YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Advice from someone who's been there

Where do you go after the story of your hard-luck childhood makes it to the big screen? Antwone Fisher went to juvenile hall.

January 20, 2003|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

Antwone Fisher is hot but not bothered at Central Juvenile Hall, a county youth detention center near downtown Los Angeles. He's not scared by these youngsters held on charges ranging from theft to murder and awaiting court proceedings.

He's seen worse, much worse.

That's why the screenwriter, whose transformative story "Antwone Fisher" is currently on the big screen, stands here, dressed in a long-sleeved blue-and-white checkered shirt and jeans, at an unshaded podium on a day that is beginning to feel unreasonably warm.

"I actually was in reform school, not because I did anything wrong, but because I didn't have any place to go," he tells the teenagers, who are wearing gray sweat pants and sweatshirts. County probation officers and staff stand vigilantly close as the teens sit in rows on a field surrounded by high walls and barbed wire.

By his very presence, Fisher, 43, easygoing and successful, shows these youngsters that it is possible to change, to recover from what he described as a childhood filled with "too many rainy days."

He is asked during an interview between assemblies -- the first for older boys; the second for boys as young as 11 and girls of all ages -- about the reform school he attended.

He smiles at the memory and says, "In a way, it was nice."


He recalls the grass, the giant game room and the big fireplace, and explains, "I was looking at it through the eyes of a kid who had been through a lot."

Born in a prison hospital two months after his father was shot to death, not by his mother but by another woman. Raised in a hellish foster home. Beaten unconscious. Sexually abused. Homeless in sub-freezing Cleveland. Enraged. Explosive. Always fighting until a Navy psychiatrist helped him get beyond his anger.

His story is well-known here because a few days before his visit these youngsters watched "Antwone Fisher" on video (courtesy of Fox) at the center school, which they are required to attend.

In one classroom during the movie, several students laughed as they watched the shy sailor in a role-playing session with his psychiatrist, who pretends to be a girl. During another scene, a few eyes redden when Fisher, then a little boy, is beaten by his foster mother and molested by a baby-sitter. As the film ends, one youth pulls his sweatshirt over his head.

"When people see the movie, they can understand how angry I was" as an adult, Fisher explains. "But, if you take out the younger scenes, they would not have understood."

No one cared about what he went through as a child, he says. That is why he crusades about foster care and adoption.

On this day, he is taking a break from publicizing his new book, "Who Will Cry for the Little Boy," named after a poem he wrote at age 18. He speaks about the long and difficult road from there to here, his nice life with a wife and two daughters.

It is a life that many young men with his history will never know.

He tells the kids that he used to work as a guard at Terminal Island Federal Prison, which is off San Pedro. "It's all cool on the yard during the daytime. They're playing their boom-boxes, playing basketball ... but at night some guys couldn't stop crying."

Where is that prison, one teen wants to know. "Why?" Fisher asks. The boy answers: "Some of my homies might be there."

Both of Fisher's foster brothers went to prison. The younger one is out; the older won't be until 2007, when he is 50.

That foster brother never got what he wanted -- someone to love him, Fisher says. He would run away from the foster home they were in together to be with his mother, but she would reject him. At 19, he went on the crime spree that landed him in prison.

Fisher says he still talks with his older foster brother, but their conversation is limited because incarceration has cut off his outside experiences. The early death of Fisher's father precluded any relationship.

"If I had died at 23 like my father did, people would remember me as a difficult person, a troublemaker," Fisher says. "He didn't get a chance to grow, to change, to get help like I did."

Fisher has made peace with that, and dedicates the film to his father.

When Fisher finishes speaking, three young men are called to the podium to speak. They participate in optional classes taught at the facility by InsideOUT Writers, a volunteer group, that along with the county education department co-sponsors this visit. They are reading his autobiography, "Finding Fish." Because they are juveniles, only their first names may be used, and the reason they are in detention is confidential.

Kamal, 18, is touched by a pivotal scene in the movie when Fisher declares, "No matter what you did, how hard you tried, you couldn't destroy me ... I'm still standing."

Ulises, 17, grew up in foster care, angry, he says, at his mother's death, his father's incarceration. The movie and book are helping him channel his anger "in a positive way," instead of using it "to get locked up."

Los Angeles Times Articles