Literature behind bars and reading between the lines

Literature behind bars and reading between the lines

The prison system has always had its flaws, and its also had its fair share of celebrities. No, we’re not talking about the doom and gloom of high profile cases, we’re talking about literary legends; the kind of convict we all want to meet.

But this post isn’t just about who did time (with or without a crime), it’s about reading between the lines of why these geniuses were actually arrested. Spoiler alert, there was no justice about the justice system.

And who first? It’s over to the classics. None other than Oscar Wilde.

Many know Wilde for being the author of (my favorite book) Dorian Gray. He was flamboyant and fabulous is ways that would be celebrated today. Despite literal brilliance, he was severely cautioned by publishers to tame down the naughty narrative he was portraying. Shockingly, the books we see in print (which gives 50 Shades a run for its money) are the edited and softened versions. One thing he refused to stay quiet about though was his homosexuality which landed him 18 months in prison. Thankfully, we don’t arrest people for their sexuality now, but there are still cases where a private sex life is used to taint a jury, and we think that’s downright disgusting. Things aren’t always kept to the case details, especially if you’re one of 36 in 100 Americans who are into the BDSM scene*.

Next up is a political prisoner from not that long ago — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wad arrested for speaking out against Stalin, but his excruciating stint wasn’t just in a jail. He actually spent 7 full years in a labor camp. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature but nothing can account for lost time.

He wasn’t the only prisoner of politics though, Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, was arrested for sharing unfavorable opinions on government regimes too. Rumor has it that he was a real man of the people though and that instead of being pelted with rotten fruit as was customary at the time, they tossed flowers to him in the stocks.

But sexuality and politics aren’t the only things to get a person in trouble in the history books. Playwright Christopher Marlowe was imprisoned for the crime of being an atheist! Some argue that when you read between the lines, religion can get you into trouble with the law more than other things. Keep an eye on the news and ask yourself if there’s an unfair representation there. You might be shocked when you look at the statistics.

So far we’ve looked at criminals who wouldn’t have been considered such today, but there’s room for a quick bit of trivia from some who arguably deserved their stint in prison.

So, what do Chester Himes, Joan Henry and Frank Elli have in common? They’re all writers who used their experience to write award winning novels. That might not say anything about the innocent but it does show that the guilty can become worthy members of society after time behind bars. Everyone has a fresh chapter worth writing.


Rory Andes’s Review of “My Stroke Of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD

Rory Andes’s Review of “My Stroke Of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD

In her remarkable book, My Stroke Of Insight by neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, I was taken on her profoundly objective tour of her own life trauma. As a neuroanatomist who taught and performed research at Harvard Medical School, when Taylor had an abrupt eruption of blood vessels in her brain, she witnessed her own brain deteriorate as she struggled through her stroke. This book is a journey of that event, and the eight years after, that brought her from an unsuspecting brain scientist with a congenital defect waiting to challenger her, to a stroke survivor who was able to document everything with a curious mind, and spread a brilliant message. She explains so much in factual science, what her conditions were, and how to recover, all while challenging the reader to objectively explore the subjective elements of living a wonderful life.

The power of her mother’s love is also a noted part of this book. G.G. as she’s known, pushes her daughter Jill through recovery and is always present to support both the successes and failures as caregivers often do. G.G. had to teach her things like reading and math again and a team of medical professionals helped her regain her life’s functionality. There’s a chapter where Taylor describes a list of things she needed most in her recovery and I found this to be an amazing chapter. The things she describes are the same things people need most to live a resilient and fulfilling life, and she showcases these needs in a straightforward way. She combines her personal philosophies and factual findings together to give the reader an outcome needed by all of us – hope and a roadmap to happiness.

This is an extremely well-crafted book, and Jill Bolte Taylor heroically embraces life on her terms and in the best of ways. There’s a lot to learn from this – about brain science, the human condition, recovery tactics – and is a wonderful package of determination to rise from the unthinkable. To read the impact and recovery of her stroke through the eyes of a brain scientist is truly a read worth remembering.

See here for Bolte Taylor’s TedTalk: “Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions — motion, speech, self-awareness — shut down one by one. An astonishing story.”

Rory Andes’s Review of 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Rory Andes’s Review of 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

After finishing “84, Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the power of correspondence. Hanff, through her own personal accounts, shares the ability to know the people you’ve never met. As an incarcerated person myself, most new friendships I strike up with the world beyond are through the power of writing, so Hanff’s ability to befriend a whole bookstore staff on another continent speaks volumes of how powerful written communication truly is.

This review comes with a spoiler alert. If you chose to quit reading here any further, rest assured you will be pleased with the language, settings, and quality of character depicted on the pages of this book. Its style and prose is as quaint as an antique bookshop, complete with the commonality of typos. There is a remarkable amount of charisma to be found at 84, Charing Cross Road…

Helene Hanff, a New York writer, takes you on a written relationship with her new friend Frank Doel starting in the fall of 1949. Frank is a shopkeeper for an antique bookstore in post WWII London. Their continued communication is a historical glimpse into how they became decades old friends. Frank and his wife, Nora, along with other workers in the shop like Cecily and Megan, cheerfully struggle with the rationing efforts of a Europe being rebuilt. As a customer, Helene writes often to Frank to get great deals on genuine literary treasures only found in the old world of England and it occurs to her what these people must be going through. She begins to send packages of meats and eggs in a show of solidarity with her new war-torn friends.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

Frank ensures that he works diligently at providing her with quality, timeless works and a uniquely British charm. In time, London heals and as Helene’s relationship with Frank and his family ages, Helene gets to become amazingly close with the lives of his wife and children, also. Through the 1950’s and 60’s, Helene keeps a hope that her fortunes will materialize and she could hop a ship to England to visit. As a writer, she lives from one opportunity to the next writing scripts for the newly exploding medium of television. As all things do, there becomes a point in the book where, as a reader, you realize that nothing can last forever. Bad news is conveyed regarding the loss of bookstore’s most knowledgable attendant and condolences are offered through the written word in the most heartfelt and loving manners.

This collection of letters is a short read, but with an extraordinary amount of humanity on every page. I challenge you to not become invested with this stoic cast of characters from a time when society was extremely dignified and cultured, even in its hardships. This book will touch you on a very human level.

*Note from Melissa: This is one of the rare movies that followed the book so closely – much like To Kill A Mockingbird. It is (as of today) available on Amazon Prime Video, and I highly recommend it. If you don’t have Amazon Prime, check your local library for the book and/or movie. 

The Obstacle Is The Way

The Obstacle Is The Way

I recently read a book by Ryan Holiday titled The Obstacle is the Way, where he really digs into stoicism and how to bravely face adversity, a struggle, and use it to create something more. One chapter that struck me talked about “love everything.” I really had to sit on that. Love everything. Don’t bear with it, certainly don’t hide it or from it, just love it, whatever “it” is. How do I love the things chipping away at me currently? Of course I love the friends I have and the successes I find. I love my connections to the free world. I love that how I lead my personal life means so much more to me now than it probably has at any other point in my history. I work hard and I feel like I flourish in the hard work. I deeply love that. But prison? How do I love the obstacle of prison? Well, I can love knowing that, as pompous as it sounds and I don’t like that part of it, I’m not like the people who flourish in criminality (like, I get it… I’m IN a prison for reasons other than being saintly). But, I love the rebirth of my values, personal standards, and the emotional healing that emerged in prison. I love being able to foster extraordinary relationships with like minded people and I know I AM the company I keep, especially in a place like this. I can also love that I’m far closer to the end this sentence than the beginning. In the home stretch! I can love that! I love that someone gave me a voice to tell an audience these things from behind walls and I love the book-worthy situations I’ve found myself in, all while being sequestered from society. I love how I’ve grown and into whom here. And I love that throughout this prison time, I’m ok with being flawed, because it made me better. I’m human and I have setbacks from time to time, but it’s in those obstacles that I find things to love…

Of course, this is just one small aspect of this book. Leaning forward into the obstacles is the theme. Make them count. Make them memorable. Let them lead the way to success. From Thomas Edison, to Ulysses Grant, to Marcus Aurelius… all leaders of historical measure who knew how to use adversities as guideposts. But importantly, for me, the idea of love is what resonates the most. That’s something I can truly get behind…

Book Review – Not A Crime To Be Poor by Peter Edelman

Book Review – Not A Crime To Be Poor by Peter Edelman

I would like to present a book review / follow up to my latest post as my actual follow up was censured by the folks who don’t like the light to shine in their little corner of inhumanity. Again, and as always, my hope is to bring about as many minds as can be attracted to the dire needs of a new consciousness. One in which that light always shines into the deepest recesses of inhumanity.

Having a penchant for seeking out those most would consider a bit on the extreme side, I, to the contrary of the old idiom, do judge a book by its cover. At least by its title.

My latest find is by Peter Edelman, published by The New Press, 2017, entitled Not a Crime To Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America. This is not a book for the idle mind. Chock full of facts that are not willing to hide in the dark. This book unleashes facts about criminalizing debts by exposing one of most corrupt industries in history. The insurance industry under cover as the cash bail system has lobbied our politicians for years as police forces have ramped up to military levels of fire power.

Statistics throughout this book prove beyond any reasonable doubt the school-to-prison pipeline in America is a cultural cancer that is eroding the concept of the American dream. All personal takes aside, mental illness, poor fathers, public assistance benefits, including unemployment insurance swirled in with poverty, race and discipline in schools have created a hotbed of inhumanity leading many to believe that people in prison deserve to be in prison. I used to think the same way until I was thrust into the system under the very conditions this book exposes. You may wonder how an innocent person gets into the prison system. The lobbying groups connive, cajole, and flat out bribe politicians to write laws that nullify the constitution and the limits imposed by it upon the governments. But an even bigger problem exposed in this book leaves no doubt that complacency is the primary culprit to this stupefying revolving door system. The next time you pass judgment on someone who happens to be homeless, know that in many parts of the land of the free that person can be jailed and sent to prison for nothing more than not having what many take for granted every day. A home. Don’t miss out on a chance to have your eyes opened for you. Peter Edelman goes into describing the massively flawed penal systems as well and makes no mistakes in describing the people employed who range from the sadistic to the apathetic but most importantly the fact is that literally millions of men and women erode day after day in despair of never getting a second chance. Headway is being achieved at a snail’s pace but we need everyone to be counted. Mr. Edelman is doing his part by braving this book. What are you willing to brave?

As a closing I would like to let you know that the en mass head and face shaves at Columbia prison have ceased for the time being. But not without receiving my fair share of threats from whom the party was crashed. I’ll keep you all updated.

Truly, Michael