My life, my job, has brought me in contact with both famous and infamous people. Not surprisingly, the infamous ones have been far more interesting than the famous. And perhaps this has more to do with the “take-aways,” what I have learned from them, than anything else. Makes me think of something I read in one of Clive Barker’s books: “What do the good know, but what the bad teach them by their excesses?”
The people I have met, briefly encountered, read about before and after meeting them, would be included in a Rogues’ Gallery of 20th Century Crime in America. And there are lesser knowns, but their stories, what I have learned from them, are just as valuable.
The other day I was talking with an individual who had spent 24 years in prison, from age 16 to 40. He has been home more than ten years. We were talking about memoirs, about writing memoirs, and he began to tell me what he remembered about his first year out of prison.
“I entered this ‘Not So Brave New World,'” he began, “and immediately realized that I did not exist.” He went on to explain that he did not exist in the “free world” on paper. He had a birth certificate and social security card; evidence, he said, that he had been born, and that his mother had the good sense to get him a social security number practically at birth. These were the only two “public” documents that validated his existence in the free world on paper. He went on to say that as soon as he realized this, he thought of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but felt more like The Brother from Another Planet.
I work in the field (industry) of reentry — for an organization, the Osborne Association, that is doing remarkable, cutting-edge work transforming lives, communities, and the criminal justice system (to learn more about Osborne, visit its website at http://www.osborneny.org) — working with people reentering and making a transition from prisons and jails to their families, communities, and society, and I am almost always thinking about this work and this world, and how to bridge the gap between what is essentially two worlds as people who have been in prisons and jails understand them: the “free world” and the “not free world.”
This individual and I talked at length, and he told me that the first year out, everywhere he turned, everything he did or tried to do, provided more evidence that he did not exist, at least not on paper. And then he talked about the process of becoming “documented,” as if he were an “illegal alien” (his words), despite being a born and bred American. And once he did this, he said, an unfathomable sadness descended upon him. He then realized, he said, that he had practically no life and no history in the free world — he discounts the first 16 years of his life, which he said he barely remembers because he willed himself to forget and can’t even access that part of his memory anymore — and that the process of reentry, for him, would involve creating a history and memories outside of and not connected to prison.