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 (http://www.hatchstreetstudios.com) 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.