To Be Beaten On Your Birthday Means You’re Loved
I was kicked out of the dormitories, moved back to the cellblock I had lived on before living on the dorms. All my worldly possessions—all of which fit into a two cubic-foot space . . . hopefully—weighed down on me like the disappointment I felt as I lugged them back to the A-1 block. When the officer let me onto the cell block with my bags in hand, mattress hoisted around my shoulders, people I knew came up to me.
“Cliff, what happened?” someone asked.
“They moved me back,” I smart-alecked because I wasn’t in the mood to talk. I wanted to finish moving and get settled into my new cell.
“Hey, Cliff’s back!” a friend of mine rushed to help me. We call him S.A. Fool—S.A. is short for South Acres, a neighborhood in Houston.
“What’s up?” I set a bag down.
“You got all that? You need some help?” he asked.
“I got it.”
“Yes, my boy Cliff is back. We’re gonna have to reinitiate you back on the block. Make you bleed!” S.A. Fool threw a fluid three-piece: jab, right hook, left uppercut.
“You can’t do that. I was here before you,” I said.
“Yeah, but you left. Go put your stuff up. We’ll holla at ya later,” he said.
As I heaved my belongings up the stairs, I could still hear threats of violence and laughter. At that moment, my two cubic feet of property felt light. I felt better. Coming back to A-1 was like returning home to a dysfunctional family.
S.A. Fool, of course, wasn’t serious, except in a roughhousing kind of way. It’s odd how we men, especially in this situation, show affection to the other. The same treatment gets dished out on birthdays, before leaving for home, or some other event of great and well-intentioned importance. To be beaten on your birthday means you’re loved.
But is this dysfunctional? Healthy? Human? We men act upon the norms and their dictates places upon us by a society that has rejected us. These masculine injunctions become amplified in the hypermasculine world of prison. We have learned to be tough, to compete, to not cry, in short, to not act feminine. There is no kindness, no human contact. How long it has been since I have listened to the breathing of someone I love asleep next to my insomniac body. How long it has been since I’ve wrapped my arms around my flower- and flour-scented mother. I am Jean Valjean, forever questioning what remains of my mashed potato-chip-bag humanity.
What does it mean to be human? Does some ephemeral essence of humanity exist “out there” to be found, or is it just a name, a relation of beings? The Romans used to say of human beings, animal bipes implume—literally, an animal on two legs and without feathers. My Roman ancestors seem to imply that this is all we can say for certain about being human. Many mammals, whether they be elephants, house cats, or dolphins, roughhouse and play fight with those they are close to. Who can say convict-rowdiness is neither healthy, nor human? Our four-legged and flippered kin seem content with it.
I cannot feel entirely satisfied by it either. I recall an experiment done on baby chimpanzees—the closest of our mammalian kin. The experiment took one group of baby chimps and touched them, cared for them and gave them physical affection. Another group received no touching, no physical contact or affection. They weren’t mistreated, only left without any physical contact from others. Those baby chimps who received no contact had severe developmental problems. Could the chimp’s cousin be much different?
The years, the quotidian humiliations, the isolation, the things I’ve seen and experienced at the hands of a free and liberal nation has popped and putrefied a boil of anger inside me. I feel uncomfortable being touched, unless it’s a swat on the ass or a punch in the arm. I know my comrades in here have similar feelings. Maybe it’s right for society to think of us as less than their definition of human, because that’s the way we feel.
I hear the specter of Tom Runyon. Runyon went to prison in Iowa during the Great Depression for a string of bank robberies which landed him a life sentence. In those days, things like prison newspapers still existed, flourished even. Runyon spent the vast majority of his life in the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison as the editor of Iowa’s now-defunct prison newspaper. He wrote with an acerbic wit—what years of incarceration have done to many of the sour oldheads around me. Runyon writes at one point: “I’ve stood aside and watched the blundering herd parade into prison—and usually out again—and very seldom indeed have I seen a convict helped by imprisonment.”
What exactly is society trying to do to us? The law of parsimony would say all this is an unintentional consequence. I find the law of parsimony, however, parsimonious. The French philosopher Michael Foucault recognized this experience of convicts, saying: “Prisons, when they are not useless, they are dangerous.” Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, none of these surprise the wizened convict in America. Our conservative and liberal pundits and politicians claim these things happen during war, any war. Yes, how true. We in the carceral gullet, too, must be engaged in a war. Foucault agrees, saying: “In this central and centralized humanity (i.e. the penitentiary) . . . we must hear the distant roar of battle.” But who can trust Foucault? He’s French. We renamed fried potatoes because of them.
All this, in the end, does me no good. I’m still here, still looking down long hallways and into dark cells for something I’m not even sure of. I still have them, however, my dysfunctional brothers, my less-than-human kin. I really love those guys, and that’s what hurts. I can’t show any love.