Michael Roberts’ face is a canvas of pain.
Almost his entire body is draped in ink, from faces and flames to skulls and swastikas. Individually, he says, his tattoos are meaningless. Collectively, they once offered a mask to his misery — a means of therapy for a life of crime, abuse and violence.
Roberts takes a slow measured drag of a du Maurier cigarette, standing at his doorstep in the bitter winter cold. They’re one of his only guilty pleasures left after more than two decades of drug and alcohol abuse. Known as “Bull” in his younger days, the Trepassey, N.L. native is tired from walking up the stairs — his 6’4″, nearly 500-pound frame makes it challenging. As he smokes, he offhandedly describes how the nose and scalp are the most painful spots to get inked.
He is frequently asked what various tattoos mean to him.
“Nothing,” he states bluntly. “It was all pure pain therapy, man…just another way to cope.”
Barely a foot into his GTA home and it’s easy to see how Roberts now copes. The words of John 3:16 hang like a sentry above the entranceway to his modest basement apartment: “For God so loved the world,” it reads, “that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Those words are especially meaningful to Roberts, who has gone from hardened criminal and gang member to born-again Christian after finding God while he lay broken and bruised on a hotel floor. Now an award-winning author, Roberts’ story is the type that defies belief.
Born in a small fishing community into a life of abuse, he suffered daily beatings at the hands of his father and molestation by his older brother and friends, and later his babysitter. From an early age, he was taught that drugs held the answers to his problems: At eight, he was diagnosed with ADHD due to behavioural problems, and was prescribed Ritalin. He soon moved onto solvents, marijuana and a myriad of pills.
“My dad would beat me down and my brother would come in as the comforter and molest me,” he says. “By the time I left home I was a full-blown drug addict, snorting gas just to deal with the physical and sexual abuse.”
His memories, like the tattoos sprawled across his body, are fragmented. He can’t say how many times he’s been to jail or mental institutions. He can’t pinpoint the first time he got high, or the age at which his molestation began.
But some memories are still vivid, like losing his best friend at an early age to a house fire.
“I’ve been dealing with death my whole life,” he says. “I buried my first friend in grade six.”
The abuse Roberts endured domestically carried over into his school life. A sickly child, he was bullied by his peers. Abuse had become second nature by this point — it was all he knew.
“It got to the point where I was getting beaten so much I just didn’t care anymore,” he says. “I craved the beatings.”
Roberts never retaliated because he was afraid of his father’s punishment if he got in trouble. By grade 7, he reached his breaking point. After a verbal altercation with his chemistry teacher over a detention slip, Roberts says his teacher shoulder-checked him.
In response, he broke his teacher’s jaw.
Knowing a severe beating awaited him at home, he decided to hit the streets. Between homelessness, foster homes and shelters, Roberts’ life quickly spiralled out of control.
As a teen, he transformed from victim to victimizer. When he wasn’t engaging in petty crime or senseless violence, he was in court or jail. He once had 13 assault charges laid against him in one day. He frequently tried to kill himself.
“It was so easy to hate,” Roberts recalls, the distant look in his eyes showing he still grapples with his emotions. “I didn’t even know what love was; no remorse, no feelings… nothing.”
By 16, he was labelled a sociopath and deemed criminally insane. He was placed in a mental institution, where he experienced further rape and abuse.
Over the years, Roberts tried to reshape his life by moving out west with a girlfriend and working a number of menial, low-pay jobs. But the allure of quick cash proved hard to resist.
“I grew up on the streets,” Roberts says. “I always kept going back to it because when all else failed, it’s what I knew.”
Roberts’ possessions were as bare as his emotions. He grew tired of having nothing. He joined a white supremacist gang and delved deep into a life of organized crime. He quickly advanced in the ranks with his strength and endurance skills. He became extremely wealthy from drug and gun trafficking, and was soon one of Canada’s most wanted criminals. Roberts had money, power and respect among his peers, but his life would soon crumble around him.
He ended his relationship with his girlfriend to protect her from his associates, and soon after, Roberts and more than a dozen others from his gang were arrested in an undercover sting. But things would come to a head when Roberts was betrayed by his closest friends.
One day at his farm, a large group of Roberts’ fellow gang members came to visit. He thought nothing of it, as they frequently came by to hang out. But this time was different. Roberts was brutally beaten and left with a fractured skull, broken bones, and severe damage to his spine. One of his associates had called a hit on him to assume control of the gang.
Roberts’ own crew had left him for dead.
A neighbour had witnessed it all and transported an unconscious Roberts to the hospital. Staff bandaged him up and once he was able to stand on his own, he was asked to leave. The hospital was uncomfortable with his gang-affiliated associates lingering around, so Roberts moved his recovery to a hotel.
It was in that hotel room that Roberts found himself at death’s doorstep. While stumbling to the washroom, with no one to help him in his injured and drugged state, Roberts collapsed. His broken bones left him unable to move. There he lay for hours in excruciating pain, sure his life was over.
After a lifetime of numbing his emotions with drugs and violence, Roberts started crying. He had had enough. He begged God to help him.
“I never felt love in my life, but when I reached out to God and asked for just that much love before I died, he hasn’t stopped pouring it out,” Roberts says. “My heart just opened right up.”
For Roberts, it was all part of God’s divine plan: the life of abuse, his crimes, his near-death experience. When Roberts speaks about God, you can feel the conviction in his voice. This is a man who has been to hell and back — and now has his sights set firmly on heaven.
“I could never go back to the way I was. Even if I did, I could never, ever, deny God,” he says. “I wouldn’t have a story to tell if it wasn’t for God.”
Today Roberts is a different man. He no longer sleeps with a gun; instead, he reads the bible before bed. He’s not a racist anymore; he has friends of all colours and attends a Middle-Eastern church. He doesn’t mute his emotions with alcohol, drugs, or body modification; instead he writes, or prays. He no longer hoards weapons in fear of his enemies; he collects stamps.
Following his recovery, Roberts discovered Evangelical Christianity through a friend and now dedicates his life to God and helping street kids. He lives in the Greater Toronto Area and speaks at churches, schools and shelters to youth about the dangers of street life and the power of faith.
Roberts loves talking to kids. Beforehand, he’s nervous as hell — afterward, he compares the feeling to “kicking Satan in the nuts”. And while he’s there to try and help steer them in the right direction, in reality, the opportunity to share his life experience is also therapeutic for him.
“I just love it because they listen,” he says. “They do a lot more for me than I could ever do for them. It’s like total medicine.”
Apart from the talks, Roberts packs and distributes survival kits for street kids and writes a Christian prison newsletter entitled “Behind the Walls” that goes out to 700 convicts monthly. He’s also an award-winning author; his autobiography, The Tender Heart of a Beast, won the general readership award at the Word Guild’s 2010 Canadian Christian Writing Awards.
Roberts still battles with shells from his past. His health, to be generous, is problematic. He struggles with his weight, has diabetes, and his heart is in bad condition. But some old habits die hard — he still smokes, drinks coffee, and keeps a questionable diet. Cigarette packs and McDonald’s wrappers litter his table, juxtaposed with plaques on the wall that read “Faith” and “Hope”.
Despite his shortcomings, he has progressed significantly; following a life of drug abuse, he’s been sober for two-and-a-half years. He’s still dealing with his temper, and tries extra hard not to curse.
But today Roberts no longer holds a heart full of hate. He still has a lot to forgive, including his own sins and those committed against him. He has tried to make amends with his family, with no luck; his mother doesn’t want to see him, and his siblings, who are mixed race, want nothing to do with him.
Regardless, Roberts is not alone. He’s close with his pastor and has many friends from church groups and various youth initiatives he’s involved in. And despite his health problems, he’s hopeful for the future. And he holds no doubt as to who is responsible for his hope.
“When I was laying there on that hotel floor, bag of broken bones, I know there was something in that room with me, holding me,” he says. “Who knows what it was…I choose to believe it was God.”