The BOOKPRESS December 2000

Welcome to the Funhouse

Pete Wetherbee

The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison
by Robert Ellis Gordon.
Washington State University Press, 2000. 110 pages, Softcover, $14.95.

    In "The Shawshank Redemption" the wise old con, Morgan Freeman, gives new inmate Tim Robbins a lesson about prison life: "the first thing you got to realize is that every man in here is innocent."
    For most of us, that probably registers as a sardonic comment on jailhouse lawyers, or the incorrigible criminal mind. But it is really a hard truth about the vital role of fantasy in the life of somebody serving a long sentence for a violent crime. I donít mean the yuppie Tom Sawyer fantasy of the film. A real-life Morgan Freeman would be talking about the kind of fantasy that enables you to keep believing that you have a right to exist; a little dignity and value; significant relationships; a sex life; something to hope for. Without the ability to believe these things you are going to become uncontrollably angry or unbearably depressed, and the same thing will happen if you believe in them too much, and so set yourself up to be blindsided by some shocking act of violence or injustice.
    There is a middle ground, and those who are able to maintain themselves there are important to know about. They have a degree of civilization, and a sense of the value of civilization, that most of us never attain, probably because the only way to get there is by having to deal with real barbarism on its own terms. The men Robert Ellis Gordon writes about in The Funhouse Mirror, students in writing workshops he conducted over several years at various prisons in the Washington State system, are civilized men, though armed robbery is the mildest of the crimes for which they are doing time.
    They all began prison life, in the words of one of them, TJ Granack, as "men pronounced dead on arrival, men who arenít sure if the struggle back to life is possible or even worthwhile." Granack gives an annotated list of the rules they had to learn, such as: never avoid a fight and always fight dirty; be known to possess a serious, hard-core porn collection; never make eye contact; learn to masturbate fast. They encounter violence every day.
    Michael Collins, arrested six weeks out of high school and very good-looking, reports the good news that he got through his first day in prison without being raped, then adds as an afterthought, "it is true that a dude a few cells down cut off his testicles with a razor blade and threw them out onto the tier," but as he quickly learned, that sort of thing comes with the territory.
    Collinsís short memoir, "Epiphany," is what I mean by "civilization." He begins by recalling the pleasure he once took in beating up rapists (sex offenders are the lowest of the low in any prison), while a crowd of fellow inmates cheered him on. "Never in my life had it felt so terrible to hit someone, and never had it felt so good." He then describes being visited in the night by a flashback, uncontrollable and utterly vivid, to his robbery of a convenience-store. He remembered how, as the cashier was emptying the register, he had spun and pointed his gun at the face of a woman emerging unexpectedly from the rest room. She had fallen to the floor "as if Iíd struck her," trembling and begging for mercy. Now, nine years later, he realizes what he did to this woman, that in all likelihood "she can never again feel that she inhabits a safe and secure world." Without touching her, he committed rape.
    The lesson may seem obvious, but the odds against Collinsís learning it were high. He had to find his way out of a cycle of brutality in which he was constantly fighting, to prove his manhood at the expense of hapless sex offenders, or defend his chastity against other predators. His memory had to find its way back through layers of denial to refocus on a person (and a woman at that) who had once seemed threatening, and see her without jealousy or hatred as simply a person, somebody who "had probably lived a regular life, maybe even a happy one." And then he had to acknowledge his desperate ignorance and need, and what they had done to this person.
    Something had to come back to life in Michael Collins to enable him to tell this story, and the good feeling it gives us to see that happen can blind us to how risky it can be for the prisoner himself. Gordon learned this the hard way. He recalls giving an early workshop the writerly advice to "look inward and pay particular attention to painful memories," and how one student reacted: "ĎYouíre asking me to wake up,í he said. ĎDo you know what will happen if I wake up? Iím in here for life. Do you understand?í"
    Gordon admits that he didnít understand, but advised the student "to do whatever he had to do to keep from Ďwaking upí." The student went ahead and produced a painful story which was well received by the class, but the following day he lay curled up on his bunk in fetal position, refusing to leave his cell, and was eventually put on suicide watch.
    This is the sort of thing the real-life Morgan Freeman character would have been talking about. Honesty and self-knowledge can be terribly dangerous. But not always. Gordon also tells of Orlock the child-molester, lowest of the lowest of the low, who wrote long, false, preachy stories and then one day produced a horribly vivid three-page account of his own childhood history of molestation, a daily ritual performed by his mother and her boyfriend. Gordon managed a few words about the effectiveness of understatement, but was then at a loss until the other students, putting Orlockís crime aside, came to his aid:

They knew, as I did not, what he needed: to hear that what had happened was not his fault, and that he had, with regard to the horrors heíd endured, absolutely no cause for shame. . . They spoke in hushed tones about the terrible things that they, too, had endured when they were children. They told Orlock it mustíve been rough. They praised him for the courage it took to write his story, and they told him how powerful it was. They quietly talked about the harshness of life, and told Orlock how sorry they were.

    There is a lot more in this short book. A convicted rapist tells us what prison life is like for him, and we hear from a man who worked through the violent anger that gained him constant beatings and years in solitary. We get Gordonís fictionalized account of Mona, the beautiful librarian. She was a wonderful listener; smuggled in home-baked cookies; took pleasure in wearing clothes that gave pleasure to the inmates; but then when something inevitably went wrong, she disappeared, "transported, like an angel, to the other side," leaving her inmate worshippers in darkness.
    I have spent some time working with prison inmates on reading and writing, and just about everything in The Funhouse Mirror rings true for me.
    I know what he means and what he doesnít mean when he describes himself an addict, and calls his prison classroom a true home. (I too, God help my innocent soul, have imagined receiving a blatantly unjust sentence for some admirable act of civil disobedience and spending a few weeks at Auburn, making friends in the yard, reading Gramsci and Bonhoeffer in my cell at night, being remembered with love and respect after my character is utterly vindicated and I am forced to return to Cayuga Heights.) But as a userís manual, the book seems to me to have two main shortcomings.
    First, Gordonís inmate students are all open and honest, friends, and his failures with them are failures of empathy. But prisoners more or less have to be several people at once. The student who has gotten on top of things, whose writing wrestles in a serious way with hard questions about his past life and present condition, whom you know well and have come to love, may also be a con artist, cynical and manipulative about the opportunity your class represents, and incapable of keeping these two equally genuine selves in clear and distinct perspective.
    Second, the prison guards in The Funhouse Mirror are apt to be bigoted, sadistic, lazy or just incompetent. COs deserve a better break. They do high-stress, dangerous, often nasty work, in return for benefits and a pension, precious assets in Monroe, WA (or Auburn, or Marcy, or Malone). As Ted Conover puts it in New Jack, his recent chronicle of a year spent as a corrections officer at Sing Sing, they too are doing time.
    But Gordon is angry, as he should be, and the lard-ass bureaucracy who have gutted prison education programs in the face of their own reports on its effectiveness, who have reduced "correction" and "rehabilitation" to meaningless terms, are out of reach. Read The Funhouse Mirror and youíll be angry too.


Pete Wetherbee is a professor in the English Department at Cornell University.

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