Coincidence or Something More?
In a matter days, this sequence of events unfolded:
1. During Tuesday men’s breakfast at church, a total stranger across the table asked about my book. When I told him the title, You Ought to Do a Story About Me, a second stranger sitting to my right looked up from his eggs and said, “Jackie Wallace. I know him. I helped him get dressed every morning for a year. He was my roommate at Giving Hope Retreat.”
2. A few days later, my phone screen lit up with a number I didn’t recognize. Against my better judgement and habit, I answered anyway. The caller said he had something I might want. He said that he’d read my book while spending time at a drug rehab center. After finishing it, he picked up a Bible from the shelf and was surprised to find that many of the pages were underlined and marked with stars. Inside the back cover, the apparent owner had written his name. My name was written beneath it, along with my phone number. So, he called and told me, “It belongs to Jackie Wallace, the man in the book that I had just read. I thought you might want it.”
3. A few days after that, I opened an email from a young teenager saying he’d just finished reading my book, which he’d found thought provoking. In the email, he confessed that he sincerely wanted to grow up to be good, kind, smart man, and asked if I would answer a few questions. He asked, among other things, if I ever felt like giving up on Jackie during his relapses, and why I didn’t. The he asked the most basic question of all my interviews to date. He asked, “All in all, from your perspective, is Jackie is a good person?”
I found this especially intriguing, especially coming from a 14-year-old. So, I spent time writing a response. which I included here (with his permission).
Hi, Noman, I really appreciate your email and your kind words. I usually try to respond more quickly, but I found your questions so insightful so I wanted to wrestle with my answers. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. OK, here we go:
What was it like meeting him?
I wish I had a video of the moment I met Jackie Wallace. I’d love to see my face when he said he’d played in Super Bowls. At first, I thought he was trying to manipulate me for a sympathetic handout. But once my sportswriter friend, Jimmy Smith confirmed his story, I realized how humiliating I would feel in Jackie’s situation. His honesty disarmed me. His gap-toothed grin charmed me. I didn’t know how to respond to that. He never asked for a handout—the worse thing to do for an addict. Jackie seemed more interested in sharing his cautionary tale. I liked him immediately.
Are you still in contact with him?
Yes. I make it a point to visit with Jackie every couple of weeks. He calls me regularly. After a year living at Giving Hope Retreat rehab camp, Jackie is now living in a small apartment in Central City with a friend who helps watch over him. While Jackie is only 70 years old, his crack addiction has left him with an 80-plus-year-old body. His health is wrecked.
Did he disappear again?
Jackie continues to have relapses. That’s the horrible reality of his addiction. But since Jackie’s a fighter, he continues to claw his way back to sobriety. In general, addicts have a 40-60% relapse rate. Most rehab centers expect only one in three to succeed. To help explain why, try to honestly identify the one thing in your life that you love the most—the one thing that brings you pleasure and joy…and then imagine that you can never, ever have it again. Seriously. Never. Consider that as a personal reality. That’s how Jackie relates to crack cocaine.
With that in mind, I find Jackie’s years of sobriety to be a remarkable achievement. He once stayed sober for over eleven years—4015 straight days—fighting off this unrelenting demon. To put this in context, we all have weaknesses in our lives. And I how hard it would be for me to fight like that. So, with that understanding and resulting compassion, I try to encourage Jackie to pick himself up from each relapse and start again.
During all his relapses, did you ever feel like giving up on him? What gave you the strength not to?
Yes, I wanted to give up on Jackie many times, just like so many of his closest relations have. One time in particular—while writing the book—I became incredibly frustrated with Jackie’s inability to stay sober. I wanted to lash out. I mostly dreaded that Jackie would die in a crack house. His lack of “self-control" made me angry. That night, I broke down in desperate prayer in my bedroom. There, I finally surrendered Jackie, the book project, and my entire understanding of obedience over to God…which of course is what I thought I had done in the first place. From then on, I have experienced a new level of peace.
I came to the realization that—for some reason—God had laid Jackie at my door some thirty years ago. We both believe we met as a result of divine intervention. I wanted to be responsive to that opportunity. When Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer is supposed to be yes! Jackie and I talk a lot about this. He responds to connection.
How were you brave enough to investigate the crime and drug scenes with police? I would have been scared. I know fear. But I’ve found that my mind can exaggerate fear to the point of debilitation. Though fearful eyes, I began to see danger around corners where there is none. Through experience, I’ve learned to be cautious. I’ve learned to be VERY careful but not fearful. The streets today have become much more dangerous today than they were in many episodes I wrote about in the book.
With that said, there have been several times when I took my courage too far. But when it becomes abundantly clear to me that God has opened a door of opportunity, I try to be courageous enough to walk through it.
All in all, from your perspective, is Jackie is a good person? I wrestle with this question myself, and I appreciate you asking it. First of all, It’s not my place to judge Jackie, for I can only surmise the true desires of his heart. In the book, I tried to tell his story with compassion, fully exposing the good and the bad as he has revealed to me. But through my decades of interactions and interviews, I believe Jackie is a good man who is fighting demons that I cannot imagine. My evidence begins with how dramatically he changed after he smoked crack following his mother’s death. His brain injuries also contributed to many bad decisions. As his ex-wife told me, “CTE would have made so much sense. Something broke him.” These experiences do not excuse his behavior, but should be considered reasons why an upstanding, well-adjusted citizen would become an irresponsible, homeless crack addict. In chapter 10, I tried to describe my conflicting personal feelings:
I had never met a man so complicated and yet so simple—so charming yet so dark. A benevolent friend and a thief. An addict, an abuser, and a pilgrim. A selfish philanthropist. A humble narcissist bent on self-destruction. But I had also never
met a man more honest in his conversation. Deborah called him a broken human being and a con man.
In the end, I shudder to realize that Jackie and I are a lot more alike than I want to admit. As hard as it is to reconcile, Jackie’s and my sins and failures are the same in the eyes of God. Jackie’s are just more public and embarrassing than mine. Sin is still sin. We are ALL in desperate need of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness. This singular thought keeps me humble and on my knees. I believe Jackie desperately loves God as much as I do. I can’t help but refer to Jesus’ words in the parable of the moneylender (Luke 7: 40-47) –He who is forgiven much, loves much.
Thank you for taking the time to write. I hope these paragraphs adequately answer your heartfelt questions. Because of them, I think you have a bright future ahead of you.