John Fernald, a thief, is about to face judgment day. A judge might put him behind bars for four years, which, in itself, would be business as usual for him. He’s been in and out of prison like a commuter for years. But he hopes the court will find a way for him to remain with his family.
One thing the court cannot do is give him freedom, because his true jailer is his own mind.
Fernald is a 45-year-old husband and father of two boys ages 9 and 2. He is nice-looking, well-groomed, polite and smart off the charts. He, however, describes himself as a petty thief, a lousy provider, a former drug user and the host of multiple personalities. Fernald will tell you he’s sick in the head. If all of that is truthful, he must store his self-image in a trash can each night.
His family is housed in a place that would be a nightmare for any man who wants to care for his wife and kids. The Fernalds are in St. Vincent de Paul’s downtown residence center. The primary purpose of the place is to keep them warm, dry and fed. The last thing they want is for any family to grow comfortable there.
It’s a place that shelters the down-and-close-to-out. It’s run well by caring people, but still, it’s what a more blunt generation would call the poor house.
Fernald has been in prison eight times, for 16 years out of the past 22. He says it’s all been for petty theft, except for one conviction for the sale of “one dime bag of marijuana.” He calls himself “absolutely nonviolent.” He says his rap sheet is nine pages long.
Now, before you hoot your disbelief, at least listen to him.
He says his problem is mental illness, for which he is seeing therapists. “I’m bipolar, but I have a peculiar type they call long-cycle, meaning I stay manic most of the time, then after a long time, I’ll plummet into a very deep depression.” He also claims that depression makes him black out due to something called “disassociation mental disorder.”
It’s when depression seizes his mind that he says he gets light-fingered and steals things that make no sense. In January, shortly after the family was evicted along with all other tenants from what he calls a San Diego slum building in south-central San Diego, he became depressed and ...
“They tell me I rolled my boy’s stroller into a T-Mobile store and stole two display phones, but they were the exact same phones I owned already. It was two weeks later that they arrested me and told me what I had done. I didn’t deny it. They had a picture of me taken off a videotape.”
The cynic can have a field day with this, but one has to wonder why someone would risk prison for what is basically a trinket. No one could make that up, or could they?
Fernald is a criminal, but one you could trust to guide your grandmother across a dark street. Once across, he might then steal from her. Not her purse — her cane.
Consequently, as a multi-time offender, he’s facing jail time, maybe four years in the county jail, with perhaps two years off for good behavior. He will be going with his public-defender lawyer to San Diego Superior Court this month to find out his fate. He hopes for a diversion program, pointing out that he steals only when he’s in depression. But that has to have the justice system scratching its head.
Fernald says when he and his family were evicted from the dump on Cherokee Avenue, they turned to St. Vincent de Paul’s for refuge and were taken in, for which their gratitude is profuse. They pay only a modest amount each month for their room and board.
I sit with the Fernald family in an empty St. Vinnie’s (as it’s called) dining room. I have brought two large pizzas to share, both as an icebreaker and — damnit — the two little boys deserve a treat. The older child is polite, quiet and friendly. The toddler is, well, a colt in its pasture.
Fernald is husband to Kimberly, who is a year younger and the mother of his children. She’s a gentle soul who has steadfastly borne the burden of being married to him. Her scars are hidden but can be sensed. They have made her voice tentative and her body language closed-in. Her eyes are sad and wide, as though watchful for the next hurt. She’s as uncertain of herself as she is about the surroundings she has to look at each day.
Her life story could make a Marine drill instructor weep.
It makes you want to build her a cocoon in which you can promise her milk one day and honey the next. But she would turn it down to stay with her husband. She loves him, and he loves her.
Setting love aside, the woman is faced with the likelihood that her husband will be returning to jail — and leave her alone with two young children in a charity shelter that she is only promised for another few months. She wants to find work, but we all know what that market is like. It is distinctly possible that she and the boys could be living in their old car. Sometimes it seems there’s a whole vehicle fleet of people doing just that.
At times, Kimberly Fernald has to be haunted by her relatives’ prediction — made when she got married — that she would end up homeless alongside him. She avoids those relatives now, possibly because she dreads hearing the somber tolling of, “I told you so.”
In the meantime, things have gone straight to hell, and you can see it in her face even as she nibbles pizza. It appears tasteless to her.
When you wake up in this place, Kimberly, what do you think?
“It’s depressing. I look around the room and I think, how did I get here? I see a set of bunk beds for the boys, a double bed for us and three lockers. We don’t have a bathroom. They’re in the hall.”
What has your life been like?
“I lived in a house my grandfather owned in La Mesa. I guess I was lower middle class.” She graduated from Helix High School and most recently worked for McDonald’s for seven years, including five as a manager. She lost her job when she developed postpartum depression after the birth of her second son. That was followed by a miscarriage, and then her car was repossessed in 2009.
“When we first came here we had problems with our (older) son. He hit me and tried to strangle me.”
Her husband interjects. “Oppositional defiance disorder. He felt she had betrayed him.”
I ask where she goes for help. And how about friends?
“I haven’t gone anywhere for help, except here. I don’t have any friends.”
What happens if John goes away?
Tears fill her eyes. “I don’t know. How am I supposed to deal with two boys and myself?”
Have you ever thought of divorcing him?
“Yes, I have.”
I turn to him and ask if it’s painful to hear her say that.
He’s ready for the question. “I have actually begged her to do so, for her own sake, a number of times. There have been times that I’ve tried to tell her I should divorce her myself, for her sake, but I can’t do it.”
Kimberly says: “I don’t think we should get divorced. We have two kids together. They need a mom and a dad.”
Even if the father is in prison?
That hurts you a lot to say, doesn’t it?
You’re a nice person.
As Kimberly answers tough questions without flinching, I watch her husband. The blood rises in his face and his eyes become pained. No matter what the judge decides, his punishment has already started. Maybe it never stopped.
If John Fernald goes to jail, his wife will be left with very modest public assistance, an old car, four small feet to shod and two guppy mouths to feed.
Until recently, he made some money by going around to computer stores and taking on repair jobs the stores considered not worth their time. Now that he’s again targeted by the law, he says he’s getting a cold shoulder.
He has a very high IQ, that’s obvious. But when you take his compulsion to speak with the speed of a tap-dancer and combine it with the manic stage of his illness, his mouth floweth over. If you were to ask him for directions to, say, Lakeside, he’d tell you correctly, all right, but he then might take you on down the road to Salt Lake City.
I sense a great frustration at not having an outlet for his intelligence. St. Vincent de Paul does not host Mensa meetings. If he isn’t a near genius, then many who claim to be are impostors.
Watching the kids make the pizza disappear, he tries to make sense of it all. I think that’s not a new exercise for him. He says he grew up mainly in North Carolina, where his mother departed when he was 2 and his father died when he was 10 — but not before he left a mark on young John. From then on, it was stepparents and chaos.
I ask about his father’s occupation, and he says, “My dad, he, I guess, well, he …” But he is more exact on their relationship. “My dad was mentally, emotionally and physically abusive. Highly abusive. I grew up in the Bible belt, and the rule was, ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ As long as you didn’t come to school with bruises, everyone kept their mouth shut.”
His birth mother lives in North County, but the two are not in contact.
Fernald dropped out of high school within two credits of graduating. In 1986, he came to California and joined the growing crowd of the homeless. He was using crystal meth and cocaine at the time, but drugs were not the cause of his trouble with the law, he says. That was all about thievery.
In 1988, he was at a soup kitchen when he met Kimberly, who was doing volunteer service for a church. He introduced himself and, well, if he can be anything, it’s a fast-talkin’ man. They started dating, but the relationship was interrupted by more prison time for him.
He reconnected with Kimberly after being released. They married in 1999. He made a deal with her to give up hard drugs — and says he has kept his word. He continued to use marijuana for medical reasons, he says.
John, when you close your eyes at night, what do you think about?
“I just pray that the next day will be better.”
Don’t you take a larger view? The ‘what if’ question?
“I don’t like to speculate on it. That’s the time I find myself vulnerable to depression.”
What state are you in right now? Are you manic?
“Oh, yeah. I never shut up. I have multiple personalities all trying to speak at once, so it’s hard to say which one is trying to get their words out.”
You have different personalities in your mind?
“Therapists like to say of a person with multiple personality disorder, that it shows how weak-minded you really are.”
Fernald says he has about a half-dozen imaginary personalities. He opens his cellphone and shows me that each is entered in the direct-dial list.
As I prepare to depart, the 9-year-old wraps his arms around my legs and squeezes. I tousle his hair, and then leave quickly.
I do not envy the judge who must play Solomon with John Fernald’s fate. If he goes to jail, then his family might be going to a worse place. On the other hand …
In “Samson Agonistes,” poet John Milton was thinking of the John Fernalds of all times and all places. “Thou art become the dungeon of thyself.”
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]