Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Telling Secrets

[I actually wrote this last August, about 6 weeks after leaving prison, when the feelings were a little more intense. I didn't post it at the time because it seemed a little incomplete but in light of the letters I continue to receive, I decided that some may benefit from it.]

Frederick Buechner, a very gifted writer, penned an autobiographical trilogy of which the last was titled Telling Secrets (see a review here). I read it a dozen years ago but was recently reminded of it in light of my current circumstances. It is a short read -- only 128 pages -- but packed with much wisdom.

Buechner poignantly, and painfully, recounts both his father's suicide and teenager daughter's life-threatening eating disorder and how it impacted his life. The theme of the book, which I find quite intriguing, can be summarized with this excerpt:

I not only have my secrets. I am my secrets. And you are your secrets....Our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it is to be human.

There is also an extended passage on pp. 29-30 that goes a long way toward explaining why I blog and perhaps how those who are being ground up in the gears of the federal criminal justice system should respond to their experience :

This is all part of the story about what it has been like for the last 10 years or so to be me, and before anybody else has the chance to ask it, I will ask it myself: Who cares? What in the world could be less important thatn who I am and who my father and mother were, the mistakes I have made together with the occasional discoveries, the bad times and good times, the moments of grace.

But I talk about my life anyway because if, on the one hand, hardly anything could be less important, on the other hand, hardly anything could be more important. My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in al their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.

When you go to prison, you will hear "Who cares?" a lot.... maybe not literally but in so many other ways. In prison, no one wants to hear your story. The cynical proverb especially holds true in prison: Don't tell people your problems because 90% don't care and the other 10% are glad you have them.

Granted there are programs and services (and staff people) that exist to assist inmates in re-integrating into society, but as with so many things in life, the medium is the message. That is, the few words of encouragement and care are mere whispers drowned in a sea of screaming negativity ("You are invisible! You don't matter! No one cares!") that is the grist and grind of everyday prison life.

I was determined to tell my story because I refused to be invisible and based not only on the comments this blog receives but the personal emails I receive (wabaileyjr@gmail.com), I know I have not been invisible and, in fact, many have seen their story in mine.

What makes a secret a secret isn't necessarily whether certain facts are known by a lot of people but whether it is a story you wish to suppress because it is a source of shame; that is, it is not a subject that you can comfortably discuss. This doesn't mean that you should share every intimate detail of your life with anyone but that the past no longer has any power over your present and the telling of your story is no longer driven by your own insecurities but by the needs of the hearer.

Thus, closely related to the subject of telling secrets is the subject of shame. People don't tell their secrets because they are ashamed. Buechner:

We cannot undo our old mistakes or their consequences any more than we can erase old wounds that we have both suffered and inflicted, but through the power that memory gives us of thinking, feeling, imagining our way back through time we can at long last finally finish with the past in the sense of removing its power to hurt us and other people and to stunt our growth as human beings.

It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.

It is very important for those few of us (relatively speaking) who have had the "privilege" of experiencing this system I call "The Rabbit Hole" talk about our "secrets," not only because it is personally therapeutic, but because those who have not had this experience need to hear it. The system only exists because politicians, responding to what voters think they want, created it, apparently without a lot of deliberation. I am convinced that not only do ordinary citizens not understand what they have created, but neither do most politicians (until they get caught in this web of their own making!). If they did, they would demand change, at least I would hope they would.

Consider these comments from Federal Judge Carl Horn III:

While judges and an increasing number of lawyers realize we have a serious imbalance in our federal criminal system, most of the public still does not. In fact, the most often recurring comment I hear from friends or those who learn what I do for a living is some version of "Lock 'em up and throw away the key." Without putting the speaker down, my usual response begins something like, "You know, after over 15 years as a prosecutor and judge, I don't feel that way at all." Many constructive conversations have followed.

Take every opportunity to "spread the word." In addition to one-on-one communications, consider writing an opinion piece for your local paper or for your state and/or local bar publications. Write succinct letters to the editor that tell, as Paul Harvey would say, "the rest of the story" when related news is reported or opinion expressed. Accept, or even seek, opportunities to speak to civic, church, and other local clubs and groups. Appear on local television programs when invited. Little by little we must spread the word to the thinking and voting public - who, incidentally, also serve on our juries - if meaningful reform is to be achieved.

Or, perhaps this from a somewhat less distinguished source:

It is a blessing to governments, that human beings do not think for themselves.

-- Adolf Hitler

Is it just me, or is it getting a little "chilly" in here?

8 comments:

Tea N. Crumpet said...

Oh bill-- your words remind me of a couple of stanzas from Longfellow's poem:Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime,/ And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time.

Footprints, that perhaps another, / Sailing o'er life's solemn main,/ A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,/ Seeing, shall take heart again.

I recited this at my father's funeral. I meant it so much-- I think that a life, well lived, has it's ups and downs. It's how we act when we are down and create the circumstances to move on that make us. When things are good-- yes, yes, that is very nice and they are wonderful times, but they do not define us. Do your bad times make you bitter and hateful or do they make you more compassionate and understanding?

You are a prince by nature, dear Bill. You have shown more grace and shown more light int he past couple of years than most show in a lifetime.

Tea N. Crumpet said...

Oh- that poem is Longfellow's Psalm of Life. Isn't if fabulous?

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threecentsworth said...

A longer thanks are due but yes yes and thank you. Please do as the politicians do and count this written thanks as representing 1,000 more unspoken.

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