Grim Looks At Men In Prison & A Man Adrift

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Feminists abuse men. Historically they have demeaned the chivalric tendency while making unreasonable demands upon our behavior in the workplace. Most of the truly impressive women I have worked with have been deliberately and very vociferously antifeminist, and they coped with male aggression the same way men do: they gave as good as they got. In man-to-man relations, on the job and elsewhere, aggression is the norm. Women who can deal with it and deal it out never have a problem fitting in. Women who go whining and crying to the boss, some lawyer or support group are ostracized as sissies, just as a man would be. Buy the ticket, ride the ride.

After Susan Brownmiller's outstanding Against Our Will, an examination of rape, I'd hoped that someone would pick up the ball and delve into male-on-male aggression and its relationship to male gender constructs. Instead, the feminist movement got locked into a victim pose and spiraled like a turd down the drain of identity politics, the strategy that defused and destroyed the left in this country.

We can thank Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold for their courageous work in exposing high school bullying as a major contributing factor in the development of male gender constructs and for drawing our attention to male-on-male aggression in the adolescent phase as a problem worthy of society's attention. The problem of male aggression against women will never be solved until we begin to deal with male aggression against men and its role in defining masculinity.

Thanks to the ever-expanding hypertrophied prison-industrial complex, we now have a vast laboratory in which to study this problem and work toward a solution, if we as a society have the will to do it. Prison Masculinities, edited by Don Sabo, Terry A. Kupers and Willie London (Temple University Press, 279 pages, $24.95), is a provocative and engrossing collection of essays and poems dealing with the horror of prison life as a distillation of societal gender relations. The collection includes works by prisoners, prisoners' rights activists and academics. It's pretty strong stuff, and it should be required reading for every pipsqueak, showboating, lock-'em-up legislator in this grand and glorious former Republic of ours.

The editors present an excellent overview of the prison hierarchy of hegemonic masculinity in their introduction, which opens with the statement that "Prison is an ultramasculine world where nobody talks about masculinity," and goes on to decry the failure of "gender blind criminology" to "understand how boys' and men's pursuit of masculinity is implicated in their involvement with crime." They also point out the shortcomings of feminist theory in coming to grips with the issues presented by their subject.

Besides the introduction, the collection is comprised of five sections, respectively dealing with historical roots and contemporary trends in corrections, the social construction of prison masculinities, sexual violence and intimacy behind bars, health issues, and possible solutions for reforming the prison system and prison masculinities. By far the single most moving essay in the book is O'Neil Stough's "Deliberate Indifference." Stough, the book informs us, "passed away in January, 2000, following his release only two months before, after serving over twenty-five years in Hawaii and Arizona state prisons. He was a freelance writer with many published articles and essays, including those in Prison Legal News and in The Celling of America: An Inside Look At The U.S. Prison Industry."

In "Deliberate Indifference," Stough recounts his efforts on behalf of a timid, illiterate prisoner with AIDS, and the callous denial of such minor requests as extra blankets, Motrin and supplemental nourishment that eventually led to the prisoner's death. Only a heart of stone could be unmoved by this account, and the prison officials that so haughtily denied the smallest of mercies to a dying man should be flayed alive, soaked in sugar water and staked out on anthills for July 4.

AIDS also surfaces as an issue in addressing the subject of prison rape. There's a certain type of cop, the kind who gives good cops a bad name, who likes to snicker and crack wise about prison rape while cuffing a perp for some stupid violation like dope possession or being a white middle-class brat anarchist caught on the wrong side of the line at a demonstration. Interestingly, as much as our society enjoys making it plain that interracial rape is a major component of the prison experience, the detestable sacks of human waste who actually run these facilities prefer a position of total denial when it comes to the subject, going so far as to label condoms "contraband" in most prisons.

As these essays illustrate, the enforced hypermasculinity of the prison system is not only counterproductive in the rehabilitation of prisoners, but with the eventual release of these prisoners back into the community this prison culture bleeds out all over society at large, spreading far and wide like some cultural version of AIDS. Increasingly, courtesy is perceived as weakness. That's prison culture.

A stint at Rikers has come to be considered a central rite of passage into manhood for two generations of young black men in New York. The natural response to the dehumanizing and emasculating treatment to which prisoners are subjected is the assertion of an absurdly overblown masculinity, the aggressive strut of a bantam rooster that, in fact, has no balls and knows it.

From the "Rikers Spread" of the subway rider who splays his legs as if his balls were the size of grapefruits to the testosterone-laden little boy in his red bandanna clutching his dick and hooting at women as they go by on the street, the culture of hypermasculinity seeps out into the broader culture, insinuating itself into every aspect of our everyday lives, from the streets of East New York to Wall Street. No progress has been made with definitions of masculinity, and until that problem is addressed, no progress will be made with regard to relations between men and women.

It took Columbine to draw our attention to the problem of high school bullying. I shudder to think what it will take to draw our attention to the atrocities being perpetrated by our prison system.

Water in Darkness

Depression is a difficult state to depict in literary form. Anne Sexton was by far the best poet to handle it, and William Styron did a magnificent job with it in his memoir, Darkness Visible. It's tricky because at its core depression is a variant of self-pity, and it's all too easy to become maudlin and self-indulgent, like Sylvia Plath or Elizabeth Wurtzel. The challenge is to convey the sense of futility and hopelessness without alienating the reader. Robert Stone did it brilliantly in his first novel, A Hall Of Mirrors, and now a writer by the name of Daniel Buckman has managed it with remarkable finesse in his first published novel, Water in Darkness (Akashic Books, 193 pages, $21).

Buckman's protagonist, Jack Tyne, is a fundamentally decent young man with no sense of purpose and no moral compass to direct him. He drifts through life guided only by a vague longing for the father he never got to know, a father obliterated in Vietnam, an empty casket in the cold ground of a cemetery in the hardscrabble Rust Belt sprawl surrounding Chicago. He is haunted by the empty void of his paternity, by his mindless white-trash slut of a mother, and by an inescapable vision of a depraved sex act between his sister and their stepfather. Jack's moral uncertainty and nagging guilt are typical of a generation of men raised with weak or absent father figures, and his lack of direction is an all-too-common response to the lack of an authentic male role model.

Buckman introduces us to Jack as he is readying for his discharge from the Army, having served his time honorably, if without distinction. He and the other members of his company are shamed by having missed out on the sense of purpose that comes with combat, the self-justification that a man can carve out of inflicting and risking death. Their anger and guilt at this turn of events find their expression in misogynist whoring, and mutual abuse becomes the outlet for each soldier's lack of self-respect, culminating in a cowardly fag-bashing episode on the night before Jack's discharge. He does not participate, but he does nothing to stop it, and it adds to the weight of his ghosts.

In the absence of the imposed structure of Army life, he drifts. He drives to Watega County to visit his uncle. He drives to his father's empty grave. He sets off to kill his stepfather, a mission he ultimately abandons out of pity and disgust. Here's a beautiful passage from that part:

"He drove up the gravel lane of the trailer park, past a trailer heaved in half by a fallen hackberry as if a beer can crushed by a boot heel. The tree was enormous and charred black from a lightning strike. The mangled trailer was rowed with the other house trailers along the rutted drive like so many cars abandoned in a blizzard. Junked bicycles and cast-off mattresses and engine parts were strewn about, forming the yards into a single trash heap.

"The ruts turned into a dirt road as he drove out to the edge of the cornfield and the dwarfed stalks glowed from the moon. He headed for an old barn beyond the field where he drank beer as a teenager and lay on the hood of Tommy Ruell's Firebird staring up at the sky frantic with stars, dreaming of escape from the open spaces and smokestacks while the other boys sat around the fire and played drinking games with lukewarm Budweiser and declared that when they graduated high school, they were going to do nothing but get stoned. Why do you want to join the army, Tyne? You can't get high in the army. You can't roll up a hooter and let Pink Floyd set you to sailing. You'll miss a big party. Jack was sure they were all working day labor on construction sites now for cash under the table, waking up every morning to call some cheap contractor and see if he needed any footings dug for five bucks an hour. He always hated them for thinking that they could party in life without having a thing to celebrate."

He wanders up to Chicago, where he takes a cheap room in a ghetto flophouse. A string of bad choices and a streak of bad luck finds him beaten to a pulp in an alley, where he is salvaged by Danny Morrison, known to the local losers as Danny Irish, a disgraced ex-cop and a veteran, not only of the war that swallowed Jack's father, but of the very battle in which the man died. Danny Irish lost his honor and his badge to a raging coke habit, and he sees in Jack an opportunity for some kind of redemption. It is the interaction between these two hopeless losers that drives the book to its stark conclusion.

It takes enormous grace and sensitivity to tell a story this bleak and make it work. Buckman knows these roads, these streets and the horrible emptiness that can so easily overwhelm those who dwell there. He has a solid handle on white-trash futility and the mechanisms people devise to keep going even when they are afraid to feel hope. He has a clear vision of the ends to which those mechanisms can lead us, and his heart is open to those for whom, like Danny Irish, the end of the road is just a muddy river that will never be crossed.

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