Every now and again I’m struck immobile by the state of our nation. I had wanted to prepare an article on the risks of sex work, real versus imagined, but I’m thinking what the fuck. Why bother. This country sucks. No one’s listening. I turned on the news this morning and they’re rioting at Penn State over the firing of a football coach, a man who played a pivotal role in covering up the actions of a child molester. In the next segment, a Republican audience is booing Maria Bartiromo for questioning their candidate about claims of sexual harassment, two of which extend beyond allegations into the realm of fact, as those cases were settled. Whatever he says, they cheer. This is the same candidate who said that the unemployed and working poor should “blame themselves” and insinuated that a woman who is raped and gets pregnant has exercised a choice. This is the same audience who booed a gay soldier, cheered another candidate’s unparalleled record of execution and supported another candidate’s conclusion that an uninsured man be allowed to die. This is not my country, I sometimes think. I don’t belong here. “Let’s get out of here,” I say to my partner, who is getting dressed for work. I mean let’s leave this country, this city and our apartment, which is rent-controlled and so we will never leave. This is my home, this disorganized space which in the morning smells of coffee and sleep, the sweet smell of two familiar bodies. And go where? He says. Clink goes the heat kicking on. They’ve cut to a commercial.
Last night I had the privilege to attend Breakout: Voices from Inside, a fundraiser in support of the PEN Writing Program, which provides hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers as well as audiences for their work. Last night’s event featured invited guests reading the poetry and creative nonfiction of currently incarcerated men and women, followed by a panel discussion.
“Imagine being in a room for years the size of your bathroom with only hostility around you,” author Susan Rosenberg beseeched us. Prison, it was described, is a place of rules, regulations and restrictions. “Imagine spending the most productive years of your life living in a cage.” Sitting in the gallery of the National Arts Club next to Audacia Ray, with whom I’ve just had a lovely working dinner (it is always and never work when you do what you love), I can’t imagine. I won’t pretend to try or to equate any experience I’ve ever had to the experience of being locked up, although I used watch those prison shows on TV and think how it reminded me of teaching. Not always but too often, teaching children was less about teaching and more about managing. In graduate school, we were taught how to “manage” a classroom. We were taught theories of discipline rather than content. In practice, this meant bribing kids with “table points” which added up to prizes (most often, candy). We trained the children like dogs to follow rules that only make sense when you are one of thirty. When you are institutionalized, the answer is no. No, you may not go to the bathroom. No, you may not wash your hands. Sit down. Stay in your seat. Raise your hand. Speak only when you are called on, and the answer’s still no.
In prison, one of last night’s speakers said, there is no positive reenforcement. There is only punishment and the risk of making it worse. In this way, an individual labelled a convict is defined only by the negative. A convict is defined by her crime. “People are frozen in their worst moments,” Susan said, adding that “it is a very hard thing to live with.” Susan Rosenberg didn’t discuss why she, herself, had been locked up in prison and I was glad because this information was beside the point. Guilty, innocent and everything in between, “we are all people with something to say,” Susan said. “Prison takes that from you, or tries to.”
Sometimes I am an angry person, and to be an angry woman in this culture is particularly not good. I feel as if I walk this earth clenched up tight like a fist. Sometimes I think they are right, the word for me is unbecoming. Unbecoming: not appropriate, unattractive, not flattering. Unsightly. Something or someone that should be neither seen nor heard. But I refuse to be invisible! I fight and fight and fight! Some days it all feels like too much. Some days, I want only to surrender, to call off this fight I’ve picked with the world. Some days, I prefer to be numb, asleep, invisible, to be silent, to be nothing at all. I let myself sleep in and not leave the house but to walk the dog. I watch TV. I don’t write. I let myself be lulled into complacency by all my comforts: food with no nutritional value, my warm apartment and the Real Housewives of what-the-fuck-wherever. Because if it wasn’t either anger or dumb and numb there might be sadness. I mean sorrow. Floods of disappointment, confusion, alienation. Don’t turn to MSNBC. Don’t watch Comedy Central or risk feeling alienated by the unbelievable amount of sexual harassment jokes and rioting in support of child molestation—provided that the child molester wins football games—and suddenly I am mad again. This is a childish way to live.
“I don’t write good unless I see something wrong happening,” one of last night’s speakers had said. “I turn on the TV, the news–” he laughed– “that’s where my motivation comes from.” He talked about his experience of writing in prison. He described being led from his cell and gathering with others, together, in one room. “We had the agent of oppression sitting outside the door,” he laughed again. He talked about the honesty, people expressing themselves in their writing, saying things in ways they couldn’t say out loud. “In that hour and a half you were no longer in the penitentiary,” he said. “You were somewhere else.”
When I stopped having sex for money, I told myself I would not overthink it. Right or wrong, it wasn’t right for me. It was killing me, in fact. Whether it was the actual work or the stigma surrounding it, prostitution was destroying me. It was making me feel so alone and lonely, the isolation and the alienation I felt was unbearable. The money and the sexual attention did nothing to assuage my loneliness, in fact it only made it worse, and so I had to stop. I had to stop drinking and thinking myself into despair. I needed to be “normal.” Get a “normal” job. Surrender. Again, when I surrendered my case against the DOE, I promised myself I would not be angry forever. I told myself I had to let go.
As I’ve previously written, it is my experience that when society turns its back on you, you turn your back on society. It takes incredible courage, humility and strength to turn back around. Prisons don’t reform people—last night’s speakers seemed to be claiming—but those locked up in prisons, it was evident, could be reformed in spite. In spite of everything they’d gone through, no one who spoke last night sounded angry. Some days I realize I haven’t let go. I don’t let go entirely because I believe in the depth of me that there’s something worth holding on to. Yes, there is something worth holding on to—but whatever that is, it’s not anger.