By Tara Knoll
On November 2, I sat in on a session of Changing Lives Through Literature led by Professor Waxler and held at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth campus. A senior in the English department at Princeton, I’m writing my undergraduate senior thesis on the role that literature plays in prison and in alternative sentencing programs, with a specific focus on CLTL.
The participants that week were to discuss Walter Mosley’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, the story of a man named Socrates Fortlow who is trying to negotiate his role as both a human being and as a member of a community after spending twenty-seven years in prison. After reading the text, I was excited to hear what the participants in the program would have to say about it. I had researched the evolution of literature programs in American prisons beginning in the 1940s and their tendency to restrict certain literature out of a fear of the reader’s identification with the criminal, or even a resulting glorification of crime. Would the participants identify with Socrates? With his struggles? Would they like the book? Would they want to talk about their own stories in relation to it?
Although I tried to avoid having any expectations, I couldn’t help but be surprised. As a college student, I’ve grown pretty adept at discerning when a student hasn’t read the text for seminar or precept. The uncomfortable avoidance of eye contact with the instructor, the enigmatically vague comments about some general idea conveniently found on the back cover—such are the dead give-aways (not that I’ve ever exhibited these behaviors myself, of course). It was clear from the start, however, that these participants had all read Mosley’s work. There wasn’t a single awkward silence, nor was there a moment when Professor Waxler had to encourage the participants to speak. Rather, Professor Waxler acted as mediator for the animated conversation that ensued.
As the discussion progressed, I realized that I also hadn’t been prepared for the passion the participants demonstrated with respect to the text. Some had read it multiple times. Others drew parallels between Mosley’s work and the text they had read for the last session, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Another participant had written notes beforehand so as not to forget key insights. It was unquestionable that they all cared about the text. Even as an English major who participates in countless seminars discussing works of literature, I was refreshed and inspired by the participants’ engagement with the text. And though their opinions could not differ more—one participant loved the book, another absolutely despised it—the dialogue remained respectful. That in itself was an impressive feat; with eight men, one woman, Professor Waxler, several probation officers and judges, a defense attorney, and a priest participating in the session, the diversity of opinion around the table was immense.
One of the aspects of the program I was most curious about was the interplay between reading and collective discussion. Throughout the session I began to understand that the two exist in a kind of crucial symbiosis; one without the other would simply not allow for the deep engagement and struggling with the text experienced by every reader in the room. The participants generally refused identification with Socrates. One participant declared that he had “hard feelings for the book,” because Socrates “hasn’t earned redemption.” Another observed that Socrates “did a poor job at trying to redeem himself.” Although each reader came into the session with their own reading of the text, shaped by individual experiences and perception, those readings were called into question by the exploration of other interpretations. At one point, Professor Waxler chuckled, explaining, “before this session I always thought of Socrates as much more heroic.”
Through the collective discussion, some readers seemed to change their minds about their initial reading of the text. Others maintained or even defended their own readings, but recognized opinions they hadn’t considered before. The interplay between reading and collective discussion generated participants’ reflection on their own experiences and the text itself. Professor Waxler guided the discussion by pointing to specific situations in the text and acknowledging the different decisions characters could have made. For example, in a later scene in the novel Socrates rats out a man who has been setting fires. Although some participants initially expressed a desire for consistency, even for absolutes—such as snitching is always wrong—the discussion complicated this understanding of right and wrong. What if you have to choose between being loyal to your community, and being loyal to your brother? All of the readers in the room grappled with the complexity inherent in making such decisions. Right and wrong didn’t seem to be the crux of the issue, especially when characters (and people) sometimes have to choose between two options that may seem “right.”
The participants were not shy about drawing connections between the text and their own lives. One participant’s experience as a reader really gets to the heart of my opinion, that after the session participants see both their own experiences and the text a little differently. When the participant first read the text, he overlooked a paragraph in the very beginning that described what Socrates had done that put him behind bars. As he read the book, he found that he really respected Socrates and the efforts he made once he was out of prison. However, when the participant discovered what Socrates had done, he wanted to throw the book down. “I respected everything he was doing until I found out,” he said. Another reader interjected—isn’t that the type of judgment society makes? The realization that we are all susceptible to making those judgments—as readers, as employers, as members of society—was critical.
After sitting in on the session, I made plans to return next month to watch other sessions on the UMass Dartmouth campus and at Middlesex Community College, led by Professor Jean Trounstine. I’m overwhelmed by the amazing work of those who make CLTL possible, and by how helpful they’ve been in my research thus far. I believe that one of the reasons why CLTL is so meaningful is its avoidance of a rhetoric or goal of catharsis, even of therapy in some sense. Literature is not significant because it fixes problems or because it somehow “treats” its readers. Literature, if anything, makes things more difficult; it makes us more aware of the complexity, arbitrariness, and at times injustice in our own lives and society. It’s this awareness that is key.
One participant observed that even though “you do your time and pay your debt to society,” once you get out of jail, you’re still paying. Socrates embodies this constant struggle—the process of being haunted, finding peace, and having that peace shaken. Mirroring Socrates’ struggle, one participant explained, “the hardest part is forgiving yourself.” CLTL engages participants in a constant dialogue with the text and with diverse interpretations and readings of it. As the participants construct themselves as readers, they recognize that they aren’t alone in this struggle.
Tara Knoll is a senior at Princeton University where she is finishing her undergraduate degree. Her interest in how literature affects inmates and offenders led her to the decision to concentrate on Changing Lives Through Literature as the subject for her senior thesis. She can be reached by email here.