Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Quest For Purification

October 17th 2009 – 3:45am

You have to take the good with the bad.

Yesterday was an “inside” rec day for my section, with my cell slotted to go very last. In one of those wonderfully convoluted TDC-style clusterfucks (which happen with an alarming frequency), it came about that “one” of the “outside” rec yards would be open for me, “if’n you wants it, Whitaker.” I made sure to put the word “one” in quotation marks, so that you wouldn’t miss the emphasis there, as I surely did. It would be awfully nice if people did those little two-handed quotation movements with their fingers more often, wouldn’t it? (nevermind, I take that back.)

As I have described previously, the outside yards exist as a pair; had I clicked to the guard saying “one” of them was open, I naturally would have asked who was going to be in the other. But I didn’t snap to it, and as a result, I didn’t ask. (My “Blessings Journal” for the day, for the record: God-side reads: “thanks for instilling a touch of compassion into this guards heart, JC. You are all-right in my book.” The rationalist side reads: “Since none of the three guards working the pod today can walk and chew gum at the same time, they screwed up the count, and I get to go outside. Yay, me.”)

So, around 5.30pm I was led “outside” in cuffs, into the sauna that is a Southeast Texas October afternoon. My cell usually goes to rec first round in the mornings (6:30-8:30am), so I never really get to see any sun though the mesh ceiling of the cage. Today was no different except the sun was coming from the other side, which at least gave me a new series of shadows to look at. It was still better than reccing indoors, though, hands down. I was enjoying my rat-in-a-wheel-esque circular walk, when the door locks popped, and two guards showed up, leading another man in white. I groaned upon seeing that it was a much maligned child rapist and killer, a man who seldom comes out of his cell. Even the guards knew they were screwing up, because they looked at me apologetically and mouthed “Sorry, dude” as they departed. (Addendum to the “Blessings Journal”, both columns: “damnit to hell.”)

I try not to judge. I really do. I am no one to comment about how screwed up someone is, but it is so very hard, when you hear about some of the stories of what the men around me did to get here. This guy, he’s younger than I am. I don’t know how many children he killed but it’s more than two. I try not to listen to news stories, because I know how slanted they can be. But from what I’ve witnessed with my own two eyes, this guy is a creep. He goes into furies and throws faeces on the run and at officers. He cries at night for hours and hours, his sobs echoing down the run. That shit will drive you insane, if you have to listen to it for long. He is not a person for whom the word pity comes to mind, and I didn’t want to be out there with him.

Like I said at the start of this, you have to take the good with the bad.

And so, we spent two hours outside, watching the shadows grow longer, and I learned some terrible things about this man’s life, things which are likely to trouble me for long years. As I listened, I watched one of this pods pet black widows sitting in her little crack in the concrete wall, and I couldn’t help but make the connection that this mans mother probably shared a great many qualities with this spider. It is not my place to speak of what he told me in confidence, but everything that dripped out of his mouth about his childhood strengthens my conviction that monsters are not born, they are made. And that they are made in very obvious ways, if only we were to pay attention. I don’t like this man. I will never like this man. But I do understand him, at least a little bit. Sometimes, the acquisition of wisdom carries with it a heavy price, a loss which is seemingly incalculable. Though I will never agree with the sentiment that “ignorance is bliss,” at times like these, I understand why some people do.

The gap which separated us was wide and deep. This chasm constituted the sum total of how this man was defined to me, in my mind. After speaking with him, it narrowed a little bit. Such events happen far too rarely in my world. And, I humbly submit, in yours as well. It takes a lot of energy and time to leave our comfort zones and move into the terrain of someone else’s life, especially when the grass on the other side looks more like a tepid bog. Who has the spare energy for that, these days?

Understanding is a two-way street, though, isn’t it? This man spoke to me, because he knows me as a person who would not repeat the details of our conversation, and this took a great deal of effort on his part. But, I also had to be willing to listen, too. I often feel as if I am a complete failure at finding the right words to express what I feel inside, even though I know that there is an audience willing to listen. I fail at this more than I care to admit. I make the attempt, clumsy as it is, and you have to go to great lengths to empathize, or else the gaps between us remain. Such is the problem we face as a species whose solipsistic nature is easily its most identifiable quality.

If I could explain myself better, you would understand me better, even when what I write is so bitter that it ages the paper upon which I type. I’ve always known this. Mostly, I’ve failed at putting things into terms you out there can identify with, because our worlds are so drastically different. I console myself a little with the fact that sometimes even great writers have this problem.

To get books back here in Ad-Seg from the library, the process is more complicated than simply going out and picking up what you want in person, like they do in GP. You first have to request a “shelf list,” which is a (supposedly) complete listing of all the books in the library. Then, you send an I-60 (request form) to ask for the two books you would like to have for that week. Seven to fourteen days later, an officer wheels around a little cart and delivers everything. (Providing, of course, the library is not closed, as it seems to be most of the time. As to why a prison library needs to shut down for “Summer Break,” well, that is beyond me. It’s not like the convicts who run the library have gone anywhere. Texas logic, I guess. Yeee-haw!)

At any rate, the shelf list does not give any descriptions of the books it lists, only the title and the name of the author. You make a judgement call on the cover, basically, which runs contrary to something I was taught in pre-school, but whatever. A few weeks back, I was looking through the shelf list, making my own list for the next year, so that I wouldn’t have to order the bloody list again anytime soon. I came across Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Between Existentialism and Marxism,” and I thought to myself, hey, that sounds about where I fall on the ideological / ontological spectrum, why not give that a shot? (Gasp! A socialist! Get the pitchforks, maw!) Gag. This book hurt my brain. I’m assuming the translator was a pretty smart cookie, but I needed a translator for the translator. It is not a very long book, right at 300 pages, but it took me nearly a week to complete it, because I had to stop at practically every single sentence to try and figure out what was being said. A typical example: “Kierkegaard is a singular witness – or, as he says, the Exception – by virtue of a redoubling in himself of the subjective attitude: in our eyes he is an object of knowledge in so far as he is a subjective witness of his own subjectivity, that is to say, in so far as he is an existent announcer of existence by virtue of his own existential attitude.” Yeah, say that three times fast. Once you work your way through that, you see that Sartre was actually saying something fairly simple, with the maximum amount of pompous bullshit possible. (Or, to put it in terms he might prefer: “Pardon me delving into a touch of logomachy, but Sartre’s praxis is shamelessly fustian and magniloquent…” Ha! Ok, ok, that was stupid, forgive me. It sounded better when I said it aloud with a smarmy Eton accent and an elitist sneer. Go on, try it. You know you want to.) He goes on to talk a lot about Flaubert, Mallarme, and Genet. Well, I’ve never read “Madam Bovary,” and I don’t even know who Mallarme and Genet were (the chapter on Mallarme, entitled “The Poetry of Suicide,” was cut out of the book by Big Brother.)

Despite all of that, there were a few lines which caught my attention and which ultimately caused me to write this entry: “Everyone wants to write because everyone has a need to be meaningful – to signify what they experience. Otherwise it all slips away – you go about with your nose to the ground, like the pig made to dig for truffles – and you find nothing…But I still possess one conviction, one only, and I shall never be shaken from it: writing is a need felt by everyone. It’s the highest form of the basic need to communicate…The need to write is fundamentally a quest for purification.”

A quest for purification. Yeah that sounds about right. That is what I hope for when I sit down in front of this machine. I seldom arrive at such a lofty goal, but even the attempt is worthwhile most of the time. I am cleansed by your understanding of me, something that I think most of you will admit would have seemed impossible before finding this site. But that lacunae…alas, it is so wide. My friend D recently wrote me the following in a letter: “I never told you this before, but I used to resent it when you would write about the conditions you live in and then ask the reader, ‘What does this say about you?’ I thought it was self-serving on your part. But one day I was driving and thinking about it and it all clicked and I finally got what you’ve been saying. What does it say about us as a society that we allow this kind of punishment? It’s completely inhumane. It’s sickening…and so much of the other reading I've done echoes what you said. I feel like an idiot now for not understanding it sooner but all I can say is that I've had to travel to get to this point. Its not that I ever believed that anyone deserved to live this way, I just didn’t fully understand what living out a death sentence meant until recently. I think its important for people to know this…how would I feel if I lost someone I loved, or if I couldn’t see the stars anymore? They were baby steps that started me on the journey to understanding a much bigger picture. I think a big part of the problem is making people aware that such atrocities as death row exist. People resist awareness because it’s such an ugly reality.” See, now that is right on. Would that I could express myself like her! You can say many things about my friend D, as she is a complicated woman. One thing she is not, though, is an “idiot.” Far from it. But, if it took her a while to get what I've been saying for so long, I’m not doing my job very well, at all. I've been thinking about this for a while, and D’s words keep coming back to me: I’ve had to travel to get to this point. Can we ever understand the life on someone else, if we weren’t there to walk the path with them? I tend to think not, but being able to describe the path in clear terms goes a long way to completing the task.

And so, I’m left with trying to figure out some manner of helping to bridge the gap that divides us. The entry I posted recently with the photographs seemed to help, but such data is exceedingly hard to come by, and I am not likely to come across any more treasure-troves like that for a while. I am left with options that I have resisted for years, and I don’t know what to think about that. Most of the men around me who have websites post a wide variety of information about their cases. I told myself that I was never going to do this, that this site was going to be more about social change than personal gain. I still feel very strongly about this, and D’s words warm me in a way that is difficult to describe, thinking that I have accomplished some of this goal. And yet…can anyone understand what it is to be a DR prisoner, without understanding the court process? When I put it to myself like that, I knew that it was impossible. I’m still ambivalent about doing this, though. All of us here are looking for better attorneys, one of those high profile Johnny Cochrane types who will sweep in from stage left like the gods of ancient Greek theatre and take on our cases pro bono. That is why most people post their case data online. I want to be very clear about this: I am not going to publish any legal information with this goal in mind. In addition, I have always felt that it is expecting a bit much of normal people to peruse though huge reams of boring legal information, anyways. It’s like reading Sartre, with the exception being that even when we don’t understand him, we know he is saying something intelligent, whereas with the law it’s just a bunch of retarded crap written by attorneys. Hopefully, you will read it anyways.

No, I am going to post a few things for another reason all together: that you might see how outr courts in this nation really work. How could you know this? I didn’t know anything about it. I assumed programs like “Law and Order” were relatively truthful. Unfortunately, Jack McCoy is a figment of the imaginations of some gifted writers, and “truthful” has very little to do with the process. In fact, I would go so far to say that it has absolutely nothing to do with the process. I've said such things before but now I’m going to back up my words with proof, so that another gap can be closed between us.

Below, I am going to post a copy of my writ of habeas corpus, and some of the exhibits attached to the writ (I’ve left off the exhibits that were purely matters of law lest ye be tempted to poke your eyes out). The writ is a listing and explanation of some of the errors which occurred during my trial. I say “some” because I have court-appointed attorneys, and we did not have the time or the money to investigate all that I wanted done. (See this Chronicle story for an example of something that we didn’t have the ability to investigate. Also here, here and here.) This data is sometimes hard to read, but I think that most of you will find it to be understandable. It may hurt to read a little, because your notions of just prosecutors are going to be shattered, but this is a truth that we need to recognize, and then correct. If this fails to make some of you die hard DP supporters pause, then I don’t guess I know what else I can do. When reading, keep in mind that “Applicant” is me and “undersigned” is my writ attorney.

This habeas does not make me look good. But it is what it is: we all know what I am here for. As a friend of mine pointed out to me recently, though, “It’s not about what YOU did, Thomas. It’s about what we do as moral people.”

It doesn’t get much more purifying than that.

© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Don’t Ask, If You Don’t Want To Know

October 1st, 2009

A friend of mine recently sent me a few of the comments people have left here over the last few months. She thought that it would be a goof idea if I answered some of the questions posed by many of you, and I agreed with her. I’m going to try to do this more often, as there are some very worthy and intelligent thoughts here that probably deserve some elaboration. I knew there were some brights out there! I am going to need the assistance of though of you who write to supply me with any interesting comments as they are posted, however. I cannot claim that there is going to be much of a system for deciding which ones I shall answer, save that I promise they wont be softball type questions. Not much of a point to that, and I can take the abuse, in any case. Also, please don’t confuse a passionate response for derision. I’m not making fun of anyone for honest questions. For dishonest ones, well… that’s a different story. So, post with caution, I guess. Onward!

From the entry If I Only Had a Brain – June 30th, 2009

terry said...
I thought the purpose of this blog was to show how much Thomas has changed because of his faith in God. So much good could come from this blog if he would give hope to those who faith is lacking. Instead he is using this as forum to constantly complain

Terry, don’t you think that I would love to write something about how God has moved in my life? There is nothing, not a single subject, that I would be more overjoyed to write about. I’ve said it a thousand times, but people don’t seem to like to go back and read the older entries, so I will say it again, just to cover the bases: I do not consider myself a gifted writer. That said, I am good enough to write campy, Sunday-morning-special Kumbah-yah-fest of an entry which would convince most everyone that we are all okie-dokie, how love is all around and how great God is. My readership would undoubtedly soar my education fund coffers overflow, and my petition become so popular that even the Governor would be impressed. This would be simple to do. Except for one thing: it would not be honest, Terry, not at all.

I want to be very, very clear about this: I have never met anyone, ever, who has tried to find God as hard as I have. I was an extremely faithful young man, forgoing many, many social events (and the important social development that would have sprung from my attendance) because I thought there might exist the possibility that I would be tempted into ding something immoral. At summer camp, while everyone else was busy swimming or playing baseball, I was wandering the back trails of the Ozarks, Bible in hand. I’ve been to churches all my life, of many denominations, and scanned the pulpits of each one of them for some kernel of truth that I could latch onto. I attended a Christian High School. During all this time, I read mostly theological books, and understood nearly all of them. Since my arrival here, I have read probably…oh, say 200-ish Christian books, everything from the dreadful Hal Lindsey (whose poorly concealed glee of the destruction of the world should be quite frightening to any sober and sane individual, but who we pardon, collectively, because he is merely interested in “eschatology”) to the admirable Blaise Pascal. I am not one of those lazy types, who has never scanned the skies and then had the audacity to lament over never having found sign or signal from above. I didn’t stop with the Bible, though. I’ve read the Koran, and the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Rig Veda, and the Mahabharata, and the Upanishad. I’ve devoured more Buddhist Sutras than I can count. I ingested, sometimes with much discomfort, at times with much appreciation, Moses Maimonides, CS Lewis, Hegel, Lucretius, Aristotle, Plato, Ibn Warraq, Loyola, Descartes, Freud, Kant, Epicurus, Aristophenes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Tertullian, Polkinghorne, and many more. I didn’t always understand everything they said, but I worked on it until I got most of it. I do not say this to brag. I have a lot of time. I mention it, so that you can understand me when I say that, despite all this, despite the countless hours I have spent on my knees, I have yet to see God present himself to me.

Oh, I have changed, my friend. In more ways than I could list. But these changes did not come from above. They came, because I willed them into existence. I rolled up my sleeves, and put my hands to work, the work of fixing a ship badly in need of some repairs. My religious friends continually want to give God the credit and glory for this, and I do not object too loudly, because this is typical of religious thinking: to ascribe anything positive to God, and credit anything negative to another account. But it does sting a little inside, because we all want to be praised for the hard work we devote ourselves to.

I am sorry that because my faith is not your own, you consider the sum value of this site to be equal to merely complaints. Nice. I do so appreciate that. And I am also sorry that you do not see any “hope” here for those whose faith is lacking. There is a species of hope to be found here, though I fear you are unwilling or unable to detect it. True, it is a variety of hope far, far apart from what you are accustomed to, where you are told that everything is fine, everything is dandy, and better days are surely coming. Next to this, my version of hope is certainly cold-comfort. I’m not going to tell you all will be merry, because, most likely, it will not be. We are all only one three AM phone call away from disaster, and me telling you that this is not tries does you a serious disservice. No, the hope hidden aware from some on this site is for those who say to themselves, “Ok, so things are bad. Lets deal with it, and fix it.” It is about finding strength inside, when faith is weak or dead, when friends and family are gone, when the night is dark and you are alone, utterly alone. It is about survival. And about seeing the world the way it really is, not the way we want it to be. It is about denying our tendencies, such as accepting only the version of the truth that we already believe in, the one that makes us feel warm and un-challenged.

We should get this straight: I do not want you to feel good, after reading this site. I want you angry. I want you to be horrified. This delusion that the world is just peachy – this is the problem. We have real problems to solve on this planet. There are crises coming which will kill us as a species, and this will only get addressed after we realize that the only way to get out of this alive is if we get serious about this “being human” thing. No more candy-coating the truth, Terry. That has not worked thus far, and it will not work as the temperature rises and the population soars above 9 billion in a few decades. That is where your hope has gotten us. Mine will give us a chance to survive.

Terry, I will tell you what I have told many of my religious friends lately: if your God is who you profess him to be, if he is benevolent and loving, omniscient and omnipotent and omnipresent, then he already knows who I am, and where I am, and what I need from him, and when. He knows how to reach me, in words that will penetrate. If he loves me, he will show himself. If he does not, well, that is your theological quandary to deal with, not mine. I’m past it. I’ve got work to do.

My doubts do not make me a bad person. In fact, my wanderings from the realms of faith and revelations have made me infinitely better, by any standard you care to list. I help the men around me more, even though I have far less. I don’t do this to please the skies or to shore up treasures in some paradise. I do this because they are my brothers and they need help, and because no one else – particularly not the faithful – are willing to. My system of ethics does not require promises of reward for being good, or the fear of roasting eternally in some fiery pit for doing wrong. I do good, as much as I am able to, because I have found purpose in life, and this purpose requires me to lift up the cast down and protect those who cannot protect themselves. My reach is short at present, sure. But it grows longer by the day, and you really do not want to see what I am going to be able to do to this system in ten years, if I am still alive. I can think of no better reason for the state to kill me as quickly as possible than to prevent the storm that I am bringing.

It sometimes confuses me why the religious seem to pretend to themselves that they have the market cornered on morality. Have you read the Old Testament lately? Scan it, and you will find every act of murder, rape, torture, and depravity imaginable is not only permitted by Yahweh, but endorsed and commanded by him. You deign to look down on me from these heights? Sorry. Not buying it. Whatever comes later, the Yahweh of the OT is a petty, unjust, vindictive, jealous (of humans, why?), money-grubbing, retrograde tyrant. As noted by many observers, who but a slave thanks a ruler for what he was planning to do anyway? That is your morality. I’ve moved beyond that, and we had all better consider doing the same, and soon. I may choose to delve into the specifics of what I believe at some point, or I may not. Mainly, I believe that I should stay out of someone else’s decision as to what to believe. That’s why I haven’t talked a lot about God of late.

But you asked, so there it is. I figured that silence was probably better, because, frankly. I doubt you really want to hear what I have to say on all of this. There is a point on most journeys, where, once you cross, there is no going back. I’ve thrown the gauntlet down before God. It’s his move.

It has only been about a year since I finally found my feet in this world, finally learned of the power locked inside my mind. Drugs, depression, nihilism, pain, loneliness, and yes a faith that answers none of the real questions that I desperately needed answered, caused me to flounder about for 28 years. I blame no one but myself for this, and if it were in my power to rectify every negative act I have ever committed in this life, I would do so with a glad heart, regardless of the cost. But this is beyond my power. What does lay within my reach, however, is to concentrate on the good I can do from this point forward, now that I am nearly a year old. Maybe you dislike this new me. If so, I am sorry. Truly sorry. I do not like to disappoint anyone. But I will not turn back for you, or anyone. You do not have the right to ask this of me. You do have the right, however, to clickety-click that little “X” in the upper right-hand corner of our screen, and -magic- I go away. It’s not so easy for me. I have no little “X”

Despite all of this, despite my real feelings on the matter of religion, I do not rail against my religious friends when they say something which is truly cringe-inducing. I even acquiesce to their requests to read such-and-such book, or to attempt this-or-that prayer. I have a particularly good friend (whom I do not have to agree with in order to love) who counseled me to make a “Blessings Journal,” wherein I was to list, daily, all the blessings that “God provided for (me)” I do this, still, after more than a year, simply to honor the friendship that she has shown me. Since this is my journal, though, I do it my way: on the left side of the page, I list the “blessing,” such as today’s: “got an extra lunch tray, which had a burrito on it.” On the right, I list the natural science explanation for the “blessing”: “I was the last cage in the last section to be fed. Since my neighbor is at the hospital, there was an extra tray. I asked for it. As you can always count on a TDJC officer to be lazy, he gave it to me, rather than carry it back to the tray cart.” Now, if you so choose, you may believe that God, or Satan, or angels, or Mary, or any one of a thousand “Saints”, or a demon, or a devil, or a Jenn, or a Jinn, or an ifrit, or a marid, or a shaitan, or a fairy, or whatever, altered the physical composition of the universe, to so influence this particular guard to cough up the goods. Or, you can believe that he gave it to me because he was lazy, and because I have chosen to be kind to him in the past, he returned the favor. That is your choice. For me, Occams razor is both clean and decisive, and the correct choice is quite apparent. I engage in this type of observation any time I hear about some “miracle”, and have yet to find any act so statistically improbable as to qualify as a genuine miracle. But I am still looking, still open to being proven wrong. And that is a claim that few of the religious will ever make in converse.

Pierre-Simon de Laplace took Newton’s calculus a step further, to show how the planets and gravity worked in a vacuum. In his “Celestial Mechanics”, he showed the solar system as seen from outside, which we must see as rather novel, because, remember, the church had long insisted that the earth was the center of the universe. You could be murdered for saying otherwise. Napoleon once asked for Laplace to show him a model of the solar system, called an orrery, as well as his 5-volume work. He wanted to know why God did not appear in any of his calculations, and Laplace coolly responded: “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothese.” When it comes to the “Blessings Journal,” I add humbly and simply: and neither do I.

In conclusion, I return to a point that I mentioned earlier: I really could make this a religious site. Quite easily, actually. Even now, I still have whole portions of the Bible memorized, much to the dismay and consternation of the people who choose to debate with me (but, only, I add, when they beg the argument, and have been duly warned of the possible outcome) I never promised this site would be pretty. I merely said that I would be honest. If things change, I will report that. In the meantime, maybe you could consider that the religious have a tendency to vocalize their dislike for many things, but when it comes to fixing anything, they tend to prefer to merely pray about it. Maybe look at what I am “complaining” about, and realize that these problems need to be dealt with. So get busy, or don’t. I’ve made my choice.

You see, Terry, now I am the one with my faith lacking. I could easily (and scornfully) laugh that you are doing exactly what you accused me of: depriving the needy of the hope they require to move forward. But I wont. I don’t need hope. Hope is…what? Some illusion that some higher power, be it God, or chance, or Ed McMahon, is going to swoop in out of the blue and save us from a situation that is probably our fault to begin with. If this hope fails to materialize, what then? There is no recourse to a failed hope. You simply have to go and make a new hope. No, hope is nice, but a plan is better. A plan, just like a good hypothesis, allows you to go back and dissect it, to see where error crawled into the process. I guess I will pass on hope. I have enough, here inside me, to make it, to face whatever comes, until the end. And when that end does come to pass, I will face it with stoicism, because that is also part of my purpose.

Wow, Terry, that turned into a rant! More “complaints,” sorry. I will do another one of these comments this weekend, probably. I will try to be less of an ogre, I swear. And, Terry, if God does happen to pop up, I promise that I will be instantly writing about it, and will publicly call myself the biggest nincompoop ever born, and beg your pardon. Until that day, then.

“Is he (god) willing to prevent evil but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”


“And do you think that unto such as you a maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew God gave a secret, and denied it me? Well, well – what matters it? Believe that, too!”

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.