The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When my father went to prison, I wrote him off. We found a way back together.

First, I missed him. Then, I resented him. It wounded us both.

Deanna Paul and her father, David Paul, in New York City last May. (Photo by Erica Berger)
Placeholder while article actions load

I decided that I would not tell anyone about my dad when I began attending a new middle school. My father, David L. Paul, was then almost four years into an 11-year sentence for 68 counts of banking and securities fraud, and I thought I’d already suffered enough from what had happened – an act of predictable adolescent avoidance.

After his 1993 conviction, in one of the most infamous cases of the 1980s Savings and Loan Crisis, I’d felt confused and abandoned. Every morning, he had left for the office carrying a briefcase. Then one morning, nothing was gone but him — there were no missing suitcases, the apartment smelled as it had always smelled, his things were where they had been the day before.

For the first few years of his incarceration, my dad typically called me three times per week. I would rush home from school and wait by the plastic beige phone in my mother’s bedroom. He undid my fears about his treatment (at 8 years old, I imagined some Looney Tunes character clad in a black-and-white horizontal striped jumpsuit, locked in an iron cage and fed a single slice of toast daily) by reading to me from the prison’s meal schedule. But my adoration and loyalty slowly gave way to bitterness as I struggled to find ways to relate my life to his — and to understand why he had left. I resented the distance between us. And then, finally, perhaps inevitably, I cut him out, and there was no us.

We spend childhood adoring our parents. As teens, we begin to see them for the first time as flawed. Parents understand this progression is inevitable as a child grows up, disappointing as it may be.

But his imprisonment accelerated this process for me. Suddenly, my father’s sentence shattered my view of him as the hero and left me feeling raw and stripped of safety. So I turned away — to traumatic and devastating effect.

In 1992, federal prosecutors charged my father, the chairman of Miami’s CenTrust Savings Bank, with 69 counts of evading taxes and using CenTrust’s money for personal gain, plus 29 others that included racketeering and lying to regulators. His eventual sentence was, at the time, among the longest given to a white-collar criminal in U.S. history.

Five myths about fatherhood

My father began his time in a high-security facility in Tallahassee, but he spent most of his term assigned to a federal camp filled predominantly with nonviolent felons. These camps were always beside medium- or high-security prisons with barred windows, guard towers and barbed-wired fences. My mother took me to visit every few months. Every photograph I have with my dad between the ages of 8 and 17 has a partial view of the prison next door. Like all his fellow inmates, he’s wearing dark-green canvas pants.

A year after his sentence began, my mother filed for divorce and married a Miami Beach hotelier whom my father had known well. With nothing but time on his hands, my father wrote me letters. Even when I was unresponsive, he sent reminders that he was thinking of me, always. “I wish it could be more but what can I say? Just enjoy your lovely wonderful day,” one said. Even as I denied him, I cherished these notes.

But as the time wore on, I grappled with the stigma of having an inmate father, and my attitude toward him shifted. His plight made me different from the people around me, and I was ashamed. I also blamed him for deserting me and began to feel like a casualty of his crimes. By the time I turned 10, I’d stopped waiting at home for the phone. When I got my first cellphone at 13, I kept the number from him, fearing a classmate might answer and hear the automated message announcing the call was coming from a federal prison.

What did my father mean to his black male students? Everything.

In 2002, seven years into his prison term, I woke up to a front-page profile of my dad in the Sunday Miami Herald. The photo showed his face against a backdrop of a dollar bill and the Miami Tower, the onetime headquarters of his bank. The headline said: “Ex-banker David Paul looks beyond prison.” He’d talked at length with a reporter about his rise and fall and what he’d do after his release.

I was humiliated and angry: He’d outed me as a girl with a jailbird father. I wrote him a letter the next day with tears and white-hot fury: “You don’t realize how hard it is to be a teenager, how hard it is to fit in. People look at you and talk about you if you’re different and until yesterday, I had done a pretty good job of hiding my differences,” I wrote. “I know that you’re my father and I shouldn’t be embarrassed of you. But Dad, it’s really hard sometimes. . . . For the simple reason of your pride and it being a slow news day, my whole life had to be turned upside down.” I was, I told him, “definitely not proud.”

Rather than delivering a reprimand for my petulance, he pleaded with me that he’d only ever wanted the best for me, and he wished he could re-do his life differently so he could see me grow up. But by this point, my heart had hardened to my father. While I still corresponded with him occasionally, he ceased to be a central concern for me.

For many years, I imagined the day my father would be released. I thought about each detail: What would I wear? How different would his hugs be, now that we weren’t limited to the moments when a corrections officer had his back turned? My father also dreamed about the day he would come home, he told me later. He wondered who would pick him up and who would get out of the car first? How would he hold his children? How would my mother act?

Republican dads think they’re great fathers. Democrats don’t.

But after a decade in prison, there was no ticker-tape parade and no party. I was a high school senior, six weeks away from graduating, and rather than pick him up at Miami’s Federal Correctional Institution, I was vacationing with my mother, stepfather and my high school boyfriend. There was just a five-second voice mail on my phone from his halfway house, a one-way conversation that I received aboard a yacht docked in the Caribbean: “Planna, I’m out! I’ll call you on Monday.”

For our first meal together, soon after I returned, he chose The Forge, an age-old Miami Beach steakhouse and nightclub. By then, my father and I spoke weekly, but it had been two years since I had last seen him. I spotted him leaning against the dark polished bar, in a maroon sweater vest and a white button-down shirt that was too large for his thinner frame. Although I was 17, I saw him and felt like a little girl.

We mostly made small talk, and when I thought we’d reached the end of the night, I stood up. But he had more to say. “I never expected to go to jail, Deanna,” he said, surprising me by using my name and not the diminutive he’d called me as a girl. “Had I expected it, I would have taken a deal.”

By this point, we were walking toward the exit, and I was glad he saw only my back, not the tears pooling in my eyes. My father, I always thought, had taken an inexcusable risk in pleading not guilty. For a decade, I longed to hear him admit he was wrong, and had tragically miscalculated. Now here he was, explaining (not justifying) and apologizing: “I was angry. I thought that I got screwed and that I could beat it.” And yet, the admission left me speechless. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and, at the same time, scream. It’s too late, Dad!

I never got why my dad died in Afghanistan. Neither did our leaders.

I felt he had hurt me but was ready to close that chapter of our lives. I was glad to have him back. I took his hand and we stepped outside into the light.

By my mid-20s, I had graduated from law school and was working as an assistant district attorney in New York City. With years on the inside of the justice system, and with enough time and distance, I permitted my adult curiosity to steer me back to these events.

I spoke with the lawyers who represented my father (he waived his attorney-client privilege) and dozens of employees who once worked for the bank; I read news coverage, and then contacted the Miami Herald writer who had reported on the savings-and-loan industry and the rise and fall of CenTrust. I pored over the trial and sentencing transcripts and spoke with the federal prosecutor who tried the case.

As a girl, I’d seen my father’s odyssey in simplistic terms, as children often do. Now I know that no crime is victimless. The failure of any business has consequences, sometimes dire, for its investors. CenTrust’s bond and stockholders were not spared; federal regulators estimated the bailout at $1.7 billion, one of the largest collapses in the country at the time. As a prosecutor, I saw what drove the criminal charges and even came to understand the guilty verdict.

Only then did I comb through my own keepsakes — rereading my childhood diaries and the notes my dad had sent me, each envelope postmarked from a small, rundown prison town. Here was a Valentine’s Day card with Barney, the purple dinosaur, that I’d received as a preteen. I remember opening it and thinking: Who still watches Barney? I’d felt patronized and annoyed; it helped engender a feeling that my father could do nothing right.

The dangerous myth of the ‘missing black father’

Now, in retrospect, I realized why his gestures always felt so inadequate — and what he must have gone through to make them. He didn’t have access to the Hallmark aisle at the local CVS; he had only what was available behind bars. He’d waited in line hundreds of times to call me and then spoke only to my answering machine. I pictured the joy he must have felt to receive the rare letter from his daughter, only to discover it contained a hateful missive about his interview. It broke my heart.

Life in prison broke his heart, too, and I couldn’t see that clearly at the time. The outside was transforming as he waited out his sentence. “I was devastated,” he said of our crumbling relationship. “One of my greatest sadnesses is that I haven’t been able to spend more time with you as you’ve gotten older,” he told me after he was out.

Today, he’s more sanguine. He described his pre-carceral self as “driven and aggressive. My whole life was my work.” Now he’s easier to get along with, not as intense, more focused on his kids. “I’ve had time to think through what it’s all about, and I’m happy. But it took a long time to get here. . . . Did I need 11 years to be humbled? Probably. I’m not sure. I don’t know the answer.”

On the trail, looking for traces of my dad

I doubt I will ever fully understand what incarceration did to my father, the toll that it took on him. His losses were substantial: Shareholders sued him, and the government fined him for defrauding investors. Creditors liquidated his bank, CenTrust, and auctioned off his belongings. Relationships rarely survive when someone is inside. His were not exceptions.

But I realized as an adult that I no longer blame my father. That’s not to say what happened was okay, but that I accept things as they are and no longer hope for a different past. I try not to blame myself for leaving him, either. Prison time meant that we were both suffering — the pain of absence, of guilt, of watching a man’s demise.

In 2014, after I began studying my dad’s legal history and learned to see his incarceration more sympathetically, I wrote him an email — to remind him that I, too, was always thinking of him and to tell him how much I had come to regret the distance I had kept. “I’m so proud to call you my father. I admire you,” I told him. “For your love, support, resilience, and guidance, I am forever grateful. And know I always love you, with all my heart.”

A familiar ping soon bounced from my phone. My father had emailed a response: “WOW. . . nothing to say except I am proud of you and love love love you . . . love Dad.”

Twitter: @thedeannapaul

Read more from Outlook:

Our parents are doctors fighting the coronavirus

Follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.