In my last post, I said I’d be submitting excerpts from my upcoming book on character as follow-up to my last contribution here. Well, good news and bad news, Penguin has purchased the book. But they’ve asked me not to post any more of its content on the web because they have first right of serialization, and are considering publicizing sections either online or in magazines. So please indulge my changing course.
There have been a number of posts these last two weeks dealing with the issue of the outsider. Over the past year, I’ve twice been involved with a particular group of outsiders — or perhaps I should call them insiders — thanks to the Bay Area writing team of twin brothers Keith and Kent Zimmerman.
A little more than a year ago, the Z-Men, as we call them, in association with Litquake, hosted the very first Literary Throwdown inside the walls of San Quentin State Prison. It took place at the brothers’ creative writing class on the San Quentin H-Unit yard.
I joined five other authors from the outside — Joe Loya, Bucky Sinister, Jack Bouleware, Anne Marino and Alan Black— competing against six inmate writers selected from the class.
Three Hollywood authors/screenwriters — twins Noah and Logan Miller, and Michael Tolkin — served as judges at the next week’s class.
In trying to reflect on what moved me most about the experience, I keep coming back to the intensity and generosity and humility of the men in that writing program. A number of them reminded me of former clients I had, working as a private investigator — guys who had made mistakes, serious ones, stupid ones, or who had suffered black periods of shoddy luck so savagely overwhelming they’d succumbed. Some had plunged face-first into oblivion — alcohol, drugs, rage — and all but drowned. Some had given in to the seduction of power crime provides, and awoken on the sharp end of its consequences. None would qualify as evil, but nobody was innocent either.
They had names like Rolf, Pitt, Frenchy, Banks, Mister Morrison, Big H, Daleadamown, Jo Jo and JFK, even Dinero D the Dynamic “P” (for pimp) and, yes, Buckshot (his given name, oddly enough). But they also were William and Tim, Dennis and Daniel, Kent, Raul, Jonathan, Todd. Almost to a man they possessed insight into what had brought them to that place, that prison, insight into their natures, revealing a depth of self-examination often rare in people on the outside, which was what made their writing so compelling.
And they were grateful. They appreciated the fact someone bothered to show up, pay attention, not dictate but share.
They also understood things about writing itself I wish more of my own students grasped so instinctively: Tell a good story, don’t waste time, momentum matters, be honest, focus on specifics, make it funny. And God, those guys can be funny. They can also break your heart.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t think I’d been transported to some kind of testosterone Magic Kingdom. There was bullshit on both sides, and a lot of feeling each other out, the natural cagey distrust of men with men, inside or outside, though accentuated by the higher level of scrutiny inmates live with day in, day out. They look at you carefully, assess you hard. By and large they were incredibly gracious and accepting in their welcomes, but they were also sizing us up. And my guess is they got us a hell of a lot more than we got them.
That sense guided me when I wrote my own piece. I knew that whatever I wrote, it had to be real, it had to be true, it had to strike hard and deep. Anything less was chickenshit, and the whole room would know it.
We were given thirty minutes to write longhand—no computers allowed—on a topic that was sprung on us right before we were told to begin. The topic was, “Damn, Back at Square One Again.” (To read what I wrote, go to the bottom of this post.)
* * * * *
It wasn’t just the inmates who impressed me.
Memoirist Joe Loya, himself a veteran of crime and prison, reached out to those men in a way none of the rest of us could. He let them know they had strengths and virtues every writer needs: a high tolerance for ambiguity, a knack for risk, a long experience of story-telling that lacked patience for vagueness, dishonesty or digression. And they all had at least one good story: the story of their arrest. (And yes, most of them wrote about it for the throwdown — everything from a screen door blown off with a shotgun during a speed binge to a DUI car wreck that killed two people.)
Screenwriter and novelist Michael Tolkin told them that he was blown away by the stories he heard — they were actually about something — and how strong they were compared to the recent offerings by the newly anointed geniuses in the New Yorker’s fabled summer fiction issue.
And Bucky Sinister read a poem from his collection All Blacked Out and Nowhere to Go that blew me down — it hit everybody hard. The kind of magical moment that can’t be faked. I was grateful, for I didn’t feel I’d given back as much as I’d been given. Mister Sinister bailed me out.
Oh, and as for the competition: The judges tallied, the votes were counted. We held our breath. The winners? The inmates. By half a point. (Frankly, I didn’t think it was that close.)
Last month, the brothers had me back, this time as a judge. Anne Marino’s creative writing class took on the inmates this time. I remembered some of the men from the first go-round, some were new to me, some of the ones I’d met before had been released and replaced by new faces. Again, the pieces were strong and wild, heartbreaking and funny. Once again, the inmates won — this time, going away.
For a good long while there’s been an upsurge of the throw-away-the-key zeitgeist in this country, a knee-jerk belief that people don’t change and everyone in prison deserves what they get, or worse. Criminals are animals to be kenneled and quarantined. My experience with these men in this classroom reminded me of just how mendacious and self-serving and just plain wrong that is.
Insight matters, and writing requires it. Men who write about themselves this honestly have what it takes to begin the long hard fight to change. I left that prison wanting to say one simple thing: Listen to them.
So, Murderateros: What would you have written about, given the theme: Damn, back at square one again? Do you believe people can change, or is that just bleeding-heart BS? Where do we draw the line between bad luck and bad character? And what about the families of the victims of men like this — do I mock their pain when I speak of these men the way I do?
* * * * *
Here’s what I wrote for the throwdown:
Twenty-four hours before my wife died, I walked out of her room at the Stanford Cancer Clinic, stood in the center of the reception area, and bellowed at the top of my lungs: “Who the fuck do I have to kill to get my wife out of pain?”
A mere twelve hours earlier, I’d made the decision to end all treatment and feeding. I’d given the hospital the go-ahead to let the love of my life die. I’d fought with her brother about it—he was a gentle, caring guy who believed in miracles and such. But I knew the science and I knew the odds and I knew, despite enough morphine pulsing through her body to anaesthetize seven men, my wife was still in horrible pain and demented from the drugs and the chemo. Her name was Cesidia Therese Tessicini—Terri, we called her—and she had stage IV epithelial clear-cell ovarian cancer, a death sentence, and I had no right to prolong her agony out of some sentimental need to hang on or prove I loved her not just to the end but beyond the end. I was her husband and I had power of attorney and I said do it, let her go. I did it because she gave me that power, sure. More to the point, I did it because I loved her and she knew that, trusted that. It still haunts me, ten years later, the guilt of that decision, even though I know I did the right thing, the loving thing. But guilt and love sometimes walk side by side in a human heart. They do in mine.
But back to the story—everyone told me they’d control her pain. And that was a lie.
In truth, some genius had decided to lower her medication level then bring it back up bit by bit until they knew just how much morphine she needed—this after already telling me they were baffled by her pain, baffled by how much morphine she needed, but not baffled about her needing it. They turned my dying bride into a guinea pig and I watched her writhe in pain for four hours until I couldn’t take it any more. The nurse was helpless, she could only follow the protocol the doctors had laid down. And so it was up to me, and there I was, in the center of the reception area, shouting like some demented creature who’d just escaped hell: “Who the fuck . . . do I have to kill . . . to get my wife . . . out . . . of . . . pain.”
There was just one doctor on duty. He sat there in the reception area, jotting notes in somebody’s chart. He was a young guy, hip little beard, chi-chi glasses, looked like he played tennis or rode a bike to keep fit. Probably a lady killer, ho ho. I strode up to him: “Are you treating my wife?”
He glanced over his shoulder at the door to Terri’s room. “She’s not my patient.”
Later, I’d tell myself: I’d be a hero in prison for killing this punk just for saying that. But in the moment, I said: “I was promised my wife wouldn’t suffer. Get in there and find out what’s wrong.”
He would later tell security that I lunged at him. I remember him shooting up from his chair and running away, and I just followed him. We’re probably both right.
Then a nurse’s aide named Esmerelda swooped in, snagged my arm, said, “Come with me, my dear,” and delivered me to a waiting room. She told me to sit there quietly, don’t come out, then closed the door.
She and the other nurses stuck up for me when security arrived, letting them know I wasn’t a menace. I’d not slept or eaten in days and I was raw and exhausted and despondent. But no threat.
A bargain was struck. I’d go home. The doctors would change Terri’s protocol and her pain would be treated as promised.
And that was why I wasn’t at her bedside when she died the next morning just before 7 AM. I drove in after hearing from her brother, crying over the phone, that she was “gone.” When I got there, I asked to be alone with her for a few minutes, and I kissed every inch of her body. I had never loved anyone like I’d loved her and I’d never been loved the way she loved me. But that was over now. Love was gone, death had won. I was alone again, but worse, because now I couldn’t pretend that being alone was okay, that it was enough.
Terri had sometimes joked that I was a Lone Wolf when she met me, but she’d changed that. And that was absolutely true. Because of her — and no one else in my life — I knew what it meant to trust, and I knew Terri would insist I not give up on that. She was dead but I wasn’t, and I would have to learn to love again.
But that would have to wait. For now, I was just back to square one. A lone wolf. Howling at a ghost.
* * * * *
Jukebox Hero of the Week: The late great Astor Piazzolla, whom I was lucky enough to see perform shortly before his death. He fought through decades of oblivion and opposition from traditionalists as he almost singlehandedly reinvented the tango. I once described his pieces as “music to die in your lovers arms by” — which, at the moment, seems apropos: