On storytelling and social justice.

On storytelling and social justice.

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

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

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

First, we act, then we concoct a narrative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is the value of stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On correspondence.

On correspondence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so we’ve been told.

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

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

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

On Finn Murphy’s “The Long Haul” and our dying towns

On Finn Murphy’s “The Long Haul” and our dying towns

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:

9780393608717_p0_v2_s192x300.jpgThe 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.

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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.

Herald Times front page
A recent front page from the local newspaper.

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.”

G. said,

“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.”

T. said,

“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.”

J. said,

“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.

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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.