Just out on The Paris Review Daily:
I mailed a copy of my book Among Murderers, about the struggles three men faced when they returned to the world after several decades behind bars, to Richard Robles, a pen pal serving an indeterminate life sentence in New York’s Attica Prison. Prison reading and mailing policies are designed to reinforce the feeling of punishment. Family and friends cannot simply send books; they have to come directly from the publisher or an online bookstore. Most prisons only allow paperbacks—Attica, a rare exception, permits hardcovers. I couldn’t find detailed mailing instructions on Attica’s website, so I called the prison. “Send it through the publisher—and don’t hide no weapon in it,” the employee blurted. Richard wrote me that he almost had to return the book.
[My] name wasn’t on the “buyer’s side” of the invoice. The guard said something about a new rule that prisoners have to buy the book. But as you can see I did get it, after another guard said something to him. Miracles, right?
I did consider it a small miracle when, a few weeks later, I began to receive letters from men who had borrowed the book from Richard. Prison is a dark world far away from ours, and communications travel slowly. We may have forgotten “them,” but they never forget us. My book quickly made its way around Richard’s cell block; several prisoners mailed me their reviews, chronicling their ambitious attempts at self-improvement and their struggle to prepare themselves for a world that doesn’t want them back.
Self-portrait by Richard Robles, pencil, 2013
Amazing story in the New York Times about the winner of a mystery-novel contest who is in prison, serving a minimum of 30 years for murder.
“Just before Labor Day in 2011, Toni Kirkpatrick, an editor at Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, picked up her phone and called an unfamiliar number with a Southern California area code. She was hoping to deliver good news to a man named Alaric Hunt, the newest winner of a debut-detective-novel writing contest, jointly sponsored by Minotaur Books (another St. Martin’s imprint) and the Private Eye Writers of America. The contest has a good track record — a past winner, Michael Koryta, a 21-year-old phenom, has since published 10 successful thrillers — and it also comes with a substantial prize: a $10,000 advance and a guaranteed publishing contract for the book that has been submitted.”
This new year I was trying to come up with something a bit brighter than my usual bleak topics when I happened upon Julie A. Smith’s “David Lynch’s Rabbits.” Smith’s article about the director’s short horror-comedy videos appeared in the fall 2013 issue of the (print-only) House Rabbit Journal. I subscribe to the Journal because I am a rabbit enthusiast. I own a (crazy, disabled, angry, sweet and hilarious) lionhead rabbit named Peanut, I have fostered rabbits, and I have written about rabbits. And of course I also love the dark work of David Lynch.
Smith, a rabbit rescuer and a retired English professor from the University of Wisconsin, writes that Lynch’s Rabbits are “a wonderful joke on anthropomorphism,” adding that what attracts her to rabbits are “the things that remain impossible to humanize, like their different sense of time and timing, their obscure relation to cause and effect, their masked intentions. (…) I see them as beings inhabiting an alternative world of social cohesiveness and mutual understanding that leaves humans way behind.” I couldn’t have said it better. Without further ado, here’s Julie Smith’s article.
David Lynch’s Rabbits
David Lynch’s Rabbits (2002) may be the strangest rabbit film you will never see. Running just under 50 minutes, it was temporarily put up on Lynch’s website, davidlynch.com, as an eight-part web series. By 2011, the video had made its way to YouTube, where one can see it today, although the production values are low—images are often indistinct quite apart from the intentional fading in and out. I asked a friend to take a look at the piece; and when she returned the DVD, she said, “Lynch has a seriously messed up mind.” However, as a fan of some of Lynch’s other works, such as Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Mullholland Drive, I was intrigued. In fact, when I first saw Rabbits, I had this strange feeling that Lynch understood something important about rabbits. But what?
Check out this audio-visual project that focuses on sharing individual stories from the restorative justice movement in the United States. Started by five Middlebury College students in the Spring of 2013, Beyond Justice offers a nuanced look at the ways individuals are challenging traditional approaches to punishment through narrative.
Adrian Raine’s article “The Criminal Mind” has been buried in a pile of must-reads on my nightstand for months now. When it was first published in April 2013 in The Wall Street Journal, I was too busy with the release of my book. And frankly, I was also a bit afraid. Last night, though, I finally unearthed the article and read it.
Of course I knew from my own research that neurocriminology receives far more funding than environmental psychology of violent behavior, but I’ve always been wary of it. I thought that to look at the brain as the cause of criminal behavior was misleading and dangerous. Why? Crime and incarceration affect a disproportionate number of people of color. The conclusion that the make-up of one’s brain causes a person to become a criminal may suggest to some that African Americans are by nature more violent than white people. It would bring us precariously close to the 19th-century pseudoscience of Phrenology, which claimed that we could recognize a criminal by his physical features. Furthermore, I was—and still am—worried that the increasing focus on the physical traits of criminals lessens our interest in crime-causing factors in the environment, factors that can potentially be changed. We can fight poverty, the easy accessibility of guns, bad schools and a dysfunctional family background, but our brains? Good luck with that! I also wish society would take at least some responsibility for people’s actions.
Raine’s article, however, does justice to the complexity of the issue. A Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Anatomy of Violence (Pantheon, 2013), Raine concludes that “genetics and environment work together to encourage violent behavior.” A child who is predisposed to violent behavior due to his genetics does not necessarily become a criminal; there are plenty of environmental factors that can make up for neurological “handicaps.” Proper nutrition may play a role, for example: Raine writes that studies have shown that Omega-3 supplements in the diets of young offenders reduces serious offending by about 35%. And even if a child’s brain doesn’t show any abnormalities at birth, exposure to environmental toxins, physical abuse and emotional deprivation—a lack of love and a supportive social environment—may alter his brain chemistry, causing him to commit acts of violence. As a result, an initially healthy brain can turn into one that causes impulsiveness, a trait that has long been recognized as a leading cause of violent behavior. Lead is neurotoxic, according to Raine, damaging the prefrontal region which regulates behavior. “Rising lead levels in the U.S. from 1950 through the 1970s neatly track increases in violence 20 years later, from the ’70s through the ’90s.” He concludes, “No other single factor can account for both the inexplicable rise in violence in the U.S. until 1993 and the precipitous drop since then.” Continue reading
…with yours truly. Look at Amanda Green’s beautifully written introduction to the interview:
There’s a tragedy that my family doesn’t like to talk about, so naturally I’ve always been drawn to it. In the late 1970s, my dad’s older brother James was shot and killed by a friend of a friend. In one version of the story, it starts with a verbal altercation. My mom says it happened on a dark road in South Texas. James was in the passenger seat of a friend’s car when the killer pulled up beside them and shot James point-blank in the head. He was twenty-one years old.
I’ve wondered about James for years—what really happened that night, who he might have been if he hadn’t been killed. I never thought of the young man who shot him and the years he spent in prison. When we think about crime, we immediately envision the victims—the wounded, the dead, and their grief-stricken survivors. We forget about the other life that has been irrevocably changed. For the criminal, murder is a life-long sentence, even if granted parole.
James’s murderer went on trial and was sentenced to prison. Eventually, he was released. If he is still alive, he must be around sixty years old. I sometimes wonder what happened to him. What kind of life does he lead, and how does he feel about having taken my uncle’s life? Is he tortured by guilt, or does he still try to justify what happened on that dark road in Texas more than thirty years ago?
“In terms of empathy, murderers are obviously very low (if not lowest) on our list of priorities,” Sabine Heinlein writes in her book Among Murderers: Life After Prison. She spent more than two years at the Castle, a prominent halfway house in West Harlem, following three native New Yorkers who took other people’s lives. Her subjects Angel, Adam, and Bruce were released after serving several decades in prison. Among Murderers depicts the challenges the men encounter on their journey to freedom, from finding work to forging new relationships to forgiving themselves. It also explores the various ways the men live with their remorse. In the tradition of Susan Sheehan’s A Prison and a Prisoner and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, Heinlein puts a face to a population that evokes strong feelings while remaining largely unfamiliar. Among Murderers is an eye-opening look at life after prison and our society’s thirst for vengeance.
Read the interview here.
The 2014 Pushcart Prize anthology is available now! You’ll want to get a copy not only because it features my essay “A Portrait of the Writer as a Rabbit,” but also because–who am I kidding? SPECIFICALLY because it features the one and only BUNNY memoir you’ll ever read! Publishers Weekly writes, “With large publishing houses facing an uncertain future, the Pushcart Prize is more valuable than ever in highlighting the treasured voices thriving in America’s small presses.” Buy it at your favorite independent bookstore or order it from Amazon.
Here’s a little snippet from the essay, which was first published in The Iowa Review:
“Unlike rabbits, the stereotypical German is stationary, predictable, and consistent. She plans ahead, stays close to home, and doesn’t risk awkward jumps. But rabbits and I—we are übermütig.
“Composed of the German preposition über (beyond or above) and mütig, which derives from the noun Mut, or courage, übermütig is commonly translated as carefree, coltish, and slaphappy. But none of these translations captures the adjective’s condescending quality. A German who is overly courageous isn’t a hero. A German who fails to consider where her jumps will land her is conceited and presumptuous.”