A bear crept down Boyland Avenue, scouting for shade and food in broad day. Urban expansion had pushed in on his habitat, drying the waterways and killing the fish. He had been roaming for hours. The inside of his throat felt like dirt.
Working in her garden beneath a relentless sun, Maria tended to her flowers. She adored gardening when her husband left for the office and the kids were off to school. Noticing her neighbor’s thirsty brown grass, she sprayed to the right, through the wire fence. Smiling at her good deed, she hummed.
Through Maria’s fence, the approaching animal saw the water spouting. He headed toward it in a lassitude, not caring about the woman. He pushed through an open gate in the three-foot fence and wobbled to relief.
Maria heard a strange snuffling sound behind her. When she turned, she dropped the hose and began to wail. Startled, the bear rose to his hind legs and lashed out with a paw, grazing her right arm. Blood dripped onto her tan clogs. The bear drank.
Running blindly into the house, Maria slammed the glass door, locking it behind her. Stumbling to the coffee table, she picked up her phone.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“I’ve just been attacked by a black bear,” Maria screeched.
A few blocks away, rookie officer Jose Lopez sat with his thoughts while his captain, Michael Conner, drove the patrol car. They were approaching the block where an officer had killed an unarmed teenager a week earlier. Out of the passenger window, a portrait of 17-year-old Rodney Sanchez had been spray-painted on the side of a Wal-Mart. The teen’s eyes stared down from under a baseball cap, a smile on his face.
Beside the mural, a pre-teen with brown skin and Hispanic features placed an old catcher’s mitt among rows of baseball cards, flowers, and flickering candles. Looking up from beneath his hoodie, the kid glared and raised his middle finger at the squad car.
Lopez felt Conner staring at him, heard him sign before speaking. “We have a duty to protect and serve, but you have to stay alive to do that. When you feel danger, trust your instincts and your training.”
The rookie heard what the captain was saying, but still couldn’t shake what happened to the teen memorialized on the wall. Interrupting Lopez’s thoughts, a dispatcher’s urgent voice stated, “The animal attacked a woman and is to be considered extremely dangerous. It was last seen in the back yard area of Eighth and Boyland Avenue.”
“Cut on the siren.” Conner wheeled the black and white, as red and blue lights flashed and the siren screamed. Lopez braced himself against the dashboard.
“It jumped a fence and headed toward Seventh,” crackled the radio.
“We’re coming down Boyland, approaching Seventh now,” Lopez answered.
The cruiser braked in front of Maria’s Tudor. A pathway curved around the side into the back yard. Conner jumped out and sprinted down the passageway. “Get the tranq gun when animal control gets here.”
The wait wasn’t long.
“Where is he?” asked one of the guys who jumped out of the green van, Animal Control lettered in yellow on the side.
“My partner’s in back. Follow me with that tranq,” said Lopez.
They found Conner in a nearby back yard with his firearm aimed at a seven foot black bear, standing on his hind legs. The bear bellowed, clawed at the air, and then dropped to all fours. A brick wall and a six foot wooden fence boxed the bear in a corner, leaving only one escape route. The bear charged toward the officers.
Lopez panicked, drawing his Glock 19.
“Don’t shoot, he’s just an animal!” yelled Conner.
Animal Control moved out of the way, corralling the bear toward another empty back yard. The animal jumped the fence.
Conner grabbed the tranquilizer gun from animal control and gave pursuit. The bear ran past the side of a house and reached the corner of Seventh and Boyland.
“Stop him,” cried Lopez, confused and angry.
The captain pulled the trigger and a shot echoed. A dart smacked the bear in his rear right flank. The animal halted in mid-step, growled and turned toward Conner, who fired once more. This shot hit the bear’s chest. The bear closed his eyes, shook his head slowly, and began to retreat with darts sticking out of him. The officers followed the bear down the empty residential block toward Rodney’s memorial.
The painted boy’s eyes watched the bear struggle until it landed on the ground with a thud, knocking over cards, smothering candle flames, and smashing stuffed animals.
Rahsaan Thomas: How did you come up with Prison Renaissance?
Emile DeWeaver: Bryant Stevenson gave a talk for the Prison University Project and said people looking for solutions need to get proximate with the people most affected by those problems. I’m passionate about prison reform, so I started thinking: How can I become more proximate to people who support mass incarceration, people who fear me? At the same time, something else was going on; I started to see how my writing created proximity between me and editors, between me and readers. I remember someone read Identity in front of me and cried.
It was a moment of connection that shifted and tugged at me during Stevenson’s talk, but I didn’t understand its importance until that day I read your essay. You, Rahsaan, wrote about a renaissance among artists happening in prison, and it hit me. That’s what we need to present to the world, this prison renaissance, this rebirth of humanity and re-connection with healthy, progressive roles in society.
Thomas: You were originally sentenced to 67 years to life for murder and attempted murder, committed when you were 18. This year California passed Senate Bill 261 which may give you a second chance soon, but how did you stay motivated when you thought you were never going home?
DeWeaver: I couldn’t accept that I was never going home, so I didn’t. I didn’t know how I was going to make it home to my daughter, but I knew the only way it could happen was if I was prepared. So I spent the better part of 20 years changing my life and my perspective, not because I think I can somehow earn the right to go home, but because if I ever experience that moment of grace, I need to be ready.
A lot of people thought I was in denial. And in truth it was partly denial, but it was also faith in human potential. And solace because even if I died in prison, at least I’d die a good man. That was as important for me as freedom … I feel the need to be precise when talking about my criminal history, so I want to state this clearly: I don’t think my transformation counterbalances my crimes. Murder is horrible; it’s a vacuum that can’t be filled. I carry that. And I’m able to do that partially because of the strength I draw from the fact that I’ve become a different man.
Thomas: I feel like you draw strength from writing, too.
DeWeaver: Yeah, absolutely.
Thomas: How did you become a writer?
DeWeaver: I’ve always had the talent. In elementary school, I wrote a story where it seems like a serial killer is stalking through a house, but it turns out to be a cat. I wrote it because I was acting out against my teacher, but she ruined my plan by liking it. [laughs] Over the years, I wrote on and off, but I didn’t take it seriously until I was on trial for murder.
It’s complicated. There are a lot of reasons why the lowest moment in my life turned me into a writer. So first, trying to process and cope with murdering somebody as an 18-year-old kid with little family support, I was writing just to survive. It was the only thing I knew how to do that gave me bearing in the world.
Second, my daughter was born while I stood trial, and I began to see the world through her eyes. I saw me through her eyes, and I couldn’t bear the fact that she would grow up and one day someone would ask her, “What does your dad do for a living?” There was nothing I could do to save her from that stigma because I couldn’t take back a lifetime of bad decisions. So the next best thing was to at least give her something to be proud of. If I could give her nothing else, I could show her that no matter how low you’ve fallen, you’re never too low to climb back up. If she internalizes that, I can live with all the ways I’ve failed her as a father.
There’s a third reason [I became a writer], but it doesn’t mean anything next to that.
Thomas: Fair enough. If I remember correctly, you were writing fantasy stories when I met you in Zoe’s creative writing class [in San Quentin State Prison]. Then you read “Superman,” a story about a disabled, gay, Arab man who sets himself on fire. What sparked the 180 degree change in direction for your writing?
DeWeaver: Chance. I read Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. I loved fantasy, and I was stubborn about writing anything else. But when I read Diaz, it felt clear that here is a great writer who loves fantasy as I do, and even though he wasn’t writing fantasy, be found a way to incorporate that love.
He showed me a new way to write, and then came our first public reading for creative writing. I struggled with a horror story about the end of the world where a man in his wheelchair is stuck in his house with a monster in another room. The themes were powerlessness and isolation. The story kept getting longer, too long for a five minute read, so I stripped away everything that wasn’t essential to isolation and powerlessness. What remained was the first line of “Superman.”
Thomas: And “Superman” was the first story you published?
DeWeaver: Yeah. The Lascaux Review published it in 2014 and the editors there changed my life. They saw something in me that I only hoped was there.
Thomas: I’ve noticed the stories you’ve written that have resonated the most with the public – and me – are the ones about your life. How did you turn from fiction and fantasy to reality and why do you think it has been more impactful?
DeWeaver: I wouldn’t say I turned from fantasy to reality because writing fantasy didn’t produce something less authentic than my biographical work. When you write something you’re passionate about, you’re writing about your life. The difference is that with fantasy, I explore humanity in a broad sense in order to better understand myself. With nonfiction, I explore my own life in order to understand humanity. Two ends of the same project.
Thomas: For me, it’s hard to be vulnerable in nonfiction because you’re exposing your weaknesses for the world to judge. Isn’t it easier to write freely in fiction?
DeWeaver: Sure it is, but I feel like its important as an incarcerated writer, especially, to expose myself. There’s a lot of social reasons for this – we’ve talked about proximity before – but right now, I’m talking strictly from a professional standpoint. I don’t have traditional credentials; I can’t tour bookstores to promote my work. What I do have is my voice. Incarceration is like being at the bottom of a well, and stripping bare on the page is my way of shouting real loud.
Thomas: You’ve had poems, personal essays, and short stories published. What’s your favorite art form?
DeWeaver: Poetry. If feels like the closest thing to me. When I write fiction, it’s an arduous process to come up with something worth writing. It’s another journey executing the idea well. Writing about myself is a little easier in that I already have the story material, I just figure out how to relate it. But poetry’s another animal. When I pen verse, I just explode. It’s powerful and sex-good, and I don’t know where it comes from.
Thomas: What do you hope to accomplish through your art?
DeWeaver: I want to connect with people. And reveal new ways to see the world.
Thomas: New ways to see the world?
DeWeaver: Yeah. I guess I’m thinking about a public conversation between President Obama and novelist Marilynne Robinson. Obama sees a correlation between the decline of the novel and the decline of empathy in our culture. When I’m revealing new worlds, I’m trying to increase empathy in our culture. [smiles] Batman fights crime and corruption with tech; my super power is empathy.
Thomas: [laughs] So you’re officially coming out as a superhero?
DeWeaver: I’m Poetman. Hear me read.
Thomas: Okay, what real life heroes inspire you?
DeWeaver: Nelson Mandela. He knew that the way to affect lasting change could never be through division and could only be sustained through unity – even if that unity was with one’s enemies. So he knew how to look at the big picture. His pride, his pain, his struggle – nothing was more important than the good he wanted and that was peace.
Thomas: What about literary heroes? Who influences you?
DeWeaver: Khalil Gibran, he’s an Arab poet. He writes about divinity in beauty and love, human connection, the hells and heavens we create. He’s a humanist – though I don’t know he’d describe himself as such. I have a lot of influences: Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Junot Diaz, Tolkien. Surprisingly, the Old Testament heavily informs my style.
Thomas: [laughs] That is surprising. You’re an atheist right?
DeWeaver: I am. I’ve never been religious, but my family was, and I used to love the mythology in biblical stories. Samson with the donkey’s jaw, laying down a Philistine army. Moses – Prince of Egypt, leading his people to the Promised Land. Esther, who would become Queen. These stories sparked my love for mythology.
Thomas: You talked about your daughter earlier. Can we talk about parenting from prison? What’s that been like for you?
DeWeaver:[pause] Being a parent serving life in prison is to know that you have failed before you’ve even started. You still have to do all the right you can in their lives, but you know – I know that even if my child got cancer and I gave her the cure, I have failed.
Being a parent here is knowing I don’t know the person I love most. It’s the strangest thing I’ve experienced: as much as she loves me, she doesn’t know me either. It’s hell.
Thomas: But your daughter is doing well, she’s in college, right? What have you done to contribute to her success?
DeWeaver: “Contribute to her success” … those are strong words. I wouldn’t frame it like that. What I do is write to her. Every year since her birth, I’ve sent her something for her birthday. I drew portraits of us for her because for most of my incarceration, that’s all I’ve had, materially, to give her.
Thomas: She’s an artist, too, so your portraits inspired something in her.
DeWeaver: I like to think that. She does manga and anime, commission work. She’s in college learning to design video games. Basically, she’s awesome.
Thomas: Let’s shift topics. I want to throw you under the bus a little. It’s almost election time, and a lot of female volunteers are excited about Hillary becoming president. I’ve heard you call yourself a feminist; but you’re not happy about the first woman president.
DeWeaver: My problem with Hillary is she’s touted as a step forward for feminism, and I don’t see it. By and large, the inequalities that exist are because of the paradigm that it’s a rich, white man’s world. Women like Hillary and Condoleezza Rice have succeeded by becoming the functional equivalent of rich, white men. While that doesn’t make them bad people, it’s not a step forward for feminism.
If the problem were tanks driving around, leveling our communities, the problem wouldn’t be solved by letting women drive them instead of men. Yes, one goal of feminism is to reduce oppression, but sometimes it feels like we’re satisfied with achieving equal opportunities to oppress. Angela Davis talks about that.
Thomas: Last question. Did you just namedrop Angela Davis, hoping Hillary supporters won’t tear you a new one?
Emile DeWeaver is a 2015 Pushcart nominee with creative work in a dozen publications, including The Lascaux Review, Frigg, Punchnel’s, and The Rumpus. You can find his work on his website and by visiting his monthly column “Good Behavior” at Easy Street.
“But it was long ago, and it was far away
Oh, God it seems so very far.
And if life is like a highway,
Then the soul is just the car,
And objects in the rear view mirror may appear
closer than they are…”
– Lyrics by Meatloaf
The popular rock personality known as “Meatloaf” is by no means a trained psychologist. Nor is he a qualified researcher in the social science arena. He has not attended graduate school. He has no clinical experience. His message is poetic and anecdotal rather than based upon statistical and psychometric standards. He is simply a musician. And yet, his lyrics “Objects in the Rear-View Mirror” reveal the profound effects of traumatic life experience, specifically child abuse, on the ongoing progression of adulthood more poignantly than the finest and most current publications in the field. Simply put, he argues that one does not simply “get over it,” but carries the pain and confusion of early hurts down the road of life.
Childhood is a time of rapid growth and development in the most basic and fundamental aspects of life. It is where the groundwork is laid for the formation of the adult personality. Logically then, a disruption at these critical stages would have profound effects throughout life. Dysfunctional actions cause dysfunctional reactions. When these reactions become incorporated as longstanding patterns of behavior in order to cope and adapt to a skewed reality, “normal” behavior is eclipsed. It has to be that way – for survival sake. Survivors of childhood abuse react to the world differently than “normal” people because they have come to know a much different world – one of insecurity, pain and fear – a world that makes their behavior logical and necessary.
It is generally agreed upon by practitioners from almost every theoretical orientation that, in one form or another, an individual develops basic and pervasive assumptions about one’s self, others, the environment, and the future based upon the messages incorporated and the coping strategies learned during childhood.
Beginning with early Psychoanalytic thought, Freud clearly argued that adult psychopathology resulted from conflicts originating in childhood. He made constant reference to the significance of the child’s relationships with crucial figures in their environment.
Alfred Adler, in his formulations of Individual or Self Psychology, posited the relations within the family as the primary determinant of the lifestyle patterns adopted for adult functioning.
Erik Erikson constructed a developmental schema based on the resolution of fundamental self tasks, and further theorized that their unsuccessful resolution would lead to repeated dysfunction with regard to that specific issue.
Humanist Carl Rogers, who focused minimally on past experiences, acknowledged the contribution of parental conditions of worth in shaping one’s view of self and interpersonal relationships.
Even Behaviorists, including B. F. Skinner, account for the influence of early systems of reward and punishment as influential in directing later behavior.
Thus, it becomes clear that, regardless of the specific mechanism by which it occurs, the many aspects that together form a functioning adult are molded by the experiences of childhood. Following this, dysfunction or trauma in any one of the many areas of development would result in pathology in related areas of adult functioning. Psychological defenses formed in childhood for the purposes of survival become increasingly maladaptive in adult life. These maladaptive responses, which become so pervasive and innate, take symptomatic forms that mimic psychiatric disorders.
In this way, much misdiagnosis occurs as concepts of personality organization and development are applied under ordinary circumstances to victims without understanding the effects of extensive and long-term trauma on basic maturation and personality formation. These diagnoses do not take into consideration the true etiology of symptoms which once represented adaptive survival mechanism and later become maladaptive pathologies. This is the legacy of a child abuse survivor.
In the highly acclaimed recovery book, The Courage to Heal, authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis recognize the long-term and pervasive effects of child abuse, stating, “It permeates everything: your sense of self, your intimate relationships, your sexuality, your parenting, your work, life, and even your sanity.”
Perhaps, however, the best indication, or “proof”, if you will, of the tragic effects of childhood abuse on adult functioning comes not from a clinical description of ensuing syndromes but, rather from the words of a survivor:
“People have said to me, “Why are you dragging this up now?” Why? WHY? Because it has controlled every facet of my life. It has damaged me in every possible way. It has destroyed everything in my life that has been of value. It has prevented me from having a comfortable emotional life. It’s prevented me from being able to love clearly. It took my children away from me. I haven’t been able to succeed in the world. I know that everything I don’t deal with now is one more burden I have to carry for the rest of my life. I don’t care if it happened 500 years ago! It’s influenced me all that time, and it does matter. It matters very much.”
How can it be that we continue to consider it a revolutionary theory that “Prolonged severe childhood abuse may play a vastly underestimated role in the development of many psychopathologies now ascribed to biological factors, intrapsychic conflicts, or standard family-of-origin issues”.
Isn’t it obvious when we listen to those who have been there and survived to tell about it?
Bio: Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.
Created, Written, and Illustrated by Orlando Smith
The full novel is available in the slideshow below. Click arrows or navigation dots to advance.
Bio: Orlando Smith has created and composed over 57 graphic novels and comic books. His work has appeared in Heavy Metal, and he’s completed a host of commission work including covers for Omega Comics. He did storyboards for the movie Social Tick and for the upcoming film Charlie Charlie. Before Smith was a graphic novelist, he spent six years as a professional tattoo artist and ten years doing custom art on cars.
Artist Statement: I’m not good with human forms yet, but lines speak to me. I like to push lines to produce movement on the page. Drawing is a part of who I am. I don’t care what I’m drawing; the process makes me happy.
Art allows me to show myself through my work. So I’ll be remembered.
Odin’s Blessing. “I envision this and Tyr’s Blessing as part of a series of all 118 Norse Gods and Goddesses.”
Bensozia, Daughter of Lilith, Knight of Ceremony.
Baftis, Knight of Visions & Personal Sight.“I Began this piece with no goals but to fill the page until I didn’t want to clutter it anymore.”
Bio: Jim Sackett-Kitas is a 31-year-old graphic artist who specializes in pencil drawings. Growing up up on his family’s horse ranch, Asatru and steampunk interested him as a teenager and both heavily influence his art today.