Terry has gone to the hole. From there he’ll be shipped to another prison. Out of state.

Terry has gone to the hole, and I have been thinking lately about exits. The two events are a coincidence, but right now the coincidences in my life keep begging to be noticed—that seems to be the way it goes with big life transitions. Everything has to mean something, otherwise I risk believing everything means a whole lot of nothing.

So, Terry has gone to the hole and I am thinking of exits. The subtitle of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book Exit is: the endings that set us free. I agree in spirit. I recently exited a relationship and I’ve certainly experienced the freedom the leaving granted me (though freedom can also feel painfully constrictive as times). Terry, however, would disagree with the subtitle, I’m sure. This particular ending—his departure from our group to the hole—is anything but an elevation in his freedom. A trip to the hole for conspiracy to commit assault (so I hear) not only exits him from our group (of which he’s been a student for at least two of our three years), but also from his cell, from his tier, from his friend D– who he introduced to our program (our first transgender student) and from the prison. He will be transferred to a new prison, under new security restrictions and will most likely face additional years on his sentence. If he has been “set free” it is only in a metaphor I can not yet write.

I suppose on a spiritual level, psychological level, any other level than physical freedom, he might achieve a new understanding of why he does what he does when it only produces the same confining results. With this new understanding he might search for different ways to spend his time behind bars. Non-violent ways. Ways which might bring a freedom from the behaviors currently defining him, controlling him, ruining him. I doubt it, but I’m willing to hope because, again, I need things to have meaning right now.

Terry’s subtitle is more like, Exit: the ending that makes worse my confinement.

What I can tell you about Terry is two months ago he gave me an assignment to read The Princess Bride, a book and movie he already knows I love. I was raised on the movie (it, and Labyrinth featuring David Bowie in those distracting pants). I can quote the movie. Terry can quote the movie. We’d sometimes share an inside joke about it during class. I promised him I would read it and put the book on hold at the library. It had been a long time since I’d read it anyway, so why not humor him? Then life became…well, life…and the book arrived at the library and I didn’t get there in time and lost my hold. I put it back on hold. I went to New York City for work. Missed a class. The class Terry did not come to because he’d gone to the hole (but I did not know this while I was in NYC). While in NYC I got the notice in my inbox the book was again waiting for me. I was relieved to know the next time I saw Terry I could tell him I was on my way to completing my assignment.

What I can also tell you about Terry is he and I made an agreement at the beginning of the year. He would not get into trouble for at least one quarter. He’d disappeared on us to the hole before and I was trying to do my part to keep him out of that sort of trouble (I’ve always sensed Terry was one who has to choose daily, if not several times a day, to “walk away” as some say. I’ve also always had a feeling it is to the benefit of the other party he does choose to walk away so often). He agreed and did stay out of trouble through March. I tried to renew our agreement in April, but he wouldn’t. “I have some things I might have to take care of,” he said with an expression that was defiant, but also sad (because he was letting me down? or knew he’d soon be letting himself down?). I stated for the hundredth time (at least) how much we enjoy having him in the group and how good of a writer I think he is (he’s my Neil Gaiman-Terry Pratchett-esque writer). But he only said, “I’ll try, but I can’t promise. Things I have to take care of.”

Terry is a murderer. He’s also afraid of public speaking—to the point that another student in class would read his work because he was too embarrassed by how his hands shook when he tried. He was writing a story about a teddy bear who could travel between worlds to save children from their nightmares. He would often simply pass when it came to reading in class and give me his work to bring home, read and comment on. He made lists of movies he thought we (the volunteers) should see. He befriended D– when she first came to the prison and brought her to our group because, I hope, he knew she’d be welcomed and we’d think no differently of him. Terry keeps (kept) a McDonald’s paper bag in his cell. I don’t remember now the story about how he got it. I do know he brought it one day to show us and said it was his prized possession.

Terry has gone to the hole and I have been thinking about exits. Mostly about my less than graceful exits from relationships over the years—how I’m always suddenly packing my things in one day trying to get out, get out, get out because I simply cannot stand another minute of it. I’ve been remembering exits from jobs and from friendships. When I exit I am desperately seeking freedom in one form or another. I do choose endings (perhaps not always at the most opportune times, but still…) to set myself free from whatever has become restrictive and suffocating. Maybe I underestimate Terry. Perhaps whatever he did or is accused of doing was an attempt, in his own way and within the system where he exists, to exit toward some kind of freedom. Freedom from oppression—by the system? by another inmate? Freedom from his own nightmares? Freedom from a wrong he couldn’t let go? Freedom from four cell walls he’d gotten tired of staring at?

The last time I saw Terry in class I was facilitating for the night. I didn’t have time to talk to him one-on-one, and it wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized he hadn’t said a word the entire night. He’d sat scribbling on a piece of paper, his head resting on the crook of his arm. The truth is I knew on that drive home we’d lost him. Or maybe I just want to think I knew now, looking back. I don’t think if I had found some one-on-one time with him that night, had reached out or encouraged him to engage in the class discussion it would have prevented his actions once we left the prison. I have, afterall, been learning a plenty of good lessons these past few months about what I do and do not have control over when it comes to the actions of others. But I do wish we’d spoken. I wish he knew I have The Princess Brideat home now and will start reading it this weekend and I will miss him and his stories and I hope whichever prison he goes to next he finds the peace he couldn’t find here and how much I hate his exit came with no goodbye.

  1. Benito Gonzalez says:

    Terry is free. There are all sorts of prisons in life, but fear is one of the worst of all. It arises from an inability to understand and make sense of the world around us. We fear what we cannot comprehend. All too often we blame others for that fear. We get angry with them. We may hide, flee or avoid those in life we do not wish to face. But make no mistake, that behavior, that action is not freedom. It is fear. The fear to face, understand and conquer those aspects in life which scare us most produce the greatest confinement. The fear we feel because we cannot grasp, understand or adapt to conflicts in life, make us a prisoner of our own fear.

    Whatever you may think of Terry, one thing he is not, is a coward. He doesn’t run from anything. He may not solve each of his conflicts the most appropriate way or resolve them with the least violence possible. However, neither does he run from conflict. He isn’t afraid to face a conflict or accept the consequences of doing so. Whatever the reason for this, Terry is free of fear. He isn’t running away hoping to find peace. His peace comes from knowing he is free. He isn’t living in a prison of fear, worried and scared about how he will deal with the next conflict he may face.

    Every human conflict arises from a difference in perspective within some emotional context. One can face that conflict, try to understand and adapt to it, or one can flee from it and blame the opposite party for the problems. Fleeing and blaming is always the easiest,simplest option. However, the end result of fleeing is never coming to understand, never learning to adapt to those differences in viewpoint, or learning how to make compromises or adjustments to others. If we embrace our fear of conflict, instead of facing the conflict head on, we learn nothing from the experience except how to be afraid.

    There are worse places in world than “the hole”. The world can be far more confining, much scarier and lonelier if you are afraid. This is particularly true if you are afraid because you cannot understand and do not know how to adapt to conflicts that arise in life all the time. If you have the courage to face your conflicts in life and deal with them directly, then like Terry you are free. If not, well “a coward dies a thousand times, the brave die but once”.

    Benito Gonzalez

  2. islandwriter says:

    Thanks, Benito. An eloquent response giving me things to think on further. Your last paragraph in particular is intriguing. Terry certainly does not fear conflict, and though I might wish he could deal with it in a way that hadn’t gotten him removed from our class (because I will miss him) I can see what you are trying to say about his lack of fear in facing conflicts in his life. And given the institution he is, how one deals with conflict, can feel very limited. I agree with you as well that the “free world” can often be very confining/limited based on our own fears. Thank you for giving this all so much thought. e

    • Benito Gonzalez says:

      Dear Islandwriter:
      You are welcome. By the way, I love your pieces, but I often wonder why you appear to struggle so much to understand emotional conflicts created by the alternative perspective of people.

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