In jail, we were discussing isolation when somebody mentioned the plummeting price of marijuana. We’d read a quote from quantum physicist Richard Feynman about sensory deprivation:
I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly. But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.
The guys asked me when these experiments had happened.
“Late 1950s, early 60s,” I told them.
“Man, marijuana must have been so expensive then! Just in the last few years, the prices fell so hard. Like now you can get five pounds for fifteen hundred bucks.”
I was shaking my head. “Five pounds? The most I ever bought at once was half an ounce, back when I lived in California. Even then, I think I paid two hundred for it.”
“Two hundred dollars? You got ripped off!”
I laughed. “Yeah, but I probably deserved it.”
“Let me tell you,” the guy sitting next to me said, “next time you see me on the streets, I could hook you up with some good stuff.”
I demurred. “I haven’t smoked in so long, you could probably sell me a baggie of oregano, I’d hardly know the difference.”
The guy’s face fell. The room grew silent. Until somebody shouted, “Oregano? He just called you a major asshole!”
I felt pretty bad. I’d really hurt his feelings.
As it happens, this guy – the one whose feelings I’d hurt – is in jail for robbing me.
Unsuccessfully. Possibly by accident. But still.
There was a dropped wallet. His attempt to use my family’s Health Savings Account debit card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes. Some yelling at whomever was working the counter at Village Pantry when the card wouldn’t go through. Then an arrest.
That whole episode transpired almost three years ago. But I didn’t learn who it was until last month, when the prosecutor sent a letter to us asking for a victim statement.
The guy has been in my class several times before. I like him – he reminds me of an old friend of mine, enthusiastically participates in our classes, and always bikes over to say “hi” when I see him on the street. Apparently they’d put him on probation after the debit card incident, but now, after another slip up, they’re trying to slap him with all his backup time.
Everybody in class laughed when I told him he was there for robbing me. He said he hadn’t known whose card it was. I shrugged and asked him to write an apology to my spouse. Then we sent letters to his prosecutor and the judge, asking for leniency.
Money isn’t sacred.
I’ve heard guys tell stories about taking money from each other. The story might end with somebody getting punched in the face, but there aren’t hard feelings. Money comes and money goes. It’s just paper. Or less: numbers inside a machine.
That HSA account only has money in it through a fiction agreed upon by my family, the pharmacy, and the bank. We scan a card and the value of our account goes down. Nothing physically happens.
Financial trickery seems so hollow compared to sandwiches or cigarettes.
But passing off drugs as something they’re not? That violates something sacred. Inside the jail, people’s possessions are stripped away – all they have left are their reputations.
You don’t have to be honest all the time. You can embellish stories about cops you’ve evaded, people you’ve slept with, money that’s slipped through your fingers. That’s all harmless talk. Passing the time, shooting the shit.
If you’re there for hitting a girlfriend, you can say you failed a drug test. Or admit you’re in for domestic, but say that you didn’t do it. For the sake of your future, maybe it’s best you tell an alternate story often to believe it.
When you’re talking about drugs, though, people can get hurt. If you say it’s dope, it’d better be dope. Not pot dipped in embalming fluid. Not heroin spiked with fentanyl.
I won’t tell another joke about oregano.
Indeed, the guy who’s in jail for trying to use our HSA card isn’t too upset about most of his charges. But one really rankles him:
“Do you remember that time, summer of that ‘Occupy Bloomington’ thing, when all those people kept going to the hospital cause they were ODing on bad spice? The cops tried to pin that whole thing on me! They put my picture on Fox News. I was so fucking pissed! I’ve done some stuff, but I didn’t do none of that.”
At high doses, psilocybin mushrooms trigger transcendent, mystical experiences. Many researchers are incorporating these into treatments for PTSD, depression, and other maladies that stem from a crisis of meaning or identity.
There are challenges inherent in using medicines that disrupt the workings of a person’s consciousness. William Richards, who conducts psychedelic therapy at Johns Hopkins, writes in Sacred Knowledgethat participants in his studies have felt their sense of self temporarily dissolve after a dose of psilocybin.
commonly, the term “death” is employed as the ego (everyday self) feels that it
quite literally is dying.
Though one may have read that others have reported subsequent immersion in the eternal and experiences of being reborn and returning to everyday existence afterward, in the moment imminence of death may feel acutely – and for some terrifyingly – real.
this sensation is so frightening, most researchers recommend a trip-sitter – in
Richards’s words, “having someone present who one honestly can choose to
trust without reservation. The attitude
‘I can manage on my own and don’t really need anyone else’ clearly can be very
counterproductive in some high-dose sessions when the ‘I’ needs to totally
At times, an arrogant attitude of self-reliance is unhelpful. It is also, unsurprisingly, the attitude with which I approached nearly all aspects of my life. I’m an athlete, an academic, usually in full command of my own mind and body. I mostly work alone (although I’m very grateful that my spouse helps me run this website).
Why wouldn’t I do my own psychotherapy?
I tried psilocybin mushrooms during graduate school. Shortly after we met, the person who is now my spouse asked if we could visit her sibling in Portland for her birthday. We left Stanford at 7 p.m. on a Friday, then drove north through the night. We arrived at about dawn on Saturday morning, collapsed, and slept until noon.
We were visiting a punk house, it seemed, where the bulk of the rent was paid by one person’s trust fund, with others occasionally chipping in money from various odd jobs (there was a nearby sporting event during the second day of our visit, and one of the housemates put on an official-looking reflective vest and charged people to illegally park in an abandoned lot down the street). A dozen misshapen mattresses were strewn about the skunky-smelling attic; I picked the second-least stained to sleep on.
On Saturday night, for the birthday celebration, our hosts threw a party. Several bands played – it was the sort of event where the scrawny white weed dealer’s terrible hip-hop group (bass, drums, and the dealer on the mic) was allowed to play a set. The others were mostly metal bands.
One of the housemates (the faux-parking attendant, as it happens) brewed a large mason jar of psilocybin tea. As he was gamboling about the house, we crossed paths and he proffered the nearly empty jar: “Hey, man, you want these dregs?”
shrugged and drank it.
“Whoa,” he said.
“Just, that was a lot of dregs.”
Which, honestly, was not the best moment to be warned. I’d already drank it. I obviously couldn’t do anything about it then.
Richards and other medical professionals involved in psychedelics research would find it unsurprising that the tenor of the evening turned intensely spiritual for me. Ken Kesey and other psychonauts would find it unsurprising that the goings on seemed exceedingly trippy, as well. I sat on a couch in front of the bands’ performance area and watched as a singer seemed to smear her face across the microphone; soon I saw her with three mouths, the two in her neck relegated to singing harmony.
I felt intense paranoia; as I waited in line for a bathroom, people nearby seemed to be snickering at me. Of course, snickers often follow in my wake at parties – my behavior can be outlandish – and I might’ve been making goofy facial expressions.
I understood only snippets of conversation. A squinty-eyed Thor-looking blonde man named Hyacinth was saying, “I always wanted to get with a Gemini, and then, bam, last winter, I met this older lady with these, like, enormous eyes, and I was like, whoa, and wouldn’t you know it, bam, she’s a Gemini!”
(I later learned that he worked as an, ahem, “intimate massage therapist,” or “hired companion,” that sort of thing. He also cornered me and spent thirty minutes explaining his take on quantum mechanics. His version involved a lot of positive energy radiating from crystals. The abundance of positive energy in his own life is part of what brought him together with that Gemini, it seems. The waning disorientation from psilocybin left me totally unable to extricate myself from the conversation.)
And, as per Richards’s expectations, I felt myself losing a fundamental component of my identity. I temporarily forgot how to speak. Then felt as though I was losing all ability to translate my thoughts into external action.
Perhaps I should’ve noticed that I was still passively influencing my surroundings – nobody else could stand where I was standing, and Hyacinth wouldn’t have stood there simply lecturing the air – but the flickering of my short term memory caused these examples to slip away from me. I felt like a ghost, and the sensation terrified me.
But I was lucky. Even at parties (to be perfectly honest, especially at loud parties), I carry a pencil and paper. That way, I can draw horrible cartoons. Sometimes I try to use these to communicate.
It should come as no surprise that I make few friends at parties.
I found a secluded corner of the party and began to write. And then, minutes later, when I felt another wave of loss of self pass over me, I was able look at the sheet of paper in my hand and see. I wrote that. I did change the world. I am changing it.
I was able to regain a sense of object permanence, despite the ego-erasing effects of psilocybin. If I were a ghost, my marks would wisp from the page like so much abluvion. But here they are.
I can still communicate with the outside world, I still am.
In all, the experience was probably good for me. Someday I could write about why. But for now, I’d simply like to stress that, in that moment, writing saved me. Writing kept me anchored and tamped down the terror sufficiently that I could accept whatever was happening inside my brain. (Indeed, one of the things I wrote that night was, “Without this paper, I’d wander the streets, wake tomorrow in a gutter with a rat gnawing on my eyeball.”)
And I’ve seen the way that writing has saved other people, too. When people fear that they’re turning into ghosts – cut off from the outside world, unable to reach their friends and families – even severely dyslexic men will start sending letters.
held in jail can dissolve a person’s sense of self just as surely as psilocybin
Each week, I bring in another dozen pencils. I occasionally wondered what was happening to the pencils, whether they accumulated like Lincoln Logs in the block. But I kept bringing more because we need a way to write during our class. And I’d let the guys keep them. So much has been taken from these men that I couldn’t bear to ask for the pencils back.
somebody told me. “Oh, yeah, my bunkie,
he writes a lot at night, he always sharpens like a dozen pencils before
in jail aren’t allowed to have pens.
They can’t have mechanical pencils.
And they don’t have sharpeners in their cells.
At night … or if there’s a disciplinary infraction … or if the jail is understaffed … the men are locked into their little cells. Unless they sharpen pencils beforehand, they cannot write. Each broken tip brings an inmate that much closer to enforced silence, unable to communicate with the outside world.
Recently, people have been forming a big line at the pencil sharpener whenever I teach class. I slowly pass out the poems that we’ll read that week, then pass out pencils, then pass out paper, then sit and wait. The waiting takes a while. Guys come with twenty or thirty pencils bristling from the shirt pocket of their orange scrubs, then stand and sharpen all of them. A dozen men, sharpening perhaps twenty pencils each.
At the table, they mention trades they’ve made. Losses, due to theft: “At the beginning of the week I had fifteen pencils; now I’m down to three.” They exhort me to bring more. I say I’ll do my best.
“There’s only one pencil sharpener in the block, and it’s been broken for three months. It’s like that one, a wall mount. The gears are all screwed up. The handle was broken off, but you could sort of still use it then. But now, anybody who doesn’t get to come to your class can’t sharpen any.”
sharpening some for my bunkie,” yells the guy currently cranking the handle. A few of the others nod; they’ll also sharpen
some for charity.
Twenty … thirty … maybe forty sharpened graphite tips. While those last, the guys will be able to write. Time will pass, but they’ll be able to prove to themselves, and to the outside world, that they really do exist.
luck, those sharpened pencils will last all week.
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.
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.
A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful. You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it. It makes me such a jerk. I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”
Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it. And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:
“Meth? Meth is great – you should never try it.”
And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV. This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:
“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “
European eels are endangered. They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.
Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine. European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works. The drugs are still there. The eels get high.
According to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed. Then his spouse bought cocaine. This worked. Suddenly Stevenson could write again. In three days, he composed his novel.
When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical. So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again. In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.
Dr. Jekyll was a fine man. On drugs, he became a monster.
When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging. She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”
One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”
She looked down at the picture, then back up to me. First she signed the word hungry.
“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”
She shook her head. No, that didn’t sound quite right. She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.
“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”
She bobbed her head yes. No shoes. That would make her rage, too.
Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk. They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.
I demurred. I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles. I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that. I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.
In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk. Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:
Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder. Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness. I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.
The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then.
The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated. No one would ever know.
Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school. Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates.
And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition. He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.
As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark. Or tank. Arsenal. Whatever.
This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers. There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line. Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron. When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket. Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground. And this was lucky. If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron.
Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.
For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father. In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone. Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.
If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn. Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain. Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old. Why it had ended up in a garbage can.
Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother. He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned.
In a footnote, Westover adds:
Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident. His account differs from both mine and Richard’s. In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire. This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s. Still, perhaps our memories are in error. Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass. What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.
Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story. Yup, things get worse. One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.
Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury. Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.
His pupils were unevenly dilated. His brain was bleeding.
Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild. He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling. The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.
It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t. He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense. They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another.
Worse, he was violent. But unpredictably so. At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together. At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl. He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying. He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.
In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.
And yet, Westover escaped. Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.
Of course, she made a few stumbles. Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class. Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.
During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.
“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked.
Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area. But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.
I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor. Westover was shamed. In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism. The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.” Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery. A purely human evil.
Westover became a historian. After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be. Educated is a beautiful book. And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law. And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:
I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money. My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens. My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.
In our poetry classes, we’ve had a lot of guys doing time or awaiting trial for domestic. As you might expect, their troubles are often wrapped up with alcohol. Nobody wants to think of himself as the kind of dude who’d hit his partner, but booze saps self-control. Sober, we feel angry; drunk, we lash out.
Each week, the protagonist of Johnson’s poem slips again. He drinks then he repents. At church, he’s “shaking his head / crying for forgiveness.” But everyone knows that it won’t last, until one day his wife has had enough. He staggered home drunk; she sewed him up inside a rug.
And she beat him blue. He swore he’d never
drink anymore, and she beat him.
And then he swore he’d go to church every Sunday.
And she still beat him.
He told her he’d love her forever.
She kept on.
And he said he’d repent. She beat him harder.
And he said he wanted to die.
She beat him.
And he said he’d never repent again.
A man in class – back inside after only nine days out because he drank the night before a visit with his parole officer – hung his head. “I should send this to my wife,” he said. “I’m always telling her, I’ll stop, I’ll stop. But then I hit that bottle.”
Apologizing isn’t enough. We have to make sure we won’t apologize again. “Sorry” doesn’t mean much if you have to say it again and again.
And, yes, it’s still mind boggling to me that MDMA and psilocybin – two low-risk chemicals that can help turn somebody’s life around – are illegal whereas alcohol, one of the world’s most dangerous drugs, is openly shilled with flashy television ads.
Then we read two poems by Raymond Carver. “Woolworth’s 1954” has long been a favorite of mine – a man slips into reverie while he’s out walking with a buddy and the buddy’s young kids. The man thinks about when he “was sixteen, working / for six bits an hour” as a stockboy in a department store. An older man was training him; Carver writes,
Most important memory
of that whole time: opening
the cartons of women’s lingerie.
Underpants, and soft, clingy things
like that. Taking it out
of cartons by the handful. Something
sweet and mysterious about those
things even then. Sol called it
What did I know? I called it
that for a while, too. “Linger-ey.”
Poets play with the difference between private and public language. Some words mean almost the same thing no matter who hears them. When I write “of,” chances are there are few strong associations in your mind that would cause you to misinterpret my intent.
But many words feel very different from one person to the next. When the New York Times printed poems alongside photographs they inspired last summer, I brought them in to jail. I had no idea that a line from Ada Limon’s “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use” would jolt the men out of reading.
And how we stood there,
low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,
and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets …
But “shard” is slang for methamphetamine, apparently, and once the idea of meth has wormed into their brains, it’s hard to shake away. That’s the whole problem with addiction.
For Carver, the private meaning of “lingerie” is safer.
Then I got older. Quit being
a stockboy. Started pronouncing
that frog word right.
I knew what I was talking about!
Went to taking girls out
in hopes of touching that softness,
slipping down those underpants.
And sometimes it happened. God,
they let me. And they were
linger-ey, those underpants.
They tended to linger a little
sometimes, as they slipped down …
Carver thinks back to those bright early years, when everything felt charged with possibility. Dangerous, but navigable. Undergarments “kicked free / onto the floor of the car and / forgotten about. Until you had / to look for them.”
But his past is gone. He’s grown up, made mistakes, worked crummy jobs and started drinking. He has more freedoms now – a house to take dates to, instead of fumbling in the car – and yet fewer possibilities. Those women he knew have grown up too; they have families and responsibilities. Or they’ve died. Some of us find less luck than others.
Carver is left lamenting his mistakes, knowing that some things he’ll never fix.
Then we read Carver’s “Fear.” One man read the first half of the poem, but when he reached the line “Fear of my children’s handwriting on envelopes”, he paused, blinked, started again, and found he had no voice. We sat in silence for about ten seconds, then he said, “Yeah, that one got me. Somebody else is gonna have to read the rest of this.”
He was too broke for bail and had spent almost a year inside (waiting on a case that would wind up dismissed when the witnesses didn’t show), and each week said something to me about his daughter, seven years old, living a state away, whom he hadn’t seen in years. On his good days, he’d tell me, “When I get out, I’m gonna get myself on a bus, go up and see her.”
On his bad days, he’d say, “I don’t know if she’s gonna want to see me. Cause it’s been years, you know?”
After reading the poem, I thought we’d use “Fear” as a writing prompt. “Jot down five things,” I said. “What are you afraid of?”
This was a terrible writing prompt.
Seriously. Only two people wrote anything (“I’m afraid of being killed by an ex / I’m afraid of dying broke / I’m afraid of dying alone”). It can’t feel safe to write about your fears in jail.
But some of what the guys said while telling me that they couldn’t write was heartbreaking. Like the guy with the seven-year-old daughter he wanted to visit:
“I’m afraid that when they let me out I’m not gonna want to go, cause I’ll have forgotten how to live any place but here.”
Or another guy, who said that his first grandchild was born while he was stuck there.
“The only thing I’m scared of is that I’m gonna drink again and my daughter won’t let me see my grandkid. Because she says that if I get back to drinking, she won’t let me around. I’m an alcoholic, and I’m a mean alcoholic.”
And yet, the week before he left, he told me, “When I get out, first thing I’m gonna do, I’m gonna walk down to that liquor store and buy myself a beer.”
At the end of class I told him, “I don’t have anything against drugs, you know. But some of us, some drugs, we just don’t mix well. So I wish you’d go, maybe buy that grandkid a present, go down to see her instead of buying yourself a drink.”
“I know, I know … but it’s something I told myself, to get me through this time here. That I’d get out, and when I got out, I’d get to have a beer.”