Great high school athletes who never took the next step: French was one of many I had seen before and would hear of again and again from my hometown. To be fair, when I was growing up in Imperial Beach, only a small number of athletes were ever in a position to turn down a full ride. Not many college scouts ventured to the isolated Mar Vista High School in the smallish Avocado League. Further, few kids in town entertained the idea of going to college — usually only those rare ones who had a parent with a degree. That all changed in the early ’60s with the proliferation of junior colleges throughout California. In 1961, Southwestern College was erected in Chula Vista to serve the youth of the South Bay, and suddenly there was a realistic avenue to a college education — and for the athlete, a place to pursue his dream on a higher plane. I enrolled in 1965, mostly to play basketball.
I have learned that there’s a lot to be said about staying in a place. Not the modus vivendi I chose, but it was French’s. Even today he confesses “to love IB and wouldn’t live anywhere else.” He’s a man who likes people, and they like him. His size, his smile, and his easygoing nature make for a likable recipe. Ingenuousness oozes from him, and it’s this sense of innate honesty that most strikes me, even more than a quiet, unusual intelligence that is consistently noted in the many legal reports I have read — compiled by attorneys, psychiatrists, counselors, and parole commissioners. Perhaps the fact that the average inmate in California has a seventh-grade reading level sets French apart, but he speaks and writes eloquently, holding forth on the politics of the Middle East or making an informed opinion on the budget deficit of California. He listens to National Public Radio as well as to the most conservative AM radio jocks in an effort to get both sides of issues.
French has spent much time trying to learn about himself and how to cope with his transgression and “the reality I deal with in here.” He usually rises at 4:00 a.m. It’s the only chance an incarcerated man can get for quiet time and study in the barrackslike living situation French is in. Part of that time is spent in meditation, which he learned through Siddha yoga and a correspondence course he began about a dozen years ago. “I wanted to learn how to deal with conflict better. When I first went to prison I would get worked up if I was shown disrespect or aggression. But that happens every day in here. It’s so compact. Someone is always testing you. There’s just no escape from people.” He shakes his head. “You can go either way: find a peaceful way to deal with it or get caught up in the violence, which is what I did the first few years. Then I found that meditation keeps you centered in a higher state.”
Self-examination has also become a continuing exercise. As a result of the Alcoholics Anonymous program, French makes a daily assessment of himself and his place. “I use it as a daily guide for myself. It’s also the chance to let my mind just go where it will.” I’m sorry to learn that the notebooks he’s filled have been tossed out due to storage limitations for inmates.
Yet there is a pervasive sense of vulnerability at French’s core, a streak of fatalism that marks French and seems to have always been there. He confesses that his biggest failure has been disappointing those he loved by not rising to the level of abilities he was given. “My parents would continually ask me why I didn’t achieve more. I’d tell them, ‘Look, I don’t wanna change the world.’ ”
Occasionally my probe goes deeper. Why didn’t he take those scholarship offers and go for greatness? He stares ahead in contemplation before gently responding. “No backbone, I guess.”
No backbone? I study again the log-sized forearms and upper body of the man who today weighs 280 pounds. I call up his reputation for fearlessness and toughness and try to square all that with his answer. Perhaps it’s in the psychological evaluations of him that I have studied. The first one, performed two years after his crime, is the most thorough as well as the most revealing. The appointed psychiatrist provides the results of various intelligence exams, including an IQ test. All of the test scores were “exceedingly high,” and his full-scale IQ score placed him “in the superior range of intellectual functioning.”
More interesting are the results of the personality examinations, summarized as the following: “Personality tests reveal he is passive, overly accommodating, dependent and unassertive. He does not endorse traditional masculine values and prefers to avoid situations involving personality conflict. During periods of stress he is prone to scattered, illogical thinking. He has an inadequate self-image, perceiving himself as fragile, weak and lacking in confidence. Neither history nor test results indicate he is a person prone to criminal behavior, aggression or violence.”
One who lamented the waste of talent was a former Olympic athlete and French’s high school football coach, Jan Chapman. “He told me I could play in the NFL,” French recalls. “I was good with my hands as a kid. So I played split end and defensive end. In tenth grade, my aggressive nature came out on defense. I saw I could hurt people. I mean, I could pick guys up, throw ’em to the ground, and spit on ’em. But I didn’t like that in myself. Besides, about that time sports took a back seat to partying. So I quit the next year. Coach Chapman talked me into playing my senior year, but I wasn’t very into it.”
Coming of age in the Summer of Love, French was introduced to not only the new mantra of universal peace but also to drinking, pot, and rebellion. “I got caught up in the counterculture. Vietnam War, the whole thing. I always had an inquisitive mind, so now I questioned everything and everybody, especially my teachers, who were priests.”