Advice from someone who's been there

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."

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."

Joon, also 17, says he grew up "lonely, abused and confused." His solution -- doing whatever he wanted to do on the streets -- got him sent to jail. "How Antwone Fisher overcame his problems is inspiring, but at the same time, it helps me realize that I have it in me to overcome any other problem or struggle that comes my way. Because, problem after problem, no matter how big or small, I'm still living."

After each assembly, there is a chance to ask Fisher questions.

What about your mother? She was a total stranger when he, at 36, met her. They have no history, he says. She never wiped his nose, took care of him when he was sick or gave him a birthday present, a Christmas gift. They have nothing to talk about.

But he did want his firstborn daughter to meet her because as a child he had not known his mother or grandmother. They went to Cleveland. "My mother cursed at her," he says. "That was the end of that."

Was he embarrassed to talk to the psychiatrist? "In the beginning when I talked about my life, I couldn't sit in the chair facing him. I sat on the floor in front of his desk," Fisher says. "He couldn't see me.... Eventually I could talk to him face to face. He was the first person I ever told my story to. I felt relieved."

One of the younger boys presses for details about the sexual abuse. "What was that woman doing to you when she took you down to the basement?" he asks and laughs.

"People prey on kids," Fisher tells him. "There's nothing funny about that."

Where is she, another asks.

"I don't know," Fisher says. "I'm not going to look for people I don't like."

And his foster mother?

"At times when that old lady treated you wrong," another boy asks, "did you ever feel like you wanted to kill her?"

"If I had killed her," Fisher replies, "where would I be?"

The young man answers: "You would have relieved some of that anger.... At least beat her down."

Fisher pauses. "Sometimes, you have to let things go. Because I didn't do anything to anybody, I'm free to do anything I want."

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