A man upstairs is screaming. I can’t quite parse the full content of his tirade; the acoustics in this place are a little weird and, in any case, he’s hardly paused for a breath in more than an hour. I honestly have no idea how he’s still upright at this point. Someone snitched him off, that much I can gather. Something about stolen “squares”. If I understand him correctly, the culprit's name is Taterhead. As far as I’m concerned, if you are dumb enough to engage in an exchange for contraband narcotics inside a maximum-security prison with someone nicknamed after an anthropomorphic vegetable, you deserve to wind up in seg. Every few minutes, Brillo, the resident recidivist jackass living in the cell to my right, lobs some… ah… “encouraging” words in this man’s direction: “Man, Taterhead is going to beat your brains in, punk,” for example. He almost sounds bored when he does this, as if he were in the middle of trimming his toenails. Two toes later: “You five-pointed-star hoes sure talk pretty,” which not only got a response from upstairs, but also managed to incense all of the other Bloods on the wing. Somewhat to Brillo’s annoyance, the rest of us in the Byrd Unit’s maximum-security observation cells have failed to comprehend or properly appreciate the brilliance and subtlety of his “psychological science” games. We have, however, independently and collectively determined that he might have the most appropriate in the long history of prison nicknames.
Everyone in this hall has recently been written up for a major disciplinary infraction. I am the only exception. I have no idea what Brillo did, but I’m sure his mouth had a great deal to do with it. The gentletwit to my left is here for staff assault; I know this because he’s told everyone numerous times about how he “stuck that pig”, even though we all know he really just hit the cop with one of the pitchers in the chow hall – and then proceeded to get his ass beat all the way across said chow hall. At least a dozen guys are here for K2-related misbehavior. Several allegedly attempted to “initiate an inappropriate relationship” with female staff members. Aside from Captain Staff Assault and maybe the screamer upstairs, everyone is innocent, naturally. There is currently much discourse about “the Man” and his propensity for injustice, peppered with the usual inchoate threats about what the aggrieved intend to do once they get an opportunity.
Me, I’m smiling. It’s 8:00pm on 24 February, and a little over fifty hours ago the State of Texas was attempting to murder me. It’s amazing what a little sprinkling of perspective can add to what might otherwise be considered a very bad situation. This smile, though: it’s a little strange. I’ve been monitoring it warily for the past two days, the way it creeps up on me, the way it seems to be completely disconnected from any visible emotional content. I don’t really know where this narrative is heading. Unlike in most of my entries for this site, I don’t really have a plan for this, I just want to be as genuine as I can be about what I’m feeling right now, free from any overarching structure or goals. I suspect at some point over this entry, or the next, I’m going to talk about how I endured the execution process these last few months, and how I remained true to both my principles and ideals, as well as maintaining my calm. I am proud of this, make no mistake. I worked hard to stay Zen or, as my friend Rod put it, to not deviate from my inner Spock. But I also want to complicate this image by admitting that I’m aware I did real psychic damage to myself over the past decade, learning to live comfortably so close to the void, without the protective shielding offered by irrational hopes or delusional theological beliefs. People like me are not supposed to live in foxholes, and yet we do; I did. Whatever compliments I may end up giving myself over this, understand that I’m aware of the costs I’ve paid and will continue to pay, and that I have some real work in store getting myself back to the point where I can connect with wonder and joy again. Because I haven’t felt relief yet, I haven’t felt happiness. When I received word at 5:32pm that I wasn’t about to be pumped full of fraudulently obtained and possibly expired barbiturates, I immediately snapped to the next set of goals. That’s how I’ve been living for so long, it was all I could think to do. I only smiled because a room full of TDCJ super bigwigs was staring at me as if they expected something of the sort. One of the Death House guards asked me why I wasn’t doing cartwheels, and all I could do was stare at him – this thug, this brute, who minutes before had been preparing to tie me down and kill me, as he had so many of my friends – and think: Who the fuck told you we were on talking terms now? I didn’t say the words but apparently I didn’t need to because he didn’t say anything to me again.
Clearly, this is not good. If I were less self-analytical or honest, I’d allow myself to believe that I’m just in shock, and that I will come out of this gloom shortly. The problem is, I built the gloom, step-by-step, intentionally and deliberately. Of all of the goals I set for myself during my time on death row, none were more central or important than that I live rationally, to the best of my abilities; that I not delude myself about what was happening to me, or where I found myself; that I not become a hypocrite and bow to the easy comfort of something like Pascal’s Wager; and that I learn to stare down my fate and the full extent of the State’s power that was arrayed against me and not blink. It took a while – years, in fact – but I figured out how to get there. So, I’m very aware that I’m not just numb right now. I’m something else. I stripped away my fear and watched calmly as other parts of my humanity were carried off with it. I wasn’t pleased to learn that when you lop off the troughs of the emotional sine wave, you forfeit the crests too, but what was I to do? I had my goals, and the State had its. It was war. Things die in war.
Nihilism isn’t inevitable once you acknowledge the disenchantment of the world. There are other options. But I seem to be wired for it, or to at least to flirt with nihilism’s borders, beyond any utility it might have presented to me during my sojourn into the land of the near-dead. Existentialism was the little castle I built on the banks of the nihil, and then I pretended to lose myself in projects. It was enough, then. I suspect it no longer is. Now that I am once again mortal in the same untruncated sense as most everyone reading this, I want more: more feeling, more joy, more love, things I deprived myself of out of necessity, or out of a sense of justice. I seem to want more contact with the Numinous even, though I suspect I will need to clarify what exactly I mean by that, lest my theistic friends be given false hopes. Just in case I managed to survive the Row, over the years I’ve searched for a sort of middle path between the Abrahamic God of my childhood and the quasi-nihilism of these later years, a position that didn’t require me to sacrifice reason or intellect while also not foreclosing on the ability to reach the beauty that is inherent in the world. Occasionally I have found traces of such a third solution: in the way Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch develops a sort of spiritual grandeur even as she leaves the habits of naïve Christian piety behind; she is shown to be neither a romantic nor a nihilist, yet she finds a way to both leave the enchanted world of her past while still maintaining a connection to an order of values that are impervious to time. Despite his neurotic tendencies, there are hints of what I’m talking about in Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, especially in his capacity for wonder. Bloom sees “god” (in a rationalist and pantheist sense) wherever he turns, unlike Stephen, who is no longer capable of seeing the Numinous anywhere – much like myself currently. More than anywhere else, I locate this third way when I read and think about Spinoza. If I’m ever to believe in “god” in any sense, it is almost certain that it would be his god, the god of the infinite intelligibility of the world, the god of the principle of sufficient reason that undergirds the modern scientific ideal. But I think that’s an essay for another day.
Anyways, that’s what’s bouncing around the old noggin at the moment. Here’s the space that confines it: the Byrd Unit is one of those old red brick facilities that was built using convict labor. It was built in the early-50’s, I’m told. It is the main unit for prisoners entering the system, so most of the 1,200 (my estimate, probably suspect) or so of the men I see shuffling down the hallway are just passing through classification and the somewhat curiously and incorrectly named “Sociology” department. These seg cells are much smaller than I’m used to; indeed, I can reach out and touch both walls if I extend my arms outward. There is a set of bunk beds, an ancient sink/toilet combo that is easily older than I am, and a rather ginormously large extended family of roaches. I don’t care about all of the signs proclaiming this to be a facility operated by the State of Texas, it’s the roaches that really own the place. The matriarch of the clan that currently resides in C-13-4 is sitting on the bars, staring at me now. Years ago, when I started studying Buddhism, I began catching insects in my cell and taking them outside instead of killing them. My friends used to gently mock me for this. So… um… I’m very clearly saying that I’m in no way seriously considering throwing one of my shoes at this monster right now. Besides, if I did, I’m pretty sure the bloody thing would catch it and throw it back at me. Hey, I think that was meant to be a joke. Signs of life!
I am mostly property-less at the moment. I gave away nearly all of my nonessential possessions over the course of the past year, once the appellate process began to wind down to its last pathetic sputters. I once read about the Swedish concept of “death cleaning”, and it seemed like a fine idea, like so much else that comes from Northern Europe. The goal is to put yourself in the shoes of the executors of your estate, who are tasked with having to deal with the mountains of crap that people tend to leave behind after they shuffle off this mortal coil. If you can’t rationally imagine person X being pleased to come across item Y, toss it. Chances are, you will soon realize that most of what we own is going to be completely worthless to anyone else, and a burden for them to dispose of. The stuff that prisoners collect tends to be useful within the penal context, but is pretty worthless once you venture past the front gate. I couldn’t imagine my father or stepmother wanting, for instance, my free-world sewing needle or homemade soldering iron, so I began finding homes for all of my junk some time ago. I am, for the first time in many years, completely free from contraband at the moment. I feel kind of naked without all of my tools for up-to-no-goodery, I tell you. I am consoled by the fact that many others are now enjoying the fruits of my illicit labors. Toujours de l’audace, brothers, and so forth.
In addition to the items that I freely parted with, I seem to have “lost” an alarmingly high percentage of the remainder somewhere during the Polunsky-Walls-Byrd-Unit shuffle. My typewriter, for instance. I’m not exactly certain how one misplaces such a thing, but there you go. Then again, given the number of times I’ve done surgery on that P.O.S. without the benefit of anesthesia in order to fix some problem that developed after a rough shakedown, it’s entirely possible that the sodding thing seized upon the confusion following my commutation and made good on an escape attempt. If it should somehow manage to find itself on eBay, though, I’d appreciate a heads-up. Also missing: a wide assortment of paperwork on which my name features prominently. For example, my commissary receipts for the past three years, my school tuition receipts, the unit orientation paperwork I was given when I first arrived at Polunsky on 3.23.2007, etc.; nearly all of my stamps and envelopes; my t-antenna; the photographs of my friends who have been executed; and a pair of my boxer shots. Nothing in the least bit creepy about that last item, right? Right. (But still: Ewww…) I suspect this minor thievery took place when my property was being bagged up at the Chateau Polunsky; Manufacturing Anomie was far more non-fictional than I think most of you understood at the time. I’m sure that these fine, upstanding employees of the State thought I’d be dead by the end of the day, and that anything with my name on it might be worth something on the murderabilia sites. Sorry to deprive you of your beer money for the week, guys. Enjoy the stamps.
So, no property. I do, however, currently have a rather awesome abundance of prison graffiti to analyze. Never mind all of the gang rot: that’s as boring as it is predictable. The messages that always pique my curiosity are the ones that seem to be disconnected from reason, or the generally accepted rules of grammar. For instance, on the long wall that runs parallel to the bed, someone has written “I am Cambodia!” four times in an immense, angry font. Below this, in somewhat faded script, this same hand has written “GodKingQueen – Land of [something-something-something]” then a long string of numbers. I can’t make heads or tails of this last bit. I expect that boredom’s gremlins are eventually going to prod me into attempting to crack this cipher; I’ve already determined that the number as a whole is not prime, and not a Fourier transform series, either. Anyways, that’s tomorrow’s problem. All around the cell, someone has written the word “Ants!” and then included a series of dozens of arrows pointing to what were, presumably, once the Cartesian coordinates of just such an insect. I see dates – for example, “GZA wuz here 6.21.04” – going back to the mid-90’s, so, alas, those particular ants may no longer be amongst us. I kind of wish they were, though, as I’d like ants a hell of a lot better than these roaches. I always feel like I ought to add something to such displays; I’ve written of this dilemma before. Some of you will be pleased to learn that my notebook full of (what were to me, at least) interesting quotes has also vanished, perhaps in confederation with my typewriter, perhaps to use this vast accumulation of wisdom to write the book I was always tempted to write. Fortunately, I still possess some of these gems upstairs. So, I’ll come up with something good to contribute to the wall at some point. Right now, I’m leaning towards some words from the all-but-forgotten Thomas Wolfe: “I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close.”
At any rate, I suspect this cell and my placement in it represents something of a test. It really is a remarkably bad cell, as these things go. The light doesn’t turn off, for one. It was, initially, about as filthy as it is possible for physical matter to become. I talked an SSI into smuggling me about a metric ton of cleaning supplies last night and, after roughly six hours of scouring, I’m still not completely content. There’s no recreation in this hall, ever. That might get a little rough if I end up staying here for a few months. Over the past few years, I’ve managed to get back to and maintain my high school weight by running my ass off, and I’d hate to see all of that effort wasted. Affixed to the ceiling, about two feet in front of the cells, is a metal rail. Attached and hanging from this rail is a ten-by-eight-foot piece of heavy plexiglass on wheels. Whenever anyone – inmate or guard – goes walking down the hall, they push this contraption along, thus shielding them from projectiles that might be launched from within the cells. Thus far, I haven’t witnessed any such displays of ranged martial prowess, but it’s early days yet. What I have witnessed – what would be absolutely frigging impossible for anyone with ears to miss – is that this contraption sounds like a crash-landing 747 filled to the brim with loose cymbals when in use. Sleep has become a phenomenon I haven’t had much intimate contact with lately, but I’m highly looking forward to becoming delirious to the point of passing out in a few days. So a test, but a particularly sorry and ineffective one. I just have to think about all the friends I left behind at Polunsky and my determination is solidified. In the weeks leading up to my date, I allowed myself on a few occasions to think about what it might feel like to be granted commutation. I theorized that I might feel something akin to Survivor’s Guilt, but I had no idea it would hit me this hard. I spent nearly all of my time on Deathwatch with my good friend Rod, and I feel like I betrayed him by leaving him behind. I know that’s not strictly rational, but it’s clearly the dominant voice in the emotional chorus blaring away in my head at the moment. A hard truth, suspected and now confirmed: I will not have truly escaped my death sentence until this penalty is abolished and all my friends are out of that hellhole.
I lived through 161 executions during my time on the Row. I knew most of these men, and was friends with more than a third of them. They all deserved the chance I’ve been given, as far as I’m concerned. I can easily picture Arnold Prieto casting his grumpy-ass frown over the state of this cell, and the artistically masterful addition he’d have added to the collection of graffiti. Likewise, I can only imagine the wry comment Lester Bower would have made (in his head, at least) in response to Brillo’s annoyances, as well as the much more direct comments Robert Pruett would have definitely not kept to himself. I can see Joseph Lave, so noble, shaking his head over the lot of them, while slipping earplugs into place. Rolando Ruiz, Robert Ladd, Miguel Angel Paredes, Donnie Roberts, Gustavo Garcia: these are not mere names to me, they are memories that are seared in far too deep to be effaced by any injury less severe than death itself. I don’t exactly know what life has in store for me going forward, but if anyone wondered if I was done penning polemics against the State just because it did the right thing once (and only then because we made it politically advantageous for them to do so), think again. The events of the last few months have not in any way damaged my discipline or resolve, and they are going to have to try a lot harder than a few dozen roaches and bad food to break me.
And try they shall. I think I’m destined to remain in admin-seg for some time, until they figure out what to do with me. Still, I haven’t had a disciplinary write-up in many years and I’m not coded as STG (Security Threat Group, i.e. I’m not a gang member). So, eventually, they are going to have to release me into the general population. I’m hoping that they will do this without me having to use the law to force them, but I’m already preparing for this should it become necessary. Mother Polunsky taught me well in that regard.
– Later –
Hey, we have mice here! I thought I saw something brown and furtive scurry by an hour or so ago, but these old buildings are full of shadows and I chalked it up to more roach troop displacements. On its way back from wherever, this time it ventured a little closer to the middle of the run, where the light is better. I’d saved up two pieces of bread for a midnight snack, so I tossed some pieces out to it. Initially, it ran off, but after a few minutes it crept back into the light and snatched the bread away. I feel like I’ve seen someone in a prison movie befriend a mouse before, but I can’t recall which film it was. Somebody help me out here. Am I becoming a cliché? I hope not. I hate to be derivative. I wonder if I could train it to assassinate these roaches? Somehow, I don’t think this would be karmically better than just stomping them. Damn you, “right intentions”!
Seriously though, I don’t think I’ve quite managed to adequately convey to you the size of this Tyrannosaurus Roach. (Erm… Tyrannoroachus Rex? Whatever.) It uses the bars at the front of my cell like a throne. A few times an hour, a lesser specimen will bow and scrape its way up to it. The two will confer – no doubt they are plotting my murder and dismemberment – and then the thrall will swiftly depart. I think this beast might be Job’s Leviathan. Sometimes it will stretch its wings out and flutter them for a moment, like a bloody dragon, before relaxing them again. It’s as if it was saying: Look at what I can do, human. What do you think of that, mortal fool? Okay, look: while all of you are staring at the shadows of roaches on the walls of Plato’s Cave, this is the behemoth that’s standing behind you in front of the fire. Got it? If roaches prayed, this is the god to which the words would be directed. Dei gratia Roachus Rex Fidei Defensor… I’m about to use a minimal, probably Dalai Lama-approved measure of force to evict this thing. If these are my last words, remember me fondly.
– Later yet –
Still alive. (Still alive!) The creature has departed – for now. In any case, I should address my relative silence during my time on Deathwatch. My friends all seemed to understand this was part of a plan, but I did manage to receive some criticism for this from the peanut gallery. Apparently one bloke from the U.K. felt it was his place to inform me that I wasn’t “a man” because I didn’t write a contemporaneous final journal like Kevin Varga or Arnold Prieto. Man, the internet is such a great place! Where else can people who have never once been involved in the life of another person, and who in fact know absolutely nothing about the precise circumstances of that life, somehow nevertheless presume to offer unsolicited advice and even condemnation once that person then has the temerity to ignore them. ‘E’s a proper English gen’lemin is wot ‘e is, innit? So quick as a flash and witty as you like I says bollocks. As should now be apparent, we had some plans for clemency, ones that I’ve been thinking about and slowly putting into place for more than a decade. There were a lot of moving parts, especially in and around various offices in Austin. If you think you know how this was done, chances are you are either wrong, or else are mistaking the visible part of the proverbial iceberg for the hidden mass. I may talk about some of the submerged portions one day, but only after the lessons I’ve learned have been deployed in the perhaps eight or nine cases currently still on the Row where clemency might be feasible. In other words, mate, I was busy this winter, way too busy to waste time trying to entertain you. What free time I carved out for myself I spent on the people I am closest to, a decision I don’t feel requires any explanation or justification. Anyways, at the risk of sounding like I’m caving on the very point I just been a page huffing and puffing about, you’ll get your tale of the lost Deathwatch months, so relax. I may not have written an online journal of those days, but I did take lots of notes, as well as instructions on how and when these were to be released. On that note, NMFD was finished a long time ago as well, so put the pitchforks down, people. Did you really think I would have left you hanging like that? (If one were searching my words for a metric of how strange I’m feeling at the moment, I very nearly drew a smiley face at the conclusion of that last sentence. May the gods help us all.)
Anyways, enough of the dark side of the blatherweb, and on to the whole purpose of this entry. I want to convey how appreciative I am for the literally thousands of you out there that didn’t merely engage in the tired old “thoughts and prayers” routine but who instead actually bought into my life by funding the dozens of projects that helped convince the Board to vote for clemency, and who rolled-up your sleeves and participated in a truly epic bombardment of the Governor’s office. They never saw you coming, not like that. I know some of you who wrote letters, and in the weeks and months ahead I’ll be sending out thank you letters. I’ll never know even a tiny percentage of those of you who did participate, but if you’d like to introduce yourself, my new address and number will be posted below. If you use the JPAY email system, their server will track me if they move me around a bunch of times over the coming years, so consider using that instead of snail mail.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about gratitude these past few months. It wasn’t that long ago in the history of our species that the idea of a government entitlement would have greatly befuddled people, especially those humans that constituted the government. In those days, things like poverty, injury, or sickness were considered to be either bad luck or divine retribution; they were, in other words, your problem to deal with (and yours alone), however much actual pity or sympathy anyone might have felt for you. If someone – family, friends, a local lord, co-religionists – gave you assistance, this was truly a gift, not an entitlement. Gratitude was obviously the appropriate response to this gift; it is, at its heart, an acceptance of one’s dependence on the love of others. Ours, however, is an age of rights. That’s a good thing, don’t misunderstand me. Far fewer people live miserable lives and die excruciating deaths today because of this fact, even in America, where conservatives have somehow managed to convince people that “liberty” requires the social safety net to contain far more holes than is the custom in Europe. Today, when we see someone on the street or dying of a disease without the benefit of medical intervention, most of us instantly think about how this suffering could have been prevented, what laws may entitle him or her to assistance, and whether the person’s rights have been denied. Even down here in Yee-haw Land, oftentimes there is a government function that can be applied, and this is due to our modern conception of rights.
I wonder if this stance has damaged our collective understanding of gratitude. I’m pretty certain it has mine, at any rate, in the way I have at various points of my life taken certain things for granted in ways that embarrass and shame me now. Why? Gratitude conflicts with the independence to which the political morality of rights attaches supreme importance. This independence is so hard-wired into some of us that I have often refused assistance because on a very basic level the receipt of a gift implies a certain degree of servility: think of the peon bowing and “yes-milording” before the baron who has just given him an extra sack of grain. There’s an awkwardness there that I have felt my entire life. One of the ways this manifested in my youth was that I felt so ashamed of my dependence on others that I could never ask anyone for help, which, in turn, caused me to increasingly hide the mental illness that was starting to stalk me. Already uncertain of whether I was worthy of acceptance and affection, I reasoned that an open acknowledgement of my feelings of unworthiness would guarantee that I would be distanced from the approval I was searching for. If a person perceives the world as an openly hostile space, where most people intend to harm them physically or emotionally, this trains them to forever exist in a stance where advantages, gifts, and protections are seized upon without a proper appreciation for those who provided them. One may, in some cases, learn to enjoy hurting the world back when the chance arises. I did, certainly.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to love or be loved in return if this is the world one inhabits. Love means that one wishes for the happiness of others. Not in a derivative sense, where the other becomes happy as a consequence of my pleasure, but independently and directly. This requires that one not be preoccupied or worried about one’s own security; a certain space must be opened up in the field of one’s self-regard in order to allow the happiness of others to grow and flourish. Gratitude is the shovel that we use to clear the sludge of envy out of our lives and allows a space for love to grow, by enabling us to experience the world as a place that is reasonably well-disposed and even benevolent towards us. It allows us to see others in the selfless and non-instrumental way that love (and charity, solidarity, friendship, and compassion) always is at its core. It’s one of the primary ways I intend to start evicting the thoughts and processes that allowed me to stay laser-focused and survive the Row, but which have probably damaged my humanity over the years. I thank you for having believed in me, and I am going to try very hard over the years that come to have been worthy of this faith. You did a truly marvelous job. (Late addition: I should probably note that little, if any, of the preceding paragraph is original thought on my part. In some form or fashion, and with quite a bit of mixing and flexing, most of this came from Seneca’s On Favours, Cicero’s Pro Plancio, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society, as well as maybe a little bit from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, and a generalized understanding of Max Weber; though I may have misunderstood these last two to an embarrassing degree. Weber always hurts my brain a little. Any stupidities that worked their way into my understanding of gratitude are entirely my fault, not theirs.)
I think breakfast will be arriving soon; I've been writing all night. I’m not sure when I will be able to mail this out. Much depends on when I will be allowed to purchase more supplies. If they drag this out, I am going to have to be kind of strategic about how I use my last envelopes. I’m sure you will understand. Thank you for riding this out with me. Let’s continue the fight. My particular battle for life is over, but the broader war for abolition continues. Onward.
The hurricane swept by, few of us survived,And many failed to answer friendship’s roll call.Whom shall I call on? Who will share with meThe wretched happiness of staying alive?– Sergei Yesenin
|Thomas Whitaker 02179411|
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75861