From the ferry: 10/1/09

Posted: October 2, 2009 in from the ferry
Tags: , ,

Face to Face

I was nervous to go back to the prison tonight. Nervous because of something I haven’t written about yet, but that has been heavy on my mind since our last visit, which was also our first visit with this new group of men.

There’s a man in our group who has been convicted of a terribly violent, brutal crime. Gloria recognized him immediately. I didn’t. And I debated whether or not to look him up on the internet (just his first name brings up all the hits you need). Additionally I debated about writing about it here. For two reasons, I think. One, I don’t want to sensationalize him or his presence in our group. I’m not excited to have a man of his criminal stature in our group. It makes things more difficult. So, I’m not trying to come across as bragging—look at me, I go into prison and work with the worst. That’s not it. Two, and the real reason I haven’t written about this until now, I don’t want to expose myself as having experienced any doubt about my ability to see past the crime to the human being that still exists underneath.

There, now I’m exposed.

I’ve been wondering if it would be better if I didn’t know his crime. If Gloria hadn’t told me, or if I hadn’t googled him? Perhaps this is the perfect example of a time it is better to be naïve than informed. Because I feel like knowing gets in the way of me being able to connect with him. But, perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps that’s a natural survival instinct, a survival skill, good intuition.

But I hate that. I hate not being able to connect. Feeling like I can’t seem him as fully human (is that the right way to say it?), as more monster than human. This is the first time this has ever happened to me at the prison. The men don’t typically scare me and their crimes don’t unnerve me. So why this man and this crime? I don’t know the answer to that question yet. I know a dear friend of mine sent me an email today that said, “those men [at the prison] need to be close to your soul. It will be good for them.” I thought in response, it might be true, but tonight I’m going up with my soul protected. Which is not how I like to be.

What I do know is that he is likeable enough. I can sit across the table from him and enjoy a moment of conversation, and then almost immediately I find myself thinking, I just laughed at something this man said—what does that say about me? Even in physical appearance he is not someone you would fear. You’d pass him on the street and probably not think twice about your personal safety. Yet he is capable, at least according to the courts, of being involved in the complete destruction of other human beings. As Gloria asked me tonight, how do we talk to a man like that about being a hero?

His presence in our group brings the experience of working on the inside to a whole new level for me. In sports speak I feel like these last two weeks have been gut check time for me. I found myself considering, for the first time ever, whether I could even go back. Maybe it is too much. Maybe I’ve found my limit. Maybe I’m not capable of keeping an open mind and heart about the potential for all men—even the worst. And if I can’t do that, do I even deserve to be there.

So I went back. To test myself. And I sat in the classroom, right across from him. I taught. I commented. I laughed. I shared bits and pieces about my own writing life and writing experience. And the truth is I felt safe. Aware of the complexities. Aware of the contradictions and the hypocrisies, but safe none the less. To be safe and in a space where you can test your limits, challenge your beliefs, question and revisit who you think you are on a gut level is an amazing experience. In the end, I’m not willing to give it up. Not for one man. Not for one crime.

  1. Melissa Varnavas says:

    I was sorry I missed your lecture before, now I’m very sad for missing it. Profound analysis of the writing itself being the space, the writing itself being the thing that keeps you safe. . . Interesting too how you come to the conclusion that giving in to fear would be, in itself, continuing the crime.

    • islandwriter says:

      Thanks, Melissa. It seems a constant internal battle to decide to keep trying to have an open heart about the right ALL people (which I do think I inherently believe, even if that belief feels challenged at this point) have to tell a story. You phrased it well–giving in to the fear continues the crime. I appreciate that insight.

  2. Cindy says:


    That was an extremely thought-provoking post. I could feel your moral and emotional dilemma. I think you have courage of spirit to do this work at all, when so many, as you know, want to judge you for helping those behind bars. This particular man’s crimes may be more heinous than most of the crimes committed by other member’s of the group, but if in any little way, you bring humanity to his existence, I think you help to honor life, ALL life, including any lives he may have taken. That is part of what you do for the others and so, in continuing to do this work, you shall do it for him also. It’s an amazing contribution to humanity, even if you do struggle with it.

    I’m proud of you.


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