Jonathan Conyers, I WASN'T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE: Finding My Voice, Finding My People, Finding My Way

Jonathan Conyers, I WASN'T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE: Finding My Voice, Finding My People, Finding My Way

Zibby speaks to Jonathan Conyers about I WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, a courageous and heartwarming memoir about the unique cast of characters who made up his village and helped him rise from poverty, dysfunction, and the tyranny of low expectations. Jonathan opens up about his life trajectory, emphasizes the importance of building a supportive community, and expresses gratitude to those who played a pivotal role in his life. He also talks about his dedication to breaking stereotypes, the emotional process of writing this book, and his future projects (including a potential film adaptation!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jonathan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss I Wasn’t Supposed to Be Here: Finding My Voice, Finding My People, Finding My Way. Congrats.

Jonathan Conyers: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s an honor to be here in your presence. Thank you for supporting my book. Thank you for all you do for the book world. I’m excited to talk about this project that means so much to me.

Zibby: So sweet of you. I loved your book. I know we’ve already been on Instagram. I’ve been putting it up in my store and all that stuff. The way you tell your story and all the things you’ve gone through, but just the way you present it and the human heart and spirit — I don’t know. I’m not saying this very well. It was just so inspiring. You just can’t help but root for you for the rest of your life. How you talk about the things you’re proud of and the things you got into that you aren’t so proud of and the way you talk about your family, it was so well done but also so well lived. I don’t even know. How do you comment on someone else’s whole life? Anyway, I found it very, very moving. Great job as a book, as a life.

Jonathan: Thank you for that. I put a lot of energy into it. It’s so weird. Especially when you’re writing a memoir, you have this power. I get to write about myself. I get to tell parts of my story. I don’t know which part I want to focus on. I don’t know which part I want to resonate. I don’t know how honest I want to be. I don’t know how much I want to reflect. I don’t know what my family is going to think. When I was writing this project, when I was diving into this journey, I knew there was only one way to do it, and that was to be brutally honest and tell my story and hope that it resonates for all different types of people. My life hasn’t been easy. I wanted to share those moments, but I didn’t want to share it to the point for someone to feel bad or someone to feel like, oh, my god, this life sucks. It’s not always fair to everyone. I wanted it to be a redemption story. I wanted people to understand that you can overcome any obstacle. What you’re born into or your zip code doesn’t define you. I’ve been so blessed that people have resonated with the story. People from all different walks of life see themselves in my story, from talking about addiction to talking about sexual assault, from talking about teenage pregnancy and all of these tough things that I had to overcome in my life that are sensitive topics. To know that it’s helping so many people out there, to know so many people are motivated and want to make change in their life and understand that there’s still so much more life to live regardless of what they have been through or what they’re going through gives me great joy. I’m just super excited to continue to tell my story. Secret: I’m only twenty-nine.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Jonathan: Most people my age don’t get the opportunity to share their narrative. I’m still young. I’m still learning a lot about life. I still have so much more life to live. I can’t wait until the second memoir, see where the next twenty years, next thirty years, next forty years take me in this journey.

Zibby: Don’t wait too many years or I won’t be around to read it.

Jonathan: I plan on writing soon. Secret: I have another project coming out for 2025, a graphic novel.

Zibby: Ooh, that’s great.

Jonathan: There’s a lot more things in the works. I won’t be waiting too long because I have a lot of stories to tell, a lot of things I want to accomplish. We’re going to stay at it. We’re going to hope the world supports me and continues to push me along this beautiful journey of writing.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. I even love, from a book standpoint, the way that you structured it and the chapters. For example, I’m just going to say this for people who haven’t seen your book yet. I Wasn’t Supposed to Be Here, each chapter takes that title and spins off it. I Wasn’t Supposed to Be Born. I Wasn’t Supposed to See My Father Cry. I Wasn’t Supposed to Be Set Free in the Bronx. I Wasn’t Supposed to be Making Difficult Decisions. I Wasn’t Supposed to Be in High School in Harlem. I Wasn’t Supposed to Be at an Elite Private Boarding School. It seems obvious. Why don’t more people have chapter titles like this? You can’t open it and think, oh, my gosh, why? What happened? How did this happen? How did you decide to structure it that way? Was this always the title? Were those always the chapter headings? Just curious.

Jonathan: The first thing I will say is that it’s funny how so many people resonate with the chapter structure. When you’re having these events when you’re talking and you’re doing a tour, it’s always the things that you do that you never thought about that everybody’s like, that was genius. That was great. You go, oh, yeah, I planned that, but I didn’t. It just fell in my lap. For a lot of people that don’t know, I am a medical provider. I work at NYU Medical Center here in Manhattan. In the beginning of my book, the first chapter is I Wasn’t Supposed to Be Born. I literally mean that. My parents were addicted to crack cocaine. I was, I always say, their fifth and unwanted child because my mother did everything in her power to abort me. She was deep into her addiction. She was struggling a lot with her mental health. She already had four kids that she couldn’t provide for. She was homeless. Her best bet when she found out she was pregnant with me was — one, she was using a lot, and she didn’t know what my outcome would be, so she tried to abort me.

One of the places she tried to abort me at is Bellevue Hospital, which is right next to the hospital I work at almost every single day. One day, I was walking past Bellevue. I just stopped. I looked at the hospital. I was like, wow, a courageous doctor in there told my mother no, that he wouldn’t abort me because she had a hernia. Her health was declining. She was already four months pregnant. He stood by that decision. He was like, “No, I think you should just have this child. It’s too risky to abort him. Just see what happens.” One day on my walk to the hospital drinking my coffee, I’m just looking at Bellevue. I was like, wow, I’m really not supposed to be here. It just stuck. When the opportunity came, I thought, I was like, I want the title to be I Wasn’t Supposed to Be Here. Then when I started to write the book and we started to dive deep into my story — I had to go through some tough moments. It was a tough journey writing the book and reliving a lot of these moments. Every chapter was like, God has been so good. Every chapter was like, there’s just been so many amazing people throughout my life that I probably didn’t realize then that helped me get to where I am.

It was just the common theme throughout the book. It was a lot of places that I ended up throughout my life that I wasn’t supposed to be there, whether that was just me stumbling into a debate room, whether that was me listening to a teacher, whether that was a professor grabbing my daughter and holding her throughout class. It was all of these situations that was very unique. It was very hard to keep processing that even with all the tough things that I’ve been through, there was always this guardian angel or this shield around me protecting me and putting me in places that people that looked like me or people that was going through what I was going through probably shouldn’t have been. It was those moments that I was like, hey, I just want to label every chapter about a place I wasn’t supposed to have been and how that helped me. That’s kind of the story behind the title and all the chapter breakdowns.

Zibby: Now I’m disappointed that everybody else likes that. I thought I was being unique. I was like, that’s so cool. I wonder if anyone else noticed, but they did. Oh, well. Good for you. There are so many different stories and different people in the book that we could spend hours dissecting, from your relationship with Marquise and how his life goes one way and your life goes one way and the times at which we see the place where you weren’t supposed to be and how you could’ve so easily ended up somewhere else, so many of these moments, and people like Mr. Marshall, who helped you through school and suggested you to go to different types of high schools. You had some funny exchange with your mom when they were suggesting you go to boarding school. You were like, Mom, what’s boarding school? She says, I don’t know what that is. She said it in a different way. Just, I don’t know what that is. You’re like, all right, that was the end of my discussion about boarding school. You have so many characters who you reference in the book and talk about as your chosen family, the angels you got you through. I don’t know if you say angels. I’m saying. People who got you through from one moment to another and how they make up the journey and how you got there, tell me a little more about what it was like thinking about those people again. I know you said you didn’t realize at the time. How does it feel looking back? How does that inspire you on a daily basis?

Jonathan: It’s bittersweet. As I was writing the book, I started to realize the power of my village, is what I call it.

Zibby: Yes, that’s right. Sorry. The power of your village.

Jonathan: The secret to the book is, really, every chapter is truly dedicated to somebody. Yes, it’s a memoir. Yes, it talks about my personal journey. The real reason for the book was to just to say thank you to so many people, to highlight so many amazing people that helped me throughout my journey. Each chapter is dedicated to someone. Each chapter is saying thank you. This book is a testament to how to build a village. We are in a place right now in the world where there are so many teachers that are undervalued. There are so many teachers figuring out why they’re doing this job. Unfortunately, our society has done a poor job of giving them the resources they need. They’ve done a poor job of paying them the right wages. I think it was my responsibility as a kid who needed teachers — my teachers had to be more than teachers. They had to want to save us. They had to want to protect us. They had to want to care for us due to the areas we were growing up in, due to all the violence and the all the things that came with the zip codes we were raised in. With this newfound gift and power and opportunity, I just wanted to thank them and show them that, you got to understand that no matter what the world thinks or what we’re going through with the teacher shortage, that there are so many students, there are so many people doing amazing things for their community that needed to. I hope that’s worth something to them.

I also wanted to talk about friends like Marquise or even people who were not the best for the community and how they shaped me and how sometimes even the wrong role models taught me what not to do and believed in me even when they couldn’t believe in themselves. It was a very interesting way to show these things. The reason why I started off the statement with “it’s bittersweet” is because there’s a lot of people in that story who are no longer here, who will never get to see their name in a book, who never got to understand that the choices they made for me were breathtaking and monumental, like Mr. Marshall. One of the last things I ever said to Mr. Marshall was not something nice. I thought that he was ruining my life. I thought that him getting me over to the high school was the worst thing ever. Now I look back at my group of friends who I wanted to go to high school with. None of them are alive. Most of them are gone due to gun violence. Most of them passed away in their twenties. You think about a character like Marquise. He is currently in prison. I love these people. I still talk to them. We have these conversations. They still laugh and say, “Look at you, Jon, on TV. You made it. You did it. We all knew you was going to make it out.” It’s bittersweet because I want them here with me during these moments. I want to help their families. I want to show them that it was a different world.

Now as adults, as men, we can change and change our narrative and do right and help our communities and give back. I have plans for it. We’ll be home one day. It’s bittersweet to share these moments, and the people that helped me get to these moments are not here. Then you have people like DiCo where we have a wonderful nonprofit, the Brooklyn Debate League, that serves hundreds of kids. We’re doing a lot of amazing things throughout New York City for at-risk youth. I get to look back and say, hey, thank god I walked into that debate room. Thank god I opened my heart and allowed him to be a mentor to me. I think back to Pam, my college counselor that’s like a mom to me. I did a commencement speech at Stony Brook University. I got to do Career Day with them. I get to talk to a lot of the EOP students throughout New York City. I still have some relationships with these individuals who are amazing, who became family and people that I now have professional and business relationships with. Then there are some that are no longer here or are still going through this tough journey we call life. It’s beautiful and it’s painful all at the same time.

Zibby: Wow. You did a beautiful job writing about your family in an expository way without judgement, explaining motivations. You talk about scenes where there are bullets flying into your home and your mom on the couch when your dad was still in Virginia going to his weekend prison and her passed out on the couch and doing crack and taking your money from the lawnmowing job and just all these moments that are heartbreak after heartbreak after heartbreak, and even the violence between the two of them, but you don’t do it in a condemning way. You don’t write about it to say, can you believe my parents? You don’t write about it in an angry way. You put it out there. You explain why. You point out the good. They weren’t doing it on the street. This was their rationale. We were a good family. It was just beautiful the way that you handled that. Tell me a little about your decision — or maybe it wasn’t a decision, it just came out. Just how you portrayed your family in the book.

Jonathan: Great question, Zibby. I think it was a decision. It was calculated. I think so many times, we look at addiction, and we’re judgmental. We put these people in a box. We show the worst parts of these individuals. I had to sit down with my parents when this opportunity presented itself when publishers and companies was interested in me doing a book. I told my parents, “There’s no amount of money, there’s no amount of attention, there’s no amount of publicity that I’m willing to take if you guys feel like this is too much for you. It’s my story, and I’m only going to tell it one way.” My parents, their typical selves, said, “If this is what you need, if you think this is an opportunity that can help kids and do the great work you’re doing, then tell it.” I think they even assumed — my mom has read the book and said, “Wow, okay, I thought this would be worse.” I was like, “Mom, you never missed a parent-teacher conference. You have five kids. All five of us have college degrees. All five of us are homeowners.” Lightning don’t strike once. I know the media may present Black women and Black men who are addicted to crack as criminals, as dirty, as people who don’t care about themselves or people who don’t love their family, but that’s not always the narrative.

My mother used to parent-teacher conference. I couldn’t reach second grade. When they tried to put me in special education, my mother got clean for a month and read with me every single day and pushed me, a woman who was homeless, a woman who could easily tell the government, put this kid in special ed and give me a check because we need it so desperately bad because I can’t feed them. She believed in the power of education. She was a junior in nursing school in college when she got addicted. My dad was a boxing champ and was a DJ and had a great career at the before he got addicted. These was not individuals who were bad people by any means. These were not individuals who intentionally wanted to hurt their family. They were a product of the eighties, which is a whole nother historical discussion. They didn’t know what they were taking at the time. They didn’t know the impacts that crack would have on the household. They fell subject to that. I wanted to tell the uniqueness of them.

I wanted to show the world that there are tons of people who are lawyers, who are surgeons who are alcoholics, who have addiction problems. We have so many people not of color suffering from addiction who are still amazing people, who have amazing careers, who have accomplished amazing things here on earth. I just wanted to show the narrative that unfortunately, too many times when it comes to people of color and their addiction, they’re frowned upon. Yes, it is a slippery slope. My parents did do things that were not great, things that was horrendous and things that addicts do, but there was also beauty. It took a lot of healing for me to get there. If I would’ve wrote the book as a sixteen-year-old, it would’ve been a whole different book. If I would’ve wrote the book, probably, as a twenty-four-year-old, it would’ve been a whole different book. I had to learn through therapy, through me diving into my own health journey and figuring out what type of parent I want to be and how I want my kids to perceive me, we’re not perfect. There’s sometimes — not every time. Some things are just a hundred percent horrendous. A lot of times, there’s beauty in pain. I’m still fifty percent of each one of them.

My mother says it all the time. “What if I never became an addict? Maybe I would’ve been a CEO. Now I am watching my kids try to become that.” It’s not to say that she’s a hundred percent ill. It’s not to say that we still don’t have our fights and we still are not battling these situations. I wanted to let her know that I appreciated her warmth when she did show it. I appreciate her showing me the importance of education and how it could be a ticket out of the situation that we were born into. I also wanted to show her that, hey, these things still affected me. It still made my life harder. It was complicated. It was hard. I just spoke from the heart. I’ve been happy that a lot of people have resonated with my mother. I’ve been happy and privileged to talk with so many people that is struggling with addiction and for them to feel like I humanized them and I showed parts of them that the world never gets to see. I’m thankful for that. Even though it was painful and it was tough to do, I am thankful for that.

Zibby: There was someone not closely in my life but who I knew was going through some addiction issues themselves. I was angry about it. Then I was like, but you know what? I interview people who go through this all the time. I have nothing but compassion for them. Why would it be different for somebody that I know? I feel like books are a way for all of us to see what, maybe, the people that we might even know aren’t comfortable sharing. We learn more about the people in our own lives because of people like you who shine a light on others who are going through it, people who write memoirs about their own addiction. I know addiction is only one piece of your story. The power of the narrative is just, as you said, across every group of people no matter what. It’s amazing.

Jonathan: It was one of the reasons why I really wanted to take on this challenge and write about it. As painful as writing this book was for me, it was much bigger than me. This is why I travel and I go so hard to spread awareness about this book. I feel like this book can speak to every single person. I know that sounds crazy because when you write a book, you want to find a target audience. Anybody that is a business owner who understands anything about marketing, what is your target audience? You can’t reach everybody. I wanted to do the impossible. I think no matter who you are, my book talks about everything, , from addiction, from, again, sexual assault, teenage pregnancy, from going through college, from coming together, from building a sense of community. To be able to share all of these unique perspectives from my life and tie it together where it just runs smooth as a memoir, as it should be, it made me feel so good. It made me feel like no matter who picks up my book, no matter what walk of life you come from, there is something to learn from it. Again, like I said, even though it was hard to do, I was happy I think I was able to accomplish that. That’s not for me to say. That’s for the reader, but I hope I accomplished it.

Zibby: I’ll say it. Can you give me a PS of everything that’s going on for your siblings now?

Jonathan: Yeah, of course. My oldest brother, James, he helps me run a lot of my Airbnbs in Virginia. We do real estate together. He manages restaurants throughout the state of Virginia. That’s my oldest brother. My second oldest brother, Joshua, is a Grammy-nominated opera singer. He was just at the Met doing Malcom X. He just had a bunch of shows here. He’s also a professor at the School of Music at Rochester. He’s doing amazing. He was just over here dropping gifts off for his nieces and nephew. My third oldest brother, Justin, is an assistant principal in Virginia in Newport News. He’s also a social worker. My sister is a stay-at-home mom now. She was doing nursing. She’s a stay-at-home mom. She owns a beautiful home in Pennsylvania with her husband and her three kids. Then it’s me, the baby, doing a lot. I am still a respiratory therapist specializing in neonates and pediatrics at NYU Medical Center, a writer, and hopefully, trying to get into production, so films, things of that nature and just the whole art of storytelling. My angle is just to share important stories, to share stories, usually, of people that don’t get the opportunity to share their stories, and hopefully one day, bring it into writing for the big screen and to all different walks of life and how we present media. That’s me.

Zibby: Very cool.

Jonathan: My parents, they live in Manhattan. They’re doing okay. Much better than our early years of life. I’m proud of them. They’re still going through their journey. They’re taking things one day at a time. Addiction is a complicated process, but they’re doing much better. They are great-grandparents. We are still tight. There’s no fallout. We’ll all be seeing each other for the holidays. God has blessed us tremendously. Thank God we all sticked together and was able to overcome a lot of these things together.

Zibby: It’s so crazy that now I feel like I can imagine what your holidays are going to look like.

Jonathan: Much different than it was as a kid. I promise you that.

Zibby: I know. I’m imagining everybody grown up. It’s like the end of this movie. Is this going to be a movie, by the way? Has this been optioned?

Jonathan: Great question. There’s talks with Page Boy Productions to not really option the book, but to more focus on the narrative of me and DiCo’s story, which is great, which was the story that the world fell in love with with Humans of New York. There’s talks of that happening. Recently, we just shot a documentary about the Brooklyn Debate League, which is the nonprofit that me and DiCo cofounded, with Vice News. I am in some talks of doing another project with optioning the book that I can’t speak of right now, but very, very exciting. Some promising meetings this weekend. Just keeping my fingers crossed. As you know Zibby, Hollywood and production is complicated. There could be a lot of interest, but you just never know where it’s going to go. Fingers crossed. I promise, Zibby, you’ll be the first person I email if everything goes through.

Zibby: That would be great.

Jonathan: We could present it together the first time. Exclusive on Zibby Owens Media.

Zibby: We’ll do it. I’m in. I’ll host a premiere.

Jonathan: Let’s do it. I’m going to remember that, Zibby.

Zibby: Write it down. I’ll have the transcript. You have your little OtterPilot who’s going to hold me to whatever I say.

Jonathan: There’s a lot of talks. Besides , just trying to get into the production space and help other people bring their stories. I’m still very, very new to this. Still learning a lot. I’m humble. I’m looking for mentors and guides. I’m confident that I have the work ethic and the capabilities of accomplishing everything. I truly believe that. I truly believe in myself. This is a new world I’m entering. I’m just here to take in all the information and spend as much time as I need learning from people that have done it and are great at doing it.

Zibby: I feel like I already know how you think and how you learn. I feel like I’ve been through all this with you as you got through school. I have no doubt. I believe you too.

Jonathan: Thank you for that. That means a lot.

Zibby: Was there a part of the book-writing process that you were like, oh, that was not so fun?

Jonathan: Yeah. I think one of the toughest parts was around chapter seven when I was talking about my daughter. She’s ten, Emily. I was writing as a sixteen-year-old. I’m twenty-nine, so it ain’t like I had to dive that far back. Just sitting there and walking through the Bronx and thinking about how I felt when I found out that I was going to be a dad my eleventh-grade year of high school and how many times I wrote I didn’t want her or I didn’t want to be the — I wanted her mom, who is now my wife — we have three kids now. I wanted her mom to not have her. That was very, very tough for me. It was very, very emotional. It was a lot of times where I was like, I’m going to take this out. Then I had to look myself in the mirror and said, well, you told your parents’ secrets. You told all these other people’s secrets. You hold all these other people accountable. You have to be accountable. You have to look yourself in the mirror. My daughter’s ten. She is a genius. I catch her all the time trying to google me and see what I’m up to. I have forbidden her from reading the book now, but I’m pretty sure in a couple years, maybe fifteen. Knowing her, she probably will sneak and get to it before that age. She will read it. My fear is, will she see it as, well, my dad was sixteen, he was thinking that, or will she see it as, he didn’t want me?

That’s something I battle. That’s something that’s very, very hard for me. It gives me a lot of anxiety. I didn’t even know what anxiety really was until it started happening to me. In the book, I also mention that she was what saved me. She is what gave me purpose. I’m not promoting teenage pregnancy at all. It was very tough. It was a lot of hurdles that was just unnecessary that I brought onto myself. For what I was going through in my life at a time where I couldn’t love herself, when I didn’t have respect for my own life, Emily brought that sense of purpose for me. She forced me to get out of the streets. She forced me to be a better person. She forced me to be the student I was at Stony Brook. She forced me to get into medicine. She forced me to dedicate my life to giving back and letting people know that they are heard, they are loved. Without her, would you be talking to me, Zibby? No, you wouldn’t. Without her, would there be a book? No. Without her, I probably wouldn’t be alive. It’s a gift and a curse. Again, that’s for her to decide how she views my writing. All I can do as a dad is respect it and just remind her every day that I’m here, that I love her, and that she was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. That was a very tough moment for me.

Zibby: My parenting advice, for what it’s worth, as a mom of four, much older but probably not much wiser, is to try to get ahead of that conversation before she finds out about it. How can a child not be moved by what you just said to me? You tell her all that, and she’ll put herself in your shoes. Maybe don’t let her find out through the book.

Jonathan: She’s very good at math, so she’s starting to do calculations. She’s starting to look at me. She’s like, “You guys are twenty-nine. How is that possible?” I’m like, okay, not yet. Kids these days, they’re just so bright. The conversation may need to happen earlier than I want it to be. Again, it’s not for me to decide. It’s what she needs in that moment. I have to meet her there. I’m dreading it. Zibby, you’re right. You’re a thousand percent right. I need to get ahead of it before I catch her under her cover in her room reading the book. There’s thirty copies around the house. I’m pretty sure she can grab one easily. I’ve been trying to do a good job of hiding them in my closest. The conversation needs to happen sooner than later. That was probably one of the toughest moments for me in the book.

Zibby: I was worried about some things. I wrote a memoir. I was worried about some things, my kids finding out. Like you, there are copies everywhere. I’m like, “Have you still not read my book? What the heck?” “No, Mom.” My sixteen-year-old boy is like, “No, I’m sure it’s great, Mom. It’s great.” I’m like, okay, fine. Why did I even worry? Kids are kids. Anyway, Jonathan, thank you so much. I Wasn’t Supposed to Be Here. Who knows in the universe? I think you were supposed to be right here today. Thank you for coming.

Jonathan: Thank you so much, Zibby, for having me. It was an honor to be here. I really appreciate you.

Zibby: Thank you. All right, Jonathan, take care. Buh-bye.

Jonathan: Thank you so much, Zibby. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day.

Jonathan Conyers, I WASN'T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE: Finding My Voice, Finding My People, Finding My Way

I WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE: Finding My Voice, Finding My People, Finding My Way by Jonathan Conyers

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