On changing a life.

On changing a life.

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.

Unfortunately, that first moment of choice often comes at an awful time in people’s lives.  Incarceration is traumatic; so is release.  From Susan Burton and Cari Lynn’s Becoming Ms. Burton:

burtonThere’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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

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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.

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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.

We, too, need to be jolted into change.

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

amsal_pbDuring a recent writing class, we discussed Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “The Trespasser” (reprinted in American Salvage, in case you’d like more). We’ve been discussing a lot of literature themed around addiction and recovery, and in this short story a family walks into their summer home to find the wreckage left by a quartet of trespassers who broke in and used the place as a meth lab.

The family — especially their thirteen-year-old daughter — feels violated.  Their belongings rearranged, their kitchen charred, a mattress ruined, their sense of security shattered.  But the piece doesn’t dwell on the family’s reaction.  Instead the story presents, through a series of contrasts to the thirteen-year-old’s life, the horrors that may have led one of the trespassers — a sixteen-year-old girl, violated in turn by the men she was with, who stayed alone in the house to hide in a closet and shoot up until the family arrived — to make the choices she did.

There is a sense of forgiveness to the piece.  Because, yes, the sixteen-year-old’s actions were wrong.  She should not have broken in to the house with those men.  She should not have stolen methamphetamine they were cooking from them.  She should not have stayed living in another family’s home, rearranging their possessions, dragging comforting items to a closet, dragging a mattress — emblematic of her own violation — outside.

And yet.  Campbell presents the ways in which that sixteen-year-old trespasser has already been punished, brutally so, before she committed her transgressions.  She did wrong.  Perhaps some punishment would be appropriate.  But she was punished, arbitrarily so, by the universe at large.  Born into a life where she was violated by her mother’s boyfriends, burned by cigarettes, treated as worthless so long that she may have begun to believe it.  Those preemptive punishments were quite likely the reason why she committed her later crimes.

It is human to want vengeance against people who hurt us.  It is especially human to want vengeance against people who hurt those we love.  But something that’s often missing from our criminal justice system in the United States is an acknowledgement of the punishments already doled out to innocent children, punishments that harmed their developing minds and may have increased the likelihood that they’d be tangled up in future crimes.

71O975JXqtLJoanna Connors’s I Will Find You is a hard book to read — a beautifully-written exploration of a bleak topic — but she presents this contrast perfectly.  If you can handle reading a detailed, nuanced investigation of a sexual assault, I highly recommend it.

Connors was hurt.  Connors, as best I can tell, is hurt.  The psychological effects of torture can linger for decades, and sexual assault, despite the inappropriate term (personally, I far prefer using the phrase “violative assault” to better distinguish it from sex, but then people sometimes don’t know what I’m talking about), is an act of torture.

She was, from the perspective of a prosecutor, the perfect witness.  She was educated, sober, unacquainted with her assailant… and a white woman assaulted by a black man.

All those characteristics make it easier for the state to win a conviction.

(A quick note: though she was harmed, Connors was a witness, not a defendant.  That’s how our judicial system treats the victims of sexual assault.  At least that’s better than the old system, in which Connors’ husband would be considered the defendant because his property — his wife — had been tarnished through unauthorized use.)

Indeed, Connors’s assailant was convicted, was sentenced to many years, and eventually died in jail.  A rarity, as most of us now know.

But Connors’s pain did not go away.  A corrections officer at one of the prisons where her attacker was held told her — in an attempt to cheer her — that her attacker was probably brutally abused while incarcerated.  That particular prison, the correction officer acknowledged, had a well-deserved dismal reputation.

Hearing that the man had suffered more did not help Connors heal.

And so Connors decided to learn about her attacker: What was his life like?  Why had he ruined hers?

Indeed, the innocent child who would grow into the man who raped her was wretchedly abused.  Connors could not interview her attacker — he had died in prison before she began this project — but she met with the man’s siblings.  One wondered what he had done to be born into a life of such misery.

Everyone in the attackers’ family had been raped.  Repeatedly.  Connors cried alongside the attackers’ sisters.  I was stupid, I deserved it, each said in turn.  The exact words with which Connors had castigated herself after she was assaulted.

Those words were not true in Connors’ case.  And they were not true for the attackers’ sisters.  No one deserves to be tortured.

And, in contrast to the outraged response from her family and from the criminal justice system after Connors was assaulted, no one cared about the crimes perpetrated against the attacker’s family.  Connors does not belabor this point.  She was white, well-educated, graced with the sobriety that comes easily to those with no childhood demons to escape — she received justice.

Others, who through no fault of their own were born to uncaring, abusive, impoverished parents, did not.