On storytelling in games.

On storytelling in games.

I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience.  These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.

Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable.  He produces a popular series of video reviews.  And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection.  I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.

I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.

Consider a story of moral complicity.  When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described.  Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.

But there’s no excuse within a game.  The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.

In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:

You think you’re better than me,

cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only

imagined

When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level. 

In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:

                                    The guards

Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.

I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not

What you’d expect from Americans.

Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people

Having a good time, blowing off steam.

Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level.  We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.

And yet.  In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner.  And players did it.  Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …

Screenshot from GTA 5.

You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from.  Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military.  Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.

From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:

“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.

There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.

I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture.  It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts.  We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.

The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth.  But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.

We are monsters.  That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.

And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.

Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes.  The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative.  Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.

Picture of Secret Hitler by Nicole Lee on Flickr.

When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism.  I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier.  It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.

Header image by Padaguan.

On gerrymandering (a prequel).

On gerrymandering (a prequel).

I’ve written about contemporary gerrymandering, the effort to tweak our voting rights such that certain people’s opinions matter more than others’.

A preferred strategy to suppress votes is to draw district lines that allow one political party to narrowly elect many representatives, while the other party elects a small number of representatives with overwhelming majorities.  When this happens, votes in the landslide victories are “wasted” – those people’s preferred candidate only needed 51% of the vote, after all – which can allow a political minority to retain control.

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For example, each congressional district in Michigan represents approximately 700,000 people.  In the 14th, a serpentine district designed to suppress the influence of African-Americans by confining their votes to as few districts as possible, candidates can carry 80% of the vote.  This congressional vote represents the interests of approximately 560,000 people (700,000 * 0.8).

In other Michigan districts, candidates typically win with 55% of the vote.  In these districts, a congressional vote represents the interests of 385,000 people.  Their opinions are treated as time-and-a-half more important.

(With the sad corollary being that, in a representative government, the opinions of people who ascribe to minority political philosophies within each district are basically irrelevant.  My own congressional representative surely knows that I didn’t vote for him, that I won’t vote for him in the next election, and that there’s only a small chance that anything I say will sway the opinions of people who did vote for him.  So he shouldn’t care about my beliefs at all.)

Many people feel that the districting process is crummy.  In Michigan, citizens are attempting to wrest control away from professional politicians, but they’re fighting an uphill battle.  After all, our country was founded on the principle that some people’s voices opinions do matter more than others’.

That’s why we have a constitutional republic instead of a democracy.  In a democracy, the uneducated rabble could undermine the will of the self-styled luminaries who wrote the constitution.

Women couldn’t vote.  Black people (“others,” who counted as 60% of a human being when doling representation) couldn’t vote.  And although it’s anachronistic to use the term “gerrymandering,” the United States Senate was designed to bloat the voting rights of those intent on dastardly evil.

Almost everyone involved in writing the U.S. constitution believed that rape, murder, torture, and abduction should be permissible (as long as the victims matched certain criteria).  But some of the signatories were more enthusiastic about these practices than others, and those individuals worried that the nation’s citizenry might eventually decide that rape, murder, torture and abduction shouldn’t be allowed.

1024px-Cotton_field_kv17After all, not everyone held a monetary stake in the nation’s predominant industry. It’s easier to justify torture when we’re making money off it – we still do.

So they invented the Senate, a legislative body in which the opinions of people from sparsely-populated southern states would matter more than the opinions of people from densely-populated northern states.

Voting in this country was never meant to be fair.  Lo and behold, it still isn’t.

On Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep.’

On Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep.’

poemsjaildormWilliam Booker’s poem “Communion of the Saints” opens with,

It’s 6 a.m. in the Monroe County Jail,

I’ve been awake since breakfast,

which was served at 4:21 a.m. …

It took 3 minutes 25 seconds

to eat a tray of eggs, sausage, hash brown,

biscuit and jelly.  Then I lay back down

on my steel bunk and closed my eyes.

His eyes are closed, the thin jail blanket covers his head, but with bright fluorescent lights shining just a few feet from his face, he can’t fall back asleep.  He begins to ruminate: “what have I done?”  His mind is tormented by “visions of the outside that I don’t see anymore.”  This will be another hard day.

2088296214_th.jpgIn Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker describes numerous research studies showing the ways that we’re impaired when our sleep is disrupted.  The vast majority of people need at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night.  When sleep deprived – either by missing an entire night’s sleep in one go, or sleeping six or fewer hours a night for several days in a row – people have difficulty regulating their emotions, miss social cues, and struggle to learn new information.

Prolonged sleep deprivation is widely recognized as torture.  All animals will die if sleep deprived for too long, typically done in by sepsis: otherwise innocuous bacteria proliferate uncontrollably and poison the blood.  Less acute forms of sleep loss – consistently getting fewer than 7.5 hours per night – will ravage a person’s immune system and increase the risk of cancer.

When interrogators deprive people of sleep (yup, the United States is a member of the illustrious group of nations that still tortures people this way, alongside regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudia Arabia, and the like) it becomes very easy to elicit false confessions.

In the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s memoir, White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia (which is quoted in Why We Sleep), he writes that when the KGB denied him and his fellow prisoners the opportunity to sleep,

DF-SC-85-11459I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what their interrogator promised them.  He did not promise them their liberty.  He promised them – if they signed – uninterrupted sleep.

Inside the jail, the overhead fluorescent lights are not turned off until midnight.  At that time, it becomes easier – not easy, but easier – to fall asleep.  But the inmates will be jarred awake four hours later for breakfast.

Despite their chronic sleep deprivation, people in jail are expected to learn new habits; people who have self-medicated for the entirety of their adult lives with opiates or amphetamines are expected to find all new ways of living.  Sometimes their behaviors really were undesirable – robbery, domestic violence, neglecting children while blinkered on drugs.

But people struggle to learn new skills – sober living among them, although this was not directly assessed in the studies Walker cites – if their brains don’t undergo a large number of electroencephalogram-visible waves called “sleep spindles” during the final hours of sleep.  If a person sleeps for six or fewer hours each night, the brain never reaches this stage of sleep.

Wake someone up too early day after day, you stifle learning.

Veave_in_jailWrest them into fluorescent wakefulness each morning for a four a.m. breakfast, keep them basically sedentary because a dozen people are packed into a small cement room and the facility is too understaffed to give them “rec time,” constantly elevate their stress hormones by surrounding them with angry, potentially dangerous compatriots, and you ensure that they won’t sleep well.  In addition, chemical withdrawal wrecks havoc on people’s sleep cycles.  They stagger bleary-eyed through months or years inside.  They chug “cocoffala” – commissary instant coffee stirred into Coca-cola – hoping to feel some semblance of normalcy.  Instead, they get the jitters.

And then, finally, they’re set free – usually to probation, expected to follow more rules than the average citizen.

“I’m gonna be out next week,” a dude told me.

“Congratulations!  You’ll get family Christmas after all.”

“Eh, it’s not so great.  I’ll be back before New Years.”

“Yeah?”

“They say I gotta do probation two yearsI slip, they’re sending me to prison.”

“Can you do it?”

“Two years?  I’m not gonna make it two weeks.  Way I see it, I get out, I gotta call up Judge Diekhoff, tell her it’s been real and all, but we gotta start seeing other people.”

He would’ve struggled to change his life in the best of circumstances.  But he certainly couldn’t do it sleep deprived.

On elephants.

On elephants.

During springtime each year, my spouse tells a lot of people that high school prom is a blast … as long as you’re not a high schooler. Many teachers attend, nominally as chaperones, and they don’t have to worry about who they’ll leave with or what they’ll be doing afterward. (Shucking earplugs and going to sleep.)

Prom_crowded_dancefloor

We go to the local high school prom most years. My spouse greets her students and compliments their attire: you clean up well! The boys on the cross country and track teams shake my hand and compliment my attire: you clean up well, coach!

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The most magical night of our lives … every year.

At times, briefly, I am allowed to dance. (My only formal dance training was in preparation for the South Asian Students’ Association spring show during college – I was part of a Dandiya Raas set to “Chale Chalo” from Lagaan – and my preferred style of dancing still involves a lot of leaping.)

raas
Yep.

Each year’s prom is themed, with decorations prepared by junior members of the student council. My favorite was 2012’s “prom-apocalypse,” with fake flames and wreckage. Coincidentally, I prepared the same style of decoration for a fundraiser when I was my high school’s National Honor Society president. The kids here were inspired by the end of the Mayan calendar; our dance was held in December, 1999, when the newspapers were rife with reports of people hoarding cans or turning blue-ish from ingesting too much anti-microbial silver.

I also convinced a d.j. buddy to put together some music for the event, like a track splicing Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” with Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”

Despite having hated being in high school, I love the corny tropes involved. Like, okay, film noir about drug deals gone bad? Eh, seen it. But set that same noir in high school, you get Brick, with charming lines like “She knows where I eat lunch.”

This year, though, prom is circus-themed.

“Oh, cool,” I said. “Like Cirque du Soleil?”

“No. Like, elephants in cages.”

We won’t attend. It seems an especially bizarre choice of theme now, when even Ringling Brothers, after 145 years of torturing elephants, has announced that they’ll stop. They will, of course, continue to torture other species.

Ringling_Bros_and_Barnum_&_Bailey_Circus_Gunther_Gebel-Williams_1969.jpg

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As humans have learned more about animal cognition, we have steadily revised our claims as to the features of our brains that make us special. Once upon a time, we claimed that our superiority came simply from our very large brains; we contrasted ourselves to dinosaurs, whom we claimed (erroneously) had brains no bigger than walnuts.

Elephants have the largest brains of any land animal.

Later, we realized that sheer brain bulk does not equate with intelligence – actual neuron counts would be far more informative.

Elephants have three times as many neurons as humans.

We once posited that “tool use” separated humans from other animals, until we learned that chimpanzees, crows, and others use tools too.

We claimed that only humans understand death. Touting that no other species buries their dead, we claimed that only Homo sapiens have the emotional intelligence necessary to understand narrative. Other animals are trapped inside an eternal now.

This, too, is false.

Three_elephant's_curly_kisses

In elephants, the hippocampus – the brain region implicated in processing narrative emotional memory – is enlarged relative to humans. They routinely visit sites where friends or relatives died. They caress the bones of their lost. After violent encounters with a brutal species of hairless ape, elephants can suffer post-traumatic stress disorder for years. Their children require the guidance of elders to learn behavioral norms.

Like human children, young elephant males who grow in broken communities run wild.

female-elephant-341983_1280.jpg

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We humans have treated elephants abysmally, not in spite of their magnificence, but because of it. When a small, flamboyantly-dressed circus tamer can break an elephant’s will so completely that the creature will perform in the center of a jeering crowd, we receive proof just how powerful humans are.

61m03HD3UQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Elena Passarello writes of our dominance over nature in her essay “Jumbo II,” which interlaces two histories: that of elephants brought to the United States, and our ability to harness electricity.

From the beginning, the elephants were tortured: placed in small zoo enclosures (Passarello: They gave “Old Chief” to the Cincinnati Zoo, which shot him by the end of the decade. Two days after, Cincinnati’s Palace Restaurant added “elephant loin” to its dinner menu.), beaten by circus trainers until they learned to do “tricks,” condemned to death for unexpectedly dangerous behavior during musth.

As our technological prowess grew, electricity was put to ever new uses. Electricity could light our streets! It could power our factories! It could execute the condemned!

The histories of elephants and electricity in America merge in 1903. In Passarello’s words:

[Electrocuting an Elephant] is a minute-long, live short of the first elephant – and the second female of any species on the planet – to be condemned to electrocution for her crimes.

In the yards around Coney Island’s Luna Park, the condemned elephant places each foot onto a copper plate. Once ignited with over 6,000 volts of alternating current, they smoke beneath her planted feet. The smoke rises around her body, her trunk goes rigid, and all five tons of her list forward.

And, from Ciaran Berry’s poem, “Electrocuting an Elephant:”

…though it changes nothing,
I want to explain how, when the elephant falls, she falls
like a cropped elm. First the shudder, then the toppling
as the surge ripples through each nerve and vein,
and she drops in silence and a fit of steam to lie there
prone, one eye opened that I wish I could close.

I could not bring myself to watch the video footage to verify this description, but I am glad her eye was open. We humans behave better when we believe we are watched. And our behavior, in the past, was not good enough.

Even now, we make mistakes. If we want a world with elephants, the money from ecotourism is not enough. Those who have been born to wealthy nations – beneficiaries of a long history of exploitation and violence – should devote funds to repairing some of the damage we’ve inherited.

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On isolation.

On isolation.

Richard-feynmanThe physicist Richard Feynman was insatiably curious.  He was an enthusiastic artist, musician, teacher, biologist, philosopher, lockpicker, epistoler.  And he was puzzled by his own mind: it was made of inanimate matter, and yet there he was, thinking.  He decided to investigate himself:

I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that.

We now refer to these devices as “sensory deprivation tanks.”  Inside the dark, soundless chamber, a person floats effortlessly in densely-salinated, body-temperature water.  In theory, all external stimuli vanish: the mind is free to roam as it will.

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Within the tank, Feynman surmised, he would be left with only his mind and could reflect upon its workings.  He turned his attention toward the phenomenon of human memory, and one day felt he had a breakthrough: he could see clearly that memories were encoded by a long series of linkages, each episode encoded by references to other experiences we’ve had.

I felt pretty good about this discovery … [but] about forty-five minutes after I came out of the tank I suddenly realized I hadn’t the slightest idea of how memories are stored in the brain: all I had was a hallucination as to how memories are stored in the brain!

Deprived of the world, Feynman realized, our speculations become unhinged.

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The sensory deprivation tank was invented by neurologist John C. Lilly.

Lilly was a provocateur.  By now, most scientists are aware that experiments can be difficult to interpret if the researcher is on psychedelics, but Lilly dosed himself and captive dolphins with LSD to test whether the two species could thereby communicate.

For another experiment, Lilly confined a 23-year-old female volunteer in a small facility with a male bottle-nose dolphin.  The volunteer was isolated from other humans for a period of ten weeks.  In this way, she’d teach the dolphin to talk.

The dolphin did not learn to speak.  The dolphin did use non-verbal communication to request a sexual relationship with the human volunteer.  Eventually, she offered manual release.

In total isolation, we change.  Our brains atrophy.  Our inhibitions wane.  Kept constantly indoors, our eyesight goes.

The hand job she gave was reluctant, but, after weeks away from humanity, must have seemed reasonable enough.

Neither of these experiments – drop acid with cetaceans – confine a woman and dolphin for two and a half months together – would be approved by contemporary IRBs.  Applying for funding would be a nightmare – several members of a grant reading committee soberly considering a proposal that states in this way we’ll teach dolphins human speech, a goal ten or twenty years away.

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For scientific experiments, a wide variety of social animals are kept in isolated cages.  These housing conditions seem to affect their minds.  When Dr. Harry Harlow and colleagues took infant rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and housed them in isolation, the animals developed strong attachments to the blankets in their cages.  These blankets were their only friends; the babies became extremely agitated when the blankets were removed.

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Dr. Bruce Alexander and colleagues dosed rats with morphine and then housed them in either isolation or in social environs.  The animals who lived in open playgrounds with toys and other rats subsequently decreased their consumption of morphine-laced liquids.  The animals living alone, in cages, drank more.  From the research publication:

A possible explanation for the environmental effect is that for the isolated rats the reinforcement value of morphine ingestion was enhanced by relief of the discomfort of spatial confinement, social isolation, and stimulus deprivation.

Opiates are highly addictive.  But opiate use is also correlated with other troubles.  Our nation’s current opiate epidemic is linked to the economic crisis.

And among the rats?  These are social animals.  Isolation is painful for them.  They’ll attempt to numb that pain with drugs when given the chance.

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10490113913_e3a697bdca_zConfining social animals in isolation is a form of torture.  Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has argued that prisoners should not be extradited to the United States, as the U.S. routinely holds prisoners in solitary confinement.

After 15 days in solitary confinement, much of the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement becomes irreversible.  Mendez argues that solitary confinement for over two weeks is clearly torture.

In the United States, attempts to change prison policy such that solitary confinement not be used for over 90 days have made little progress.  Throughout the country, many people have been held in solitary confinement for years at a time.  For some, decades.

Large protests have been held outside of prison walls.  Inside, inmates have refused to eat, hoping to draw attention to their plight.  Guards are authorized to pin these men to the ground, shove long lubricated tubes into their nostrils, and pump nutrients directly into their stomachs.

Many of the men in my classes have been held in solitary.  One, a teddy-bear-shaped guy whom the others invariably describe as “humble,” was put in for nine months.  “I get through it okay.  I got myself a system.  This much time I spend thinking, this much time I spend walking in place.  I get to the point, I don’t even want to go nowhere for the exercise.”

“But dude,” I said, “you need the sun!”

“Oh, yeah yeah yeah, if I’m out I go outside, I’m outside all the time.  But for rec time?  You can’t see the sun no how.  You just in a different box.”

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According to ex-CIA officer Ray McGovern, “You can’t get reliable information from torture.  But torture works beautifully if you want unreliable information.”

A young Muslim man named Syed Fahad Hashmi was held in solitary confinement by the United States for three years before his trial.  Per his constitutional rights – innocent until proven guilty – he was an innocent man.  He was decidedly un-dangerous.

From Jeanne Theoharis’s essay, “Torture of a Student,”

The charges against him stemmed from allowing a friend, Junaid Babar, to use his cell phone and to stay for two weeks in his London student apartment with luggage containing raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks (the “military gear”) that Babar later allegedly took to an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan.  Subsequently picked up, Babar became a cooperating witness for the government in numerous terrorism cases in exchange for a reduced sentence, and is now a free man.

Torturing an innocent man before his trial seems ethically suspect.  Theoharis:

Citing extensive research on the health impacts of prolonged solitary confinement and the impact these conditions imposed on Fahad’s ability to participate in his defense, the defense requested a set of modest changes.  The judge was unmoved, stating for the record that the measures were “administrative not punitive” and therefore constitutional.

But the torture is often “successful,” if we define success by the number of people whom we are able to lock away:

These conditions of prolonged isolation are designed to induce acquiescence.  Because the government holds control over the defendant’s conditions and the courts have been loath to intervene, the SAMs [special administrative measures, which can include solitary confinement, censoring of mail & all reading materials, etc.] rig the contest, weakening a person’s ability to participate in his own defense.  The number of plea bargains in the Justice Department’s roster following years of prolonged pretrial solitary confinement suggest the success of these practices.

In this case as well, our government won.  Syed Fahad Hashmi was tortured before his trial on behalf of all United States citizens – which is to say, on my behalf – and he broke.  One day before his trial began… one day after his judge granted the government’s request that this man – who allegedly aided & abetted the transport of ponchos & raincoats! – be tried before an anonymous jury… he accepted a plea.

After three years of torture, during which time he constantly proclaimed his innocence – are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew there were ponchos in his friend’s luggage?  Are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew these ponchos were bound for Al Qaeda? – he “confessed” that he was guilty of “conspiracy to provide material support.”

He was sentenced to 15 years of solitary confinement in ADX.

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29supermax1-blog427-v2ADX – full name, “United State Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum” – is in Florence, Colorado.  Some four hundred men are held there, tortured by the most brutal isolation of any prison in the United States.

A former warden referred to ADX as “a clean version of hell.”

Jesse Wilson – who received a five year prison sentence at the age of 17 – is now at ADX.  This dude, shunted into a world of extreme violence while still a child, quickly conformed to the expectations of his environs.  He “misbehaved” and was moved from prison to prison until reaching the worst in the state of Mississippi, where he got into a fight and killed a man who was being held on death row.

That’s when Wilson received a life sentence and was transferred to ADX.  From his essay describing the place:

We as a country are blind to the reality of our prison system.

It has become normal.  And we the inmates are voiceless.  Our voices are not heard.  If they are heard, the things we say are thought of as lies.  I heard the head of the Bureau of Prisons testifying in Congress (on radio), saying they do not have insane inmates housed here.  This is what should be thought of as a lie.  I have not slept in weeks because of these nonexistent inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night.  And the most non-insane smearing feces in their cells.

This place is horrific with the solitary, and the lack of communication outside these walls.  I’ve been in prison without release for more than twelve years, and eight of them I’ve been in a cage walking around in circles.  So I am pretty in tune with the concept of solitary.  Prison.  Cages and craziness.

Out my window I see into a concrete yard surrounded by red brick walls.  There is a drain in the middle of it and out of it weeds are growing.  I thought they were weeds until a few blossomed into these beautiful yellow and brown flowers.

Every now and then a pair of owls roosts on the security lights.  This spring they had two babies.  We watched them grow up and fly away.  On any given day the sky here is breathtaking.  The beauty out my window stays in my mind.  I look around this cage at plain concrete walls and steel bars and a steel door, a steel toilet, and I endure its harshness because I am able to keep beauty in my mind.

The window helps greatly.

I’m in the hole so there is no TV.  Books help me escape better than my words could ever explain.  But most of all it’s the love of my family, the memories of beauty, and the knowledge of humanity.

Loneliness is a destroyer of humanity.

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hell_is_a_very_small_place_final.jpgThe essays by Theoharis and Wilson – and many others – appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd.

You should read this book.

If you are human, you will cry.

If you are a citizen of the United States, you should know: we’re doing this for you.  The men and women whose essays appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place are being tortured on your behalf.

Mayhaps you should do something.

On killer line breaks.

Tracy K. Smith’s poetry collection Life on Mars is excellent, combining bursts of science-fiction weirdness with totally non-speculative emotional clarity.  If you chance upon a copy, you might try flipping to her poems “The Museum of Obselencence,” or “Sci-Fi,” or “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” particularly the fifth strophe of that last one; those are my favorites, although you could also do pretty well by opening her book at random and reading whatever you find.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any pull quotes that do justice to my favorites from her collection.  So instead I’m stuck writing an essay about a section of the titular poem “Life on Mars.”  And I use the word “stuck” because my lack of experience with poetry will be quite clear here: I picked some lines where Smith reworks quotations from Rush Limbaugh and Senator Norm Coleman about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and, with some killer line breaks, really shifts the meaning.

                                                     The guards
Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.
I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not
What you’d expect from Americans.
Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people
Having a good time, blowing off steam.

9781555975845What she’s doing here is totally unsubtle — if you’re a poetry person, let me reassure you that she employs a much lighter touch in her other pieces.  But, right: I am not a poetry person, so I enjoyed her lack of subtlety here.  To me, this feels almost like going to a martial arts demonstration and seeing someone make a slow, exaggerated motion.  If you’re in the audience you finally get to nod and muse, “Ahhh, so that is how they do it.”  Sure, it’s not real evidence of someone’s prowess, but I think it’s a kindness to sometimes tone down a performance to the point where the untrained eye can appreciate what’s being done.

Here, she plays with a readers eyes.  The line break after “not” pushes you to isolate the phrase “what you’d expect from Americans” from Coleman’s words.  The accusation becomes perfectly clear: this is what Smith would expect from Americans.

There is a lot of debate about whether the United States is a Christian nation, or was meant to be a Christian nation, or the like.  If you’ve ever scrolled through search hits for the topic, I’m sure you’ve already seen numerous screeds written from one side or the other.

To me, it seems compelling that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a plurality of Americans believe their country to be a Christian nation — and the same was probably true earlier, except that fewer people were bothering to ask.  Which I obviously don’t think implies that this country should start drafting laws based on the Bible (although: start?).  I just think it’s important to acknowledge the prevalence of Christianity in American society when trying to ascertain what Americans would or would not do.

Unfortunately, one reason why I think it’s not so surprising that Americans would torture their prisoners is that the Bible takes a pro-torture stance.  Of course, not every Christian sect includes the Book of Revelation in its scripture, but many do.

Capture14:9 And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, if any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand,

The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb:

And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

The types of torture described here are very different from what went on at Abu Ghraib, although not so dissimilar from treatment at Guantánamo Bay — including exposure to scorpions, sleep deprivation, extreme heat, extreme cold, pepper spray, all resulting in persons who’d rather die than endure their torments, etc.  (I’ve written a little bit about Guantánamo elsewhere.)  But to me the key point here is that enemies of the regime are tortured at all.  If a soldier used to be a kid wearing a WWJD bracelet, and Revelation makes clear that Jesus would torture his enemies, well…

But then we reach the next fancy line break that Smith uses, the one right after the word “people.”  Here is Smith’s acknowledgement that it isn’t just Americans who are inclined toward evil (not that it’s fair to hold the abuses of a few against the inhabitants of an entire country — although we did bomb the inhabitants of two whole countries after the horrific actions of a few).  Her poem is “only talking about people,” as a reader is forced to consider before finishing the sentence.  As in, it’s all people who are wired to seek retribution after they or their loved ones or their country are harmed.

Which I thought was a clever trick for Smith to pull off, especially since she’s doing this by repurposing the words of others.  She’s even better in several of her other poems, like all the ones she wrote from scratch.  If you’ve got time, you should check out her book.