“We have all seized the white perimeter as our own And reached for a pen if only to show We did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; We pressed a thought into the wayside, Planted an impression along the verge.” —Billy Collins, “Marginalia”
Sometime after the fourth century, an unknown transcriber of the Mithraic scholar Lactantius Placidus accidentally conjured into history a demon named Demogorgon. Writing in the margins of Placidus’s commentary on Statius’s Latin poem Thebaid, the transcriber turned his attention to a line concerning “the supreme being of the threefold world.” By way of gloss, the scholar noted that Statius had been referring to the “Demogorgon, the supreme god, whose name it is not permitted to know” (even while Placidus apparently knew it). Etymologically the provenance of the word is unknown. Aurally it reminds one of the daemons of ancient Greek philosophy, that indwelling presence that acts as a cross between consciousness and muse; a terrifying sounding being, with its portmanteau connotations of both “demon” and of the serpentine-locked “Gorgon.” Most uncanny of all is that no reference to the “Demogorgon” appears to exist before the Placidus’s marginalia.
As if he had been manifested from the very ether, the Demogorgon has replicated from that initial transcription through literary history. After that initial appearance, the Demogorgon appeared in Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles, where the Italian author connected the entity to the demigod Pan while interpreting a line from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; by the Renaissance he’d be incantated in works such as Ludovico Aristo’s I Cinque Canti, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and Christopher Marlowe’s diabolical play Doctor Faustus. A few centuries later, and the sprite mentioned in Placidus’s gloss would be name-checked by Voltaire, and he’d be conjured in Percy Shelly’s Prometheus Unbound and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
By the 20th century, the Demogorgon would become a character in Gary Gygax’s role-playing phantasmagoria Dungeons & Dragons, and he now enjoys his ninth life as the bestial, reptilian antagonist of the first season of Netflix’s exercise in Gen-X nostalgia Stranger Things. Cultural footnote though the Demogorgon may be, that scribbling in the border of Thebaid endures. What Spenser described as something “Downe in the bottome of the deepe Abysse / Where Demogorgon in full darknesses pent, / Farre from the view of Gods and heauens blis, / The hideous Chaos keeps, their dreadful dwelling is.” More prosaic an explanation for the creature’s genesis—whoever had been copying Placidus’s commentary had misread the Greek accusative referencing the Platonic concept of the “demiurge.” All those deltas and gammas got confusing. There never had been a Demogorgon, at least not outside of that initial misreading. Even Placidus nods, it would seem (just like the rest of us). At least that’s how it’s often interpreted, but in the genre of marginalia, which is its own form of instantaneous commentary on a literary text, there is a creative act in its own right. Such commentary is the cowriting of a new text, between the reader and the read, as much an act of composition as the initial one. From this vantage point, the Demogorgon is less a mistake than a new being born in the space between intent and misinterpretation. A conjuring appears. So much depends on marginalia.
In his 1667 epic Paradise Lost, John Milton replicates that transcendent transcription error when he invokes “the dreaded name / Of Demogorgon,” but the blind poet got the marginalia treatment himself in a used copy of his work that I read during my doctoral composition examinations. My copy of William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon’s The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton has a delightful addition made on its title page. Marginalia by way of doodle, where some bored and anonymous undergraduate, a Placidus in her own right, added a cartoon thought bubble to the 1629 portrait of the young poet posed soberly in his stiff, starched, ribbed collar as if an oyster emerging from a shell, leading the annotator to imagine the author thinking “I am a seahorse, or a snail.” Not my favorite marginalia as it is, that’s reserved for a copy of the Pelican Shakespeare edition of The Merchant of Venice heavily annotated by a reader who’d clearly no previous familiarity with the play. When Shylock gives his celebrated soliloquy, in which he intones, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” the previous owner approvingly added in the margins “Bring your own BOOYEA!” Whoever got their first taste of The Merchant of Venice from the copy that I now possessed was rightly rooting for Shylock, so much so that when they got to the final act and discovered the moneylender’s heartbreaking forced conversion, they wrote in a corner of the creased and dog-eared page “Aww,” then choosing never to annotate this particular copy again.
Such marginalia greatly enlivened my reading of the play; in part because the weird enthusiasm of the previous owner was innately funny, but not without being equivalently moving. As all marginalia is, those little marks that people make in borderlands of a book, in the margins and on the title page, underlined text and notes scribbled wherever there is a blank space requiring commentary, exegesis, digression, or doodle. They exist as the material result of a reader having grappled with literature. Since the era of literary mechanical reproduction (i.e. print), there has been the risk of all books partaking in a dull uniformity with every other object that shares their particular title; marginalia returns the actual book to its glorious singularity, print is converted back into manuscript as my copy of The Merchant of Venice is individual from all the others in the Pelican Shakespeare series as a result. Marginalia in a used book is an autograph from the reader and not the author, and all the more precious for it. Such scribblings, notations, and glosses, whether commentary on the writing itself, or personal note, or inscrutable cipher known only to its creator, is artifact, evidence, and detritus, the remainder of what’s left over after a fiery mind has immolated the candle of the text. A book bloody with red ink is the result of a struggle between author and reader, it is the spent ash from the immolation of the text, it is evidence of the process – the record of a mind thinking. A pristine book is something yet to be read, but marginalia is the reading itself. Far from the molestation of the pristine object, the writing of marginalia is a form of reverence, a ritual, a sacred act. So rarely do you get the opportunity to write back to authors, whether out of love or hate. Marginalia lets you do it for even the dead ones.
Such reverence for marginalia was hard-won for me; I’m not the sort of reader who took naturally to jotting observations in the corner of a page. When I was growing up, I approached my books with a bibliomaniacal scrupulosity that was marked in its own neuroticism. To prevent the pages of paperbacks from curling around each other in the un-airconditioned summer humidity, I used to take a ruler and make sure that they were perfectly lined up on the edges facing the back of the bookshelf, so that their spines greeting those who might peruse their titles were strung along like crooked teeth. Books were to be gingerly opened, carefully placed, and certainly never allowed to have ink vandalize them. An observer might note that all of this obsessiveness doesn’t have much to do with actually reading; as S. Brent Plate writes in his own reflection on marginalia and the totemistic quality of books at The Los Angeles Review of Books, “this fetishization cannot be sustained.” Graduate school broke me of that affectation, the need to actually ingest the content of a book became more important than treating a copy of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as if it were the goddamn Book of Kells (which incidentally has its own marginalia). Disciplining and punishing books is precisely what we did in wrestling with the ideas therein; no wonder so many violent metaphors are used in describing the process of reading, whereby we “crack spines” and drench pages in lurid corpuscular red ink.
When I first began writing book reviews several years ago, I still hadn’t quite shaken my previous idolatry of paper and binding. Writing my first published review of a book (it was Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of the Saints considered at The Revealer) and I concocted an elaborate system of color-coded Scotch-tape tabs and enumerated page numbers listed in a document so as to be able to reference portions of the text I might need to paraphrase or quote, all while avoiding anything as gauche as dog-earing or underlining. Untenable is what this system was. Now I struggle with at least the books I’m tasked with reviewing as if Jacob with his nocturnal angel, and the marked, torn, broken books that limp away testify to an event that in some way altered us both. At least evidence that there was an event that we can call reading. Out of interest I checked some of the most recent books that I had to read for my supposedly professional opinion (I don’t do this with novels from the library of course), and my marginalia is a record of my perseverations c.2019. In one I wrote underneath the printed words “seems anemic, feels as untrue as feeling that God can’t be cruel,” and in another I penned “AMERICAN TRAGEDY.” At the very least, the people who purchase the corpses of my volumes read after I’ve deposited them into the book donation bin will be able to psychoanalyze my hypergraphic observations.
Referencing exhibits at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago, Plate notes that today is a veritable golden age of the form, even as digital publication would ironically seem to announce its eclipse. The plucky dons of Oxford University even sponsor a Facebook group for the analysis of evocative specimens of the form spotted in the wild. The BBC reports one volume from the Bodleian Library in which a student wrote “I hate these clever Oxford people.” One reader recorded their graffito in the pages of the Labour Party’s response to the EEC with “Why the fuck is this all so boring…” An annotation in a scholarly journal reads “This article is a load of balls.” Much as with the literary Banksy who imagined my Milton dreaming of a beautiful aquatic invertebrate existence, these marginalia have little to do with simply annotating the book, and everything to do with engaging with the text as if they were an interlocutor (as angry as those engagements sometimes are).
What the exhibits, studies, and Oxford group signify is that marginalia has long come out from between the covers as it were. A demonstration of how literary theorists interested in material history—as well as critics concerned with that nebulous collection of attributes that invisibly radiate out from the book proper and which are known as “paratext” (including everything from covers and blurbs to prefaces and reviews—have been academically concerned with marginalia now for a generation. Writing in Early Modern English Marginalia, scholar Katherine Acheson notes that the form is a “record of our complex material, intellectual, emotional, and psychological interactions with the book, and therefore [they present]…a special kind of history of those marvelous things and their readers.” A history of marginalia, from the saucy medieval monks who used manicules to mock their own transcription errors, to the 17th-century mathematician Pierre de Fermat’s unfulfilled promise in a marginalia to have found a proof that no positive integer greater than two can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn (and which awaited three centuries until it was again proven), is as a history of the human mind itself.
Marginalia has gone digital, with projects like The Archeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe (administered jointly between Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and UC London), Annotated Books Online, and repositories of authors from Walt Whitman to Charles Darin and their marginalia available to the historian and the merely curious alike. Harvard’s Widener Library has an online collection allowing anyone to read the annotations of “John Keats, Herman Melville, [and] Hester Lynch Piozzi,” among others. And marginalia has finally earned its indefatigable scholarly champion in the form of H.J. Jackson and her exhaustive study Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. Jackson surveyed a voluminous amount of material written and read across the century’s books consumed by both the famous and the average, so as to develop a taxonomy of the form. She writes that “Readers’ notes in books are a familiar but unexamined phenomenon. We do not understand it well. We have mixed feelings about it, sometimes quite strong ones, such as shame and disapproval.” Beyond simple note-taking, Jackson discovered that those who annotate their books do it for a variety of reasons, even while those reasons may be “private and idiosyncratic.” Readers address the author, they address an imagined audience, they address posterity and the absolute. They are written to express ecstatic agreement and vociferous disagreement, to interrogate the book as if it were under oath, and to merely express physically the existence of readers themselves in the most potent objects that embody writerly ambition. Jackson observes that “All annotators are readers, but not all readers are annotators. Annotators are readers who write. Annotation combines—synthesizes, I should say—the functions of reading and writing. This fact in itself heights the natural tension between author and reader.”
As enjoyable as anonymous marginalia can be, most of us seem more interested in the annotations of famous writers considering other famous writers, for the obvious reasons. Aspiring seahorse or snail John Milton’s heavily annotated version of Shakespeare’s first folio was recently discovered hiding in plain site at the Free Library of Philadelphia, an identification that may prove invaluable to scholars trying to understand the influence of one genius on another. Then there are Vladimir Nabokov’s drawings within Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the committed Peabody Museum affiliated amateur entomologist trying to flesh out the segments and exoskeleton of poor Gregor Samsa. Being able to see a fertile brain in flux is one of the exquisite joys of marginalia in the hand of celebrated authors. Writing in his column entitled “Marginalia,” Edgar Allan Poe enthused that in “getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin…penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” A brilliant writer not alone in that pose. Consider that old curmudgeon Mark Twain’s notation in the margins of his copy of Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagles Around the World when he wrote “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?,” presumably whether ex nihilo or by primordial soup. The character of Jack Kerouac as both reader and writer is on display in an edition of his fellow New Englander Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, pilfered from a Lowell, Mass., library in 1949, a little under a decade until the writing of his most famous book. There Kerouac underlined an observation of Thoreau’s: “The traveler must be born again on the road.”
Ever is the case, for it’s not a coincidence that Thoreau’s language has such evangelical connotations to it. Reading does have something of the religious in it, and not just all of the transcendent hoopla either. With considerations of faith, prayer is not just a matter of the soul, but of the hands as well; reverence not only a subject for the mind, but of the body contorted into kneeling, too; ecstasy fit not only for the spirit, but also as an issue of the body. Such is the same for reading, for even in our supposedly transhumanist digital age there is still the question of how you comport yourself when scanning a page, whether leaning over a desk or sprawled across a couch; of how the book is gripped or carefully opened, of the pencil or pen poised over print. Marginalia can be such a form of material supplication, before the altar of the text’s base physicality. As a method, marginalia remind us that all annotation is allusive, that all literature is connected to everything else, that the reader influences the writer as surely as the other way around, and even if the later has been dead for centuries. Plate writes that margins are “sites of engagement and disagreement: between text and reader and…between author and reader. From Talmudic studies to legal amendments, margins have been the places where texts have been kept alive—alive because they’ve been read and responded to.” Books are otherwise inert things, whereas marginalia turns the moribund page into a seminar, an academy, a disputation, a debate, a temple.
Books are, certainly, often inert things. They can exist as a type of interior decoration, as status symbol, as idol. Think of the unreaderly sentiment parodied by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, when Nick comes upon the library filled with classics bonded by their uncut pages. There a drunken admirer of Jay Gatsby, wearing “enormous owl-eyed spectacles,” informs Nick “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me…It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” Certainly not to actually read the books, because they exist not to be interpreted, but admired. “Printed matter” as mere wallpaper. A memorable image of a certain type of crass materialism, of the idolization of the book at the expense of the actual writing, the whole thing drawn to its ultimate logical conclusion. Not only is Gatsby not underlining and marking up his margins, he’s not even going to bother cutting the pages to actually read what’s inside. By contrast, consider the marginalia made by the young poet Sylvia Plath while she was an undergraduate at Smith College first reading The Great Gatsby. Before she’d lived the bulk of her own tragic life—abuse at the hands of her husband, Ted Hughes, and her eventual suicide—Plath read of Daisy Buchanan.
When the narrator leaves Gatsby standing vigil outside of the Buchanan home, his youthful love retiring upstairs with her brutish, privileged, bigoted husband, Nick reflects that “I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing.” There in her neat, meticulous, tidy handwriting, Plath recorded nine words in black ink organized into eight lines marked with the caesura of a single hyphen: “knight waiting outside—dragon goes to bed with princess.” Such reading is as if a prayer for intercession, and the physicality of the whole thing is instrumental. Such a method of annotation gives the flesh spirit, reminding us that books are objects—but not entirely. Such is the gravitational power of literature, that every new work alters every other so that the canon as an abstract idea can never be defined, can never be static. Marginalia, as evidence of thought and engagement, is among the synapses of that process. Marginalia is the ash left over, the melted wax of the candle proving that a fire once burnt here.
Image credit: Andrew Measham
In the opening montage for Orange Is the New Black, the made-for-Netflix series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, disembodied lips of different races and ethnicities mouth the words to Regina Spektor’s song “You’ve Got Time.” The message is clear: we are all the same (we all have lips, I suppose). The faces are both stripped of identity, yet are identifiably female. The introduction sets the stage for the show’s focus on the idea of a universal feminine experience. From the illicit groping between Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) to the hair salon run by Sophia (the awesome Laverne Cox), the show treats its viewers to a titillating version of female camaraderie that might exist on the WB or in the catalogues of a Seven Sisters college.
In fact, Piper Kerman (renamed “Chapman” for the Netflix series) invites the comparison to an all-women’s collegiate experience herself in her memoir. “I was surviving,” she writes about her time in a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., “perhaps [because] I had gone to an elite women’s college. Single-sex living has certain constants, whether it’s upscale or down and dirty…There was less bulimia and more fights…but the same feminine ethos was present — empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on good days, and histrionic drama…on bad.”
The series reflects this same “all women be crazy” ethos, and the comparison to college dormitory living does seems apt. The viewing experience is really a lot like Felicity in its gossipy will-they-or-won’t-they feel, down to the symbolic meaning attributed to hairstyles (for some reason, this is the sine qua non of feminine culture on popular television). It’s also deliciously, compulsively watchable, not just because the acting is compelling, but also because it reinforces what the audience would like to view as a universal truth: there isn’t much difference between people on the inside and people on the outside. The success of both the show and the memoir evince the public’s current insatiable thirst for prison narratives — so long as they aren’t too violent or dirty. (Kerman inoculates her memoir, and the show, against any charges of girl-on-girl sexual assault: Oz this is not.) Still, one wonders, is this perceived similarity between those on the inside and us on the outside just to make us (liberal, middle-class, educated) feel better (or worse) about the prison state that is the U.S., circa now?
The prison narrative has been around for a long time. Not only have great authors spent time in prison (Thomas More, Marquis de Sade) but great works have also been written about prisons (The Count of Monte Cristo, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). “Prison lit,” as a dedicated genre consisting of first-person accounts of trial and punishment, seems to have come about around the 16th century as large numbers of literate, educated dissenters spent time behind bars; they wrote as a way to spark conversation about the role of incarceration in society. Not coincidentally, the 16th century also saw the rise of imprisonment as legal punishment. On top of the religious and political minorities, there were also greater numbers of vagrants and debtors who were locked up.
Similarly, the American tradition of “prison lit” has its roots in social protest. Thoreau, in Resistance to Civil Government, wrote that, “[u]nder a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” launching the idealistic notion that great thinking and writing come from behind prison walls. Early 20th century prison writings were generally by activists who sought to expose the inequities of the justice system. My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie was one of the first widely-read first-person accounts of prison life. Lowrie was sentenced to 15 years at San Quentin for burglary (he was out in 10 on good behavior). Lowrie attempts to chronicle the daily humiliations of prison life while also maintaining the idea that he wasn’t a born criminal, but rather a victim of bad circumstances that conspired against him: “And despite a long term in prison, I am not yet a criminal.” He separates himself and his fellow inmates from their crimes: “But I know that all men are human.” This idea of a constant humanity resonates with the same appeal as other “outsider” narratives.
During the Civil Rights era, prison literature became a way to unite both individual struggles with political ones, although the works were arguably still the product of a few great minds. The Autobiography of Malcom X, for example, galvanized a movement. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice similarly links the African-American male prison experience with the greater historical atrocities of colonialism and slavery, crimes where African-Americans lost their ability to move freely. Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, published in 1967, is heralded as one of the greatest prison novels, reveling in psychological verity and presenting an array of criminal “types” familiar to any outside audience today.
Unsurprisingly, the rise of prison narratives in America coincided with a dramatic increase in prison populations during the ’70s, putatively as a reaction to the anti-establishment mores of the ’60s. This trend continues today at least partially because of popular anti-crime campaigns, the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” political rhetoric. Various memoirs and stories emerged to expose the horrendous conditions of most penitentiaries; not coincidentally, many of them focus on social conditions preceding incarceration, like poverty, lack of family support, substance abuse, homelessness, and exposure to criminal activity. Many of these narratives are written by African American writers addressing a presumptively white audience and take on a semi-educational stance not unlike slave narratives: John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), for example, in addition to the works mentioned above.
One role of the prison narrative is to combat the dehumanizing process that is the modern prison system. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explained incarceration as a way for the State to maintain its absolute power and authority over its citizens. Certainly, penal institutions try their very best to effectively erase the individual as we know it. For this reason, prisons separate inmates by race, women are housed separately from men, and a series of bureaucratic trials are imposed — bodies are counted at certain times of day, sleeping situations are altered, and procedural delays are rampant. Some states also have versions of various laws that prevent author-inmates from profiting off of their writing, which limits free expression, a Constitutional ideal that we profess to hold dear.
It makes sense, then, that prison literature today seeks to reaffirm the triumph of the human spirit, so to speak. Kerman, as an example, continually reasserts her ability to maintain her can-do pluckiness: “I hated the control the prison exercised over my life, but the only way to fight it was in my head.” Rather than dwell on her misfortune or become too accustomed to prison life, Kerman stages a protest, Oprah-style: no one can keep her down. She still has her favorite things: her radio, her running, her prison “cheesecake,” and the companionship of the other women.
At the same time, the inmate-author is in a unique position to testify as to the conditions and injustices rampant in the system. Interestingly, contemporary prison narratives rarely claim that incarceration is wrong in itself, but rather focus on cruel and inhumane treatment. Kerman relates in detail the administrative nightmare that is the judicial process — she pleads guilty and surrenders but must wait over a year for her sentence to begin. Yet, she does not ever argue that she did not deserve punishment. The PEN Prison Writing Program’s website includes thoughtful essays about concerns like solitary confinement and the death penalty without exhorting the reader to rethink the concept of the penitentiary more generally. No one, it seems, wants to argue that murderers and rapists don’t belong in prison.
For example, in writing about the death penalty, J. Michael Stanfield Jr. speaks directly to us, the outsiders: “Okay, so maybe I’m coming off as just a tad bit facetious here, but it doesn’t change the fact that murder, even the government-approved variety, is still murder, by the very definition of the law. What’s more (and I’m going out on a limb here), capital punishment is immoral, and it’s a sin of our modem, civilized society.” The reader of this cannot help but be morally implicated, particularly since the political reality is that prisoners cannot vote (and most states limit the ability of ex-felons to vote in some manner). In Stanfield’s piece, the reader, who is viewed as potentially complicit with the government, becomes an agent for moral decision-making: we can decide that murder, in all its varieties, is immoral and, therefore, seek to eliminate the death sentence. Yet, Stanfield doesn’t argue that crimes (like murder) are undeserving of punishment; in fact, he says quite the opposite.
Prison narratives exert their moral authority by emphasizing their “truth.” Whether the piece is fiction or not, readers want to feel as though the information or story is conveyed with some deeper understanding, similar to the way readers want to read about war but never actually want to go there. One way that present-day prison writing emphasizes the notion of “truth” is by sheer volume. Infamous bastions like San Quentin publish anthologies of inmates’ stories and verse, and the PEN Program fosters prison writing’s “restorative and rehabilitative” powers and sponsors writing contests. Wally Lamb has assembled two anthologies (Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away) of work by women inmates in a Connecticut women’s maximum-security prison. In these cases, the emphasis is on a collection of writing, a community on the inside speaking truth to us on the outside. Rather than one great writer, like Thomas More, writing for a small intellectual elite, these anthologies are mass marketed for a consumer audience of liberals. We cannot deny the power of these stories because there are just too many of them; however, the highly consumable quality of the publications — not entirely unlike the idea of watching a whole season of Orange at one sitting — makes it less likely we will act.
In truth, the American prison system is in crisis. The number of people in prison since the 1980s has more than tripled, to 751 per 100,000 people (that’s nearly 1 percent of our population). The U.S. puts more people behind bars than any other country in the world. We house half of the world’s prison population. Over half of those in prison are African-American or Hispanic. There are more black men within the various incarnations of incarceration — prison, probation or parole — than there were slaves during the height of slavery. For many urban, minority communities, prison is simply a fact of everyday life (as is prison rape, if evidenced by the number of times detectives on Law & Order: SVU threaten accused rapists and pedophiles with it). The penitentiary is both a subculture and the dominant culture all in one.
Whatever you may think about the causes of the prison population explosion or what should be done about it, America has long held contradictory views about incarceration. On the one hand, incarceration is perhaps ideally all about rehabilitation: after a certain amount of time (not necessarily commensurate with the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines), we assume or believe, given evidence, that an offender can grow to regret his crimes and become a productive member of society.
There are a lot of problems with that view, not the least of which being that overcrowded prisons seem unlikely to produce anything productive. It does, however, explain the surge in prison programs that teach inmates job training, anger management, art, drama, music, writing, etc. The idea is that these programs reduce recidivism, and most of them seem to do so. Reducing recidivism is popular among the public and politicians alike — while no one wants to be seen as “soft on crime” (especially when it comes to violent offenders — it’s a bit easier to make the case for nonviolent offenses), arguing that programs prevent ex-cons from returning to prison reduces costs all around.
But rehabilitation is at war with the other main ideology driving prison sentencing, retribution. In other words, people should be punished for what they do. This is, after all, the American way — submitting oneself to a greater authority (God and/or the state), manfully accepting that one has done wrong and deserves punishment. In his book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, author Robert Perkinson traces this foundation back to slavery — subjugate, discipline, punish (especially African-Americans).
Yet, even more contrarily, the manner in which prisons dehumanize individuals — stripping them of possessions, bodily integrity, identity, community, and dignity — confuses the issue of retribution. If someone who commits a crime is a monster, someone with whom we don’t want to identify, then the arduous procedural elements of the criminal justice process — the hearings, the trial, the parole board hearings, the write-ups for good or bad behavior, the psychological profiles — simply impede the public’s desire for good old retribution. Hangings in the public square at least are consistent, and possibly more humane than solitary confinement in a supermax. As some said, or thought, when Ariel Castro hung himself in his cell, good riddance. In other words, he was so subhuman that he didn’t deserve the chance to be stripped of his humanity. It’s often even the same voices who so quickly demonize unlikable offenders — people who, say, shoot down innocent civilians in a movie theater or plant bombs at the end of the Boston marathon — that will also exhort the virtues of rehabilitation. Furthermore, advances in science may well indicate that the causes of violent behavior are at least partially biological, which may mean that rehabilitation is simply asking the wrong questions.
Retribution is fundamentally inconsistent with rehabilitation. Retribution relies on a theory of individual choice, arguing that wrong-doers deserve punishment, while rehabilitation accepts that some people may not have been capable of making other choices at that moment (but they should know better in the future once they are schooled in guilt). You cannot think that people deserve to be punished for wrongdoing and simultaneously believe that people who commit offenses are wrong-headed and need guidance to find the proper path. And, yet, we do.
You can see these conflicting ideologies within any prison memoir. In the PEN anthologies and others like it, the author chooses how much he would like to reveal about his crime and the events which landed him in prison. Does it affect our reading of the work? It only seems to serve as a way to further sell the outside audience on an authentic experience while also making the author an autonomous agent capable of self-reflection, even though that self-reflection is state-imposed. Part of the current allure of the authorial gesture in contemporary prison writing is that the writer is permitted to become someone else — the past is in the past. As the tagline of an O magazine article on Wally Lamb’s work with inmate-writers states: “In prison, they are robbers and murders. On paper, they are women not so different from the rest of us.” Even if the crime is revealed, usually a redemptive gesture follows to argue that this crime merely represents one bad decision or moment; the writer’s life is (or now is) composed of more than that.
This rehabilitative gesture allows us, the readers, to see the inmate as like us on the outside (presumably the readership of O magazine does not include large numbers of incarcerated individuals). I was at a performance in San Quentin where inmate-actors all gave their own short pieces based on their life experiences. Someone in the audience said, “It made me think about my own life.” This move — my, he is relatable/yes, I am just like you — explains the enduring appeal of these narratives. Wouldn’t we all like to truly understand our motives and improve ourselves if only we had the time to do so? And in order to make this mental turn, to go from seeing oneself as worthless to worthy of someone’s time and attention, requires a belief in personal agency, both the ability to commit crimes of one’s own free will and to seek forgiveness for them. The writer must feel the pain of his acts, an action consistent with parole board hearing where an inmate must express requisite apologies.
At the same time, a prison narrative must reinforce its boundaries, physical and emotional. In other words, since the very function of a prison is to display the mighty power of the state, a prison narrative must focus on the day-to-day, mundane nature of life behind bars. In Kerman’s memoir, I lost count of the number of times she runs around the track. Bray’s novel spends many pages on the mundane details of prison life alongside the portrayal of each character’s inner struggles. The potential for growth in a prison narrative comes from the interior journey. Since prison, by its very nature, circumscribes a person’s ability to move freely (and is very, very boring), writers have ample opportunity to reflect on past events and motivations.
Part of what makes Orange so interesting is the fact that Piper Kerman is the presumptive consumer of her own material. She is white, liberal, educated, scornful of the trappings of uneducated femininity (like big weddings), with just a bit of a wild streak (which I like to fancy I have myself). This places her in the unique position to both testify to her own dehumanizing treatment and advocate for the better treatment for others who cannot achieve her level of discourse.
It’s a forgone conclusion that Piper is dreadfully sorry for what she has done. She writes this over and over. Yet, is this memoir a rehabilitative one? Did Piper need to spend 16 months in a federal prison to learn that being involved in a drug cartel was a bad idea? Per the book, no. Piper spends little time dwelling on why she made that decision — instead, at moments, she seems to glorify the freewheeling, thug life she had. She very judiciously states that she is “no better” than anyone else she meets in prison.
And yet, in saying so, she clearly marks herself as not from the inside. Her time in prison is like a student spending a study abroad trip in South America, a dip into an exotic culture. What about the other inmates? Do they exercise the same autonomous agency that Kerman claims she possesses? Both the show and the books seem to argue no. The other inmate characters’ crimes are as accidents, the wrong place at the wrong time, born of circumstances like poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. The show deals with this neatly — it provides each character an intriguing backstory, giving them psychological motives for their crimes, but also humanizing them, so that the audience can imagine, if they wish, that the characters have the ability to reclaim their non-criminal individual identities. Yet Kerman/Chapman herself never wrestles with this question of her own agency, so she is always an outsider, placing any authenticity of her claim to self-improvement in question.
Since the writing of the memoir and the production of the Netflix series, Kerman mostly devotes herself to advocating for improvement in prison conditions, a worthy goal. Certainly, Kerman and other writers of prison narratives are not defending the current penal system; the contradictions in their narratives are related to the contradictions inherent in the criminal justice system. But as a consumer audience, we can wonder whether these works really serve the political purposes they’d like.
We must acknowledge that, like all creative works, prison narratives are intended for consumption by readers like us. Do we read them just to exorcise our guilt? That seems to take away from the profoundly moving nature of the genre. Whether it’s because people are seeking authenticity of individual expression in an era where so much feels prepackaged and marketed or whether it’s because incarceration speaks to some kind of universal human experience, I am not sure. But the emotions are not manufactured. During the performance I attended at San Quentin, people in the audience were profoundly, genuinely moved — I saw tears and handholding, a vast swelling of catharsis among the non-incarcerated audience. Even I wanted to believe.
Image Credit: Flickr/wallyg