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ELLE First: Behind bars
One day I got an email from a woman named Melissa, who introduced herself as the librarian at a men’s penitentiary outside of Richland, Washington. She was writing to see if I had any interest in doing a reading there; though she had no budget to speak of, the inmates were passing around copies of my novel and a good turnout was guaranteed. I had been wanting to work with prisoners for a while and agreed to the appearance. On an overcast November afternoon in 2011, I found myself leaving my home in Portland, Ore., in a rented marshmallow-white sports car.
I had recently spent a good deal of time cooped up in airports, airplanes and hotel rooms, so the open road filled me with the giddy, slap-yourself-in-the-face feeling of the teenage runaway. The clouds broke at Multnomah Falls; looking out at the Columbia River in the golden, late-fall sunshine, I thought of the James Tate poem “Lewis and Clark Overheard in Conversation,” which consists of a single line – “then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs” – repeated 23 times. The rental car had satellite radio, and for the entire round trip – nine hours or more – I listened to the doo-wop station. I never heard the same song twice, but they were all essentially one saccharine, lovestruck song – a song that days later was still very much in my mind and that I came to wish I’d never heard in the first place.
I spent the night in Richland. I don’t have any commentary about Richland other than to say that I’ve been there. My hotel room was a hotel room. The plumbing functioned flawlessly, as did the lights and television. At 7 p.m., I met Melissa in the lobby; she took me to a pub, where we ate potato soup and shared the shorthand details of our lives. She spoke of the differences between the civilian-life dynamic and the prison-life dynamic. Of the inmates, she said: “They’re hyper-aware of body language. Sometimes I’ll overhear them talking about a prison guard: ‘Look how he’s holding his hands. He’s feeling vulnerable today; you can tell.’” I found this fascinating but also a little worrying. What would they learn about me when they studied my hands? Surely I would be nervous – I’m always nervous at readings. Would they be sympathetic to this, or would they see it as something to deride or exploit? Melissa told me that I shouldn’t concern myself. The inmates were pleased that I was coming and I would be treated respectfully. “You’ll probably feel like Prince Patrick,” she said, snatching up the check to treat me from her own pocket. She dropped me back at the hotel, and in the morning I was confronted with the question “What do you wear to a reading in a federal penitentiary?” I opted for a checked flannel shirt, blue jeans and black canvas shoes. Anyway, I didn’t think it was a good time for declarations of flair.
I drove out of Richland and into the high desert. Melissa was standing at the visitor’s entrance of the looming beige facility, shielding her eyes from the sun and smiling. I was led through security and down a chain-link and razor-wire corridor to the visiting room, where the reading would take place. As the steel door was locked behind us, I experienced a mild claustrophobic anxiety. I wondered how I’d be feeling if I didn’t know I was going to be leaving in an hour. The room was filled with circular tables, and there were slips of paper atop each of these, along with a box of stubby pencils. Melissa said the inmates would be encouraged to write down any thoughts or questions that occurred to them during my reading. She would collect and vet these and, once I was finished, read out her selections.
Melissa introduced me to the prison guards: three women and one man. The man was a recent hire, and the women were teasing him about his rookie status. I excused myself and sat apart from the group; I was flipping through my book, collecting my thoughts, when I felt a presence in front of me – an inmate. His face wasn’t friendly or unfriendly, and he seemed neither interested nor disinterested in me. After a moment he wandered away to a far table, and the rest of the inmates began trickling in, in pairs and trios, telling stories and making jokes. Melissa said a few words about me and my writing, and then the men, around 50 in number, gave a round of applause as I approached the podium. I thanked them for hosting me and began reading.
I read from The Sisters Brothers, which tells the story of two hired assassins – siblings – making their way from Oregon City to Sacramento during the Gold Rush. The section I’d selected describes the protagonists’ h ill-fated sleepover in the cabin of a strange, potentially evil old woman. This sidesteps the larger plot and enters the realm of the supernatural, and it is, for want of a better word, weird. The moment I started, I realized that “weird” doesn’t fly in prison. Artful or fabricated weirdness is a luxury not afforded inmates, and those who were truly weird – those who had no control over their weirdness – were likely unpopular among their fellows. I’d picked the wrong excerpt, is what I’m saying, but, with no choice other than to interrupt the reading and search out an alternative, I pressed on.
Typically when I’m addressing an audience, I’ll try to look up once or twice per paragraph and make eye contact with this or that person, the idea being that they’ll feel a connection with me or the work or both. But each time I made eye contact with an inmate, he sat up alertly and returned my gaze with what could be called hostility or, at the very least, vigilance. After this happened five or six times, I ceased looking at them, focusing instead on a vague spot above their heads.
I completed the reading after 25 minutes and received another round of applause, this one more enthusiastic than the first. Melissa came up with the slips of paper and read her selections. I was asked “Where do the stories you tell come from?” and “Is it hard to write a book?” One inmate inquired as to the usefulness of writing workshops. I answered these and other questions, and soon the allotted hour was up. A voice came over the loudspeaker, stating that it was time for the inmates to return to their cells. The men stood to leave, and many came by to shake my hand and thank me for visiting. Some of those who approached were the same men with whom I’d exchanged charged looks during the reading, only now they were sheepish, friendly. It wasn’t that they had been showing any animosity for me in particular, I don’t think; it’s just that uninvited eye contact means something radically different in prison than it does in, say, Barnes & Noble.
After the inmates left, I asked Melissa for the slips of paper she hadn’t read. She handed these over and walked me out. “A lot of them ask why you agreed to come here,” she said. She admitted that she, too, was curious about this. I told her that a public reading can sometimes feel like an exercise and that I was hopeful for a more consequential experience with an audience. I wanted to feel useful – to feel that an audience was actually getting something out of my being there. I hadn’t up until this point verbalized my motives and was somewhat surprised to hear them. Melissa asked if I thought I’d accomplished my goal, and I told her that I thought I had but that she should double-check with the inmates. We said our goodbyes, and then I sat in the sports car, listening to doo-wop and watching the prison. I read a few of the slips:
“To live is to die. But to die alone is to die forever forgotten by your own condolence. Greed is that of a man who is nothing but an imbicel [sic].”
“Was [sic] there any serial killers in the Old West?”
“In Hugo’s Les Misérables, Jean Valjean said, ‘Liberation is not deliverance. A convict may leave prison behind but not his sentence.’ And later he said, ‘…after dragging the chain of the work gang, I now bore the invisible but heavy chain of indefinite infamy.’ In your experience, have you found this to be true?”
I drove away from the prison and back onto the highway, reading my directions in reverse to see myself back home.
This month’s ELLE First was written by Patrick deWitt. His second novel, The Sisters Brothers, won the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction.