The New Bedford Men's Program
By Robert Waxler (profile)
Section 1. In The Beginning
Section 2. First Literature Seminar
Section 3. How We Continued
The First Literature Seminar
I had offered the challenge to Judge Kane because I believed in the power of literature to transform lives, and so clearly, the central focus for this program had to be, in my mind at least, the literature seminars. I also hoped that this kind of program would bring us all back to the recognition of the central importance of literature and good stories. I believed that as a nation we had gotten way off track when it came to thinking about the significance of good literature; we were spending too much time talking to ourselves about abstract theory, over-rationalizing the meaning of literature: instead we needed to explore and celebrate the relationship between literature and the human heart.
As we began to consider the literature seminar itself, I suggested we wanted small groups for discussion, the ideal being eight or so offenders together with Wayne and me, and after a few sessions, the judge himself. We needed to create an open and democratic space for full participation, and that number and mix seemed about right. I anticipated we might lose one or two offenders along the way, so it would be better, for example, to start with a group of ten, imagining we would be down to eight after a short time.
The seminars needed to take place on a college campus, the environment and general atmosphere clearly being important.
"I'll try to get one of the nicer rooms at the university," I had promised Bob Kane. "We want to underline the importance and dignity of all this." We didn't want this program considered just another one of those "typical court mandates."
These guys were special, they had been chosen, and they should understand the privilege and the responsibility they were taking on, the weight of it. And they should benefit from the opportunity as well. They should feel the pleasure of being on a college campus.
How long should we make this first series of literature discussions? we wondered. We needed time to get the probationers excited about literature; time for the group to come together as a community, to trust us and each other; time to make a difference in their lives. I knew we would have to buck old habits, stereotypes about schooling, about literature, about teachers, about judges, about authority in general. But I also believed that, although our goals were ambitious, they were limited. In the simplest terms, we wanted to give the offenders what good literature always offers: a glimpse of another life, a new way of seeing, and a surprise that shocks us into a deeper recognition of our humanity.
"Let's try two-hour sessions for twelve weeks," I suggested. "We'll meet every two weeks to give everyone a chance to read the books carefully." That meant only six sessions, in the evening, but at least we'd know if the experiment could work.
It was certainly not a lot of time, but perhaps it would be enough time to get the students thinking about change, and perhaps even get them interested and excited about a different life.
Student-probationers would be expected to attend all sessions, to have read the assigned stories, and to take an active role in the discussions. They would have to analyze the characters in the stories, offering their perspectives on these characters by answering such questions as: What kind of people are these characters? Why do they do what they do? Do they change during the story? If they do change, why do they and how do they?
The plot of these stories would engage these readers at first, but it would be the characters and the themes, the hidden depths and surprises of the stories that would
offer the most intrigue as we moved through the discussions as if on a journey of discovery.
I chose stories from modern American literature that dealt with issues of male identity and violence, with relationships between an individual and the society, and with the problems of facing authority.
Works by writers such as T. Coraghessan Boyle, Raymond Carver, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, James Dickey, Jack London, Ken Kesey, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer seemed most appropriate for this group of men, allowing for discussions of topics that the participants might be wrestling with in their own lives.
We had made the group single-sex, all male, in part because we felt the books chosen and the issues raised in discussion would be determined by the makeup of the group. If the discussions worked well, they might serve as mirrors to the inner consciousness of the participants and to the deep patterns of the culture itself.
We would avoid detailed discussion of personal lives, not wanting to make these sessions into group therapy, but we could talk about the universal issues that disturbed all of us by talking about these fictional characters. It was as if the discussion allowed us to protect our private selves, yet served as an opportunity for revelation of our deepest selves.
We agreed that for the first two sessions Wayne and I would join with the offenders in these discussions on the campus. As the judge who had sentenced many of these men, Bob Kane would join the group in the third and subsequent sessions, once the group had begun to come together.
Visitors, ranging from other professors to other court officials and lawyers to friends of the offenders would later be permitted to participate in these literary discussions around that table in the Dean's Conference Room, providing they had read the assigned stories. We encouraged serious participants. We didn't want tourists.
In the process, the offenders would have an opportunity to widen and deepen their confidence and trust, exercise their growing communication skills, sharpen their analytic abilities, and expand their imaginations. As the facilitator, I was not there to teach lessons on morality but to enhance the conversation, offer my perspectives, and encourage everyone to use their empathetic imagination as we entered the depth of the story before us.
The purpose of the journey was not primarily to learn about moral commandments, but to discover the core of the human heart.
The First Group
That first group at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, back in the Fall of 1991, was remarkable, but, in retrospect, also typical, with members ranging in age from nineteen to forty-four, some with little schooling, not even high school, and others with some college education.
The first night, Jeff came with his father, a man in his early fifties I guessed, who had spent several years in Walpole, the toughest prison in the state. He wanted his son to succeed. Jeff's stepmother stayed out in the parking lot for over two hours, seated in the front of the paneled truck, waiting for the men to return.
Jeff had quit school after eighth grade, a drug dealer who knew the streets and loved the excitement. He had made more money than most college graduates, but now at twenty-two, with a young daughter and dedicated girlfriend, he wanted a change. It would have to be the life of the mind that hooked him to that change, though, not an argument about how education could lead to financial gain.
Jeff had made enough money with his eighth-grade education to know that if education meant anything, it had to mean more than cold cash. Yes, if our program were to work, it would have to convince probationers that there was something exciting and interesting about reading and talking about stories. The pleasure and meaning of it were not means to a commercial end, but an end in itself. Great literature enriched our lives.
Jeff would tell me later that I looked anxious that first night, We all did, I suppose. But that initial anxiety gave way to a kind of magic as we read and then discussed a short story, Greasy Lake, by T. Coraghessan Boyle.
We sat around the table, listening to each other, amazed by the variety of perspectives. "How do I stack up against your college students?" Jeff wanted to know. He was doing very well; they were all doing very well. In fact, it seemed to me they were teaching me more than I could fully imagine. At first, I had thought each one of them was Pygmalion, and I was the professor. But now I wondered: Was it really the other way around?
I decided to use Greasy Lake the opening night because it was short, something that everyone could read silently around the table in about half an hour, and because it seemed like a story that we all knew because we had all experienced it in our own lives.
Greasy Lake is a story about three nineteen-year-old males (the unnamed narrator, Jeff Digby) who drive up to a local hangout, looking for adventure before they head home for the night. They find much more excitement than they anticipated. They journey to the dark side, forcing us as readers to move with them, beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior, out on the edge, fascinated and fearful, attracted and repulsed by the transgressions and violations.
These boys want to be "bad," but they are typical middle-class, suburban guys going to college, driving their mother's car, living at home for the summer. Their usual idea of excitement is to play a practical joke - throwing eggs at mailboxes, for example - and then to go home satisfied. When they get to the hangout this particular night, though, their practical joke turns into a nightmare. They lose their car keys in the dark and find themselves in unknown territory, frightening and exhilarating at the same time.
Eventually the boys get into a fight, almost killing their antagonist (" a bad greasy character"), and, pumped with primal instinct, they then attack his girlfriend, almost raping her. When a second group of young men (fraternity boys) pull up in their car, the narrator flees into the lake where he seems to wrestle with his own darkness and mortality (as well as with a corpse floating in the water). His friends bolt for the woods. At the end, the three return to their car, find the keys with the light of dawn, engage in one further encounter with two older girls before they take off, and drive home.
Greasy Lake worked perfectly that first night, and I have used it ever since to open a CLTL series. The offenders almost always seem to enjoy the story and to identify with it. They often tell me that this story is their story. And when they leave after that first discussion, they seem energized. They understand what we will be doing in the sessions, and they appear interested.
I started the session that first night as I usually start it, asking about the three boys: What kind of people are they? Are they really "bad"? How do they compare with the other characters - the greaser, the girlfriend, the second group of boys, the older girls, and the corpse? This kind of opening widens to larger questions and issues about male identity and emotions.
"What do you think the narrator feels when he attacks the 'greaser' with the tire iron?" I might ask. "How do these feelings relate to the subsequent attack on the girl?"
Such questions help focus the discussion on a pattern common in the reading - a pattern that suggests the seduction and thrill of adventure and violence but also the destructive force within that unleashed instinct and raw energy. We all feel that force, sense its power. But we need to recognize what it does to our human connectivity and, ultimately, to ourselves.
"It's like taking drugs," I will often hear.
As we continue to talk about Greasy Lake, we are making a journey into our own experiences, self-reflective as we go.
When we're in the middle of the discussion, we are often talking about the beating of "the greaser" and the potential rape of the girlfriend. I ask: "How do these moments connect with the narrator's encounter with the corpse? What do you think he feels when he first touches that corpse? What is he thinking about?"
The perspectives and responses reflect the diversity of experience itself. "He must be thinking he went too far." "He must be thinking about his own death, his own mortality." "He must be thinking about how he almost killed the guy up on land." "He must be wondering how he ever got in this mess." "He must be hoping somehow he will make it home."
We explore the meaning and implications of the event: it is our story. We feel the intoxication and power of the adrenalin rush. The result of the discussion is the beginning of a recognition that we have choices, and, yes, that human experience is always complex, ambiguous, and shared.
The three boys head home, but before we do that night, I ask another series of questions: "How do these young men feel as they head home? How will they feel in the future? Will they return to their local hangout? Will they pursue new excitement, eager for the next thrill?"
On another night we are discussing Deliverance by James Dickey. It is a story about four suburban men who decide to take a white-water canoe trip down a raging river in rural Georgia. At first it might seem that such a story and such a setting would have little interest for mainly white working-class criminal offenders coming out of the inner cities of New Bedford and Fall River, but like Greasy Lake, this story cuts close to the core, a journey into the primal self. Before it's over, one man is dead and the other characters are all permanently changed.
Lewis, one of the main characters (Burt Reynolds in the film version) is the macho man in the group, a leader, but flawed, filled with confidence, but perhaps too much filled with himself. As we talk about Lewis, we begin to appreciate the complexity, as we always do, of the human character.
His bravado inspires action, but he seems too caught up in himself. He strikes out without thinking and so never learns from his mistakes. He is intuitive, and his friends seem to count on him, but he is not rational, and his friends seem not to be able to depend on themselves. If the rest of the group is too comfortable in their suburban homes, though, Lewis is too self-centered and driven. In the end, it is Ed, Lewis's closest friend, not Lewis himself, who will deliver the men from the primal rage of the river.
"As I was reading the story, " John, one of the offenders around the table put it one night, "I was trying to picture myself in the roles of the various character." At first, John might have thought about identifying with Lewis, but finally, perhaps surprisingly, he felt closest to Ed, not Lewis.
"Ed was laid back, wasn't the leader type," John said. "But when he had to, he took over. That's how I am. I procrastinate, but I can do what has to be done."
Like Ed and Lewis, John was making a journey down the river then, and like Ed, if not Lewis, he was finding his strength and understanding, his own way of living and making choices. I think we were all doing that, making the journey through language, articulating the shape of our selves through the characters discovered in the stories. Yes, thinking and talking around that table, we were all somehow joined together and set free.
Near the end of the twelve weeks, we talked about Sea Wolf by Jack London, a story, on the surface, about a rugged sea captain, Wolf Larsen, a man of considerable passion and rage, a monomaniac who believes that might makes right. For him power defines all relationships.
In the story, Larsen is contrasted with Humphrey Van Weyden, a wealthy literary critic, who at first cannot stand on his own two feet and so, unlike Larsen, believes in immortality and the value of the human spirit.
Like Ed in Deliverance though, Humphrey eventually gains independence and confidence and surpasses the more limited Larsen who does not grasp the nature of compassion and love. Like Ed, who seems to move beyond the limits of Lewis, Humphrey expands his own boundaries of self, stretching beyond the powerful and impressive Wolf.
"I used to be like Wolf Larsen," one of the men in our group claimed. "I thought I could manipulate everyone. I was stupid then."
Yes, as we talked about those characters on board ship, watched them changed like the sea itself, we too changed that night on the campus in the Dean's Conference Room. Language and discussion made it so. The ritual of words shaped our meaning, and that ritual was validated for each of us by the other male participants, talking and listening around that long wooden table.
Completing the First Group's Experience
At the conclusion of this initial series, Bob Kane, Wayne St. Pierre, and I agreed that this experiment in reading and in justice, Changing Lives Through Literature, needed to continue. It offered, no doubt, an opportunity for powerful transformation.
On the whole, the offenders agreed they had never experienced anything quite like it before. Our friend Jeff, for example, the drug dealer with an eighth-grade education, was now reading to his daughter, his future as he defined her. Others were reconnecting with family. Many planned to pursue further education. No one really wanted the program to end.
We invited area businessmen to meet with the group to share their stories with us, in part to try to effect a smooth transition from the world of novels to the world of work, in part to let community leaders know about the success. In addition, I arranged for each student to receive a framed certificate with his name and the official university seal on it.
We conducted a graduation ceremony the last night of class and then in a more formal setting in the District Court the next day. Family members and friends came to the public ceremony in the courtroom. Wayne petitioned the bench, and the judge responded by acknowledging each offender's success and by praising him for his efforts and accomplishments, reducing his sentence accordingly.
After the program, each probationer was also required to work with Wayne on his own story: a "Plan for Success," Wayne called it - a story incorporating job skills, educational background, financial obligations, and career and personal goals. It was part of the contract, part of the ongoing story, a story providing a context for the future.