By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
A panel of hyper-pedantic anal-retentives nearly came to blows this evening on NPR over the thorny and highly relevant subject of typological hermeneutics. Man, if only I had a nickel for every time that mess has come up in my own life, am I right? Just the other day, I was in the dayroom rapping about Starobinski’s take on a poetics of the self when this deranged, facially-tattooed miscreant interrupted me to scream about his set’s preference for Geoffrey Galt Harpham, while waving a shank around in the air. I’m sure you can all relate. Anyways, to be honest, I nearly missed this near-fray, because whenever someone says the words “tropological structure” to me without breaking into laughter, or how such-and-such “problematizes” something else, my mind tends to drift (sorry). I perked back up when one tweedy fellow sneered to another, probably equally-as-tweedy bloke that something he said was “preposterous”. That’s like the PhD equivalent of me telling my psychopathic neighbor that I’d like to do something adventurous and possibly anatomically impossible to his sister. I could audibly hear the other panelists gasp. I half-expected to hear shouting in expository pentameter or perhaps hieratic, technical Greek followed by vigorous, if somewhat feminine, slapping noises. Alas, the moderator was able to rein in these hyperborean passions and, by the end of the show, consensus had been reached on the secular, metonymical structure of self pioneered in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. No doubt you are all terribly relieved.
Still, I did get something out of the above. My fearless, intrepid, and never-even-remotely annoying Editor-in-Chief has been on me to write the annual quasi-holiday post, wherein I extol the virtues of MB6, talk about how hard we all work around here, and pretend that a bunch of people who have grown accustomed to gorging themselves at the trough of free content are suddenly going to decide they might like to pay a little for the grub, and where you all pretend for about twelve nanoseconds that you mean to do exactly that this year, before we all revert back to the cynical mean. I confess, I’ve been having, say, motivational deficiencies of late. The above-mentioned belletristic geeks managed to provide me the spark I needed to sit down and grab a pencil. Perhaps not surprisingly, this catalyst recognized itself during a conversation about tilting at windmills.
Not long after the ‘Thomas Carlyle Affair’, the panel discussed the possibilities for the first “modern” novel. The various qualifications for the title were a little obscure (“perhaps we should add that the ‘modern’ is characterized by an epistemological certainty that heralds a sense of true self-knowledge”, which would, if I understand any of that at all, extend the modern to cover at least Augustine). What was most important, was: the novel had to mark the transition from feudalism to capitalism; it needed to focus on the hero living by his own wits; the protagonist needed to be in possession of a Cartesian, subjective reality that most normal people today could identify with; and, that it might parody the aristocratic hero of feudal romance. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote was the obvious choice here. This is an interesting choice. Wrong, as it happens, but wrong in a very interesting way, and that’s… you know… great. Or something.
I’m down with Alonso Quixano, Sancho Panza, and Rocinante, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that the Lazarillo de Tormes was written more than fifty years before Cervantes started writing Don Quixote. I say all of this is interesting because the Lazarillo is the story of a cast-out, thief, swindler, prisoner, and general no-goodnik who, via his introduction to the criminal underworld, becomes a cynical, self-seeking, and independent, weapons-grade jerk. He was, in effect, modern literature’s ur-bandit, and he clobbers all of the critics’ bullet points for modernity out of the park. The first novel of the modern age is, ultimately, prison literature.
So was the second, Mateo Aleman’s Guzman de Alfarache; and I like this selection even better than the Lazarillo. Guzman, the protagonist, starts life as a street urchin, beggar, and gambler, before self-promoting into the world of thievery. He ultimately steals his way into a fortune, gets nabbed, and goes to prison. In the first recorded example of the modern “I-got-me-some-Jesus, so-let-me-out” scam, he “repents”, gets a new wife, and starts a glorious and socially upright existence by pimping said Missus out. He gets caught again, and becomes a galley slave, where he is tortured regularly by the Captain. Seeing this, several of his fellow slaves approach him and invite him into a conspiracy to rebel. He manages to snitch on the plotters and, after all of the subsequent summary butchery, he is rewarded with his freedom. Guzman epitomizes the underlying quest of the bourgeois epoch: to escape from rags to riches by outwitting those poor shmucks stupid enough to trust him. Sounds pretty modern, non? (And before you English majors opine, I’m aware that Cervantes also did time in prison. This either proves my point, or highlights that Spain was a damned interesting place during the 16th and 17th Centuries.)
I know you’ve probably never heard of these two books. Don’t blame yourself, because I doubt too many of the impaneled pugilistic professors would have known of them either. The truth is, we are living in an era when stories of incarceration are not seen as important by huge segments of the populace. What I hope to convey to you is that, not long ago, ‘prison lit’ dominated the American market. Once upon a time, picaresque novels about criminals and bandits, crime and confession, were literature. Spoiler Alert: you’ve been culturally programmed not to think too much about our institutions of un-freedom. But you probably already knew that.
Back in the day, the procession from London’s Newgate Prison to the “Triple Tree” gallows at Tyburn was a festive affair. Songs were sung, food was eaten, gin was drunk, and pockets were picked. (So much for deterrence, hey?) Sometimes those to be hanged were reviled, sometimes they were cheered. The purpose of the spectacle was to illustrate the raw, frightening power of the monarch. This was not complex propaganda. People being torn apart by teams of horses, broken on the wheel, burnt on the pyre, or hung until they suffocated is not a difficult semiotic code to crack. “Obey or die” was the message, “and if you don’t like it, you can go to Holland”.
The problem was, dang it, those pesky peasants started sympathizing with the soon-to-be-departed. On occasion they rioted, freeing the condemned and—sorry, I can’t help smiling as I write this—murdering the hangman. In America, the complexities of legal murder proved to be even more complicated, because public executions reminded people of England’s “Bloody Code” and, therefore, of their grievances against the King. Fortunately for colony leaders, Calvinists could always find more Heavenly reasons to hang or burn people, so some of this connection was lost in the religious haze. Still, legal punishments were so haunted by the specter of sympathy that much of the discourse from this era focused on how to make people stop caring about humans based on a state-imposed label.
The rise of the American penitentiary was thought to ultimately solve this conundrum. Benjamin Rush, one of the principle theorists of late 18th Century corrective penalty, wanted to accomplish two things. First, he thought it necessary to move the codes that officials desired to inscribe on the public from the physical site of execution into the realms of the imagination. Even if the populace knew nothing about the interior of a prison, Rush believed they would invent ghost tales and horror stories to describe it: “Children will press upon the evening fire in listening to the tales that will spread from this abode of misery. Superstition will add to its horrors; and romance will find in it ample materials for fiction, which cannot fail of increasing the terror of its punishments”. Very simply, by creating a scale model of Hell and allowing stories from within to escape, the public might be cowed into obedience without the messiness of Tyburn. Secondly, Rush knew he had to pair these stories with a concerted propaganda effort to brand the criminal as a sort of subhuman creature worthy of this new hell. Elam Lynds, a legendary warden of both Auburn and Sing-Sing prisons, called inmates “coarse beings, who have had no education, and who perceive with difficulty ideas, and often even sensations”. “I consider it impossible”, he said, “to govern a large prison without a whip”. The systematic dehumanization of the convict was no secret. It was written into the law, performed in the rituals of prison initiation, and discussed in well-publicized reform debates. Combining these two efforts, Rush believed he could create both an environment meant to terrify citizens into following acceptable norms, and make those citizens trapped within prison into something less than human, requiring no sympathy. Sound familiar?
Rush certainly nailed the first part of that equation. On this side of the pond, early prison literature was entirely confessional in nature. These narratives are pretty tedious to read today, but they were extremely popular amongst the Predestined-and-Happy-about-it crowd. “The Dying Lamentation and Advice of Philip Kennison, who was Executed at Cambridge in New England (for Burglary) on Friday the 15th Day of September, 1738, in the 28th Year of his Age. All written with his own Hand, a few Days before his Death: and published at his earnest Desire, for the good of Survivors” is a good example of this type of story. It also has the dubious honor of possessing the longest title in the history of literature. The purpose here was for the author to offer himself as a negative example for the rest of society to shun; forgiveness was sought, but not in the present world. For forty stanzas, Kennison elaborates on his sorry predicament:
Good People all both great & small,
to whom these Lines shall come,
A warning take by my sad Fall,
and unto God return.
You see me here in Iron Chains,
in Prison now confin’d,
Within twelve Days my Life must end,
my breath I must resign.
A far more insipid example is James Clay’s A Voice from the Prison, Or, Truths for the Multitude and Pearls for the Truthful (1856), which consists of 362-pages of the sort of moralizing that has the curious effect of making one want to go out and immediately commit the very sort of acts of depravity the author was trying to prevent. (At least it had a title you could get through in a single evening.) Confessional tales like this still appear from time to time, including Charles Colson’s tiresome Born Again (1976) and, occasionally, an essay in these pages that I get outvoted on in the editorial penthouse.
Interestingly, this sort of narrative didn’t sell particularly well back in Old Blighty, perhaps because Ye Olde Anglicans managed to mostly rid themselves of the type of Puritan that got off on this sort of rot. Instead, picaresque novels dominated the British market. In these works, the “confession” is given with a wink and a nod, and it was the worst kept secret in the world that everyone read these tales, not for moral edification, but instead for entertainment. Right about the time that the American penitentiary moved from the pages of theory into the real world, American tastes underwent a still-as-yet-unexplained shift away from the confessional mode and towards the picaresque.
My favorite early American example is A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels and Sufferings of Henry Tufts. Talk about a scallywag: this guy was an accomplished thief and con-man, not to mention a notorious womanizer who “made love” to a “damsel” and then ran off to chill with the Indians in Canada to avoid the unfortunate parental responsibilities that soon developed. He didn’t learn any lessons, as he brags often about “successfully prosecut[ing]” his “amour” with a “beautiful savage”. He gets locked up a few times, and manages to encourage readers to avoid “the monster sin” and live a “life of virtue”, all without managing to get hit by lightning: “Should any of the rising generation, by a perusal of my story, learn to avoid these quicksands of vice, on which I have been so often wrecked, I shall feel myself amply compensated for the trouble I have taken in its compilation”. Apparently, this “compensation” doesn’t help as much as he had hoped because, shortly after penning these words, he enlists in the army, passes counterfeit money, goes about as a fake Indian witch doctor, commits more burglaries than I care to count, deflowers more virgins than Henry VIII, maintains several wives, convinces several churches that he is a “saint”, then discovers his true calling as a horse thief. If you are smiling right now, you see the allure of such tales. The man made a mint off of this narrative eventually, showing, apparently, that crime does occasionally pay. By the time Melville published The Confidence-Man in 1857, tales of bad men and their stays in prison were a staple of the literary diet of America. Did you know that? If not, ask yourself: why not? Who, in the drain-swirl of our current political environment, might prefer you not to know this?
Several of America’s prisons proved to be particularly fecund generators of prison literature, none more so than the Manhattan Halls of Justice, a particularly ugly, Egyptian-like pile of granite that became universally known as “the Tombs”. Melville, again, used this prison as the ghost haunting the unfortunate Bartleby. George Wilkes wrote Mysteries of the Tombs, with John Haviland’s prison as its setting, as did John McGinn in Ten Days in the Tombs. None other than Poe lived in the shadow of the Tombs, though I’m not aware of any scholarly work completed on the impact of this edifice on his art – though Poe’s exploration of the theme of incarceration was extensive (think of “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Premature Burial”, and “The Fall of the House of Usher”, to name a few.) Hawthorne, America’s most important author of literature in the 19th Century (so saith I), may have written The Scarlet Letter to look like it took place in our colonial past, but the tactics used to subvert Hester Prynne’s behavior was entirely of a 19th Century flavor. The character Clifford in The House of the Seven Gables has spent many years in prison, and he has obviously been mortified by the experience. Dickinson, alone in her home in Amherst, often wrote about incarceration and solitude. You can’t read Dickens without bumping into a prison somewhere; it’s a major setting in many of his Sketches by Boz (especially in “A Visit to Newgate”), The Pickwick Papers, The Mystery of Sir Edwin Drood, and David Copperfield. He, too, was haunted by the prison: his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea prison for debt, a set of memories Dickens was never able to shake. This was important stuff in the 19th Century. It mattered to many Americans that this massive experiment in incarceration seemed to be experiencing crisis after crises, and the tales of prisoners were monitored for signs of reform or decay.
Most of you will know the name of Jack London, he of The Call of the Wild and White Fang fame. Did you know he did time? (No? Again, why not? Who sanitized this information from you?) In ““Pinched”: A Prison Experience” and “The Pen: Long Days in a County Penitentiary”, London gives some of the clearest narratives extant about how the prison environment corrupts a man’s best intentions and character. London manages to politic his way into the job of a “hall-man”, who handles direct supervision of a large group of prisoners so the guards don’t have to. The thirteen hall-men peddled all manner of contraband, and London takes great pains to describe a prison economy polluted with “grafts”, “takes”, “pulls”, and sundry other hustles. Most importantly, he shows his transformation from a decent, literary vagabond into a wolf: “It was impossible, considering the nature of the beasts, for us to rule by kindness. We ruled by fear”. “Our rule”, he goes on, “was to hit a man as soon as he opened his mouth — hit him hard, hit him with anything. A broom-handle, end-on, in the face, had a very sobering effect… Never mind the merits of the case — wade in and hit… lay the man out”. “When one is on the hot lava of hell, he cannot pick and choose his path”, he would later say, trying to explain his devolution.
What is remarkable to me is that, not so long ago, stories like these changed public attitudes in favor of reform. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this; that people actively sought out these narratives and were so impacted by them that they actually did something. You know, other than yawn. Kate Richards O’Hare’s incomparable In Prison, Sometime Federal Prisoner Number 21669 was so well received that O’Hare was ultimately made the assistant director of the California Department of Penology, where she instituted major reforms. Thomas Mott Osborne, a former mayor of Auburn, embarked on a major reform effort in New York based off of the story related in Donald Lowrie’s My Life in Prison. The list of prisoner-written books, essays, and stories that actually altered the real world of prisons during this era is long because, until fairly recently, enough people understood that the state of a nation’s prisons was a sort of gauge of that nation’s moral health. Since most of you read this page while killing the clock at work, look around you. How many of your co-workers would even understand this prison-as-barometer allegory?
During the High Progressive Era (about 100 years ago, more or less), prisons in some New England jurisdictions managed to give prisoners jobs that paid free-world wages, a discipline system that rewarded positive behavior with shortened sentences, meaningful rehabilitation courses, and a drastically, positively improved prison environment. Men were treated as men, and were even honored for their help in powering the United States through World War I, where contract labor from the prisons had a large impact on the war effort. The traditional explanation for what killed this system is that, when the war ended, national industrial output fell and prison administrators lost these same contracts, which, in turn, gutted their budgets. Some of this is undoubtedly true, yet I don’t think this alone explains the sheer rapidity with which prisons shifted tactics during the late 1920s. Around this same time – thanks to a bunch of religious nut-jobs – the nation also passed Prohibition. As a result, crime syndicates sprung out of the shadows to provide the booze that everyone, it turned out, was really rather fond of. Some very public violence broke out in certain places, especially Chicago. Although these instances were statistically fairly rare, they scared people, a fact that newspapers were not slow to notice or capitalize upon. As a result of this fear, legislation was passed all over the nation mirroring New York State’s ‘Baumes law’. These essentially gutted the progressive penology plan by: introducing mandatory minimum sentences; establishing “four-strikes laws” that sent men to prison for the rest of their lives; curtailing or eliminating indeterminate sentencing; reducing rehabilitation options within the prisons; and, forcing wardens to deploy harsh discipline tactics. You can imagine the results.
All of a sudden, machine gun emplacements — unheard of mere years before — were the norm. What had been conceived as a moral project of reform morphed into a more mundane project of prison management. Instead of seeing the goal of prisons as an attempt to make good citizen-workers out of prisoners, the goal became to make good prisoners out of inmates. The prisons rapidly became violent places, and the Baumes laws were quickly booted. But the damage was done. Prisoners felt betrayed. They had obeyed all of the rules, dedicated themselves to winning the worst war in history, and then had been stabbed in the back. Hope behind bars disappeared. Prison administrators soon felt they had no choice but to double down on the repressive policies to manage this discontent. The prisoner narratives from this era testify to a rapid darkening of the carceral environment, but public attitudes were still resonating with the fear of organized crime. Few of these stories, therefore, fell upon fertile ground.
The list of famous writers who spent time behind bars is long: Socrates, Boethius, Villon, Thomas More, Campanella, Walter Raleigh, Donne, Richard Lovelace, Bunyan, Defoe, Voltaire, Diderot, Thoreau, Melville, Leigh Hunt, Oscar Wilde, Agnes Smedley, Maxim Gorky, Genet, O. Henry, Robert Lowell, Bertrand Russell, Brendan Behan, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Jesus of Nazareth. However, if you add up all of the prison lit that made it into print before the 1960s, it would be dwarfed in volume by the sheer explosion of content that came afterwards. Whatever people may now think of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (if anyone thinks anything about them today), these books, and thousands of others, ignited the fires of a brief but powerful era of penal reform. This phenomenon was very real. What started in the pages of books, infiltrated public consciousness, to the point that it began to change the law.
A number of years before his appointment to the SCOTUS, Harry Blackmun recognized the need to give some genuine substance to the Eighth Amendment: the issue at the heart of most prison lit since the 1920s. In Jackson v. Bishop (1968), he declared that the physical abuse of prisoners met the standard of “cruel and unusual punishment”; a ruling that, sadly, many jurists disagree with today, somehow. Arguing that debates over language represented a pretext for continuing the status quo, he wrote: “We choose to draw no significant distinction between the word ‘cruel’ and the word ‘unusual’ in the Eighth Amendment”, a point that had been made by Iceberg Slim and other prison writers for many years.
Over the next decade or so – powered by the continual propagation of prison narratives that heightened the public’s awareness of abuses that had been normalized since the 1920s – the application of Eighth Amendment protections broadened. In Laaman v. Helgemoe (1977), the Federal District Court for the District of New Hampshire held that the conditions in the state prison at Concord constituted cruel and unusual punishment. This was a pretty far-reaching order, easily the broadest application of the Eighth Amendment; it not only acknowledged the limits it set on the punishment of the physical body, but it also ruled that “its protections extend to the whole person as a human being”. Shocking, I know. In a detailed opinion, the court found that incarceration, in and of itself, could violate the Constitution if it made “degeneration probable and reform unlikely”. This era also managed to temporarily end the death penalty in 1972 with the Furman v. Georgia decision. In Justice William Brennan’s words, the death penalty system was “excessive” and “unnecessary”, as well as “irrational” and “arbitrary”.
Nothing annoys me more about leftists than their continual underestimation of the power of reaction. Several of my progressive friends got really perturbed with me during the Obama years because I regularly fretted over their irrational victory laps every time he managed to do something that pleased them. The time to be most alert, I said, is when you feel most dominant. We never learn. Within the victories heralded by the expansion of the Eighth Amendment, one can find the dissents that would ultimately turn the tide against reform. I encourage the flock of abolitionists that currently loves to flap their wings and crow about the similarities of the pre-Furman landscape to that of today to read Chief Burger’s dissent, for it contains the language that would set the tone for the law of the 21st Century: “Of all our fundamental guarantees, the ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ is one of the most difficult to translate into juridically manageable terms”. The haze that he claimed surrounded this concept would very shortly redefine the limits on torture within the penal context and, in many cases, define these limits away completely.
Just as it was language that prisoners utilized to engender reforms, so too was it language that the judges used to push prison systems into the current mass incarceration era. As courts, nationwide, bowed under the pressure of the Reagan reaction, they sought to create a new framework for prison jurisprudence by giving new meaning to words like “cruelty”, “pain”, “injury”, and even “punishment”.
The first steps in this conservative approach were not small or gradual (something to think about the next time you hear some right-wing AM shock jock moan about “activist judges”). In Rhodes v. Chapman (1981), the majority found no constitutional mandate for “comfortable prisons”, arguing that prison overcrowding complaints didn’t fall within the scope of “serious deprivations of basic human needs”. “To the extent that such conditions are restrictive and even harsh, they are part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society”. Therefore, short of causing “unnecessary and wanton pain”, deprivations “simply are not punishments”. Not only did Justice Powell fail to specify what degree of severity would actually violate the Eighth Amendment, he also suggested a policy of deference to the penal philosophy of prison officials. In other words, if a warden says something is necessary, who are the courts to argue? Exeunt common sense. Enter madness, stage far-right.
Matters got infinitely worse when Rehnquist became Chief Justice in 1986. Concentrating on the “subjective” expertise of prison administrators, and offering deference to their “special knowledge”, the court raised the threshold beyond which any particular harm could be legally relevant: prison conditions could no longer constitute punishment. (Read that twice, if you don’t mind.) There is obviously just a tad of legal legerdemain at work here. By using an earlier case, Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber (1947), the court started prioritizing the state’s intent over actual facts: it would no longer matter if unnecessary pain was inflicted on an inmate, so long as nobody intended this pain to take place. In Duckworth v. Franzen (1985), the 7th Circuit found that shackled prisoners who were gravely injured when their bus caught fire had no Eighth Amendment protections because this intent requirement had not been met: “Negligence, perhaps; gross negligence… perhaps; but not cruel and unusual”. What happened was, effectively, no different from “…if the guard accidentally stepped on the prisoner’s toe and broke it”.
Whether the context is a prison riot, shoddy medical care, or confinement conditions, the law’s preoccupation is with the knowledge, deliberation, or intent of those in control. If not a specific part of a prisoner’s sentence, deprivations are not punishments unless they are imposed by officers with a “sufficiently capable state of mind”; a standard that is almost never reached in the real world. If you understood none of the above, here’s the point: no matter how much actual suffering is experienced by any of us in white, it cannot be deemed unconstitutional unless the intent requirement is met. When Scalia dismantled the “totality of circumstances” test established in Laaman, which condemned the “cold storage of human beings”, he used language reminiscent of 19th Century slave law to establish the precedent that no action by prison administrators is unconstitutional so long as it serves a “legitimate corrective purpose”. What is a “legitimate corrective purpose”? Anything they want it to be. What happens if these purposes are so inhumane that they cannot fail to produce monsters of inmates? Nothing, nothing at all. Prisoners’ crimes no longer explain their treatment in any rational way. Instead, as conditions convert men into desperate animals, society has begun inventing a new kind of criminal. Born in prison, this new class of so-called “super-predators” has given politicians all the reasons they need to request funding for yet more prisons, more solitary confinement buildings, and longer sentences. Whatever these hand-wringing politicians may say when the cameras are out and about, many of the men around me were created by a legal fiction. Take a look at the sorts of cause-and-effect relationships you think define law and order, and then reverse them.
This legal landscape allowed administrators to impose new controls over the receipt and transmission of prison-themed literature. For the first time since the birth of the penitentiary, both halves of Rush’s goals were met, and what market existed for tales from the carceral abode was tiny and underfunded. Jack Henry Abbott had his brief moment in the sun, until he fell in true Icarian-style — taking the rest of the industry with him. Thirty years into the mass incarceration era, we are at a point where the public has almost zero sympathy for the prisoner because they know almost nothing true about them. We are still waiting for our Dostoevsky, our Wilde, our Victor Serge to rise from this quagmire.
I won’t pretend that you will find this figure here in these pages — though I won’t discount the possibility, either. Since prison administrators learned hard lessons from the prisoner rights movement of the 1960s, they are very aware of how to prevent radical ideas and literature from infecting (read: educating) those trapped behind these walls. Most of us have had to teach ourselves how to write, and it shows. I know I cringe on those rare occasions when I read something I penned years ago. Still, for all that, mb6 is filling a gap that was once packed with consumer magazines willing and eager for stories from the depths. Since prisons have proven, time and again, that they cannot be trusted to provide meaningful, humane oversight of their operations, we, too, must fill in that gap. I have traveled often over all the old grounds as to why I think we are worthy of your eyeballs, your comments, your spare nickels. Only recently have I come to think that perhaps our most important function is to act as one brick in the wall of the humanities that stands between the human heart and the creeping shadow of brutalization that seems to be encroaching over the West. Just look at the news: we regularly accept behavior out of our politicians, our religious leaders, our cultural stars that would have been unthinkable in the recent past. We have almost completely lost our understanding of the definition and importance of ‘shame’. When Joseph Welch asked McCarthy, “Have you no decency, sir?” people understood this to be a meaningful attack: one that stung, one that shamed. Try saying those words to yourself the next time you watch Our Dear Leader on the television, or, better yet, say them out loud to the jackass in the queue at Jamba Juice who seems to be laboring under the twin delusions that smart phones only work when you raise your voice to them, and that a sentence isn’t complete unless it’s liberally sprinkled with f-bombs. Clearly, shame is not something most of my peers — or our warders — have a firm grasp of. I sometimes wonder if I’ve grown soft in my middle aged-ness, because brutish, tasteless actions now wound me in a way that is hard for me to describe. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but at least I’m not numb; that seems to be the best adjective I can think of for our anesthetized, dazed, stunned, and insensible postmodern predicament.
How do you learn to feel again? You open yourself up to others, take them into your arms, just as you would if you’d spent all day out in the snow. You do this even though it means you are allowing the Other to get close enough to wound you – vulnerability is the point. I’m convinced that literature is one way to manage this. When you step into someone else’s words, you are wrapping your mind around their subjective understanding of the world — the practical definition of empathy. This allows you to experience events, people, places, and emotional states that are totally foreign to you, and to learn to think about things from multiple viewpoints. In a nation increasingly separated by religious, political, and factual divisions, it’s the easiest way to knock fences down.
If this means anything to you, please consider supporting our work this year. We are currently wading our way through the 501(c)(3) application process and, if we are successful, your donations will become tax deductible. If monetary aid isn’t feasible right now, consider volunteering: we are maybe only one or two volunteers from being able to move to a bi-weekly posting schedule, meaning more stories, more essays, and more takes, both good and bad. Consider posting a link to your social media accounts the next time you read an article that touches you, and then talk to the people in your life about why this is. If, for no other reason – but because I like to think that after more than a decade at this, my time hasn’t been completely misspent – do this for me. My execution date has now been set. So, this is likely my last attempt to beg you for some goodwill (halle-freaking-lujah!); I’d really like to see MB6 on firmer footing before I kiss the Yeehah Gulag goodbye. Knowing that this means something to you would, in turn, mean a great deal to me. Charon once charged an obolus for a trip across the Styx. I’m giving you the ride for far less. What say you? Are you with us?
There is a tide in the affairs of men, a nick of time. We perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery.
– Brutus, Julius Caesar
|Thomas Whitaker 999522|
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston TX 77351
Thomas's execution is scheduled or February 22, 2018
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To make a donation to support Minutes Before Six, click here
A large number of prisoners that contribute to Minutes Before Six are without
family or outside support. If you would like to "adopt" one for the holiday season,
please email me at dina@minutesbeforesix