, but now, looking at Mom’s face, so empty with grief, I would have given anything for us both to be somewhere else.

We left on the next boat and never spoke about it again.

To some people, Alcatraz is an interesting place to visit, but to Mom, the only thing she could see was all the years her oldest son David spent behind bars.

Sorry Mom. I’m so very sorry.

“In her haunting memoir, ‘Nothing’s for Nothing,’ Rebekah Demirel reveals a childhood of adversity and neglect, beginning at age three when her mother fled the violence of their home, through her years growing up in a chaotic and abusive household with her Pentecostal father and violent older brother, until leaving home at age thirteen for an uncertain life on the streets. Rebekah takes us on a soulful journey of heartbreak, loss and grief, her own difficult homeless teen years, and the resiliency gained from those experiences, with inspiring messages of hope, healing, forgiveness and personal transformation. ”

rebekah demirel

(Photo: Rex Hohlbein)

Rebekah Demirel is an acupuncturist and East Asian medicine practitioner with a private and practice in the Seattle area. She also draws on her fifteen years of experience as a clinical counselor and former paramedic (and paramedic trainer) in presenting workshops to social service agencies and the general public on a variety of topics, including first aid, meditation, qi gong, stress management and trauma integration.


About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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