Thursday, May 20, 2010

Letters to a Future Death Row Inmate, Part 1

by Thomas B Whitaker

To my dear friend X,

Hi there. I know that your head is probably spinning at an awful rate right now, and that you are still attempting to assemble all the jagged puzzle pieces of memory together so as to figure out how the devil you managed to end up in that tiny cell of yours, but I just wanted to say hello and welcome you to what will prove to be the hardest years of your soon-to-be-over life. Don’t bother replying – yes, just sit yourself down on the metal bunk; I know its uncomfortable but you wont be getting a mattress for several days, so we shall just have to make do, ok? At any rate, I know that you probably don’t feel like conversation right now. That is ok, though it really doesn’t matter to me, because as you read these words, I am dead, and so I cannot hear your objections. The inability to care about your acceptance of my words is actually one of the best parts about being dead, and is a highly undervalued currency, I shall have you know. Aside from that and a few other minor points, I cant say I much recommend the concept of death, but then again, you don’t have much of a say in the matter, do you? I will just say this: for all his genius, Socrates had it wrong; he should have listened to Crito.

Ah, but none of that, for now. If the same statistics hold in your day as existed in mine, you probably know nothing of Socrates or Crito. It’s not important, at this point. I myself didn’t really know much about those two gentlemen either, before I came to this place. There are quite a few paths you might consider taking through the dark woods of the next 6-8 years, and whilst it must be acknowledged that they nearly all end up in the same hole in the ground, the journey is far more pleasant (and rewarding) on some of them. I highly recommend the ways of education and study, my friend. College classes are very difficult to arrange from where you are, but I found that these hurdles only added to a sense of accomplishment. Learning how to think properly is an increasingly rare phenomenon in these later days, and I encourage you to give it an attempt. Your mind has betrayed you enough up to this point; it’s past time to whip it into shape.

Doing so will help you prepare for “life” inside this modern oubliette. Very few people make it out of here, but there is something to be said for trying to live with some measure of dignity, and it is to this end that I have written this series of letters. As I am a practical man, let us begin with some simple, basic points, ok? Let’s see; ah: for starters, it is going to be two or three months before you will receive your TDCJ ID card, and thus it will also be several months before you are able to purchase items from the commissary. Listen carefully: buy several pairs of socks and boxers on credit from a neighbor. Do NOT wear the socks or boxers that the state offers you. Every conceivable fluid produced by the human body has, at one point or another, been liberally splattered over each and every one of these items. You should know that the bleach needed to properly disinfect these garments is stolen by the laundry room workers for resale on the black market. Buy it when you can. Trust me, my good man: given the choice of going commando for a while or wearing the states clothing, go with the former. Staph infection is rampant back here, and having any boils in close proximity to that portion of your anatomy is a nauseating prospect. (Should you get an infection, however, you need to ask for Bactrim and doxycycline, and quickly.)

More practical points…ok, keep this in mind: these guards are not your amigos. I know that you have probably noticed how friendly most of the inmates are with the lawmen, and you are certainly confused by this. Death Row is the safest building in all of the TDC to work in, though you certainly wont hear that on the news. Many of these officers are decent, semi-normal people just working a job, but many of them will jump at a moment’s notice to testify against you in the event the courts reward you with a retrial. Be cordial, polite even. But always remember that white is not gray, and never will be. When hiring the TDC reaches for the lowest common denominator, and often succeeds in finding it. In any case, about ⅓ of your neighbors are pederasts, so lets just conclude that you probably don’t want to follow their lead on much of anything, ok?

I am not suggesting that you will have to go it alone back here. Far from it. I am simply warning you that you need to pick your friends with caution, both inside 12 Building and in the freeworld. Very soon now you are going to start receiving a lot of mail from people you have never met. Some of this will be from Anti-Death Penalty abolitionists, who mostly mean well, even if they are somewhat ineffective. In fact, it is probably going to alarm you that the two main abolitionist groups in the capital of capital punishment in the West wont talk to each other, due to some microscopic ideological difference. Just remember: for all of that, they are literally the only game in town. Try to understand the historic, cultural, and religious Bastilles that these people are attempting to storm for your sake, and let those feelings of derision go. Scorn may have a place in your emotional armamentarium, but not on this issue.

That said; beware of Death Penalty “groupies” masquerading as activists. Though it may seem inconceivable to you, this subculture exists, and it exists in large numbers. Lewis Lapham hit the nail squarely upon its head when he noted that: “A society that presumes a norm of violence and celebrates aggression, whether in the subway, on the football field, or in the conduct of business cannot help making celebrities of the people who would destroy it.” You will no doubt be as disturbed as I was when you receive your first marriage proposal or multi-page sexually deranged fantasies, which usually involve a lot of leather and no small amount of blood. Just toss these missives out – don’t ever consider responding. It is somewhat more difficult to detect groupies of more subtle means, though they will usually self-identify after a short interim of seeming normality. What you need to concentrate on are not people who massage your ego (or other bodily organs vaguely connected to said ego), but rather supporters who believe in your potential to become a better human being. These people are exceedingly rare, but they do exist, and I can tell you that the presence of just one of these men or women can act as a fulcrum that will move your entire world. I have found that writing to people mostly over the age of 50 significantly decreases the presence of those pen-pals who simply want to engage in a cheap flirtation with the abnormal.

Along with the supporters and groupies come the members of the Fire and Brimstone Brigade. This is my humorous (to me, anyway) name for them – for they truly are laughable. In my more serious moments of contemplation, I more correctly label them as the American Taliban. (After all, “Taliban” simply means “religious students”.) These people are pretty much all of a type: white, middle class, southern state evangelicals who usually profess to be deeply committed to their families. And yet, you will never receive a more disturbing series of letters than you will from these people. (They make the S&M/rape seeking wackos seem tame by comparison.) They will curse you, or ask their god(s) to curse you, but they will never give you their return address. Which is a rather revealing window into their natures though it wouldn’t do any good to engage them in debate, anyway. They are the modern manifestations of Torqemada, of Raymond du Fauga, of Tertullian (“credo quia absurdum est”, indeed) It would be nearly impossible to show them the errors in their logic, for logic and rationality are not major or even contributing components to their belief structures. To see what I mean, HERE and HERE are two samples I received in the same week. As you can see, proper grammar and spelling are not fundamental to the fundamentalists. Neither is even a rudimentary grasp of the field of ethics. (Though, on some weird level, you might appreciate the fact that such letters are often written in colored ink, as colors other than gray, black and white are rare in your life.)

It helps to understand that these people aren’t really angry at you. They latch on to you for the same reason that moderately attractive girls like to have homely friends: it makes them look better by contrast. Mostly, they are fretting about the fact that their entire way of life is crumbling: America is a lot browner than they want it to be; their long cherished myths are no longer declared victorious by fiat, and are slowly being ground to dust under the onslaught of reason; their political leaders are all moral cowards. Remember that people who vociferously declare what they are against, while being unable to articulate what they are for without resorting to the former, are not worthy of conversation. If you are of a more intellectual bent, try to keep in mind that traditionalists always make a fuss as they are swept into the rubbish bin of the past; you will find ample evidence of this in the annals of history.

They remind me of the Pacific Island of Nauru. Do you know it? It achieved some notoriety back in the 90’s for it’s non-existent banking laws, but it is not to this issue that I am referring. The soil on Nauru is almost pure phosphate, and the entire core of the island has been strip-mined clear down to its coral bones. These people, too, have no center, no core. They limp through existence clinging to ideologies that were already bought, sold, reprocessed and recommodified dozens of times before they were even born. Simply put them and their delusion-inspired ethos out of the picture. They can only hurt you if you allow them to. Always keep in mind a maxim that I have found immensely useful in coping with the Fire and Brimstone Brigade: what can be asserted without evidence, can also be dismissed without evidence. Keep this close; it will serve you well.

Oh, come, man, its not all that bad; take your hands off your face. Melodrama doesn’t suit you. In any case, despair is an emotion only displayed by people who think they are going to live forever. I can see that you are growing weary of me, so I will start to wind this down for today. As you sit there, right now, in this very moment, kill yourself in your mind. You have to bury hope. Hope is a nice, pretty thing for people with a real life ahead of them, but for you it is a cancer that will eat you raw. Die. Right now, in your head. Have your last words, your funeral. That way, whatever happens next will simply happen, without the attached emotional torture. After all, what did you expect from life? Greener grass on the other side of the fence? Azure skies and perpetually soft landings? Why did you expect more from Fortune and Fate then the trees in the forest or the birds of the air? Did you think yourself more valuable than the rocks in the stream? The virus that kills without mercy? If you don’t know what the word “solipsism” means, look it up, because you are made up of them.

Maybe in one of my future letters I will help you find a means of divorcing yourself from such madness. Part of me thinks that doing so would rob you of an ecstatic-I-just-fucking-figured-it-out moment, which are one of the greatest pleasures in life. We will see. Maybe one mans epiphany is another mans bargain-basement self-help recipe. Maybe the root of the desire for said recipe - that someone has got the Secret, the answer for how not to get sick, or suffer, or taste death – is the greatest weakness of our half-evolved species. These themes are worth contemplating about, since all you really have is time, anyways.

I will part with a small nudge in the right direction, if you permit me. Consider a story from the Bhagavad – Gita, a Hindu scripture from the 4th Century BCE. Like all such religious texts, be wary of drawing literal conclusions; allegorical lessons will suffice. The episode I have in mind concerns the god Krishna, as he takes human form to act as the charioteer to the warrior Arjuna. Krishna tells Arjuna that the attention we pay to specific outcomes in life (good or bad) should be minimal. Relinquish all connection to outcomes, Krishna teaches: be equally indifferent to success and failure. Instead of assigning value to what happens around you, realize that such things only have value in that they allow you to see anew what is going on inside your “soul.” Replace “soul” with “mind”, and I think you will see what he meant. Wisdom doesn’t come easy, Krishna teaches. It takes time and practice to forge a mind quiet enough to hear life’s deeper truths. It takes discipline.

Keep your head up, friend. Hell can be a place, or a tool. The blessing is: you get to decide which it will be.

Until next time,

© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved.


Andrew said...

Hello Thomas, "Letters to a Future Death Row Inmate" is by far the best material you have written this far. This applies to both content as well as delivery. Your sentence construction is becoming smoother and the message that you are conveying may well reach a human spirit who is at risk of making similar mistakes that you have; so there there might just be some actual practical value in your account that couldn't be more authentic ! Your forays into philosophy and your developed personal views are a mixed bag, I agree with some (in fact, a few are quite striking), with others I can see a knowledge deficit, which you cannot be blamed for. But I will leave more detailed explorations to our correspondence. Continue to hone your writing and reflection skills, this piece constitutes a clear improvement, if not a small milestone. Andrew

Librul said...

Charming fan mail you receive. I am an ex-pat Brit, living in Texas for almost 17 years. I have to say I have no strong opinion on the DP, I nether agree or disagree with it. What I do find disturbing, is the amount of outrageous and unchecked hatred prevalent since the election of President Obama. Before I lived in Texas, I would have dismissed those letters as someone trying to yank your chain, but I have actually heard people speak that way and believe me, with all the talk of terrorism and the Patriot Act, I strongly feel they should arrest these crazies on suspicion of something. You seem like such an intelligent young man, it is quite a shame at the circumstances you now find yourself in. My thoughts are and have always been with your father. For his sake, I hope there is an acceptable resolution.

2a98df04-4654-11e0-95d6-000bcdca4d7a said...

I really enjoyed reading this. A lot of death row inmates who blog, will blog about themselves because they want to save their own asses. (i.e., clinton young) it's nice to see someone blog about something that could be relevant to others. I kind believe those letters. ha! keep up the awesome work man.