Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, a multi-genre anthology of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that I compiled and edited for McSweeney’s, was released in September and is now headed toward its third printing. Recently, after returning home to Brooklyn from book-event travels on behalf of Indelible, I invited two of the book’s contributors—Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and Diana Spechler—to discuss the current state of the #MeToo movement and their experience writing on this topic.
Shelly Oria: Had you written #MeToo before or was this your first time writing about this topic?
Diana Spechler: The #MeToo movement has given me a new lens through which to see so much of my past, including my past writing. Sometimes the lens makes me wince. For example, years ago I wrote fairly straight journalism about pick-up artists, giving very little thought to how gross “pick-up art” is. Please don’t Google that! Or, if you Google it, please say aloud to yourself, “Well, Diana has certainly matured since 2009!” I now realize how much my experience as a woman in a patriarchal society has impacted my writing, my life, my preoccupations, my fears, my sense of accomplishment, so perhaps it’s fair to say that everything I’ve ever written has been a #MeToo piece; I just often didn’t realize it.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Exactly. I’ve never written about sexual violence expressly in the context of #MeToo, but the movement has absolutely awakened me to themes of sexual harm, power, and vulnerability, both in my work and in the writing I love. I have always known sexuality and power to be important concerns of my work, and of feminist and black feminist literatures, but #MeToo has really brought these themes into a kind of focus in ways that are challenging but crucial. Or crucial because they are challenging. This movement has shown me how true it is that we can’t think about, for example, coming-of-age fiction, or what people call “domestic fiction”—or really any story that wants to deal honestly with the experiences of women and people of marginalized genders—without thinking about vulnerability to sexual violence and sexual power. It’s there in the novels, the stories; we just haven’t all been talking about it.
DS: Shelly, I know that your writing has explored power, gender, identity, and sexuality for a very long time. How did #MeToo (at least as it reemerged a couple years ago, more than a decade after Tarana Burke started it) impact your work?
SO: I had this moment when I was asked in an interview for Indelible if I was also working on my own #MeToo story collection, and I started and restarted my answer a bunch of times—luckily this was over email—because I kept thinking of another story of mine and another that is actually about sexual violence in some way…I started with an answer that could be summed up as “not really,” and ended with some like “I’ve been writing a lot of MeToo fiction.” So I very much relate to what you’re both saying here. I think it’s mostly my thinking about my work that has shifted in the past two years, as the cultural context for everything being written and made has reshaped itself.
This change affects what’s being published, and it affects how readers are receiving these stories. If you’d written about this topic prior to October 2017—pre-Harvey—did the experience feel different in any way? Was the reception of the work different?
DS: So much has shifted since the rise of Trump. We couldn’t have gotten to Harvey had Trump not already begun contaminating the air. And I would say that that contamination has made everything feel different.
I’m not really answering the question, am I? I think that’s because what’s more compelling to me than changing reactions to my own work is how reactions to other writers’ work have changed. For example, in 1998, Joyce Maynard published her memoir At Home in the World, about how J.D. Salinger preyed on her when she was a college student. The response to that publication was ostracism from much of the literary community. I met Joyce a couple years ago at a writers’ conference and gushed about that book to her and then we talked about how different the reception would likely be today, how awful the reaction was back then, and how fascinating it is that a book that once made her a pariah could have 20 years later made her a hero. Since that conversation, I’ve seen a bit of a revival of that book. People are reading it differently now.
An even more fascinating example, though it’s not a literary example, is how the world has begun treating Monica Lewinsky. In the ’90s, she was Public Enemy No. 1. Now that seems totally absurd. Why the hell were we blaming her? Today she’s one of our spokeswomen.
I keep wanting to apologize for going off on tangents instead of answering the question, but that would be ironic since Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump have rested their careers on never apologizing and they are rapists, while I am just a lady with an imperfect attention span.
MJS: But also, it makes sense to resist a linear narrative of time and “attention span,” as Diana puts it so well, in this conversation. I think it’s important to acknowledge how even imagining the public conversations on Weinstein (or Trump) as a kind of catalyzing or originating moment in the #MeToo conversation ends up enacting (or at least permitting) another kind of narrative violence that not only erases the labor of black women and women of color organizers like Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement in 2006, but that also centers these men and their actions, rather than the cultures of power that have allowed these stories and billions of others exist as open secrets—or at least as secreted, as objects of a rigorously selective hearing—for decades or more, and the many women writers around the world who have been telling these stories for just as long, often only to be ignored or punished or both. That’s a harder set of questions to grapple with, and one that a singularly-focused origin story can’t really accommodate.
DS: Shelly, this makes me think of this line from “But We Will Win,” your short story in the anthology: “My point was to bring attention to the larger issue.” In the context of the narrative, the sentence is very funny, but when I read it, it jumped out at me because it also could have been a summary of the activism you did by compiling this anthology. It makes me misty-eyed to think that all of our stories and poems and essays might “bring attention to the larger issue,” might help us to one day “win.” How do you view our responsibility as writers and artists in this critical moment?
SO: Working on Indelible—compiling the book, editing the pieces—felt like an effort to “bring attention to the larger issue” for sure, yes. And that effort presented itself in my life at a time when I was desperate to do something that might “matter.” Having grown up in Israel, I find protesting hard, at times impossible; I grew up believing this type of action mattered, and while my brain still believes that, my body hasn’t in many years. So putting together this book felt like the type of protest I could show up for again and again.
But really—and this may sound…hokey—I think our responsibility as artists is only to truth and vulnerability. When we meet that responsibility in a real way, the rest takes care of itself. So while conceptualizing our writing as activism is generally a bad idea, sometimes some form of activism will happen through the work nonetheless. Honesty is radical. Especially right now.
I see Indelible as part of a wave of books that are coming out now, at the two-year mark of the movement in its current incarnation and the one-year mark of the Kavanaugh hearings, and that’s been making me think a lot about this question, and specifically about the role books like Indelible play, both in readers’ and writers’ lives, in shaping the larger conversation.
Were you already working on the piece you contributed to Indelible when I reached out to you, or did the solicitation from McSweeney’s inspire the work?
DS: When you solicited me, I had a complicated reaction. Reflecting on men who have bulldozed my boundaries generated an elixir of pain, shame, and fury. Simultaneously, I was excited to contribute to such a beautiful project and terrified that I was going to fail. (To be fair, my initial reaction to every assignment I’ve ever gotten in my life is that I’m going to fail.) And then within a week or so, the voice of the piece popped into my head. It was the voice of an interrogator—a man demanding that a woman prove her allegations against her various sexual harassers. It was a silly voice, a caricature, like the collective voice that yells about “due process” these days without having any idea what it is.
That’s how writing works for me: Someone whispers a line into my ear and that’s the seed. It’s planted. Then I have to sit down and…I don’t understand gardening, so please don’t make me continue this metaphor. But eventually there’s a big, published plant?
MJS: That’s really interesting. I had mixed feelings too, actually, though I think for different reasons. I have taken issue with the way #MeToo has often been framed as a kind of spontaneous eruption of voicing catalyzed by famous or well-off white women. So, I thought it was really important to contribute, and I was honored to be invited. At the same time, it was important to me to be able to be clear about this erasure. So when we did our Philly launch event in October, It was important to me to read from Burke’s piece, “MeToo is a Movement, Not a Moment,” instead of sharing only my own writing. I appreciated the chance to center her voice in the conversation.
But your initial email about the anthology got me thinking about my writing (and, again, the literature I love and teach) in a different way. As a fiction writer, I thought at first that I didn’t have a “MeToo story,” proper, to contribute; I’ve only written a few stories that I think of as dealing directly with sexual violence, and they had been published already. But when I thought more about it, I realized that so much of my work is tinged with the specter of sexual vulnerability and sexual harm in complex ways. The story I ended up sending narrates a similar experience. The character, a thick black girl who has fought hard to lose weight, does not see herself as having experienced sexual violence—at least not at first. She doesn’t have language to describe her experience, just as she doesn’t have language to describe her body. We catch her in that search for words and context. It’s a complicated thing to grapple with, and I was glad for the chance to do it.
DS: Have either of you felt emboldened as writers because so much of the misogyny that used to be confined to whisper networks is now out in the open? How so?
MJS: In some ways, I think I have tended to be a little…what…oblivious, or maybe irreverent, when it comes to sex and power and bodily experience in my writing, and how it will be received. For better and for worse. So I don’t know that my writing has changed, but it is interesting and, I think, heartening to imagine that there is a widening readership for candid, direct, work on these subjects. How about you?
SO: I think touring with the anthology has emboldened me: meeting and talking to many people in different parts of the country who shared their stories with me, who came to our events because—whether they feel empowered or not—they are dedicated to speaking up and reading and in many cases writing, too, about this issue. I think it’s necessary. I think that in our lifetime, it will never not be necessary, and never not radical.
I, too, have been focused on the exclusion and erasure that were part of the phenomenon of the past two years, and much of making Indelible has been a response to and a conversation with these big problems. Through the book events, and before that, through planning these events—especially the ones in cities I couldn’t go to myself, where local writers stepped up to celebrate the anthology and what it stands for—I got to feel the true power, and grassroots power, of this movement in this moment in time.
Relatedly, sort of, you’ve both heard me talk about why making Indelible a multi-genre anthology felt important to me from the start. In short: I believe that it’s our responsibility as a society in times of crisis to encourage and receive art in all the forms it takes, and I believe multi-genre is a form of inclusivity we should strive toward. I’m always curious to hear other writers’ thoughts on this issue.
DS: I love that this book is multi-genre because that in itself is a political statement. The feminist movement today, or dare I say one goal of the whole Left today, is to dismantle boundaries—to embrace gender fluidity and racial equality, to open borders. Categorizing a book as one genre or another used to be a dogmatic practice, but ultimately who does that serve (other than people shelving books at bookstores)? I’m not suggesting that it’s okay for a writer to say, “Here’s my true book about surviving a genocide,” if she did not in fact survive a genocide, but I do love writing that might be poetry or might be creative nonfiction or might be a lyric something-or-other. I love that Indelible is an anthology of woman-identifying and non-binary writers writing whatever the hell they want to write. It’s an example of structure reflecting theme.
MJS: Yes. I was so excited to learn that this would be a multi-genre anthology. I think unsettling genre is crucial for literary conversations about power. You know, I nerd out on languages, and I talk with students about this all the time—how in Spanish and French (and, I imagine, other Romance languages), “gender” and “genre” have the same pronunciation and spelling. In French, “Genre” is a polyseme that takes on both meanings. (It also means “type” or “kind”). In Spanish it’s “género.” On one hand, I think that speaks to the Western impulse to divide and categorize, as Diana points out—and how that impacts all of our discussions of gender in ways we may not acknowledge or even see. But, as writers, I think paying attention to literary genre also allows us to undo those categories, and break down the boundaries, as you’ve both said. And when we mess with genre in discussions of gender and/or race, class, ability, embodiment, sexuality, nation, and more, I think we have the chance to pierce those structures as well.
DS: Shelly and I nerd out a lot on language together, too, Mecca! We both speak (and often live in) our second languages, and making comparisons between English and other languages, not to mention between American culture and other cultures, is endlessly fascinating. Comparison is like a black light, illuminating issues of power and privilege that are otherwise hard to see.
And like you said, that impulse to categorize (and organize?) is particularly Western. It’s a method of control, one that art, ideally, acknowledges and messes with or ignores completely.
When I first moved to Mexico, I couldn’t stop noticing how much the dogs were barking. No one was shushing them. Noise regulations in Mexico aren’t enforced the way they are in the States, but beyond that: in Mexico, there’s a respect for nature that struck me as novel. Dogs are allowed to be dogs. I love that. That’s what I want from art. Let it bark all night if it needs to. Let it be what it needs to be.
MJS: I find myself thinking and talking a lot about my students in this conversation we’re having. I wonder what your experiences have been talking about #MeToo with generations other than your/our own.
SO: I love this question, Mecca. I was hyper aware of age in curating the book; it felt crucial to also invite writers who were dealing with this bullshit before I was born, whose perspective was much broader than mine could ever be.
Something that brought me to tears while I was touring with the book was seeing mothers and daughters at our events. It happened often, and it wrecked me. Or even just a young woman asking me to sign the book for her mother, or the other way around, which also happened quite a bit. I felt a very specific kind of pain around these interaction every time—the realization of how this societal illness of ours connects generations of women—alongside a careful, gentle hope that maybe we are beginning to heal.
DS: I like that you’re thinking about age as a determining factor, Mecca. The younger generation seems smart and open and I’m so relieved. I see Greta Thunberg and Malala and Emma González and I think…maybe we’ll be okay?
I guess I find myself thinking less about generational responses to feminism than about how the conversations vary from country to country. In many parts of Latin America, for instance, feminism is exploding. But the strength of the resistance to it is quite powerful, too. Femicide statistics have risen in the wake of the #NiUnaMenos hashtag—a movement to call attention to Latin America’s alarming rates of femicide—so some draw the sloppy conclusion that activism doesn’t work, that feminism is bad for women. Some further conclude that feminists are hypocrites because if feminists hated murder so much, they wouldn’t fight to legalize abortion. And on and on. I don’t mean to single out Latin America, but it’s an interesting microcosm of resistance-to-resistance. I try to trust that things have to get worse before they get better. I also try to trust that the death rattle of harmful and antiquated ideas, institutions, and practices is loud and grotesque.
SO: Indelible features a significant array of voices and backgrounds; this felt not just crucial, as it always does, but urgent, since at the time we were hearing predominantly from white, straight, beautiful actresses. How do you feel about the inclusivity of the #MeToo conversation in 2019? And would you say we’ve successfully shifted the cultural perception that appearance affects whether or not a woman gets harassed or abused?
DS: I don’t take kindly to the implication that I’m not a “beautiful actress.” Jeez.
MJS: I am definitely a beautiful actress.
DS: I peeked at your website. You are!
SO: I apologize and take full responsibility for not realizing you were both beautiful actresses. Someone else ask a question, then.
DS: I’ve seen a lot of cool art in recent years that challenges the notion that the gift of shitty male behavior is bestowed only on certain types of women. A couple off the top of my head are Shrill (both Lindy West’s book and the Hulu series based on it) and Orange Is the New Black. But no, I don’t think we have successfully shifted the cultural perception yet. In June, the president of the United States rejected a sexual assault allegation against him by arguing that she wasn’t his “type.”
MJS: I agree that that perception has not shifted. I think writing by Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldúa, Janet Mock, June Jordan, Dionne Brand, Jamaica Kincaid, Lenelle Moïse, Suzan-Lori Parks, Cherrie Moraga, Carmen Maria Machado, Nina Sharma, Roxanne Shanté, Roxane Gay, Queen Latifah, Sapphire, Reina Gossett, Bushra Rehman, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Darnell L. Moore, and many others has been doing that work.
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