The wounds of the human psyche are locked inside untold stories.
In the circle on folding chairs sit twenty men of different ages, backgrounds, and life histories. Some lean forward in expectation. Others sit back, arms crossed over chests, or rocking back and forth on the rear legs of their chairs.
Dark and light skins share the circle, different dialects and accents. Asian. Black. Latino. White. Distinct from one another on the surface in myriad ways. Yet they have one thing in common: they’re all serving time in California state prison.
Strewn about the scuffed tile floor in the center of the circle is a colorful array of images, photos laser printed on letter-sized copier paper. The corner of one page covers the edge of the next, and every imaginable subject peeks out from among the messy layers.
Still shots of buildings. Men and women working. Wild and domestic animals. Children playing, street life, nature scenes.
Moments ago, the group’s facilitator shuffled these images across the floor like an oversized deck of playing cards. Now back in the circle on his own folding chair, he surveys the group of men with his eyes as he speaks.
“Look carefully at these images and consider them. In a moment, each of you will choose one picture, one that represents your life in some way. You’ll choose something that feels meaningful, something that says something about who you are, where you come from, or what you believe.”
As he speaks, the men in the circle begin to scan the images at their feet with curiosity.
“Feel free to stand and walk among the pictures. Lean down to have a closer look. When you have chosen one, pick it up and carry it with you back to your chair. When everyone is seated, we’ll go around the circle, and each of you will have a chance to tell the group what that photo means to you.”
I am sitting in the circle, on my own folding chair, scanning the floor with consideration. I, too, must choose a photo.
My eyes sift through the jumble of images, taking each of them in as a potential representation of my life. A stand of pine trees encircling a mountain lake. A hunter in camouflage, equipped with rifle and bright orange vest. A snapshot of Notre Dame cathedral framed by spring blossoms in a hundred shades of rose. Which image speaks to me?
I settle on a close-up photo of the face of a crying baby. I walk to the center of the circle, pick it up, and hold it to my chest as I carry it back to my chair.
Entering the prison this morning was an exercise in contrasts. Outside its drab and windowless cement walls, at the edge of the parking lot, lush green hills rose into mist-shrouded skies. The morning sun illuminated barbed wire enclosures connecting observation decks manned by armed guards.
No man inside would dare attempt to cross this porous boundary to the outside world. Yet, jackrabbits pass with impunity through gaps in the chain-link fencing, nibbling unconcerned on clover flowers and wild grasses. Yellow-billed magpies stand sentinel on steel fence posts, eyes scanning the horizon over the heads of inmates, as the men shoot hoops and trade cigarettes on the asphalt below.
I crossed the boundary between the free world and the caged as a volunteer with Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a grassroots, volunteer-run conflict transformation program.
To make it to the “inside” this morning, my co-facilitator and I passed through a metal detector, the barbed-wire gun tower barrier, three sets of double doors, and two guard stations. Along the way I surrendered my ID and backpack in exchange for an emergency buzzer before being escorted toward the workshop classroom.
As we approached the room, a female voice met our ears from the next hallway over, her exasperated commands soaring over the rumble of male voices of the workshop-bound inmates.
“What did I tell you yesterday? Don’t touch that! Get back in line!”
As the guard saw us round the corner she straightened and smiled sweetly, escorting us into the room where we would spend our day, the final of three, with the men. I entered the room with nothing but my buzzer, my worksheets, and my bag lunch.
AVP workshops draw on the shared experience of prison inmates to “examine how injustice, prejudice, frustration and anger can lead to aggressive behavior and violence.” In our private space, facilitators and inmates together flow through experiential exercises, role plays, storytelling and games to explore both the roots of conflict, and our inner power to transform it. The men and women who graduate the program leave with practical and potentially life-changing skills for resolving conflict without resorting to manipulation, coercion, or violence.
For three days, we’ve sunk deep and wide into shared experience with these men. We’ve stared uncomfortably into each other’s eyes. We’ve played games, acted ridiculous, and laughed together. We’ve struggled, closed off, and opened again.
We’ve each given ourselves a new name by attaching to our first name a flattering adjective that starts with the same letter: Handsome Hank, Brilliant Bob, Generous George.*
In the process of it all, we’ve learned things we didn’t know — about each other, and about ourselves.
On the first day of these 3-day workshops, the men don’t look at each other much. They enter the room with cautious glances, tracking for others who share their own racial or ethnic backgrounds, separating themselves into groups according to those who look like them.
The men have signed up for the workshop by choice; they come because they’re sick of living the coercion and fear of prison life with no sense of agency to transcend it. They’re here because they desperately want something different. Yet upon arrival, mistrust flashes in their eyes.
This is self-preservation. The constant threat of violence between racial and ethnic groups in prison quickly teaches every wise man to self-segregate to the safety of his in-group, for the sake of his life. Stepping across that line, even accidentally, could mean humiliation, injury, or death.
So it is that these men who’ve shared the same physical space inside windowless prison walls, sometimes for years — or decades — are nonetheless strangers to each other. As they tell us, they arrive to our gathering knowing as little about each other as they do about us strangers from the outside.
But by day three, the atmosphere is calm; the edge is off. The group is integrated around the circle, and men of different colors intermingle, joking or leaning in for deeper conversation. We all know each other by first name now, and “first adjective” too.
Outside the room, divisions are real and necessary. But in this room, divisions have been recognized as part of the problem.
The exercise begins. One by one, each man lifts his chosen photo from his lap and faces it toward the group. From behind the images they tell their stories, describing scenes and dreams and memories from their lives. Each image becomes a paper-thin portal through which one single life story shines forth.
As each man talks, the others listen with attentive presence. Arms uncross and chairs settle down to all fours. Sometimes the listeners nod. Sometimes they affirm. “Yeah.” “That’s right.” “I hear that.” Sometimes they shake their heads in disbelief or lower their eyes and just take it in.
“I picked the picture of this man standing on a porch, because he looks like somebody’s dad. It made me think about how I grew up jealous of my friends who had dads to look up to. I don’t know what that’s like. My dad was never around.”
“I chose this picture of a grocery store, because it reminds me of the one my brother worked at when he got shot dead coming outside after work.”
“I picked up this picture of this cute puppy here, ’cause he just looks so damn happy. All I ever wanted to do is be like a puppy. Happy.”
A Latino man chokes back tears, wishing out loud he would have made his mom proud, instead of breaking her heart.
An Asian man wishes he would have known then what he knows now: all the money or power in the world isn’t worth even one human life.
A Black man bows his head and restarts his story three times. “I can’t undo the past,” he says, “but I can change the future. All I want is to get back home again and hug my son, and teach him to be a better man than me.”
All eyes settle on the next man in line: Curious Cliff. A white man with sandy gray-blond hair who looks to be somewhere in his fifties. Stocky, slumped down in his chair, he has said little the past two days. Silence hangs in the room as the men wait for him to speak.
He takes a long time to raise his photo.
When he does, the page reveals an image of a small blond boy, no more than eight years old, holding a fishing pole in one hand and a line with a foot-long fish hanging from the other. The boy’s ear-to-ear smile shines pridefully into the camera.
“When I was a boy…” Cliff begins, and his voice trails off.
Again, silence. He sighs, sits up straighter, and words begin to flow in a soft southern accent.
“When I was a boy, my dad and my uncles used to take me fishin’. They took me out on the river and taught me how to bait a hook, cast a line, and reel it in. I got pretty good at it. My dad and them, they were good teachers.
“I picked this photo because it reminds me of a happy time when life seemed easy, before things got complicated.
“I was gonna say that if I could, I’d like to go back to that time and start over. I wanna spend the day fishin’ on the river, and get a fresh start, and forget about this god-awful place.
“But…” his voice cracks.
“I been listenin’ to your stories around the circle, and all the hardships y’all have gone through, and then I thought of somethin’ else to share.
“See, my dad and them, they didn’t just teach me how to fish. They also taught me how to hate.”
He takes a slow, deep breath, and continues.
“When I was a kid, everyone around me told me that Black people were bad. They told me Black people weren’t like us, they weren’t as good as us. They told me Blacks were only gonna bring crime to our town, that they weren’t nothin’ but trouble for us white folks. They told me our country would be better off without ‘em.”
“But now I know they were wrong. I mean, I’ve known it for a long while. But I been able to kinda ignore it, ’cause in here, you know, the Blacks and the whites don’t talk. I been talkin’ to only white people my whole life, even in this damn prison.”
Until now, Cliff has been speaking with his eyes locked to the floor. He stops for another breath and raises his head, face flushed and brow furrowed, to look at the rest of us in the room.
“Truth is, that little boy in this picture didn’t hate anybody. He wasn’t prejudiced. He was taught to hate, by other people who hated, people who shoulda known better.
“I’m not sayin’ that what I did to get myself in here wasn’t my fault. I made all my own decisions.”
Tears well in his eyes, and the little-boy image shakes tenderly as his hand begins to tremble.
“But I see that what really brought me here was hate. It was somebody else’s hate that I took on as my own. And I don’t wanna hate anymore.
“I don’t wanna hurt a single person, no matter what color they are, for the rest of my life. I know that every man in this room is a good man, a real man with his own story, just like me. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”
He crumples forward, stocky shoulders heaving, and begins to sob.
For a moment all the room hangs suspended in the heaviness of the moment. All is silent but for the soft cries of this man and the ticking of the clock on the wall.
Then from the left, someone reaches over and places a hand on the crying man’s shoulder. A Black hand. It belongs to Jammin John. Surprised, Cliff looks up through tears and the men lock eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
“Bless you,” John says to the suffering man. “Bless you, brother.”
We hear from the inmates that AVP graduates come to see their in-groups differently than other inmates; they share a wider sense of solidarity.
Upon graduation from the program, each participant is gifted a small lapel pin, gold plated with black enameled letters: AVP. The graduates are asked to visibly wear their pins on the shirt collars of their workman’s blue prison “uniforms.”
The result is that on the basketball court, in the lunchroom and throughout the common areas, the pins symbolize not only a shared experience, but a shared understanding. Men who’ve completed the program see the pin on the lapel of a fellow inmate, and they know. They know that man, too, has sat in circle, laughed and struggled and opened. He, too, has shared his story.
It is the pin they see now as a sign of brotherhood, not just the color of the skin.
At the end of the day these men will graduate the program. They’ll bump fists, shake hands, embrace. They’ll tell each other before being escorted back to their cells: Brother, I’ve got your back.
Cliff will be smiling for the first time in three days.
Back in the classroom, we continue moving around the circle. Eventually, it comes my turn to speak. I lift my paper outward toward the group.
“I chose this crying baby,” I begin, “because it reminds me of how lucky I am to be alive.”
“When I was born, my mother was only 15 years old. She could have chosen not to have me, but she didn’t. She was teased and ridiculed for being pregnant so young, but she was tough, and she stuck it out and gave me my life.
“She decided to put me up for adoption. She wanted to give me a better life than she thought she could give, so she surrendered me to the state as a trustee.
“I was passed as a newborn from the nurses and doctors to the county adoption agency. I was cared for by surrogate mothers in one foster home after another, social workers who fed and nurtured me until a permanent family could be found. They gave me a temporary name — “Baby Heather” — so I could be identified in official documents by something more than a number.
“They wrote notes about me in my log files, like ‘Today Baby Heather drank 8 ounces of milk,’ or ‘Baby Heather woke three times in the night.’
“I came into the world helpless to care for myself. It was only the kindness of strangers that kept me alive. By the time I was placed with my adoptive family, my fate had passed through the hands of countless people I will never know. Every one of them gave me a gift I can never repay.
All this makes me want to pay that kindness forward, since I know I can’t pay it back. It’s love that gives us life, but it’s kindness that keeps us alive.
“The system is so bad sometimes. I see all the terrible things we do to each other. But there are good people, too. And I owe my life to good people. I hope, in some way, I can thank the world enough to be worthy of that gift.”
I place the picture back down on my lap, and look around the circle. A couple of men nod their heads. One puts his hand over his heart. I know I have been heard.
“The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”Audre Lorde
How do our stories shape what we witness in other people? How does witnessing the stories of others shape our own?
We humans are storytelling creatures. We find meaning in the experience of life, but also in the telling of it. It was relatively recently in our species’ history that we shifted from operating as chiefly an oral culture to a written one. The power of spoken story stirs something deep within our bones, as much a part of our being as our DNA.
Maybe that’s why we can be healed by sharing stories.
I’m not suggesting that we can listen to someone’s story and magically erase centuries of dehumanization, or decades of psychological trauma.
But whereas social norms often teach us to armor up against the “other,” to shield ourselves from the “enemy” for our own survival, I suggest that the the real enemy is dehumanization.
Our racist, industrialized system of mass incarceration is but one outgrowth of the dehumanized culture we live in: a culture that values profit over people. A culture of objectification and commodification, when what we need is connection. A culture of retribution, when what we need is restoration.
In such a segregated and separated world, wherein powerful interests manipulate our shared narrative to maintain us in competition and conflict with one another, storytelling can be not only an act of healing, but an act of rebellion.
Injustice is dependent on indifference. We can unlearn separation and dehumanization, and challenge the injustice that comes from it, if we take time to share our personal stories with others. A story shared lifts the veil of generalizations, re-humanizes both sender and receiver, and reveals the priceless kaleidoscope of shared human experience that lies beyond.
The first time I visited the prison, I worried whether I should have come.
I had witnessed the transformative power of AVP as a facilitator in our outside community, and wanted to help share it with inmates on the inside.
But I feared I didn’t belong within the prison walls, that my presence would be unwelcome by the men inside. I was uncertain how I would be received, a young white woman entering a world of mostly black and brown men, likely with radically different life experiences from my own.
I entered conscious of the “white savior” mentality, wanting to avoid at all costs bringing naive or privileged helping energy into the shared space. In my desire to be helpful, I worried, was I forcing my good intentions into a place they didn’t belong?
But over three days of stories, tears, and laughter, I forgot my fears, just as the men forgot so many of the differences between them.
In our time together my sense of the men as “inmates” faded quickly, and by graduation I had come to know them as individuals: Abel, and Jerry, and Mike. I learned their names. I had seen them. And they had seen me too.
As our group packed up to leave the final day, with smiles and respectful nods, one of the older gentlemen approached me and shook my hand.
He said, “You know, when this thing started, us guys were talking. We wondered, why are these people coming in here from the outside? How much are they getting paid to do this?
“We thought you must have an agenda. But when we heard you were volunteers and you actually came just because you want to help, well…I just want to say thank you. Sometimes it feels like the whole world forgot about us. Thanks for coming, and showing us that someone on the outside still cares.”
Here I had been worried about intruding into his world, desperately wanting to be seen as respectful. And here he was, just grateful to be seen.
The wounds of the human psyche are locked inside untold stories. Like men locked behind bars, they long to be free.
But I wonder, how many opportunities for connection do we miss by assuming that reaching out is not wanted? How many times do we hold back, questioning the value of what we have to give? And how many times do we not tell our stories, because it seems there’s no one to receive them, or because we’ve come to believe that no one cares?
In the depths of despair, isolation, and dehumanization, where rivers of pain cut so deep, we know that simply saying sorry isn’t enough.
But we also know that healing has to begin somewhere. If there’s no invitation to speak and witness— to apologize and forgive — there can be little movement toward healing.
On the other hand, when there is that invitation to speak, there can be movement. Every personal story shared is an opportunity to shift the direction of our collective story, from separation toward wholeness.
In sharing, we submerge ourselves together in the healing waters of our shared suffering. The more bravely we share, the more likely we may one day emerge together into the transformed light of a new world.
We are all different on the outside: light and dark skin, different dialects and accents and life histories. We are also different on the inside, each psyche and spirit a vast, unique interior world unlike any other.
But two precious things we all hold in equal measure: our humanity, and our stories. We are all human beings, however imperfect in our expression. We all have stories to tell. And the one can help us remember the value — and the power — of the other.
What story waits to be told by you?
This story is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Matchett,
Beloved facilitator and mentor,
Alternatives to Violence Project, California
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the people represented in this story.
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