On storytelling and social justice.

On storytelling and social justice.

Recently, Dave Eggers joined four local panelists (Lindsey Badger, Michelle Brekke, Max Smith, and me) to discuss writing and incarceration, especially the role of storytelling as a force for social justice.

When I discuss poetry with people in jail, we often get sidetracked into conversations about outer space, pharmacology, neuroscience … as it happens, the latter is particularly relevant to any discussion of storytelling.  Because your consciousness has evolved to create stories.

When you choose to do something, like picking up a pen, the first thing that happens is that, unconsciously, your brain will send signals toward your muscles.  You will begin to act.  Then, once you are already in motion, your consciousness will be informed of your decision.  Thats when your brain generates a story to explain why you chose to pick up the pen.

First, we act, then we concoct a narrative.

A human consciousness will typically create a story explaining why we chose to do something even if it wasn’t really our choice.  If a researcher sways someone’s action through the use of transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation, most people will still offer up a coherent explanation explaining why they chose to act that way.

Personally, I think this sort of research into free will and mind control is fascinating.  I could continue rattling off more facts.  By reading this essay, you might learn something.  But it probably wouldn’t change how you act.  Knowledge doesn’t spur behavior, emotions do.

In Mama’s Last Hug, Frans de Waal writes that:

The Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reported on a patient, Elliot, with ventromedial frontal lobe damage.  While Elliott was articulate and intellectually sound, witty even, he had become emotionally flat, showing no hint of affect in many hours of conversation. 

Elliott was never sad, impatient, angry, or frustrated.  This lack of emotion seemed to paralyze his decision making.  It might take him all afternoon to make up his mind about where and what to eat, or half an hour to decide on an appointment or the color of his pen. 

Damasio and his team tested Elliott in all sorts of ways.  Even though his reasoning capacities seemed perfectly fine, he had trouble sticking with a task and especially reaching a conclusion.  As Damasio summarized: “The defect appeared to set in at the late stages of reasoning, close to or at the point at which choice making or response selection must occur.” 

Elliott himself, after a session in which he had carefully reviewed all options, said “And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”

After all, there is no way to prove, mathematically, how to be good.  Your intellect will invariably fall short.  Only by trusting your emotions can you decide that one course of action is better than another.

And that is the value of stories.

Eggers, who devotes much of his time to teaching young people, says that you could provide them with huge quantities of information – about mass incarceration in the U.S., or how we mistreat undocumented workers, or Muslim Americans after 9 / 11 – and it wouldn’t change anything.  “But,” Eggers said, “if you give them even a 15-page first-person narrative, they become activists.

By way of example, my co-panelists discussed several local stories that could be presented in a variety of ways.  For instance, the kid who recently died in our local jail because the jailors stopped providing his medication after his eighteenth birthday.  I’ve written about his ordeal previously; Max Smith had become close friends with him while they were confined in a small cell together; Lindsey Badger met with his mother after he died to preserve stories about his life that depict him more accurately than the terse denunciation he received from our local newspaper.

Michelle Brekke added that, although she hadn’t read the article about this young man, she knows that when she was sentenced, “If you were to look me up online, on a database or whatever, you would see that I’m a drug addict, you would see that I’m an intravenous drug user, you would see that I’m a drug dealer, but today, and even then,  that’s not who I am.  I’m actually a very kind, loving, caring person, who has had a really crappy way of life shoved onto me, so that’s the way of life I chose to take.  I’m an overcomer, and I’ve been able to overcome that.

Luckily I was on the inside when I got arrested because I’m sure that the things that were said on social media, there couldn’t have been anything good.

During her time in prison, Brekke began to write, which allowed her to tell the whole truth.  She refused to let other people dictate the narrative of her life.  “To be able to tell your story, or to hear somebody else’s story, you get the beginning, the middle, and the now.

The last prompt from the audience was, “I’m curious about each of the panelists’ perspectives on how writers can hurt readers in a way that’s inspiring for people to act.”

Smith and Brekke answered for the panel (perhaps you could argue that Eggers has already provided an answer in his books – by intermixing levity with pain you can create stories that are sufficiently fun that they’ll reach an audience, but still convey a spark of indignation that compels people to work to change the world.  After two hundred pages of comic antics in The Parade, Eggers concludes with an incandescent flash of horror).

Smith said, “Unfortunately for many of the people who are incarcerated, just being true to their experience hurts readers.  It’s a horrible, horrible experience that is hard to imagine if you haven’t been exposed to it.” 

And Brekke added, “I would want a reader to feel my own hurt, through the writing.  To not feel sorry for me, but to be able to feel the truth and the pain that I once felt.

The written word does not accomplish much if a tale is too unpalatable to reach its audience, but when the sorrows come from a place a deep integrity, or when the hurt is leavened with a touch of humor, readers might trust an author enough to continue. 

And I am grateful that so many deeply committed people are willing to share hard stories in a way we can appreciate.  Because we’ll need the emotional wallop of powerful stories to compel us to change the world.

Featured image: Max ribbing me. From a recording of the panel created by Jeremy Hogan.

On correspondence.

On correspondence.

1280px-Plasmid_(english).svgDNA plasmids are small loops of genetic information that can change the behavior of bacteria.  With the right (wrong?) plasmids, you could take innocuous E. coli and make it very dangerous.

As best I could tell from a few minutes spent skimming the USPS documents describing “hazardous, restricted, and perishable mail,” it’s not actually illegal to ship plasmids.  Many biomedical researchers have long assumed that it was illegal, though.  Not that we didn’t do it.  But we always took steps to sneakily circumvent the laws we assumed existed.

Plasmids are dangerous, after all.  Why wouldn’t there be a law?

DNA is very stable.  Its stability is probably the whole reason it exists.  Most scientists assume that life began as self-replicating strands of a molecule called RNA, which is very similar to DNA except more prone to falling apart.  Each of our cells is like a tiny factory – proteins are the machines, RNA are blueprints, and DNA is a file cabinet.

(K says this analogy is no good because a file cabinet is an “archaic technology.”  I have several early drafts of my novel – plus the entire three-year run of Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave – in a file cabinet next to our bed.  I wonder, am I an archaic technology?)

DNA is so stable that it can be dried out and shipped across the country without coming to any harm.

To send plasmids through the mail, we would draw a circle on a piece of filter paper, dab a liquid solution of it onto the paper, then slip the sheet into the center of a catalog.  The catalog would look harmless, like junk mail.  Whomever received it would flip through, find the filter paper, cut out the circle, and immerse it in water.  Voila!  The plasmid is ready to change bacteria into something new!

The good people at the post office never notice.  The only snags are undergrads – a sophomore who was working with us happened to open the mail.  Our advisor asked later, “Where is that plasmid?  It was being sent by the ______ lab.”

“We got a package from them … but it was just an old catalog.  I recycled it.”

Oops.

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Pink_Elephants_on_Parade_Blotter_LSD_DumboAs it happens, numerous psychoactive chemicals can wig out a human brain at concentrations low enough to dissolve on paper.  Somebody sends a saturated sheet through the mail – you cut it out and, instead of using it to transform bacteria, you get high.

Apparently this works well with suboxone – which can be used either as a treatment for or a substitute for heroin – and the THC analogs marketed as K2, spice, or synthetic marijuana.  LSD has long been sold dissolved on blotter paper with goofy cartoons.

And so the Indiana Department of Corrections recently decided to ban all correspondence to inmates that isn’t handwritten on blue-lined white paper.  No greeting cards, no photocopies, no drawings.

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Photo from Pat and Steve Cole / St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago, IL.  I first saw it in the Indy Star.

A Chicago-based church sends greeting cards to many prisoners over the holidays.  This May, the entire batch of Easter cards they’d sent to Indiana prisoners were returned with a brief note explaining the new mail policy.  Even now, it’s unclear what the policy actually is.  The only regulations for offender correspondence available from the Indiana Department of Corrections are dated September, 2015.  Even these guidelines are vague, mentioning that all decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

For the correspondence writing workshop I run, I often send printed materials.  Because these are being mailed on behalf of a non-profit corporation, they are supposed to go through – only private mail is supposed to be axed by the new policy.

Or so we’ve been told.

When our corporation sends letters or packages sometimes they go through, sometimes they do not.  The fate of each letter depends on which guard happens to be working in the mail room when it arrives, obviously.  The policy is sufficiently vague that each enforcer will interpret it differently.

A letter’s fate also seems to depend on the identity of the recipient.  If you receive a package while in prison, I’ve been told, the guards are supposed to open it in front of you, show it to you, and then have to either give it to you or explain why you can’t have it.  But with so many and such vague rules, the guards should always be able to think of a reason to bin it.  I’ve noticed that many of our packages that get returned for flimsy reasons were sent to people with long lists of disciplinary infractions.

The rich get richer.  And those who seem to need love most … get nothing.  If you’re disliked, they can sever you from the world.