Thursday, April 2, 2015

Shakespeare Saved My Life

Book: Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard
Author: Laura Bates
Edition:eBook read on Overdrive from Fresno County Library
Read: April 2, 2015
366 pages
Rated: 3 out of 5

Dr. Laura Bates is a professor in Indiana. She takes an interested in seeing if education, particularly English, and even more specifically Shakespeare, is of interest to prisoners in the Indiana State prison system. She ends up not only teaching ordinary prisoners, but even those in the SHU, security housing unit where the prisoners are isolated into solitary confinement. One prisoner, Larry Newton captures bates' attention. The book primarily is a showcase for Newton's interpretation of Shakespeare.

As you read about Larry Newton, you start  to empathize with him, wondering should he some day be released?  Then you read about the crimes he committed and wonder should he have been put to death?  On the day when I finished this book, Richard Schoenfeld took a big leap towards parole. Should someone like Schoenfeld who kidnapped and buried a bus full of kids ever be paroled, no matter how he has changed?

The real basic question is three fold:
  • Is prison for punishment?
  • Is prison to reform?
  • Are there people who should never be released into society?
This book does not answer those questions. I think that punishment is a primary reason, but for the good of society, we need to move a person along towards a better way of living. Education is one of those ways.

Bates does not ever advocate for his release, nor does she overtly try to evoke sympathy for his plight, except when there is discrimination against him. But just by focusing on Newton, she does establish sympathy by the nature of such a book. 

She does advocate for prisoner education, particularly for higher education. Newton wanted to earn a Ph'd. Her thinking is that it makes the prisoner more looking forward to stability, if they are allowed out. If the person is a lifer, then they at least have something which stabilizes them.

A colleague of Bates when she started to go into solitary confinement, teaching Shakespeare remarked, Don't make them read Shakespeare; they're already in prison! which is more or less my attitude towards Shakespeare. While I understand the need for Shakespeare, I just never have felt a tie-in to his writings.

Awareness of multiplicity of interpretation is the key to reading Shakespeare. Chp 6. Maybe this is why I have never taken to Shakespeare.

I wonder what edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare Bates used with the prisoners.

I started to feel like I was serving a life sentence myself. (Chp 19). How do you stop volunteering without disappointing people, or more importantly yourself?

In Chapter 31, there is an interesting dialogue about pacing and fantasy thinking. Newton talks about that there is not much to do in solitary so prisoners often pace-walk back and forth in their cells. Then they will start fantasizing they are someplace else or a different kind of person. Much of it has to do with a form of escapism or reliving an episode of their lives. Not too much about regret here.

Some reasons why Bates started working in prisons:
  • An argument started her going-but to me that seems a bit flimsy.
  • She did work at some local prisons first. She also grew attached to the prisoners, so she felt she could not stomach.
  • In the interview on NPR, she talks about why she wanted to go into the SHU.

My confession; I have never understood  or liked Shakespeare, in high school, in college,  or even for pleasure.  But he is one of those authors which I know I should read. So every few years I try. Sometimes with one of his plays, sometimes seeing a performance, sometimes  reading about his works. I saw this book on the Big Read, so I thought I would give this book a read with the thought that if prisoners can understand him, maybe I could enjoy him.

Shakespeare Saved My Life  tells the story of Dr. Laura Bates introducing Shakespeare  to prisoners  in Indiana, particularly one prisoner, Larry Newton. Actually the Shakespeare  program is more the backdrop to the Newton story. Newton's story  is one which should be told. The book talks about meeting him in a special housing unit, i.e., solitary confinement,  where he has been for 10 years. He starts with understanding much of Shakespeare  and integrates it into his life.

So did the book accomplish what I wanted? Have I fallen in love with Shakespeare?  No. Was this an interesting read? Mostly. Newton is interesting but the book leave you wonder things like, where did he pick up Nietzsche? If he had no schooling, where does he pick up his ability to understand Shakespeare? (Well, he did have 10+ years to read in solitary confinement, alone) Also, why did the author start volunteering in prison, what was her motivation? (Not sure that it all added up for a reason)  The chapter breaks were short-72 of them in 199 pages, which left the story being choppy. till it is a good  read.

New Words:
  • Ipso facto: by that very fact or act
  • Verisimilitude (chp 19):  the appearance of being true or real
Book References:
  • Complete Works of Shakespeare 
  • Twilight of the Idols by Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Mr. Murder by Dean Koontz

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: This is a book about a prisoner in solitary confinement ... and how his life was changed by Shakespeare.
  • Last Line: That is, after all, his "footprint in the world."
  •  Everyone just puts themselves into so many prisons. Larry Newton, chp 17
Table of Contents:
Chapter 1: Favorite Freakin' Shakespeare
Chapter 2: The Value of Education
Chapter 3: Breaking Out
Chapter 4: Breaking In
Chapter 5: I'm In
Chapter 6: Newton's In
Chapter 7: Life Inside
Chapter 8: The First Lesson I Teach
Chapter 9: The First Group Session
Chapter 10: The First Lesson I Learn
Chapter 11: Regaining Lost Humanity
Chapter 12: Contraband
Chapter 13: Childhood
Chapter 14: The Tragedy of Macbeth
Chapter 15: Supermax Kid
Chapter 16: The Closet
Chapter 17: My Secret Life
Chapter 18: Tough Freedoms
Chapter 19: "To Know My Deed"
Chapter 20: CSI: Muncie, Indiana
Chapter 21: Death Penalty
Chapter 22: Escape Artist
Chapter 23: The Dagger I See before Me
Chapter 24: The Shower: Newton
Chapter 25: The Shower: Me
Chapter 26: All Hands on Deck
Chapter 27: The Boat
Chapter 28: New Directions
Chapter 29: Sensory Deprivation
Chapter 30: Isolated...and Alone
Chapter 31: Ghosts in the Cell
Chapter 32: Insanity
Chapter 33: More House Calls
Chapter 34: Administrative Segregation versus Disciplinary Segregation
Chapter 35: Killer Dog
Chapter 36: Extraction
Chapter 37: B-East
Chapter 38: This Prison Don't Matter
Chapter 39: Meeting of the Minds
Chapter 40: Dr. Newton
Chapter 41: The Picture
Chapter 42: "That's Freedom"
Chapter 43: Another Door Opens
Chapter 44: Killer Dog Comes Inside
Chapter 45: "Shakespearean Considerations"
Chapter 46: Hamlet: to Revenge or Not to Revenge
Chapter 47: Othello: Girl Meets Boy
Chapter 48: "Shakespeare Saved My Life"
Chapter 49: Shakespeare Saved My Life
Chapter 50: Shakespeare Could Save Your Life Too
Chapter 51: Doing Life
Chapter 52: Romeo and Juliet
Chapter 53: Romeo and Juliet for Youth Incarcerated as Adults
Chapter 54: Balance
Chapter 55: Tybalt Must Die!
Chapter 56: Killer in the Classroom
Chapter 57: Hands that Kill Can Also...Sew?
Chapter 58: Fears and Phobias
Chapter 59: Sociopath or...
Chapter 60: Socrates
Chapter 61: Doing Good for Bad Done
Chapter 62: Correctional Education
Chapter 63: "Cool!"
Chapter 64: Timeline of Anxiety
Chapter 65: Media Celebrity
Chapter 66: Cell Phone in the Cell
Chapter 67: Back to Seg
Chapter 68: Remembering the Victims
Chapter 69: Full Circle
Chapter 70: Tragic Kingdom
Chapter 71: "Stay Strong"
Chapter 72: Closing Doors
Chapter 73: The Letter
Chapter 74: Powering through with Shakespeare
Chapter 75: Revelation
Chapter 76: Footprint in the World
Chapter 77: Mother's Day
Chapter 78: Five Steps
Reading Group Guide
About the Author



chrisrushlau said...

Two things on Shakespeare, both based on viewing him as an amateur lawyer who hung around with lawyers who in turn clustered around the Throne (Inns of Court, all that stuff). One is to be very detailed when you assess the "room" (as in "this is a tough room", a comedian says to herself). Shakespeare is telling us how power works, how it thinks, and at the bottom of that...
Okay the second point is about the limitations of that sort of courtier's confessions. I stopped reading Shakespeare (after being started on it by my uncle giving me a cheap complete works and then, years later, a professor showing me I could figure out what was happening on the page (but it took another twenty years for me to start reading)) in Othello, where I said to myself that I didn't need to see how racism was rationalized in 1601 or whatever. Obviously Othello was born to lose, etc.
You may know that Agatha Christie's late book, Endless Night, when she had nothing to lose, was about, well, go read it if you haven't.
We need the narrator to be able to show us something good. My rule is, never take advice from an unhappy person. But have you ever met an author (through her works, that is, or otherwise, I suppose) who didn't eventually let you down somehow?
In Shakespeare's case, the question is why he had to rely on these "friends at court". He was probably seeing himself as one of his court jester characters, telling the King what the King really didn't want to hear, both for the King's actual benefit and that of the Kingdom--but there are limits, right?
What if the jester says to the King, there has to be a better system than monarchy? That is sort of the theme of King Lear. It really doesn't answer the question it raises, except in sort of a "just try harder, old chap" sort of way.
I'll quote my grandmother on Shakespeare: "I think he was the most remarkable man who ever lived." I failed to do a proper cross-examination, which would have been, "What do you mean by that?" She might have lost her nerve at that point, for fear of her daughter-guardian, but perhaps I might have encouraged her to say something like, "He shows us the best of the Anglo-American legal tradition and--or maybe by--pointing out its limitations." For example, the Torts professor in law school, decades later, offered some free advice to the uncaring mob of students: there is no obligation in English law to do good, but merely to refrain from evil.
That one principle may explain all the problems of Western Civilization, such as the current Pivot to the Pacific, aka Rebalancing, which seems to have as its main impetus the desire to wipe out people who like people. The Global War on Terror has much the same aim, but we have learned that Muslims, while more wholesome in their ecclesiology, end up in the same rabbit hole as we Jews and Christians, reshaping God in our own image. It takes real courage and compassion to say to and about God, "I have no idea, and I'm sorry I said anything." You might call that a Death of God theology, but it is the most plausible explanation for the doctrine of Jesus's redemptive act. As Firesign Theater put it in the 60's-70's, "Everything you know is wrong." That grows directly out of Aristotle: there is no knowledge without the phantasm, which means you only know created things, so you end up with the koan: if you meet Buddha on the way, kill him. All you can know of God, but the thing you always know of God, since it is the way you know everything, and you always are knowing something, is that God is being, and yet being encompasses you, not the other way around.

chrisrushlau said...

I came to your blog seeking Joseph Roux for his comment that love is two souls in one flesh, whereas friendship is one soul in two bodies. Aristotle defined, apparently, love as the latter situation. (All I know of Aristotle is in Rahner's Ph.D. thesis, Spirit in the World, in the phrase just repeated.) So we come down, do we, to the difference between love and friendship. Someone commented, on behalf of the French, about the English insistence on liking things, as opposed to loving them. There is something very liberal about liking, indeed about gentleness, kindness, but all four concepts come from a tribal mentality: freedom, likes, kinds, gens ("tribe" in Latin): being nice to your own kind, and yet "nice" means "not knowing", "ne scius".
Love and hate are closer to each other than love and liking. Love and hate objectify the other person absolutely. Indeed to know anything is to objectify it, to see it as the other, not part of you. So how do you love another person? Not his clothes or her turn of phrase, but the person? Not the mask of Greek drama, but the soul that speaks through the persona, through the little hole in the mask?
Let me make it even harder: what would it feel like to have two souls in one body? I must prescind, as Rahner would say, from the problem of what tethers my soul in my body, so that only I may move my little finger. I speak only of knowing oneself. My blurt to myself from law school was "in the privacy of my silent soul". Not a complete sentence, no. Privacy means to be deprived of, and the Arabic term for independence is from the root meaning small or weak. When I am taken down to bare metal, what is left of me? When you peel the onion all the way, what have you found? Yet there is at least in theoretical necessity a soul that is the standpoint and the goal, the alpha and omega, the potentiality, without which there is no human conduct, though there may be human life. Roux touches on this in a few of his comments. You need a doctrine of the inexpressibly present, the "thereness" that is always there, even in Oakland. So, then, what if there were two "theres" inside you? Maybe two Jiminy Crickets? On the one hand, there would be a second guilt-tripper to shake its head when you let yourself down by taking the easy way out and tolerating slovenly thinking and brutal behavior. On the other, there would be another audience for when you find the lost coin (Gospel parable), to share that joy with. So love and hate, if they both entail that sort of impaling the butterfly on a hatpin, being adrift in a cold vacuum of impending judgment, not of God's but of your own: almost the same thing, isn't it?
I suppose hate as in it an ultimate regret, as if the whole thing is a waste, God is just stupid after all, whereas love finds sweet repose here. Thomas Green's elucidation of the key Jesuit term, consolation, in Opening to God, is very nice, very consoling here: he says when we open ourselves to everything we're aware of, it's like water falling on a sponge, and that's consolation, which is, in terms of the purpose of the spiritual exercises, how God communicates with us, when we accept things as they seem, as they are, but when we say that this must be some kind of mistake on God's part, and is there anybody else up there? (joke about man hanging on cliff face), we are like water falling on a flat rock, and that's desolation. The person in denial thinks he is the architect of his own happiness by just ignoring all the bad stuff, the contradictions, the bad feelings like he's pouring gas on himself and flipping his Bic just to prove he can, but all of that is marooning himself in an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors, where nothing every actually happens but his further recriminations; and if he finds twelve stout fellows to endorse his every recrimination, like in a Shakespeare play, that only prolongs his agony and extends his guilt.