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.
It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat. In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh. Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.
So, sure, Jesus loses his temper. Don’t we all? It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.
Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character. But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty. After all, Yahweh is omniscient. Omnipotent. He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.
In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat. The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.
In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:
Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world. In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters. And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose. Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison. Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir. Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other. Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.
The gods know this is going to happen. That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in. Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast.
The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.
Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained. Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will. But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides. Refusal to give in is what’s important. It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.
All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours. To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting. This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport. All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions. Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins. So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.
Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth. Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.
Vikings were wiser. They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair. Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck. That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’ To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up. And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset.
The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously. Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks. To them, the throwaway line was another artform. They had no sense of their own dignity. Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.
Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation. What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.
People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt. If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.
Viking humor. Their secret weapon. Part of their mindset. Take warning, though! There’s a mean streak running through it.
The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any. White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate. I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories. And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.
In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:
It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house
in a beautiful city.
Things have worked out nicely for you,
and you think everyone can agree
this is the greatest country on earth.
The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else. Their patriotism costs little. Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?
There’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now. After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile. He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.
A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat. Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of. Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in. That’s why the gods have to die as well. If they did not die, how could they show true courage? If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?
At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling. Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.
I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success. We should want that for everyone. People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?
But maybe these people will not win. Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews. Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.
That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.
Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too? And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension. What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?
George Patton said, quite accurately,
“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”
But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there. Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need 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.
If you live next to a concentrated animal feeding operation – facilities that houses thousands of farmed animals in fetid conditions – there’s no point in buying perfume. The smell of animal excrement overwhelms any scent you could wear. If you’re interested in a romantic dalliance, you’ll have to woo people with your looks. Or, sure, conversation. But a charming scent won’t do it.
In other environs, scent contributes to your allure. We humans choose our mates based on a huge number of considerations, including the way people smell. Back in 1995, zoologist Claus Wedekind proposed that human females are most attracted to the scents of men whose immune genes differ from their own.
During college, a friend tried to convince me that the best route to romantic success was Old Spice aftershave. “It reminds women of their fathers,” he said. This is, of course, the opposite theory from Wedekind’s – that females would seek out partners whose scents mirror their own genetic lineage.
But this much is uncontested – by overwhelming our sense of smell, air pollution makes humans less sexy.
We’re not the only animals who use aroma to identify attractive mates. Stick insects can have a wide range of physical appearances, and multiple species sometimes live in overlapping areas. Each subpopulation of stick insects secretes a different mix of oily aromatic chemicals from their skin. These oils protect them from scrapes and dehydration – and help them find mates of their own kind.
If stick insects couldn’t smell, they might mate wantonly.
That’s what happens with fish.
When we pollute water, fish lose the ability to recognize each other. In the same way that humans near a CAFO won’t notice each other’s scents because they can only smell ammonia and sulfurous shit, fish living near human dumping grounds – whether it be farm run-off, factory effluents, or untreated sewage – find their sense of smell overwhelmed.
Many types of fish behave the way my Old-Spice-sporting friend hoped humans would – they seek mates who smell like their forebears. Which they can’t necessarily do in polluted waters. And so fish mate across species. Their chimeric children dissolve the old boundary lines.
Perhaps you thought this couldn’t happen – the traditional definition of a “species” is a population of organisms that can produce fertile offspring only by mating with each other. But the traditional definition is wrong; scientists don’t actually know what a species is. Whatever boundaries exist seem porous. The Neanderthal genes carried by modern Homo sapiens show that humans also mated with other species, at least until we drove our relatives into extinction. Chimpanzees are the closest we have left, sharing 98% of our DNA, but now they’re endangered too.
Although – maybe that’s fine. Not murdering our relations, or endangering the chimps; maybe it’s fine for multiple lineages to merge back into one. I hate to find any virtue in pollution, but dissolving species boundaries doesn’t sound so bad.
Contemporary biology textbooks claim that species boundaries arise whenever subpopulations cease interbreeding. For the “Advanced Placement” biology test, students are expected to know that speciation can be triggered by migration, or a geographic impediment like a new highway, or even cultural barriers.
A strong preference for certain types of scent might qualify as a cultural barrier. Or tropical birds that want their mates to look or dance a certain way. And so would anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. Except for the gene flow provided by pale-skinned rapists, those biology textbooks imply that epidermal melanin concentrations marked a species boundary until the 1960s in the United States.
In the contemporary U.S., parental wealth creates a similar mating barrier. In many parts of the country, children born to rich, well-educated parents rarely even chat with children born to poor people, let alone marry them. This phenomenon has persisted for only a generation or two, which is certainly too brief to create a species division, but shows no sign of abating.
Marrying somebody who shares your interests seems fine. My spouse and I seem to be fairly similar people. And yet – should I be alarmed that my own choice inches us closer toward the world of Metropolis?
Feature image: “Character study, strong smell” by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist attempts to commit suicide. Again and again. Death never seems to take – each time, he wakes intact and offs himself again.
Eventually, the character realizes that he is cursed … or, rather, that he is a curse. Whenever his current body dies, his spirit takes possession of the next available shell. Each individual body can be snuffed, but every time that happens, his wants and desires leap into a new home.
We incarcerate drug dealers. But we make little effort to change the world enough to staunch demand. People’s lives are still broken. Impoverished, addicted, they’ll buy. When one dealer is locked up, the job leaps to someone else.
Child molesters receive less sympathy than anyone else in jail or prison. When somebody wants to complain about sentencing, he’ll say “I’m looking at seven years, and that cho-mo got out in two!” When gangs inside want to look tough, they find friendless child molesters and murder them – these murders might go unpunished. Many child molesters spend their time in solitary for their own protection, but solitary confinement is itself a form of torture.
Child molesters were often abused as children. In Joanna Conners’s I Will Find You, she realizes that her rapist was probably re-enacting abuses that he had experienced in prison.
The demon leaps from one shell to the next.
During a university commencement address, J.K. Rowling said that “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” Perhaps this is helpful for privileged college graduates to hear, but this attitude ignores how brains work. When we have a thought, the synapses that allowed that thought grow stronger. We become better at doing things that we’ve already done.
Bad parenting makes certain choices come easier than others. And then, each time a bad choice is made, it becomes easier to make again. After a long history of bad choices, it’s difficult to do anything else. But the initial mistakes were made by a child. Then these mistakes perpetuated themselves.
We as a society could have helped that child’s parents more – we did not. We could have helped the child more, perhaps through education, or nutrition, or providing stable work for the parents – we did not. We could have helped the young adult more, perhaps, at this point, through rehabilitative jails – we did not.
After all our failures to intervene, we must accept some responsibility for the ensuing criminality.
If buying in to the illusion of agency helps you get your work done, go for it. I too believe in free will. But we have no idea what it feels like inside someone else’s brain. If born into someone else’s circumstances, with that person’s genetics, prenatal nutrition, and entire lifetime of experiences, would you have steered to a better course?
In ancient Tibetan Buddhist mythology, crimes and addiction are the province of demons. A person has been possessed – the demon is influencing choices.
This perspective does not deny free will to the afflicted. It simply implies – correctly – that some decisions will be easier to make than others. This idea was tested in an experiment asking right-handed people to touch a button near the center of a computer screen. Study subjects were not told which hand to use, and most used their right. After a powerful magnetic pulse, people could still chose either hand to touch the button … but pressing it with the left hand suddenly seemed easier, and so that’s what many people did.
Addiction makes choosing not to use drugs more difficult. Either option is available, but the demon is constantly pushing toward one.
In most mythologies, a demon can be exorcised. In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist can die permanently only if his body is killed at a time when the nearest available Homo sapiens shell is already possessed.
Existence, for this demon, is a form of torment. A villain was thrilled to find Shiga’s protagonist … not to do him harm, but as a chance to end the cycle.
Some demons might never leave the body. The brain is plastic, but synaptic connections reflect its entire history. Even after years clean, addiction lingers.
In Buddhist mythology, even demons that cannot be exorcised can be distracted. Apparently demons love to guard treasure. It’s a beautiful image – the demon is still inside, but rather than push its host toward calamity, it hides in a corner, sniggering like Gollum, fondling a jewel-encrusted box.
Addicts are shuttered in jail. The walls are concrete. Fluorescent lights shine nineteen hours a day. People weathering opiate withdrawal can’t sleep even during those few hours of dark. The block is noisy, and feels dangerous. The brain is kept in a constant high-stress state of vigilance. Often, the only thoughts that a person has enough concentration to formulate are the easy ones.
Thoughts of drugs.
But poems can be treasures. If given solace long enough to read a poem, our afflicted might find beauty there. Something for the demon to guard.
We are not helping people if we insist their penitence be bleak.
Many thanks to John-Michael, a wonderful poet & teacher. This essay was inspired by a beautiful book he’s working on.
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.
I’ve been teaching poetry in the local jail for over a year. The guys are great students, and I love working with them… but there are differences between these classes and my previous teaching experiences. Not just the orange attire or the chance that somebody down the hall will be rhythmically kicking a cell door all hour.
When I was teaching wealthy pre-meds physics & organic chemistry at Northwestern & Stanford, none of my students died. Nobody’s boyfriend or girlfriend was murdered midway through the semester. Nobody was sitting in class with someone who had ruined his or her life by becoming a police informant. Sometimes people got teary eyed, but only over grades.
Whereas… well, when we were discussing Norman Dubie’s “Safe Passage” last December – a beautiful poem about riding in the snowplow with his grandfather the night before the old man died – we wound up talking about our families. A forty-year-old man wept: he had thought that this year, for the first time in years, he would get to spend Christmas with his kids … but, even after they let you out, they take away your license … and make you show for blow-and-go some fifteen miles away, every single day … and charge you for the classes, but those classes mean you have no way to schedule regular work hours … so they put you on warrant when you can’t paid … and then, if you make one tiny mistake …
Christmas was in two days. He’d spend another month inside.
The accumulated trauma that these guys shoulder from their past lives is heartbreaking. One of the best lesson plans my co-teacher and I have come up with uses several poems from Ai to prepare for writing our own persona poems. A former student – now released, & still sober after two months – says he still feels changed by the experience of writing in someone else’s voice. In that space he was made to feel so small, but taking a few minutes to ponder the world from another perspective let him escape. And it gave him a new view of the consequences of his own choices.
But a lot of Ai’s poetry is very difficult. She writes from the perspectives of murderers and rapists. We’ve discussed her poem “Child Beater” with several groups of men, and at least a third of the guys, every time, shared harrowing stories of their own.
On a good day, these men have long histories of suffering weighing them down.
And on a bad day? My co-teacher and I might show up with a stack of poems, start teaching class, and, mid-way through, learn that another of our students’ family members has just died. Over the course of a year, at least two had wives die of overdose, another’s partner was murdered … and, in that case, one of the killers was placed overnight in a cell adjacent to his own …
And, half an hour after my second class there ended, one of my students died.
The men do great work, both interpreting poems and writing their own, but, just think for a moment: what could they accomplish if they weren’t oppressed by so much misery? Compared to my experience teaching at wealthy universities, the emotional toll is excruciating. And I am just a tourist! After every class, I get to leave. A guard smiles and opens the door for me. I walk away.
This is their life.
And it’s my fault. All citizens of this country – all people who benefit from the long history of violence that has made this nation so wealthy – bear the blame. As beneficiaries, the suffering caused by mass incarceration is our responsibility.
So, the guy who died? He was just a kid. Nineteen years old. And he’d gone over a year without medication for his highly-treatable genetic condition. I’ve written previously about the unfair circumstances he had been born into: suffice it to say that his family was very poor. He’d been in jail awaiting trial since sixteen – he was being tried as an adult for “armed robbery” after an attempted burglary with a BB gun – and then, when he turned eighteen – please ignore the irony of this age constituting legal adulthood – the state said he had to pay for his own medication. With beta blockers, people with his genetic condition have a normal life expectancy. Beta blockers cost about $15 per month.
No, a dude whose family is so poor that he attempted robbery with a BB gun can not afford $15 per month. Sitting in jail, it’s not like he could help pay.
A few weeks after his death, I remarked to one of the other guys that he probably wouldn’t have been charged as an adult if he’d been a white kid. I told two anecdotes from the local high school: a student with psychiatric trouble amassed weapons in his locker and planned a date to do something violent. Another student participated in a food fight during the last week of school. The former was welcomed back; the latter was told that he’d be arrested if he returned to school grounds. And he hadn’t taken all his finals yet! If all his teachers had known about this disciplinary ruling in time, he wouldn’t have received a degree.
The first student was white; the latter black.
There’s no universal standard. Maybe there can’t be – we are all “beautiful unique snowflakes,” and so every case will be slightly different. But unfairness blooms when so much is left up to individual discretion. Black students are punished excessively throughout our country. Black children as young as 4 or 5 are considered disproportionately threatening and are treated unfairly.
Prosecutors in the criminal justice system have even more power. There’s no oversight and often no documentation for their decisions. Charges can be upgraded or downgraded on a whim. A white kid might’ve been sent to reform school for his “youthful indiscretions”; this dude sat in jail from age 16 until his death.
“Yeah, but _____ always said, ‘I’m not black. I’m mid-skinned.”
(You can also listen to a podcast about his unfair treatmeant and premature death here.)
This spring, I said to one of the guys whose trial date was coming up, “I feel like, if I’d done the exact same thing as you…” I shook my head. There was no reason to go on. “But black guys get the hammer.”
He disagreed. Not with the idea that black people are punished disproportionately in this country, just that it would be his burden, too.
“Well, but I’m not black,” he said. “My family is from all over the place … I’m Native American, and Caribbean, and …” He listed a long pedigree. Indeed, his ancestors had come from around the globe: Europe, India, Africa, the Americas …
“My apologies,” I said. “And, I guess … so, my wife teaches at the high school in town, and one of her kids, his family is Polynesian … but at school everybody assumes he’s black. So he mostly identifies with Black culture here.”
“I get that,” the guy said to me, nodding. He’s a really kind and thoughtful dude. “Cause, yeah, some of it is just who other people think you are.”
His words stuck with me: who other people think you are.
We were sure he could walk. Probation, rehab, that kind of thing. We’d seen other people with equivalent bookings go free.
We were wrong. Dramatically so: he was sentenced to seven years. His family was devastated. You don’t even want to know the extent.
Soon after, I was looking up his prison address to send him a letter and a few books of poetry. On the page of “Offender Data” provided by the Indiana Department of Correction, it read,