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Hot water

The same hot water that softens the potato hardens the egg.

I read that on someone’s Facebook feed a few weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I hate to admit that. It’s like admitting you were inspired by a bumpersticker (which I actually was, once), but there you have it.

I guess it’s just a cleverer way of saying that it isn’t the circumstance that matters but rather the reaction.

I think about the men in my prison writing group. I’ve been running the group for more than three years now. The men are all Lifers, all convicted murders. The “hot water” of their pre-incarceration lives included but was not limited to: physically abusive parents, sexually abusive relatives, domestic violence, poverty, racism, homophobia, households “held together” by drugs and criminal activity, lack of education.

This is not to relieve them of moral agency. Their environment didn’t make them do what they did. They chose to do what they did. And, depending how you want to parse the “hot water” maxim, they either hardened (like the egg)—that is, they lost the capacity for empathy—or softened (like the potato)—whatever moral code or inborn core of decency they might have had dissipated.

For the past two or three decades—yes, they have all been behind bars twenty, thirty, thirty-five years—they have been immersed in the hot water of daily life in a maximum security prison. Some men drown. Some men float, numbed by drugs. Some men pretend the water is not scalding them. They do not acknowledge the pain.

Not these guys, not the men who have learned to use writing to capture and process experience. That hot water? It has both hardened and softened them. Their souls have softened, and their resolve has hardened. Their minds have sharpened, and their hearts have opened. They have changed.

Can they be forgiven? Should they be released? Big questions.


1 kim in oregon { 06.13.18 at 5:45 pm }

Whatever the answers are, they are so fortunate to have you provide an outlet to process their lives. It is important to remember that whatever those answers are, these are human beings facing challenges most of us can never imagine.

2 Lauren { 06.14.18 at 12:19 am }

Of the many unimaginable challenges I’ve learned about in my work with these guys, perhaps the most surprising to me, is the challenge of bearing/ living with/ waking up to the crippling weight of what they did.

3 Dean Rea { 06.13.18 at 5:59 pm }

From a spiritual viewpoint, these men can be forgiven and released. From a temporal viewpoint, these men apparently have been judged guilty and have little or no opportunity to be forgiven. As writers, however, they are free to create environments that inspire, challenge and entertain a world unencumbered by rules, regulations and bars. In that endeavor, they are truly blessed.

4 Lauren { 06.14.18 at 12:16 am }

There is a movement called “restorative justice” which offers the opportunity to offenders to do something to repair the pain and hurt they caused. It’s currently used for youthful offenders—and not in murder cases. To your point, one of the men I work with (an extraordinarily talented writer) once said to me, “my only freedom is of expression.”

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