Showing Resilience in Face of Tragedy
By Eric Breier
Dean Hall doesn’t use the term “twinless twin” to describe himself. For Hall, losing his twin brother David in 2003 felt akin to an amputee who still feels the missing body part.
Dean had known heartache in other ways, but was always able to find a measure of satisfaction in helping others through his work. But that all ended with David’s death.
“When David died, nothing was fulfilling,” Dean said. “I mean nothing. There was this emptiness that I just could not explain.”
Dean tried filling that emptiness in the worst ways possible. He went down a harrowing path that included drug addiction and multiple incarcerations. But Dean is nothing if not resilient. It’s what led him to Cal State San Marcos and will see him become the first in his family to graduate from college in December.
Dean grew up in North Augusta, S.C., on the border of Georgia, with dreams of becoming a naval officer. In high school, he worked as a page for South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. After graduating, he attended The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, S.C.
But Dean’s time at The Citadel didn’t last long.
At the end of his freshman year, both David and Dean came out to their parents as gay. That can be difficult for anyone at any time. But doing so in the South in the early 1990s brought a different level of scrutiny.
“That changed the trajectory of my life,” Dean said. “In the early ’90s there just weren't any systems in place to provide support. There was nothing in place, so we rejected everything that we previously had in terms of our lives, our faith, tradition. But our parents were struggling, too.”
Dean’s father refused to provide any financial support after his sons came out, and Dean was forced to drop out of college.
For a time, Dean found fulfillment in his work, from a role with an AIDS organization to working as a union organizer, the latter leading him to move to California in 2001. But David’s death sent Dean spiraling.
David had been a meth user who contracted HIV in the early ’90s and was later diagnosed with AIDS. David contended for years with a low count of T cells, and when he developed an infection in the hospital, he didn’t have the necessary defenses to protect against it.
Dean had already been feeling like he was in an identity crisis, and his brother’s death made him lose any sense of the purpose he found in his work. It also led him down a path of drug addiction.
“I decided I was just going to satisfy this curiosity and try meth so that I knew what David was really attracted to about it,” Dean said. “But I didn't do the meth, the meth did me.”
From addiction to scholar
As Dean’s meth use turned into addiction, he looked for ways to support his habit.
“It wasn't long before I started doing crimes,” he said. “I did financial crimes primarily, and I ended up in prison right off the bat.”
Dean had three stints of incarceration covering nearly six years. He tried treatment programs to overcome his addiction, but suffered multiple relapses.
Eventually, a sponsor and working through a 12-step program helped get him on the right track. He enrolled at San Diego City College before finding his way to CSUSM where he is majoring in social sciences.
Dean joined Project Rebound, which empowers formerly incarcerated students and those who are impacted by the criminal justice system. He also found a mentor in social sciences professor Jill Weigt, who has encouraged him to pursue fellowship and research opportunities.
“Dean has taken two classes with me and is always that good energy, super-engaged student in the front row who greets everyone as they come into class,” Weigt said. “It has been great to work with him one-on-one; he is so curious, motivated and passionate about learning and doing good in the world. He’s a true scholar, and I am looking forward to his next academic steps.”
Dean expects that next step to be pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology with a goal of becoming a professor and researcher.
Dean’s father, who died in 2013, never came to terms with his sons being gay. But Dean’s relationship with his mom is stronger than ever. They FaceTime every day and she’s planning to be there for commencement in 2024.
David’s death still hurts two decades later. There used to be days when Dean would just start crying uncontrollably with an overwhelming grief. It doesn’t happen as often anymore, but there are still moments when the anguish hits.
After all he has been through, Dean is careful to take things day by day.
“Am I in a good place? Just for today,” he said. “The lesson that I really have learned in all this is self-compassion. I’m human and I'm going to make mistakes, but I don't have to get stuck in the mistakes. And the only way I cannot get stuck in the mistakes is to be compassionate with myself. And all of it is just for today. That's all it is. I'm just another guy trying to get through today.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
firstname.lastname@example.org | Office: 760-750-7314