If you’re worried that you don’t feel enough stress and anxiety, there’s an easy chemical fix for that. Habitual methamphetamine use will instill intense paranoia.
In our poetry classes in jail, I’ve talked with a lot of guys who stayed up for days watching UFO shows on TV. A few were also stockpiling military grade weaponry. One man used strings and pulleys to link his shotgun’s trigger to a doorknob, ensuring that anyone who tried to enter the house would be rudely greeted.
They’ve dismantled dozens of computers and phones: sometimes out of suspicion, sometimes because there are valuable components. Although they were rarely organized enough to hawk the proceeds of their dissections.
Suffice it to say that, deprived of sleep and dosed with powerful stimulants, their brains became tumultuous places.
Which is why we spend so much time
talking about conspiracy theories.
I’ve written several previous essays about conspiracy theories – that the Santa myth teaches people to doubt expertise (children learn that a cabal of adults really was conspiring to delude them); that oil company executives have been conspiring to destroy the world; that, for all the ways Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow probes at the undercurrents of truth beneath government conspiracy, the text blithely incorporates metaphors from a Disney-promulgated nature conspiracy.
But, with the fiftieth anniversary
coming up, the men in my class have been talking more about whether the moon
landing was faked.
There’s only so much I can say. After all, I, personally, have never been to
One of my colleagues from Stanford recently conducted molecular biology experiments on the International Space Station, but that’s only zero point one percent of the way to the moon … and she and I were never close enough for me to feel absolutely certain that she wouldn’t lie to me.
Visiting the moon does seem much easier than faking it, though. Our government has tried to keep a lot of secrets, over the years. Eventually, they were leaked.
But that line of reasoning is never going to sway somebody. The big leak might be coming soon.
Instead, the strategy that’s worked for
me is to get people worried about another layer of conspiracy.
“Let’s just say, hypothetically,” I say, “that we did send people to the moon. Why would somebody want to convince you, now, that we didn’t?”
When NASA’s project was announced, a lot of people were upset. Civil rights activist Whitney Young said, “It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon. It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year. Something is wrong somewhere.” (I learned about this and the following quote from Jill Lepore’s excellent review of several new books about the moon landing.)
During John F. Kennedy’s presidential
campaign, he argued that we needed to do it anyway. Despite the challenge, despite the
costs. “We set sail on this new sea
because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they
must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
We did reach the moon. But, did we use that knowledge to benefit the rights and progress of all people? Not so much.
A lot of the guys in jail went to crummy schools. They grew up surrounded by violence and trauma. They didn’t eat enough as kids. They’ve never had good medical care. They’ve struggled to gain traction in their dealings with government bureaucracies … we’ve spent years underfunding post offices, schools, the IRS, the DMV, and, surprise, surprise!, find that it’s arduous interacting with these skeletal agencies.
To keep these men complacent, the people in power would rather have them believe that we didn’t visit the moon. “Eh, our government has never accomplished much, we faked that shit to hoodwink the Russians, no wonder this is a horrible place to live.”
The fact that people in power are maliciously undermining our country’s basic infrastructure would seem way worse if you realized that, 50 years ago, with comically slapdash technologies and computers more rudimentary than we now put into children’s toys, this same government sent people to the moon.
Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” And he was in a position to make his words true – he was the government, so all he had to do was be incompetent. And then people would hate the government even more, and become even more distrustful of anyone who claimed that good governance could improve the world.
Needless to say, 45 has taken strategic incompetence to a whole new stratosphere. Beyond the stories of corruption that pepper the news, there’s also the fact that many appointments were never made; there are agencies that, as of July 2019, stilldon’t have anybody running them. These agencies will perform worse.
If people knew how good our government used to be, they might revolt. Better they believe the moon landing was a sham, that the faked photographs are as good as anybody ever got.
Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years. We’ve been using cocaine even longer. Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience. Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.
Not all drug use is good, obviously. Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost. Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught. I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time. I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking. I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”
Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose. When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.
In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter. Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”
But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled. Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use. Possession is a felony.
Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising. Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments. Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.
In the United States, cocaine
was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of
white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into
monsters. Prohibition was mediated
It’s true that cocaine is
dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the
purified compound. But coca tea is no
more dangerous than earl grey. Indeed,
if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.
Marijuana was also legal in
the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories
about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.
Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative. Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that
No one should ever be arrested
or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it
would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and
grown psilocybin myself.
And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests. I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience. I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests.
For all the people subject to
this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the
current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very
Instead, Pollan centers his
cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.”
That idea is true enough, as
far as things go. Some people probably
shouldn’t use psilocybin. Some people
feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its
influence. But I would argue that arrest
is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance
increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.
And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs. For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin. The drug can hurt someone who uses it. But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain. Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others.
It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery. Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views.
Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink. Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended. But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.
Or consider antibiotics. Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse. With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.
And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs. If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all. But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.
In the past, somebody might
get scratched by a cat … and die.
Any infection could turn septic and kill you.
In the future, a
currently-treatable infection might kill me.
Or kill my children.
But we’re not stopping the
meat industry from using them. We’re not
using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their
misuse. Instead we’ve outlawed
psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that
helps you become a kinder, happier person.
In the United States, people are having sex less often. And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs.
Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside. The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.
The suicide rate has been rising.
It might seem as though we
don’t know how to make people happier.
But, actually, we do.
There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course. Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats. Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectually. Toxoplasma forms cysts in your brain. It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia. It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised. And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.
My advice today is
different. No feces required!
And I’m not suggesting
anything illegal. I mentioned, above,
that people in the United States take a lot of drugs. Several of these boost dopamine levels in
your brain. Cocaine, for instance, is a
“dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure
will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.
But cocaine has a nasty
side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law
enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too
high. And jail is not a happy
Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain. Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain. But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.
The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure. For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain. So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up. If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over. Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex. They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse. From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:
If animals with electrodes
in the hypothalamuswere run for 24 hours or 48 hours
consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance
Perhaps I should have
warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks. Even if you have the tools needed to drill
into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to
boost your mood just to die of dehydration.
After all, happiness might have some purpose. There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy. After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.”
When an activity makes us
feel happy, we’re likely to do it again.
That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service. Or get addicted to drugs.
And it’s how brain
stimulation could be used for mind control.
If you show me a syringe,
I’ll feel nervous. I don’t particularly
like needles. But if you display that
same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of
actually shooting up. The men in my
poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word
“needle” written in a poem.
For months or years, needles
presaged a sudden flush of pleasure.
That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the
If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing. Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.
Still, if you used deep
brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that
person would soon enjoy it.
Or you could make someone
fall in love.
Far more effective than
any witch’s potion, that. Each time your
quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage. The beloved’s presence will soon be
associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure. And that sensation – stretched out for long
enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love
Of course, it probably
sounds like I’m joking. You wouldn’t really
send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall
in love with somebody new … right?
Fifty years passed between
the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use
as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering
researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a
In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.” Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality. Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.
Moan and Heath’s paper is
After about 20 min of such
interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he
was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration. Active intercourse followed during which she
had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense. He became very excited at this and suggested
that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative. In this position he often paused to delay
orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience. Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab,
romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and
the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated. Subsequently, he expressed how much he had
enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near
The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls. Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.
But it isn’t.
The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.
Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.
Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:
In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr
of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation,
which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence
activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull.
Fehr had sixty-three
research subjects available. They played
a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on
how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner. In the first round, there were no sanctions
from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in
question could protest and punish the subject.
There were two opposing
forces at play. A cultural norm for
sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much
as possible for oneself. Fehr and his people
found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal
cortex. When the stimulation increased
the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree,
while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was
Perhaps the most
thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel
any difference. When they were asked
about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the
selfishness of their behavior had changed.
Apparently, you can fiddle
with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated
being any the wiser.
The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman. Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died. Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).
Elliott concludes that:
Heath was a physician in
love with his ideas.
Psychiatry has seen many
men like this. Heath’s contemporaries
include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic
driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into
comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and
Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent
These men may well have
started with the best of intentions. But
in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table. All it takes is a powerful researcher with a
surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of
Heath had them all.
It’s true that using an
electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably
make you feel happier. By way of
contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.
Sometimes it’s good to
feel bad, though.
As Elliott reminds us, a
lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research. A lot of vulnerable people are still
treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues
are snared by our country’s criminal justice system. And the torments that we dole upon non-human
animals are even worse.
[University of Chicago
researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it
encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar. Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked
up, wriggling in distress.
Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so. Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously.
Then Bartal challenged her
motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate
chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a
trapped companion. The free rat often
rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more
than delicious food.
Is it possible that these
rats liberated their companions for companionship? While one rat is locked up, the other has no
chance to play, mate, or groom. Do they
just want to make contact? While the
original study failed to address this question, a different study created a
situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further
interaction. That they still did so
confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social.
Bartal believes it is
emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress,
which spurs them into action.
Conversely, when Bartal gave
her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still
knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their
tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat. They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of
emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers.
The rats became
insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping.
You could feel
happier. We know enough to be able to
reach into your mind and change it.
A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.
But should we do it? Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the
After discussing several forms of parasitic mind control during our poetry class in the local jail, somebody asked – somebody always asks – whether there’s some sort of parasite that makes people want to use drugs.
A few guys looked down at the table and nodded. People are in there for a variety of reasons – domestic violence, burglary, DWIs, dealing or possession – but no matter the charge, many of the guys in jail were dealing with substance use that got out of hand.
I gave the same answer as always.
“Drugs do it on their own. Chemicals can remodel your brain to make you want them again. Like cocaine, it’s a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so if something makes you happy after coke, it’ll make you more happy than it would’ve … but your body responds by down-regulating the receptors, and then you’re stuck feeling less happy all the time unless you take it again.”
But it’s not all bleak. Drug addiction takes hold because the brain is plastic – our minds change and we want that rush again, potentially to the exclusion of all else – but neural plasticity allows people to recover, too. Dopamine receptor levels fall during periods of excessive drug use, but they’ll rebound during sobriety … and this rebound should attenuate the desire to use again.
(Unfortunately, the lecturers in our area’s court-mandated rehab courses have been telling people that, “After you take methamphetamines, it takes eight years of sobriety before your dopamine receptor levels come back.” This sounds wrong to me – I don’t know the half-life of dopamine receptors, but the timing of sensitization and de-sensitization in conditions like bipolar disorder and antidepressant-induced mania suggests that it’s on the order of a month or so, not years – and it’s definitely unhelpful to say. If you’re trying to help someone quit taking drugs, you want their goals to be feasible.
A former co-teacher tattooed “Day By Day” on his arm because quitting forever seemed impossible, but getting through one more day without drugs sounded like something he could do. He’s now weathered five years of single days. But if I felt like garbage and an instructor told me, “You’ll only feel like this for eight more years!”, I’d give up immediately.)
I don’t really understand Scientology – all my current knowledge comes from a single episode of South Park and a few minutes spent skimming through the Wikipedia article – but I was intrigued by the practice of using “E-meters” to measure a person’s cognitive development in the faith. It made me wonder whether the sort of person who was interested in biofeedback and numerical metrics – somebody who tracks steps with a Fitbit or the gasoline saved on a Prius console – could use self-administered polygraphs for cognitive behavioral therapy.
It’s well-known that polygraphs are fallible – you can fail them when you’re telling the truth, and you can learn to pass them while lying – but I imagine that the easiest ways to pass a polygraph is to convince yourself that whatever you’re saying is true. There many physiological correlates to dishonesty – skin voltage, electroencephalogram patterns, eye movement, vocal tones – and by convincing yourself to earnestly believe whatever you happen to be saying, you could pass any of them.
Because you can cheat, U.S. courts generally don’t trust the results of lie detector tests. In the pursuit of justice, cheating would be bad. But as self-administered therapy, cheating is the whole point. You cheat at lying until the lie becomes the truth.
“I like myself and I am worthy of love and self-respect.”
Rig up your polygraph and say something like that until the machine stops dinging you. Do it daily. Your brain is plastic, designed to learn and change. Your words will become true.
The modern world is a stressful place – some medical doctors advocate “therapeutic” nature walks. Surround yourself with trees, wildlife, a babbling stream or waterfall, and your body will remember what it means to be alive.
For millions of years, our ancestors needed specific environments in order to survive. Almost every animal species experiences instinctual urges toward healthful habitats – it would be surprising if our own minds didn’t have a residual response toward landscapes that provide what our forebears needed. Running water, trees for shelter, grassy meadows to hunt, fecund animal life suggesting a thriving ecosystem.
But people who need to heal are cut off from these environs.
When somebody doesn’t fit in our world, they wind up in jail. Maybe this person has trouble holding down a job and so forged checks, or counterfeited money, or robbed a store. Maybe somebody is plagued by nightmares and takes methamphetamine to forgo sleep. Or shoots opiates to stave off the pain of withdrawal. Maybe somebody has so much tension and anger that he threw a television at his girlfriend.
These are people who’d probably benefit from a de-stressing stroll through the woods.
Instead, they’re surrounded by concrete, in a clanging, reverberating room with 25-foot-high ceilings, locked doors stacked atop each other, steel tables, boaters crowding the floor (with two tiers of 8 double-occupancy cells, the jail could hold 32 per block … but most have wobbled between 35 and 40 people all year, with the excess sleeping on plastic “boats” on the common area floor. Things were worst in July, when they were so many inmates that the jail ran out of boats – then people slept on a blanket spread directly over the concrete), toilets overflowing with the excreta of many men shitting their way through withdrawal.
In the classroom where I teach poetry, there’s a picture of a redwood forest. It’s shot from the ground, the trunks soaring up to the canopy overhead, and at the bottom of the poster there’s the word “GROW” above a corny quote from Ronald Reagan.
Stephen “Greazy” Sapp wrote the following poem at the end of class one day; he’d spent almost the whole hour staring at the picture of those trees:
I want to live to see things grow –
From the fury of a great storm, started from
A single drop –
To the ten foot tree from one tiny seed, one sheet
Of paper as from any other tree
Knocked down by a great storm –
The child who grew from a seed in the spouse
Of the man who held paper from the tree –
Maybe the seed buried in his mind could become
Greater in life than the tree that withstood
The storm, now given opportunity to transform
Into stories – of future, generations who dwell
In the single rain drop in
The forest of days to come –
Greazy told me that he loves plants.
(My inclination is to use people’s first names as a sign of respect, but he told me not to – “nobody calls me ‘Stephen’ unless they’re mad about something. You know, like, my grandma, if she was pissed, I might hear her yell, like, Stephen! Even the cops. They pulled up one day, they were like, ‘Greazy, come here, we want to talk to you,’ I knew everything was fine. They were like, ‘look, man, we know you’re selling pot … but stay up near 17th street or something. We don’t want you downtown, selling it to college kids.’ But then, another day, they came down, spotted me, said ‘Stephen, get over here!’ I was like, ‘man, I know they’re gonna haul me in.’ ”)
Greazy was in the jail all through autumn, waiting on his trial, and he told me that one day he was sitting in his cell on the fourth floor, watching a leaf blowing around on the sidewalk down below, and he found himself thinking, “Man, I’d sign whatever, I’d take whatever plea they wanted, if they’d just let me out there, get to look up close at that little leaf.”
Another man told me that he felt so starved for the world that he started gardening inside the jail. He didn’t want for me to include his name but graciously allowed me to share his story. Here’s a poem I wrote:
I recently borrowed my local library’s copy of Tao Lin’s Trip. I read ten pages before a business card fell out. I didn’t find the other until about a hundred pages later. The cards were really crammed in there – I often read at nap- and bedtime, lying on my back, with little feet kicking my books, belly, neck, etc. I’m surprised the second card wasn’t ejected earlier.
In Trip, Lin writes about drugs and some of the people who frequently ingest them. For instance, Lin spent several months reading the oeuvre of Terrance McKenna, a passionate advocate for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (which I support) who argued that his chemical-induced visions (language elves, fractal time) represent tangible features of our universe (which I think is asinine). At other times, McKenna self-described as a “psychonaut,” which I think is a better term – compounds that perturb the workings of a mind do reveal truths about that mind.
That’s the essence of the scientific method, after all. First, formulate a predictive model about how something works. Then, perturb your system. If your prediction holds up, try to think of a different test you could make to try to prove yourself wrong. If your prediction is off, try to think of a new model. Repeat ad infinitum (physicus usque ad mortem).
In an undergrad-designed psychology experiment, the perturbation might be to compel a study subject to think about death by mixing a lot of photographs of car wrecks into a slide show. Does a person exposed to these images seem more inclined to spend time with close family members (based on the results of a 30-question survey) than equivalent study subjects who were instead shown photographs of puppies?
(A man who has been attending my poetry class for the past few months also self-describes as a Buddhist psychonaut – his favorite psychedelic is LSD, but he also struggles with a nagging impulse to shoot heroin. He’s a vegetarian and has been writing poetry for twenty years, ever since his first friend died of overdose. The only way for him to avoid prison time is to enroll at a court-mandated Christian-faith-based rehabilitation clinic where everyone works daily at the Perdue Meats slaughterhouse. He’s just waiting on a bed before they ship him out there. Personally, I think that having a recovering addict decapitate hundreds of turkeys daily would be an unhealthy perturbation of the mind.)
As Lin researched pharmacology, he realized that he’d made the same error in thinking about his body that our society has made in thinking about our environment, especially the oceans. He’d assumed that his body was so large, and each drug molecule so small, that he’d be relatively unchanged as the pills he swallowed were metabolized away. But he was wrong. He’d turned his own body into a degraded environment that felt terrible to live inside.
He realized that corporations shouldn’t have free license to destroy the world that we all share. And he realized that he needed to practice better stewardship of his body, his own personal environs. He changed his diet and his lifestyle and no longer felt like garbage all the time.
Lin also provides some useful information about this country’s War on Drugs. If someone was looking for an accessible way to learn more about this, I can see myself recommending either Trip (for the dudes in jail) or Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day (for the harried parents working alongside me in the YMCA snack room).
And those business cards? They made convenient bookmarks. Verdant green, the front advertised a local hydroponics supply store, the back listed the store manager’s name and telephone number.
This seemed like a great advertising strategy. Much more precise (and less evil) than Facebook’s targeted ads.
I won’t be buying any hydroponics supplies, but I’ll probably put those business cards back before I return the book.
Most of what I’ve found in books has been less directly relevant to the subject matter. I felt dismayed to find a business card for a local artist / writer / model / actor – the front showed her in pinup-style undergarments with the cord for a video game controller entwining one stockinged leg – inside a library copy of Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller.
When I flipped through one of Deepak Chopra’s new-age self-help books (that I pulled off the secondhand inventory shelf at Pages to Prisoners to mail to someone who’d requested stuff about UFOs, Wicca, and conspiracies), I found a Valentine’s Day note (written by a small child in crayon) and a polaroid of a tired-looking bare-breasted woman staring at the camera from atop a camper’s bed. MWPP totally would’ve gotten dinged if I’d mailed the book with that picture still inside.
And I’ve written previously about the time I found an acceptance letter from Best of Photojournalism inside a previous year’s edition of the book as I selected books to mail to a prisoner interested in photography.
But I didn’t mention that I visited the university library to find the accepted photograph (of a stretch of highway closed for the emergency landing of a small plane in distress) …
… or that I then put together a package of books to send to that photographer, because it turned out that he was also in prison after murdering his son-in-law.
The impression I got from news reports was that this man had a daughter whom he’d raised alone. When his daughter was 13 years old, she fell in love with an abusive, oft-unemployed 19-year-old. She soon became pregnant. As it happens, this boyfriend took too many drugs. I’ve met many men in jail who are totally charming while sober but (“allegedly!”) wail on women when they’re not. Some are quite frequently not sober.
During this man’s trial, several witnesses testified to the violent physical abuse his daughter was subject to. His daughter’s boyfriend “would grab ____, jerk her by the face, force her to go places, cuss her out if she didn’t do the right thing … “
Not that this is a reason to shoot somebody.
Still, I wondered how a book from the man’s personal library had wound up in the inventory of the Pages to Prisoners bookstore. The murder occurred in August of 2012. Mid-autumn, 2015, his book was on our shelves.
I like to imagine that his daughter made the donation. That perhaps, by then, she’d forgiven her father. That she’d realized how miserable U.S. incarceration can be and wanted to do a little something to make it better.
I certainly hope that his book helped people at the prison where I sent it.
In jail recently, we read Bruce Weigl’s “A Romance.” I gave a brief introduction:
“A lot of Bruce Weigl’s poems are about trauma – we’ve read something about his childhood, and he wrote about serving in the Vietnam War. What is was like to return home, trying to deal with everything he’d seen. In this poem, he’s been drinking. Others are about trying to suppress the memories that keep coming back.”
Describing a hollow night out, Weigl writes:
I can’t sleep anyway so I go to bars …
A bearded dude near the back shook his head.
“I been there,” he said. “Can’t never fall asleep. Did two tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they just kicked me out of veteran’s court. Said I was too violent. But all those other guys, the ones they’re letting stay, who’re getting helped because they served? None of them saw combat! I was the only one who’d fought! But they said veteran’s court’s not for me.”
“And it’s hard,” I said, “because people use drugs to try to deaden some of the horrible stuff that keeps whelming up, and the drug we say is okay to use, alcohol, is one of the worst. Researchers tried to rank drugs in terms of which are most dangerous, you know, for the people who use it and for everybody around them. I think alcohol was at the top of the list, then maybe heroin, and …”
“But what about pot?” Somebody always asks. In this case, it was somebody who says he’s in for marijuana, although he once let slip that it was domestic violence.
“I dunno … pretty far down. I mean, you can’t OD or anything, but you shouldn’t drive stoned.”
“I’d rather drive stoned than after eight days of meth!”
Well, sure. But that seems like a false dichotomy – shouldn’t the comparison be between driving stoned or sober?
“But what do you think,” the first guy said, “about them saying pot is, like, a gateway drug?”
“I believe that,” said an older guy. “I used pot for years before I ever had a drink.”
“Me too – my pops was an alcoholic, I didn’t want to touch that stuff.”
“I started smoking when I was thirteen … you had to know somebody to get a beer, but anybody could buy pot.”
“I mean, pot’s gotta be the first drug most people try.”
“No way. My kids, they’re one and four years old right now … and I can tell you for sure, the first drug anybody tries, it’s spinning. Around and around in circles till they’re staggering. Drunk, dizzy, falling down and giggling. Humans have always wanted to experiment with altered consciousness. Like, how would the world look if … every culture uses drugs. A lot of other animals will use them too. And we start young. Little duders love to spin.”
The guys thought this sounded reasonable enough, but I’ve reconsidered. Maybe marijuana is a gateway drug … but only because it’s illegal. I don’t think that smoking pot would compel someone to use other drugs, but our laws imply that heroin is no more dangerous than marijuana – both are Schedule I – and that Schedule II drugs like Vicodin are less dangerous.
Whereas most sensible people now know that alcohol is more dangerous than MDMA – it’s easier to overdose on alcohol, and easier to hurt other people while under the influence. But veterans with PTSD turn to drink because booze is legal. Not even licensed therapists are allowed to purchase the drug with a proven record for treating trauma.
(Note: pure MDMA is relatively safe, but a wide variety of chemicals are sold as “molly” or “ecstasy,” and some of those are dangerous.)
It doesn’t take kids long to realize how many well-respected, fully functional people have used drugs. Our previous two presidents both consumed many more illegal drugs than I did, and our current president probably did also – I assume cocaine seems less taboo to most people than paying young women for sex. Many cultures used psychedelic drugs as religious sacrament for centuries, if not millennia.
“When I was twelve years old,” one of the guys said, “my parents, first they burned all my records, then had our preacher take me to a mental hospital. But I didn’t know it was a hospital at the time. I just saw these people, you know, drooling, babbling, whatever. And they told me, ‘See these people? They’re like this because they used drugs.’ And it was years before I realized what they’d done.”
Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles. My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode. Which simply isn’t true.
In Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world. His students balk. That’s not how they were taught to read poetry! Instead, Collins writes,
… all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Matthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets. In Zapruder’s words:
If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry. The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.
When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.
Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words. Let alone that writers might actually do it.
Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding. To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.
Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently. New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail. The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming. Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.
We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time. We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing. Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.
Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks. One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block. Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back. Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.
Some weeks class falls flat.
I don’t blame them for signing up. I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits. I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.
Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.
Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year. Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence. We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:
Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize
through the trees and I come back in my mind
to the man who made me suck his cock
when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.
I thought I could leave him standing there
in the years, half smile on his lips …
This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read. It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.
The opening is perfect, though. As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way. Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …
He thought he could forget his trauma. Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.” He was wrong.
Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on. But the memories can fester. After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”
In Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him. He is asked how he coped. He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.
Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up. Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted. And behind bars. Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day. Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.
“The world needs to know,” we tell them. “Write about that.”
They balk. “I can’t write about this shit.” It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed. Our society has a tendency to blame victims. In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time. He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too. That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?”
But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse. It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else. And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about. The poem ends,
Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.
In Jason Shiga’s Empire State, the protagonist decides he will “see America” by traveling from Oakland, CA to New York City on a bus. Everyone derides the plan as foolish – he’ll see only the great big slab of I-80 and some gas stations – but, because he’d kept his plan secret to surprise a friend, nobody warns him until it’s too late.
Professional movers, however, take occasional breaks from the highway to navigate their trucks down treacherous suburban streets. It’s those excursions into the world where people actually live that lets movers understand America. Crisp descriptions of those excursions make Finn Murphy’s The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road a charming read.
Murphy’s experience criss-crossing the United States has also give him a sharp perspective on our economy. His political analysis is both more accurate and more concise than what’s been written by most academic researchers:
The next day I picked up I-94 west and stopped for the night in Ann Arbor. In college towns – like Chapel Hill, Boulder, Iowa City, Missoula, Austin, Madison, and Oxford, Mississippi, to name a few – all of a sudden, instead of unemployment, meth labs, and poverty, there are real jobs. … As far as I can figure, the only places left in America that can boast of vibrant downtowns are college towns and high-end tourist towns. In the rest of the country the downtowns were hollowed out when nobody was looking. You might think it’s only your town that’s been ruined by sprawl, but it’s happened everywhere. You’ve got the new CVS, the Walmart, the Home Depot on the fringes, while the old downtown is either empty or the buildings have a Goodwill store, an immigration law office, and an “antiques” store, meaning junk. The chains on the outskirts provide the nine-dollar-an-hour jobs and wire the day’s receipts to Bentonville or New York every night.
I hate it personally, but we deserved what we got. We wanted the eight-dollar sneakers and the forty-five-cent tube socks. … We didn’t consider that maybe it’d be a better bargain to pay twenty dollars for sneakers and buy them from the neighbor who owns the shoe store downtown and stocks sneakers made in Maine.
It’s too late now. The game’s been won by companies who don’t give two shits about community character or decent jobs. Congratufuckinglations, America! We did the deal. Now we’ve got an unlimited supply of cheap commodities and unhealthy food and crumbling downtowns, no sense of place, and a permanent underclass.
If a tourist poster of America were made with some verisimilitude, it would show a Subway franchise inside a convenience-store gas station with an underpaid immigrant mopping the floor and a street person at the traffic light holding a cardboard sign that reads ANYTHING HELPS.
Most of The Long Haul is more chipper than the passage I’ve excerpted above – Murphy discusses how he chose his career, the basic principles of long-haul driving and packing other people’s belongings, the zen of hard manual labor, and what it meant to finally let go of his own anger and enjoy his time on this planet. Both K and I loved the book.
But I wanted to share the passage above. I’ve written previously about common misconceptions regarding “free-market capitalism” – a quick summary being that although the phrase “free-market capitalism” is used so commonly that most people sense intuitively what it means, it doesn’t actually mean anything. To have a market, it cannot be free. (This idea is explained succinctly in the beginning of Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism – you can read an excerpt in the essay linked above.)
As a handful of business owners and CEO destroy the social fabric of the United States, they depend upon government intervention to help them do it. They need the government to enforce payment on certain types of contracts, but not others. They need the government to prevent certain actions that lower others’ property values – I’ll be punished if I set fire to your building – but not others – I won’t be punished if I dump so much poison that your neighboring property becomes un-usable.
Our country’s particular set of rules & regulations have allowed a small number of people to accomplish what used to be the work of many. Instead of a factory with 100 human workers, a foreman oversees 10 robots. The foreman gets paid more than the prior workers, but most of their salary now goes to the factory owner. And those 100 people who would have worked in the factory are mired in despair. Some get service jobs. Others take drugs. We get the “unemployment, meth labs, and poverty” that Murphy described.
And even the relative prosperity of the main street in college towns is fragile. In Bloomington we have several blocks with bookstores, comic shops, restaurants, bars, a public library, banks, clothing boutiques and smokeshops and the like. But in the past few weeks, an escalating conflict between the police and people without houses has kept shoppers away from the downtown.
Indiana is in many ways a heartless state, so our little town is one of the few places where people in need can receive services. Bloomington always has more poverty than you might expect for a city of just 100,000. Of late, Bloomington is also a destination city for drug use: between the heroin cut with fentanyl and the wide variety of supposed THC analogs sold as “spice,” the ambulances have been responding to upwards of ten overdoses per day.
In jail the other day, T. told me,
“It’s getting to the point where heroin and meth are easier to find than pot. When I got out of prison, I was three years clean, and I thought I was gonna make it … but I was walking by the Taco Bell and somebody handed me a rig, all loaded up and ready to go.”
“It’s really hard to avoid it now. It’s spread to places you really wouldn’t expect. Like I remember ten years ago, the whole middle class crowd was doing the usual, some pot, some psychedelics, you know. But now people from those circles, they’re shooting meth, they’re using H.”
“You talk to somebody, they’re like, yeah, I got it all, what you need, what you need. But you ask for pot, they’re like, naw, I don’t know where to get that.”
“Okay, okay, these overdoses, you know? Trust me, I’m a real spice-head, I smoke a lot of that shit, and these overdoses, they’re all just people, they don’t know how to handle it. You can’t just jump in, you know, and smoke like I smoke.”
I asked him, “If pot were legal, would you smoke it.”
“Hell yeah I’d smoke pot.”
“No no, sorry, I mean, if pot were legal, would you smoke spice?”
The guys all laughed. “Nobody would touch that shit.”
And yet. In our town, now, people with all their belongings line main street. The hospital spends some thirty thousand dollars a day sending the ambulance there for overdoses. The cops hold their roll call several times a day in the public park where unhoused people used to sleep. Occasionally a dozen or so people will be hauled into jail: they lose all their possessions.
And people who had been spending money at the little shops feel afraid to go downtown. The places are all losing money … and when the money goes, compassion starts fading too.
It doesn’t take much for even a college town to become the post-apocalyptic husk that Murphy has seen spread all over our country. Which is sad, especially since it wouldn’t take that much to help people – our most dire need is a guaranteed basic income, probably coupled to a public works program. Instead we’ve settled for rampant inequality. But harms that start elsewhere won’t stay elsewhere.
post-script: in the time between when this essay was written & when it was posted, the crowds of unhoused people have disappeared from Bloomington’s main street. And, two blocks away, the 280-bed county jail has had over 320 people locked inside for weeks. Somehow, this doesn’t seem like a long-term solution.
Back in the 1990s, a buddy of mine was locked up repeatedly for possession of heroin in California. The drug itself is illegal, and apparently my buddy was making some poor choices while under the influence. You know, little mistakes, things like turning & running backward to flip off a cop while he fled, only to flip over the hood of a police car coming from the other direction. Liberating quarters from coin-op laundromats. Moving meth to fund his habit.
As a condition of probationary release, he was sentenced to rehab. Required to participate in AA meetings. He’d show up sullen, at least for a while, then start showing up stoned, then quit altogether as his addiction took hold. Nobody can force you to get sober, he told me. You can be forced not to use – if you’re locked up without it, then you’ll kick. But that’s not the same as being sober. You can’t be clean – not really – until you have a choice.
There’s also no logical reason why federal prisons offer halfway houses to those newly released, but state prisons provide nothing. Four thousand newly released women arrive in Los Angeles County every year to nothing. No re-entry programs, no counseling, no services, no assistance. You have no house key, no credit card, no checkbook, no driver’s license, no Social Security card, no identification of any sort because anything you were carrying when you were arrested has been destroyed by the state. You’re just one woman in the crowd of mostly black and brown faces, one number in the recidivism stats that are decidedly not in your favor.
Like vultures, the pimps circle, eyeing you, assessing you. The drug dealers circle. You know them from the old neighborhood, and they call you by name, offering their brand of a welcome home party. You have little incentive to say no. Ego tells you you’re gonna make it by any means necessary. Ego tells you you’re a grown woman. But you’re scared. How do you calm yourself? How do you connect with something healthy and hopeful when you’re surrounded by Skid Row? When you haven’t been allowed to make a decision in five, ten, twenty years? When all you want to do is wash prison off you, but you can’t, because it’s in you. It’s seeped into your psyche and into your soul.
All I wanted was to ease the fear, ease the self-loathing, ease the hopelessness. It seemed the only thing in the world I was certain of was how to escape by taking drugs, by self-medicating. Three days: that’s the average time for someone to relapse after getting out of prison. I knew nothing about statistics, but I knew that, in a drug high, I could escape into silence.
It takes a lot for an addict to get sober. I don’t fault the people who want to get clean but keep slipping. Still, this much is clear: you can’t change your life until you choose to.
I started teaching in the local jail because I felt ashamed. I am a citizen of the United States, and the horrors of mass incarceration are inflicted on behalf of all citizens. I personally owe an apology to those who’ve been yanked away from their lives unfairly … and to those children whose parents were taken away … and to those parents whose children were taken away … and to those who lost their neighbors … and to those whose loved ones were harmed by the violence begat by entire community’s loss of trust in the police, which required inhabitants to take justice into their own hands … and …
Given that some 2.5 million people in the U.S. are currently incarcerated … with another 5 million on probation or parole, a tiny slip away from being shipped away again … and which surely means tens of millions more whose lives have been sundered by the loss of a loved one … many of them innocent children … there is no way I could give a personal apology to everyone who deserves one. I’m sorry, as a citizen of the United States, that your mother was yanked away on my behalf.
But I can go in and teach. Last year, I spent about five hours each week inside the most miserable place in town. Even now, after one of my classes was canceled, I spend close to three hours a week in there. And I hate being in jail. Everyone does. It’s loud, bleak, malodorous, filled with stale air and flickering fluorescent light. Full of angry people who won’t make eye contact when you talk, but will stand at the front of their cells and stare. If you don’t see a dude, he might bang the glass and shout – I jump.
The elevator has buttons. The buttons do nothing.
There is waiting. Lots of waiting.
But the time I spend with the men in class (only men – the administration has declared all female inmates to be manipulative, irresistible seductresses and will not let male volunteers work with them, for the volunteers’ protection) is great. They love our poetry class. Despite the fact that many of these men stopped out of school and never looked at poetry on the outside, they are astute readers.
Several of the men in our classes grew to love writing as well. Monster House Press has put together a literary magazine featuring some of their work, available here.
Each week, we met with mid-level offenders in a classroom, and with recovering addicts inside the New Leaf New Life dormitory. This latter was an incredibly grim space. Twelve men lived inside this dormitory full-time; there were two steel tables with uncomfortable round seats attached for their meals in the “living area”; there were bunk beds in the “sleeping area”; they had a toilet and shower, the only portion of the room not under constant camera surveillance. The concrete walls were painted gray, and the only window was a small, wire-reinforced pane in the door: this window looked out to the booking desk on the ground floor of the jail.
So: no exterior windows, no glimpse of sunlight, no fresh air, twelve grown men crammed together for months in a space smaller than the living room of my own (small) home. A wall was shared with the drunk tank – sometimes somebody would be kicking & shit everywhere. Sometimes a schizophrenic would sing ceaselessly for days. Sometimes an angry inmate would rhythmically kick the steel door, every three seconds another KLOOOM reverberating through our skulls.
New Leaf had been granted this space by the jail because no one else wanted to be in there.
And yet that is where we held our best classes. Even though the space was wretched, the men chose to be in there. Volunteers – like J-M & me, and a dude who held AA classes, and a local linguist, and others – came in to offer some “enrichment.” The men also created their own programming: one of the twelve conducted a meditation session each morning. After our class had been going for a while, the men started reading poetry out loud to each other. They were suffering, but they learned to suffer together. In that small, crappy space, dudes riddled with Aryan Brotherhood tattoos befriended black men. A dude forgave the informant who’d put him there. Together, these men weathered the deaths of their parents, girlfriends, wives – mass incarceration has ravaged our country. In the devastated communities left behind, people die all the time.
Hell, mass incarceration caught up with my wife and me, too. Last November, my wife’s mother was murdered. It’s unlikely the killer would’ve done it if he hadn’t been so severely distanced from his friends and family, locked up for a decade for a pair of low-level, non-violent drug crimes. He sold crappy amounts of cocaine; ten years of his life were yanked away; now my mother-in-law is dead.
To publicize the Monster House Press magazine with the men’s poetry, we made a video using the text of a poem from the collection, Max E.’s “San Diego 1985: I Felt Your Presence in the Absence of Time.”
I love this poem for its depiction of epiphany. It’s hard work to change your life, but before that work can even begin, you have to want to change. As much as I hate the way we treat “criminals” in this country, many men have told me that they’re glad they were jolted from their routines – their lives were on a bad course and jail shook them awake, making them realize that they needed to change.
Surrounded by angry angels, this poem’s narrator realizes he’s made a mistake.
Given a reprieve from fate, that is when the hard work begins. Here’s another excerpt from Becoming Ms. Burton:
Drugs are insidious. A social ill for some folks, a criminal ill for others.
Jail had done nothing to stop my addiction. Education, hard work, dedication, a support system, and knowing there were opportunities for me and that my life had value: these were what had made all the difference. For the past twenty years of my sobriety, I deployed each of these facets, every day.
Few people find the right path on their first attempt. Collectively, nobody in the U.S. can claim to be on the right track. We’re wrecking the environment, we’re wrecking lives … some of us try to tread lightly, but the world is still being wrecked on our behalf. We all share the blame.