ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The complex and serpentine timeline of Carissa McGee defies categorization.
Certainly it is defined, at least in part, by basketball. But also by teenage depression and anger - anger that erupted in a shocking burst of violence about 14 years ago, which led to her spending nearly nine years in prison. Her story in more recent years is also defined by enlightenment and rehabilitation.
And now, at age 30, by a form of liberation.
“The last few months,” she said, “that feeling of freedom has finally sunk in. I’ve really felt that breath of fresh air. It’s real. It’s mine. It’s happening and I’m living it.”
Once upon a time, McGee was a star basketball player at Mayfield High School in Las Cruces. She was a Gatorade Player of the Year, a teenager with numerous college scholarship offers and a megawatt future in front of her.
“I was young,” she said. “I was so talented.”
But then came the night she attempted to kill her mother and sister.
She has lost much of her youth since then, but remains young. And, she has set out, on multiple fronts, to find the peace and balance that eluded her nearly half a lifetime ago.
Today, McGee is married and owns her own business. She’s busy earning a degree in criminal law from CNM. She wrote a book about her life, and she’s a motivational speaker. She has been working in local high school gyms as a referee the last several years, and has worked several high-profile games this season.
“She’s not a lost child anymore,” said McGee’s wife of nearly two years and her high school sweetheart, Martina Holloway, a 2006 Sandia High graduate. “I think what’s fun is that I’ve gotten to watch her grow.”
But to fully understand McGee’s background, it’s necessary to understand both the metaphorical and literal prisons that shackled her for years. It started, she said, as she began to explore her sexuality as a teenager, and how her attraction to women drove a painful and divisive wedge between her and her mother.
And that, in so many ways, is at the nucleus of her story, and the genesis for nearly everything that has followed.
“Really, the struggle came when I was around 15,” she said. “I was attracted to other females, and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it. Even in 2004, 2005, it was something that was taboo. That’s how I remember it.”
McGee came out to her mother during her junior year at Mayfield. “I am gay,” she said, and “I have a girlfriend.” She admitted to feeling depressed, isolated, even suicidal at that age.
“I wasn’t expecting her to accept it or embrace it,” McGee said during an hour-long interview with the Albuquerque Journal. “But I wasn’t ready for the level of rejection I received. That’s what really shocked me.”
Holloway said, “Her mom was just so disgusted by her life choice.”
From there, the troubles for McGee mounted quickly. She tried to kill herself several times, she said, adding that her mother was threatening to yank her out of basketball and move her back to Las Cruces High, their home school district, if Carissa didn’t “denounce her sexuality.”
Things were spiraling.
“I was really committed to suicide and not backing out on it,” McGee remembered. “I remember my mother told me that in order to get out of her house, it would be over her dead body.”
Early the next morning, Carissa McGee attacked her mother with a knife.
In March 2006, McGee, then 16, was charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery against a household member after police said she stabbed her mother 20 times and her older sister Marie – who tried to intervene – 15 times.
“Knowing to get out of the house and be free from the prison I had built in my mind, I would need to kill my mom,” McGee said.
Her mother and sister were hospitalized but recovered. Her sister, Marie, was another stellar athlete who went on to play basketball at the University of Arizona.
Anita and Marie McGee both described in court how the attack arose from disagreements with Carissa over her relationship with Holloway, according to a 2007 Associated Press story.
“I couldn’t stop her from stabbing me,” Anita McGee testified.
Attempts by the Journal to locate Marie McGee for comment were unsuccessful.
Carissa McGee pleaded no contest and was sentenced as an adult to 21 years in prison. Prosecutors said they could prove that McGee’s acts were premeditated and that she planned to kill her mother at least one week before the attack.
“It was like I was very detached from my reality,” McGee said, when asked what she remembered about that night. “I could not see any moment past the moment I was living in. There was nothing I could do in that moment to pull myself out of it. It was like I was swimming in despair and I couldn’t see.”
She served nearly nine years at the correctional facility in Grants before being released in 2014. McGee completed her probation nearly a year ago.
That time in prison was divided into two halves for McGee. Those first days, she said, she “cried my soul out to the bottom of the barrel.”
She was a high-profile inmate. At first, she was housed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. But she continued to self harm.
“Every chance I got,” she said. “Cutting myself, starving myself, harming myself. I was my own enemy, my own demon.”
But for all the darkness she felt in those first few years behind bars, there eventually sprung hope.
McGee enrolled in some college classes at first. Later, she was introduced to the New Mexico Peer Education Project, or Project ECHO.
“It was like a new Carissa was birthed,” she said, “but old Carissa got a new platform.”
She tapped into the person she felt deep down she always was – outgoing, positive, rambunctious – and contemplated how she might reverse course in her life.
“I knew how to play sports, and I’m not doing that here (in prison),” she remembered.
The Peer Education Project trained people to become peer educators; in short, McGee became a teacher to other inmates about how to live healthier. She put on workshops for other women in her prison.
“That,” she said, “was how I spent the last five years (in prison). … I got that opportunity to reach back and help other women, and that’s what turned my incarceration around, where the focus wasn’t about me and my pain, my sorrows. It was about giving other women a chance to better themselves.”
By working outwardly, McGee herself began to climb out of her emotional troubles.
“I went from not caring about life, not caring about who I was, and then went to that other end of the pendulum, to an empowered woman who wouldn’t let any obstacle get in her way. I caught fire.”
McGee wears many hats these days. She’s a student, a wife, a business owner, motivational speaker and referees high school basketball a few times each week.
Through her years in prison, she was on and off again with Holloway, and they already had to overcome being in a long-distance relationship in high school.
“We always made it back to each other somehow,” Holloway said. “My heart was always with her.”
As for her family, McGee has not spoken to her mother or sister in years and said she isn’t sure when, or if, it might occur.
Rory Rank, Carissa McGee’s public defender in Las Cruces, holds out hope that McGee might find her way to a healing place with both. “Someday,” he said, “she’ll be able to have that conversation with her family. She loves them.”
Before McGee started officiating high school sports, the New Mexico Activities Association carefully vetted her.
“We were very convinced and very impressed with her where her life was going, and her goals in life,” NMAA executive director Sally Marquez said. “And we felt strongly that she deserved another chance. We did not hesitate.”
McGee is considered one of the best prep officials in the metro area, although it will be another year before she is eligible to begin working state tournaments. She also works college games.
“She’s outstanding,” NMAA Commissioner of Officials Dana Pappas said. “The fact that she was such a star athlete … she has such a natural feel for the game. She definitely is somebody who has that ‘it’ factor that we talk a lot about in officiating.”
Marquez said she has been “thoroughly” impressed with how McGee has comported herself.
“She is an excellent official, and she will go far in the officiating world,” Marquez said. “The thing I’m impressed with is she is a role model when it comes to facing adversity.”
On this, McGee said she’s thrilled to be able to give back. She often repeats that she gave 13 years to the system – nine inside, she said, and four more on paper.
“I know I want to use my story to motivate other people,” she said. “It still is a feeling, when I’m alone, in my meditating moments, that breaks my heart. There is still genuine pain from having to go through that experience. The pain ran so deep, and I know that for the rest of my life, I want to help other people avoid that type of feeling.”
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