Grim Looks At Men In Prison & A Man Adrift

Written by Alan Cabal on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Feminists abuse
men. Historically they have demeaned the chivalric tendency while making unreasonable
demands upon our behavior in the workplace. Most of the truly impressive women
I have worked with have been deliberately and very vociferously antifeminist,
and they coped with male aggression the same way men do: they gave as good as
they got. In man-to-man relations, on the job and elsewhere, aggression is the
norm. Women who can deal with it and deal it out never have a problem fitting
in. Women who go whining and crying to the boss, some lawyer or support group
are ostracized as sissies, just as a man would be. Buy the ticket, ride the

After Susan
Brownmiller’s outstanding Against Our Will, an examination of rape,
I’d hoped that someone would pick up the ball and delve into male-on-male
aggression and its relationship to male gender constructs. Instead, the feminist
movement got locked into a victim pose and spiraled like a turd down the drain
of identity politics, the strategy that defused and destroyed the left in this

We can thank
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold for their courageous work in exposing high school
bullying as a major contributing factor in the development of male gender constructs
and for drawing our attention to male-on-male aggression in the adolescent phase
as a problem worthy of society’s attention. The problem of male aggression
against women will never be solved until we begin to deal with male aggression
against men and its role in defining masculinity.

Thanks to the
ever-expanding hypertrophied prison-industrial complex, we now have a vast laboratory
in which to study this problem and work toward a solution, if we as a society
have the will to do it. Prison Masculinities, edited by Don Sabo, Terry
A. Kupers and Willie London (Temple University Press, 279 pages, $24.95), is
a provocative and engrossing collection of essays and poems dealing with the
horror of prison life as a distillation of societal gender relations. The collection
includes works by prisoners, prisoners’ rights activists and academics.
It’s pretty strong stuff, and it should be required reading for every pipsqueak,
showboating, lock-’em-up legislator in this grand and glorious former Republic
of ours.

The editors
present an excellent overview of the prison hierarchy of hegemonic masculinity
in their introduction, which opens with the statement that "Prison is an
ultramasculine world where nobody talks about masculinity," and goes on
to decry the failure of "gender blind criminology" to "understand
how boys’ and men’s pursuit of masculinity is implicated in their
involvement with crime." They also point out the shortcomings of feminist
theory in coming to grips with the issues presented by their subject.

Besides the
introduction, the collection is comprised of five sections, respectively dealing
with historical roots and contemporary trends in corrections, the social construction
of prison masculinities, sexual violence and intimacy behind bars, health issues,
and possible solutions for reforming the prison system and prison masculinities.
By far the single most moving essay in the book is O’Neil Stough’s
"Deliberate Indifference." Stough, the book informs us, "passed
away in January, 2000, following his release only two months before, after serving
over twenty-five years in Hawaii and Arizona state prisons. He was a freelance
writer with many published articles and essays, including those in Prison
Legal News
and in The Celling of America: An Inside Look At The U.S.
Prison Industry

In "Deliberate
Indifference," Stough recounts his efforts on behalf of a timid, illiterate
prisoner with AIDS, and the callous denial of such minor requests as extra blankets,
Motrin and supplemental nourishment that eventually led to the prisoner’s
death. Only a heart of stone could be unmoved by this account, and the prison
officials that so haughtily denied the smallest of mercies to a dying man should
be flayed alive, soaked in sugar water and staked out on anthills for July 4.

AIDS also surfaces
as an issue in addressing the subject of prison rape. There’s a certain
type of cop, the kind who gives good cops a bad name, who likes to snicker and
crack wise about prison rape while cuffing a perp for some stupid violation
like dope possession or being a white middle-class brat anarchist caught on
the wrong side of the line at a demonstration. Interestingly, as much as our
society enjoys making it plain that interracial rape is a major component of
the prison experience, the detestable sacks of human waste who actually run
these facilities prefer a position of total denial when it comes to the subject,
going so far as to label condoms "contraband" in most prisons.

As these essays
illustrate, the enforced hypermasculinity of the prison system is not only counterproductive
in the rehabilitation of prisoners, but with the eventual release of these prisoners
back into the community this prison culture bleeds out all over society at large,
spreading far and wide like some cultural version of AIDS. Increasingly, courtesy
is perceived as weakness. That’s prison culture.

A stint at
Rikers has come to be considered a central rite of passage into manhood for
two generations of young black men in New York. The natural response to the
dehumanizing and emasculating treatment to which prisoners are subjected is
the assertion of an absurdly overblown masculinity, the aggressive strut of
a bantam rooster that, in fact, has no balls and knows it.

From the "Rikers
Spread" of the subway rider who splays his legs as if his balls were the
size of grapefruits to the testosterone-laden little boy in his red bandanna
clutching his dick and hooting at women as they go by on the street, the culture
of hypermasculinity seeps out into the broader culture, insinuating itself into
every aspect of our everyday lives, from the streets of East New York to Wall
Street. No progress has been made with definitions of masculinity, and until
that problem is addressed, no progress will be made with regard to relations
between men and women.

It took Columbine
to draw our attention to the problem of high school bullying. I shudder to think
what it will take to draw our attention to the atrocities being perpetrated
by our prison system.


in Darkness

is a difficult state to depict in literary form. Anne Sexton was by far the
best poet to handle it, and William Styron did a magnificent job with it in
his memoir, Darkness Visible. It’s tricky because at its core depression
is a variant of self-pity, and it’s all too easy to become maudlin and
self-indulgent, like Sylvia Plath or Elizabeth Wurtzel. The challenge is to
convey the sense of futility and hopelessness without alienating the reader.
Robert Stone did it brilliantly in his first novel, A Hall Of Mirrors,
and now a writer by the name of Daniel Buckman has managed it with remarkable
finesse in his first published novel, Water in Darkness (Akashic Books,
193 pages, $21).

protagonist, Jack Tyne, is a fundamentally decent young man with no sense of
purpose and no moral compass to direct him. He drifts through life guided only
by a vague longing for the father he never got to know, a father obliterated
in Vietnam, an empty casket in the cold ground of a cemetery in the hardscrabble
Rust Belt sprawl surrounding Chicago. He is haunted by the empty void of his
paternity, by his mindless white-trash slut of a mother, and by an inescapable
vision of a depraved sex act between his sister and their stepfather. Jack’s
moral uncertainty and nagging guilt are typical of a generation of men raised
with weak or absent father figures, and his lack of direction is an all-too-common
response to the lack of an authentic male role model.

Buckman introduces
us to Jack as he is readying for his discharge from the Army, having served
his time honorably, if without distinction. He and the other members of his
company are shamed by having missed out on the sense of purpose that comes with
combat, the self-justification that a man can carve out of inflicting and risking
death. Their anger and guilt at this turn of events find their expression in
misogynist whoring, and mutual abuse becomes the outlet for each soldier’s
lack of self-respect, culminating in a cowardly fag-bashing episode on the night
before Jack’s discharge. He does not participate, but he does nothing to
stop it, and it adds to the weight of his ghosts.

In the absence
of the imposed structure of Army life, he drifts. He drives to Watega County
to visit his uncle. He drives to his father’s empty grave. He sets off
to kill his stepfather, a mission he ultimately abandons out of pity and disgust.
Here’s a beautiful passage from that part:

"He drove
up the gravel lane of the trailer park, past a trailer heaved in half by a fallen
hackberry as if a beer can crushed by a boot heel. The tree was enormous and
charred black from a lightning strike. The mangled trailer was rowed with the
other house trailers along the rutted drive like so many cars abandoned in a
blizzard. Junked bicycles and cast-off mattresses and engine parts were strewn
about, forming the yards into a single trash heap.

"The ruts
turned into a dirt road as he drove out to the edge of the cornfield and the
dwarfed stalks glowed from the moon. He headed for an old barn beyond the field
where he drank beer as a teenager and lay on the hood of Tommy Ruell’s
Firebird staring up at the sky frantic with stars, dreaming of escape from the
open spaces and smokestacks while the other boys sat around the fire and played
drinking games with lukewarm Budweiser and declared that when they graduated
high school, they were going to do nothing but get stoned. Why do you want to
join the army, Tyne? You can’t get high in the army. You can’t roll
up a hooter and let Pink Floyd set you to sailing. You’ll miss a big party.
Jack was sure they were all working day labor on construction sites now for
cash under the table, waking up every morning to call some cheap contractor
and see if he needed any footings dug for five bucks an hour. He always hated
them for thinking that they could party in life without having a thing to celebrate."

He wanders
up to Chicago, where he takes a cheap room in a ghetto flophouse. A string of
bad choices and a streak of bad luck finds him beaten to a pulp in an alley,
where he is salvaged by Danny Morrison, known to the local losers as Danny Irish,
a disgraced ex-cop and a veteran, not only of the war that swallowed Jack’s
father, but of the very battle in which the man died. Danny Irish lost his honor
and his badge to a raging coke habit, and he sees in Jack an opportunity for
some kind of redemption. It is the interaction between these two hopeless losers
that drives the book to its stark conclusion.

It takes enormous
grace and sensitivity to tell a story this bleak and make it work. Buckman knows
these roads, these streets and the horrible emptiness that can so easily overwhelm
those who dwell there. He has a solid handle on white-trash futility and the
mechanisms people devise to keep going even when they are afraid to feel hope.
He has a clear vision of the ends to which those mechanisms can lead us, and
his heart is open to those for whom, like Danny Irish, the end of the road is
just a muddy river that will never be crossed.