Rescue, Redemption, and the Heroic Journey

Lori Bradley is a graduate student working on her the Master’s Degree in Professional Writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.  She holds graduate degrees in art and art education and teaches in the Art Education Department at UMD.  She maintains a studio in New Bedford ( where she creates art that embodies a sense of place.  She loves dogs.

Michael Mountain, founder of the renowned Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, understands the value of a positive story.  The success of his organization is, in part, due to the positive stories he publishes about rescued animals.  Mountain swears he will never get bogged down in the draining negativity and jaded cynicism often overwhelming to animal rescue volunteers.  People don’t want to hear the horror stories – the dead end tale.  People want and need redemption stories.

A great story about redemption and rescue is Prison Dogs, a program at Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing, KS in which prisoners train and rehabilitate abused “death row” dogs with behavior problems and adopt them out as pets and service dogs.  Participating in the animal rescue and redemption process can improve the lives of prisoners – relieving guilt and depression, leading to a sense of atonement and hope.

Each rescued animal becomes a hero – embarking on a journey of redemption. Prisoners can connect and identify with the animal as protagonist taking a journey of learning and readjustment.

Reading literature and identifying intensely with a character undertaking a heroic journey can have a similar impact on lives. A great heroic journey story is a gift from writer to reader.  Different stories are more compelling at different stages in life – but the archetypal trip is the same – the resistance to change, the eventual push, finding a mentor or guide through difficult times, the fall into the depths of oblivion and a sudden awareness that signals the way up and out, and finally, the return to a new normal – with new, special knowledge leading to a better life.

The archetypal hero’s journey reflects ways in which people wind up in trouble and in prison: A circumstance forces a change in the hero’s life, the change may lead to situations that quickly spiral out of control.  The hero is often enticed by a partner (co-perpetrator) to commit an act that results in a forced crossing of a threshold into a challenging world of trials, enemies. The hero must struggle with great trials in the bad place – the dragons in the cave – before finding the way home as a wiser person.

The hero story is effective because the protagonist faces trial as a victim of circumstances – not as innately evil – a healthier way of considering prisoners, and all people (and dogs) for that matter.

Certainly, a new outlook on redemption and rehabilitation is needed in prison systems. In the article  Sky in a Box: Reflections on Prisons, Preachers, Storytelling and Salvation, creative writing instructor Nancy L. Cook laments that prisons give lip service to ideas of reform, redemption and rehabilitation, while in reality offer a toxic form of social control involving totalitarian rules, isolation, separation from loved ones, and relentless condemnation.  In such a bleak environment, literature and hero stories offer hope and the promise of change.

Here are a few of my favorite hero stories that were significant to me at different points in my life:

•            The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand– a hero struggles with artistic identity and resists the mob             mentality of the popular voice.  With the help of a friend, he overcomes threats and criticism to create authentically.

•            Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – an innocent is forced by circumstances into a prison-like orphanage and struggles with constant dark threats and a cruel bullying warden, with the help of a friend (who dies.)  The hero fights and surmounts her obstacles and becomes a teacher at the same school, improving the overall atmosphere with knowledge gained though her struggle.

• Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen – a Boston student struggling with an elusive form of mental             illness does a stint in Maclean Hospital, befriends inmates with serious disorders and identifies with them to the point of becoming wholly absorbed in their world. The death of a friend and other dark incidents motivate her to find her way out of the institution to a healthier life.


4 thoughts on “Rescue, Redemption, and the Heroic Journey

  1. Lori: I have often wondered about this in terms of CLTL. What stories are best to read and discuss in our sessions? Shouuld they offer heroic characters–stories of redemption and hope–examples of how best to live a meaningful life? Or can anti-heroes –pessimistic and depressing stories — also help to change lives? I prefer hope and redemption, of course–I wonder how others feel about this?

  2. I think that the “anti-hero” stories are more appropriate to reality. As much as we like to believe life is a heroic journey of pro- and antagonists, life is in fact a series of interactions with a vast spectrum of anti-heroes. We all have our problems, manias, delusions, and stereotypes, not unlike the characters of “Girl, Interrupted.” I think that Lori’s list answers Bob’s question: Victorian stories of moral redemption can combine well with exploratory, psychological fiction and modern, feminist works.

    Ultimately, I think what is at the core of both Prison Dogs and CLTL is a group of people who are saying to these inmates, “you’re worth our time.” Likely an insight many of them have never experienced.

  3. I agree. I think there is an anti-hero in all of us, which makes our struggle that much harder but also very human. Reading a tragic or sad story can be cathartic, like the way listening to a very sad song can make me feel good. As Lori says, part of the journey is about “connection.”

  4. I guess I see many heroic stories as anti-heroic – or that the only heros are anti-heroes who becomes heroic by staying with the struggle. I certainly agree that life is a “series of interactions with a vast spectrum of anti-heroes.” Jane Eyre was an anti-hero by fate – being an orphan meant designation as a second-class citizen in Victorian literature. The anti-hero by default either struggles to rise beyond expectations or becomes mired in bitterness. I guess the most effective stories for me are anti-heroes who struggle to become somehow heroic – although not always in ways that meet societies expectations. Most troubled people I know are anti-heroes because of circumstances and sometimes struggle to free their psyche from that role – usually only with support of a caring person or group – like CLTL!

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