I am reading Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin. In the final paragraph of his essay, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown” he writes, “It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.”

 

This got me thinking about the new guy in the group last week – the one who talked about his therapy and his victims. The one I wrote about in my last “From the Ferry” piece. I think this man was experiencing exactly what Baldwin was writing about. Not only was he having to face the humanity of his victims, perhaps for the first time, but in doing so he was also having to face his own humanity, which, if you’ve been denying it for a while, operating on a (violent) autopilot, disconnected from your emotions and relationships, I must imagine comes at you like a large ocean wave, washing over you and pulling you under all at the same time. I suppose, in actuality, it is not fair to assume what this guy was going through, but by the way his hands trembled and his voice shook I have to believe that the humanity of his victims took him by surprise, and now that he’s acknowledged their right to an existence free of his violence and how he took that (and so much more from them) he has to sit and contemplate, and feel, what that means about his as a human being. Remember, too, that this is a man who was himself abused as a child. Someone taught him that his humanity, his spirit, was not of importance. Imagine finally coming to a place in life, even if it is in prison, where you begin to undo that believe and examine your life from a different perspective – from the perspective of “in the face of one’s victim, one see’s oneself.” Imagine seeing what you have become and grieving, both for your victims and for yourself.

 

To face oneself is the hardest thing. As I continue to consider why I go to Monroe I think this fact has something to do with my developing response. I think of prison as one of those rare circumstances in life where you can’t run anymore, where life has caught up with you. Certainly there are ways for prisoners to ignore what they ought to be considering while serving time, but if they choose to look, if they choose to reflect and to learn, then I believe they can grow at an amazing pace in prison. Because once they look back at their lives, their victims, their own childhoods, there is no where to run. Once they crack open those doors and allow themselves to reconsider their lives then they are alone with what comes, sequestered in their cells and in the day-to-day routine of the prison with the reality of who they have become and who they have hurt to get there. If they can survive this process of self-reflection (and I don’t know that all of them do…I don’t know that I would) then there’s a chance they might be able to take advantage of that “second chance” offered upon release (if, of course, those of us on the outside can ever find it in ourselves to forgiven their transgressions…which may have something to do with forgiving our own, especially those we haven’t served time for – just a working theory).

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