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A Man Who Needs No Introduction
Sam is starting to smile. It's not his "happy" smile. I have seen that smile many times over the past month since he arrived, and particularly as he worked both of the day rooms, his buoyant personality and boundless energy barely tolerated by most (something of which he seemed oblivious). No, this is his defensive smile, his "Now I'm getting pissed" smile. Lips tight together, his smile fighting off a grimace, and his face flushed. His Autobiography, of which he seemed so confident a day earlier when I interviewed him, has not gone as planned. Therapists and inmates alike, surrounding Sam in a big three-quarter crescent like vultures circling wounded prey, have questioned, challenged, and even openly scoffed as he told his life story. Sam has become rattled, confused. It has seemed at times he was about to lose control, an all-too-frequent occurrence according to his criminal record and a problem that partially explains his sexual crimes. Losing control in the group would also send a very wrong signal to the therapists who are documenting the session carefully. But how can he sit here, listening to such critical commentary on his life, and not respond? Why is he not allowed to respond? Whose story is it anyway?
Sam is in a Canadian therapeutic prison, an institution that is both prison and psychiatric hospital. He is participating in a "high-intensity" treatment program for sexual offenders designed according to the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a standard psychotherapeutic technique that seeks to change how individuals think about or understand their life (more on this later). An Aboriginal man in his midtwenties, he is short, heavily muscled, with shoulder-length hair and a wispy moustache. Like most men in this program, he has a long record of juvenile and adult criminal offenses, in his case including assaults on his spouse and a previous conviction for sexual assault. He is now serving a three-year federal sentence—his first—for sexual assault, and he came to the treatment program a few weeks ago to join a new cohort of sixteen men. Like the others, he has "volunteered" for treatment, although he was uncertain what the experience would be like when he did so. He is already known on the sex offenders unit as a sarcastic "tough guy," a little hot-headed and belligerent if crossed, but otherwise always joking around. He has been asked to provide his "Autobiography," and now the other inmates and two psychiatric nurse therapists listen intently to it.
His life so far, he tells us, has involved bouncing back and forth between his home reserve and the city; he has committed crimes in both places and, by his own admission, is not well liked on the small reserve as a result. He is asked about this. Can he go back? You should go home and make amends, he is instructed. Does your family still want you? He responds patiently. "I think so." He finds the anonymity of the city much more appealing, however, even though he there joins the largely unemployed coterie of Aboriginal people eking out a living in a society that seems to care little for their plight. Why stay if you can't find a job? he is asked. You will surely get into trouble without work. Who are your friends in the city? Do they use? "Yes," he replies, "but I don't." "Not true," interjects a nurse, pointing to some papers in her lap. "Well," he clarifies, "I don't do drugs anymore." "That's because you're in jail," deadpans an inmate in response. Many laugh at the irony of this, since access to drugs in penitentiaries is often greater than on the street. Sam laughs a little too, but it is an uncomfortable laugh.
He arrived at this Autobiography session this morning with handwritten notes to use as a guide. The previous day I had asked him about his plan for his "Auto." He expressed confidence, informing me that he had worked through several drafts already and had received feedback from his primary nurse therapist, who had requested revisions and the addition of several other episodes of his life. The assistance of the therapist was important to the framing of his story. "I had a little bit of troubles and got help, like wording it and stuff. And then after they looked it over, they tell you to make some changes, and then you make some changes." It seemed to Sam that his life story had been preapproved, so he was not nervous. Despite having attended a few other "Autos" since arriving at the treatment program, and having seen how other inmates had been roasted, he seemed to feel he would make it through unscathed. Sam did not lack confidence, framed by the kind of bravado necessary for survival in prison.
Today, however, he seems visibly nervous as he faces the group. He speaks quietly at first and is asked repeatedly to speak up. He begins by discussing his family, the breakup of his parents' marriage, and some of his employment history. He also touches on the development of his sexuality, when and in what contexts he began to masturbate and when he had his first sexual encounter. Not the usual content of a life story—at least not on the outside—and a clear sign that he has been prompted. He began to masturbate at fifteen, he admits. "Not likely," suggests an inmate. "How about, like, ten?" "Okay, maybe," agrees Sam. Details about his sexual history are sparse, however, and he continues to be interrupted with some frequency by both therapists and the other inmates.
Since Sam is being vague on the details, the therapists seek clarifications, about his work and especially about his sexual activities and offenses. They glance frequently at their notes, a compendium of legal and psychological "facts" about Sam. He eyes them nervously as they do, wondering what the notes say, hoping he gets it "right." The therapists are particularly insistent that he disclose specific details about the sexual offenses, details he did not initially offer in his story. In a few instances he responds with annoyance by saying that he is going to present these details later in the presentation, implying that he is being rushed or interrupted before the narrative can unfold according to his plan. This attempt at self-rescue is met with guffaws from some men. In just a few weeks they have already learned not to believe everything Sam says.
Sam's story becomes jumbled as he introduces new details about previously narrated events, while still attempting to move the story forward. Episode laps episode, details jumble together, and Sam's attempts to clarify only obfuscate. At one point a staff member interjects that the story so far has been rather confusing. "It's your life story," she reminds, adding, "Try to do it in a neat, chronological way." Several other men also note that from their point of view the story is difficult to follow. Sam stares blankly at his pieces of paper, by now a somewhat disheveled mnemonic that, it seems, is starting to fail him. He stuffs the notes between his knees when one of the two therapists in the session directs him to discuss the details of his sexual crimes. There is nothing in his notes he can use now.
Sam's description of his first offense is rather evasive, and he offers up few specific details. He describes his assault of a "drunk" female acquaintance who had passed out at a party. She had "come on" to him while dancing, then again later at the house, he relates. After drinking for a while he went looking for more beer and came across her sleeping in bed in a "see-through nightgown." "Whoa," interjects an inmate, and several other heads simultaneously snap around to look not at him but at the nurses. This sounds an awful lot like "justification," I think to myself, and I suspect that others have picked this up. But Sam's primary nurse shushes the inmates and indicates to Sam that he should proceed. Sam does. He looked around for the beer, he continues to explain. Then, providing no details whatsoever, he states, "Then I assaulted her."
The quizzical look on some faces suggests that this is not an adequate explanation of the crime. There is quite a gap between looking for beer and sexual assault! And so questions follow. One inmate insists on hearing "how it actually went down." "Did you watch her for a while first?" asks another inmate, suggesting that Sam contemplated the assault before committing it. Sam continues to be evasive, saying that he just "did it." The woman woke up part way through, he clarifies, but she did not struggle or order him to stop. "Minimizing!" an inmate accuses. Did you physically hurt her? others want to know. How much had you really drunk? You must remember more than what you are disclosing. Sam retreats, insisting he can recall few details. He continues the story and explains that when he was finished assaulting the woman he told her not to tell anyone and left. He was arrested a few hours later after she contacted police.
Sam pauses before launching into an explanation of his second sexual assault. He begins slowly, explaining that when he arrived at the apartment where the offense took place he rang the buzzer. No other background information is provided. We have no idea how he came to be at this apartment. A woman answered, he continues, and asked if he was alone. He said yes. She asked again if he was alone. He said yes again. Then he was buzzed in. He climbed the stairs to the apartment and knocked on the door. Sam then backtracks, filling us in on some details. He had been drinking heavily that day and in preceding days, he explains. He starts to enumerate the different kinds of alcoholic beverages involved and their sizes and quantities. He informs us where he got them: from the liquor store, then from a friend's place. The story of this assault is clearly different from the last: the last has just been criticized for providing few specific details, but this new story is bogging down in them. Belaboring the minutiae, Sam also seems to be slowing the story down, perhaps trying to avoid getting to the part in which everyone is most interested. Others seem to sense this game as well, and a few eyes start to roll. Then the interruptions commence yet again.
Both therapists and inmates want more pertinent details and clarifications, and he is admonished many times to "explain" himself, especially in reference to the assault. The cacophony grows. At one point an inmate, seemingly angry, attempts to rescue Sam. "I'm losing track of the story," he declares, "because of all the interruptions!" Some of the issues on which the therapists want clarification have already been provided or are simply irrelevant, he continues, and Sam should be allowed to finish his presentation. After several minutes of questions and discussion, Sam is allowed to resume, and the audience goes quiet, anticipating the finale. This is what they all want to hear. It is what they want to hear every Autobiography, what every inmate in prison wants to know about all the others: "What are you in for?" While they appreciate that they have all been convicted of at least one sexual offense, they generally know little about each other or the specifics of the offenses. Personal information—such as what makes up an autobiography—is carefully guarded. Indeed, on the unit they may be surprised to encounter an acquaintance or even a friend from the penitentiary, someone who had until this point been able to hide his sexual offense from the others. Was Sam's sexual offense a "good" one or a "bad" one? I cannot help thinking there may be a titillating, pornographic element to the insistence on details, and I wonder to myself if it makes sense for inmates convicted of sexual crimes to hear such specific details of the commission of other sexual crimes.
Sam frustrates yet again, as his detailed recounting of events leading up to the offense suddenly gives way to a very thin, indeed evasive, description of the offense itself. Sam explains that he was helping a seventeen-year-old girl with her homework. (At this point in the story, no mention has been made of her existence. Men look around at each other and shrug, clearly unable to connect the victim to the other events in the story). Later when she was sleeping he assaulted her. She told him to stop. He did. Then he left and was arrested a short time later. That's all.
The Autobiography is now over. In this room, it seems the story of one's life effectively ends with the commission of the "index" offense, the one most directly relevant to the current incarceration. Little that happens subsequently in a man's life seems tell-worthy or of rehabilitative value. Prison experiences are, of course, logical material for autobiographical construction, but they are not therapeutically significant.
Several men shift in their seats, and one lets out an audible sigh as he slouches back in his chair. An air of disappointment lingers. Sam stares at his feet again. He waits for the questions, the criticism, or the advice that he doesn't want to hear.
During the question period, the control of Sam's narrative shifts perceptibly to the group as a whole. The constant interruptions during the story were just the opening salvo, after all. Sam's emotional state follows suit; he raises his voice and flashes looks of anger at his challengers. They press for details of his second conviction. Who was this seventeen-year-old girl? Was she a relative? Why would you be helping a "high schooler" with homework? one man asks derisively. Sam tries to explain that he almost has his grade 12, adding that he is trying to complete it in prison. "This was not about homework," states a therapist emphatically, ending this line of discussion. Sam starts to become defensive, even belligerent. When one man suggests that if Sam, like himself, does not quit drinking he will surely reoffend, Sam blurts out, "That's based on your life. That's not mine." When asked bluntly if he will quit drinking, Sam responds with an emphatic "no," a response that encourages several other men to jump into the discussion, a cacophony of voices, some in support of Sam's right to make his own choices but many more critical of his lack of insight into the negative role of alcohol in his life. Sam is then accused of being flippant, of laughing and smirking throughout and not taking the session seriously. Sam denies each accusation. Another man verbally challenges the first, saying that this is simply how Sam expresses himself when nervous. It is a matter of opinion, he says, and the first man should keep his to himself. The exchange is heated, and a therapist asks them to calm down. Sam sits back and watches for several minutes as his life is discussed.
Several inmates now accuse Sam of lacking insight and failing to disclose his thoughts and feelings at the time of the offenses. But another inmate intercedes before Sam can respond, claiming that no one knows these things and that they come to treatment programs to figure them out. Sam, making no effort to intervene, again sits back and watches the debate. This is a brief respite: he is no longer being challenged and no longer needs to defend himself. With the narrative event now completely in the group's hands, Sam actually seems content; the focus is no longer on him even as he remains the subject of the discussion. He could interject at any time but chooses not to do so. The clock creeps ever more closely to lockup time when the session must terminate for count. Saved by the bell? Not yet. There is still one more phase to survive before he is done. The therapists push forward, also mindful of the time. Predictably, perhaps, Sam's demeanor changes when the formal feedback component begins. In the ultimate blow to narrative agency, narrators are not permitted to respond, allowing the audience to have the final say in judging the merits of the Autobiography they have heard. Sam now sits back stone-faced and quiet, refusing to look at his inquisitors, while inmates and therapists lend commentary to his life. This is definitely not his happy smile he is wearing now.
Sam's experience is not unique, as I shall demonstrate in this book. His engagement with prison-based therapeutic intervention for sexual offending behavior exhibits an ongoing tension between subjective experience and personal agency, on one hand, and a positivist, science-based "best practices" model of treatment on the other. At stake here are competing versions of the "truth" of an inmate's life. This truth is laid over a factual frame, the who, what, where, when, and why that are at the core of both judicial process and autobiographical narrative, yet what these facts "look" like often diverges dramatically. These five "w's" are hotly contested, to be sure, situated as they are at the front lines of an ongoing carceral-therapeutic struggle among therapists and inmates. The picture is complicated further, however, when we add into the autobiographical mix other cognitive and affective details. "What were you thinking about at the time of the crime?" "How did that make you feel?" The manner in which the inmate presents and explains the details of his life is crucial to his success in the treatment program.
Excerpted from Hound Pound Narrative by James B. Waldram. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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