For two hours every other Thursday we sit in an incongruously cavernous room around a rickety table drinking bad coffee out of Styrofoam cups and talking story. How to tell a story, why to tell a story, how writing is thinking, how writing lets you see what you ignore, remember what you forget, feel what you built a wall around feeling, how to craft a narrative of your own life so nobody but you can own it.
The other people around the table, eight of them, are Lifers, men who have been sentenced to either Life with or Life without. The “with” and “without” refer to the possibility of parole. Possibility. One of the guys is entering year 34 of a Life with sentence. He’s been denied parole eight times so far. Three of the guys were sentenced to Life when they were 17, one without the possibility of parole. The oldest in the group will be 79 next month. The youngest is 37.
You get a Life sentence for doing something bad, generally very bad. Not “just” murder, but aggravated murder. When I started working with these guys, coming into the maximum security prison to lead a writers group, I stayed purposely ignorant of the details of their crimes. I wanted to see them for the men they were now not who they were when they did the worst thing they’d ever done. I asked them not to tell me their last names so I wouldn’t be tempted to look them up in the system.
For a time, that worked. Now, for various reasons mostly having to do with references in their writing and conversations around the rickety table every other Thursday, I know. I know sometimes more than I want to know.
And here’s something odd and in a way wonderful and for me transformational: It doesn’t matter. I see clearly what they did. I see the horror and cruelty and amorality of it. But I also know who they have become. I see how almost all of them have, over time, faced the guilt, the shame, the pain they caused and continue to cause, the lives they ruined that they can never make amends for, the history they forever changed. I see that, against all odds, some are blooming where they have been planted. I see that change is possible, that emotional, psychological, moral rehabilitation is possible. I see that the cracks have let the light in.
I am learning so much more than I am teaching.