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Watching X-Men in a room full of cons

Last night John and I had the end-of-semester holiday party with the prisoners in our writing workshop. We brought a movie (two movies actually, though we only had time for one and a half-hour of the other), and they gave us a holiday card with messages like, “Thank you for my little oasis of sanity.” The story of how we ended up with X-Men is worth telling, and the experience of watching that movie with this particular group of men was wrenching.

One of the group, Gene, who identifies himself as one-third Mexican, one-third German, and one-third Philippino (and he leaves the rest of us to figure out the genetic complex that makes that possible) writes poetry and science fiction. In the free world he was a saxophonist who spent years touring with a Tejano music band, but he always had a passion for comic books, especially X-Men. Gene had a particularly heartbreaking semester. He was up for parole, having served twelve of his fifteen years. He has been an exemplary prisoner, works hard in the prison laundry (a job he volunteers for), has attended classes, has done everything he could, as they say in the system, “to better himself.” He had letters of support, a lawyer his family paid to help him out, and everything looked good. He had prepared his family to receive him, and his sister had a room ready for him. He was denied parole. He will serve the whole fifteen years. The week he got the news, he came to class pissed off, his arms crossed in front of his chest, his bottom lip stuck out. He growled, “I got absolutely no incentive for doing good in here. No matter what I do, they aren’t gonna let me out. Fuck em. I might as well deck the next guy who looks at me cross-eyed.”

The other men, most of whom have done as many years as Gene, and some twice his time, were gentle with him. They nodded, left him space, confirmed his feeling. Stupid system. No reward for good behavior, none at all. But they didn’t want him to mess up. For one thing, one of them mentioned, if he messes up, he won’t be able to come to writing class any more. I watched him glare at that idea. For one dark moment he thought about saying, “Fuck writing class.” I could see him thinking it. And then he laughed. “Well, if I was to think we might get to look at X-Men in here, that would be an incentive.”

I laughed with him and shot back, “So if we bring X-Men for you to look at, we’d be removing your only incentive for good behavior.”

“Naw, naw,” he laughed. “If you bring it once, you might bring it again, see, so I’d still have an incentive.”

So that’s how we happened to end up looking at X-Men last night. For those who don’t know: those prisoners in Texas who earn the privilege of recreation hours are allowed to watch television in large “day-rooms” with two televisions blaring at the same time–one usually broadcasting sports and the other broadcasting network TV shows. It is impossible to hear either television because both are set on top volume and are exceeded in sound only by the din of the men in the day-room. Movies seldom come on TV, and when they do, prisoners can’t hear them. So being able to watch a movie from beginning to end, in silence, and with friends, is such a rare and glorious privilege that it’s something the men in the writing group look forward to all year. John and I were very careful about introducing movie nights–first we played only documentaries about other prison programs (Eve Ensler, Wally Lamb), and we have gravitated toward showing a popular film at the end of each semester and then offering a writing assignment related to the film.

When the moment came for us to pick a movie to cap this semester (after Gene’s comment), I brought reviews of Crash, Tsotsi, Dark Days, and X-Men. Such was the men’s generosity toward Gene that although most of them weren’t interested in seeing X-Men, they chose it. Dark Days was their second choice, and we had time to watch the first half-hour of it, after X-Men finished–and that’s another whole story: living in a subway tunnel in New York City with rats and crack-heads, not knowing where your next meal, bath, or drink of water is coming from is more attractive than living in prison. At least in the tunnel, there aren’t any guards with guns barking orders, tyrannizing, denying small privileges, taunting. I wish we’d had time to watch all of Dark Days, and to talk about it after, because the people in it reflect lives most prisoners know well. Crash came in third, and I think we might be able to work in a showing of it next semester. But back to the main feature of the evening: X-Men.

I watched the movie as an anthropologist might study another culture. I’ve never read comic books, don’t know anything about X-Men, hadn’t seen the trailer for the film and wasn’t remotely interested. But watching it in a room full of convicted felons I care about gave it a poignance I probably wouldn’t have felt, had I seen it elsewhere. In the universe of the film, there are two kinds of beings on earth–Mutants and Humans. Mutants are “different.” Mutants have supernatural powers (for good or for ill), and in this film, Humans have created a vaccine that will “cure” the Mutants of their differentness, and this vaccine is loaded into guns wielded by soldiers in camouflage who set out to “shoot” as many Mutants as possible, thereby rendering them “normal.” Impossible NOT to think about the ways our so-called criminal justice system strips rebels and outlaws of their “powers” and renders them merely human–or less than human.

In the film there are two white male father figures among the Mutants–the wise man, called “The Professor,” who runs a school for Mutant kids and college students and teaches his charges self-control and non-violent resistance. He believes Mutants and Humans need to learn to respect each other and get along. He sees Humans as having good intentions, limited though they are by their stupidity, and he thinks diplomacy is the way to deal with these Humans. He’s assisted by Halle Berry (the heroine), Hugh Jackman (the hero) and a blue furry Kelsey Grammer (Frazier on steroids and radiation). The other white father is Magneto, played grandly by Ian McKellan, an eloquent speaker who fights for “mutant rights” and wants to destroy the humans and their vaccine “by any means necessary.”

The comparison with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (in his youth) seemed obvious to me, and I wonder why the older men are played by white actors; I suppose that’s Hollywood. The comparison of prisoners with mutants (deprived of their rights, feared and mistreated by “normal humans,” dominated by uniformed guards whose job it is to strip them of their powers and their differentness) was even more obvious. In case anyone didn’t catch the comparison, the location of the chemical plant where the anti-mutant vaccine is being manufactured is Alcatraz, Amerika’s most recognizable prison. So the penultimate battle scene between the army of thousands of angry mutants led by Ian McKellan, the army of humans with vaccine guns, and the six “good” mutants led by Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman (the professor having been atomized earlier on) takes place on Alcatraz Island. In the end, the “prison” is blown to smithereens in scene after scene of exploding buildings, breaking glass, and fireballs. In scenes of unimaginable special effects featuring violence and gore so exaggerated that it makes even a Buddhist laugh, the good Mutants prevail (by dint of their superior weaponry, intelligence, and will to commit violence in the name of non-violence and love) over the bad Mutants; countless Human extras in camouflage are vaporized; and finally the blue furry Kelsey Grammar becomes the U.S. Mutant ambassador to the UN, proving that good guys always win, even Mutants can be part of the government, and violence is the best possible way to secure the success of non-violence.

But it isn’t the silly story or its illogical moral that stays with me, of course. It is the idea that prisoners are “different.” I ask myself questions about what free humans with good intentions (like John and me) are really doing in the prisons. We want to honor and respect the power that each prisoner has, want to help each man to know and value himself by writing about his life. We love hearing prisoners’ stories. We see that most prisoners have had hard lives and serious challenges to self-esteem, and we use writing to to celebrate those hard lives, to engender discipline (writing and re-writing), to develop respect for the art of writing, and (yes!) self-respect in each writer. We don’t want to peddle any kind of “vaccine” that would strip prisoners of what makes them different. We usually meditate at the beginning of each session, but in teaching meditation, we run the risk of teaching acceptance: and there are some things John and I both think are unacceptable about prisons in the USA. Kobutso Malone has written a brilliant article about the ethics and paradoxes of offering meditation in prisons. (Malone was once told by a prison administrator that by offering meditation to a death row prisoner, Malone made the executioner’s work easier.)

Are prisoners “different” from free-world (mere) humans? Prisoners know things John and I don’t know; they have street-smarts John and I never had to develop. They made different choices with their lives than John and I have made. For that matter, John and I have made different choices from each other.

John and I have said over and over to anyone who will listen to us that what makes prisoners different from free-world people is that they got caught. This is, of course, true. We all do wrong sometimes. We all break various laws from time to time. Most of us get away with it. Convicted felons didn’t. That is true and important. It is also true that there are ways that most prisoners are different from those of us in the free world (John, me) who qualify as “squares” by the ways we spend our leisure time, the company we keep, the risks we haven’t taken with the “straight” world, etc. Despite the few in prison who grew up with considerable privilege (one of the members of our workshop is a medical doctor), most men in prison (and women–though we don’t work with women because Texas warehouses women far away from the Houston area) grew up poor. Most had to learn street skills as children because their parents were among the working poor who did the best they could for their kids but were laboring at minimum-wage jobs double-time to pay the rent. Most grew up in houses without books, in families without cars. Most watched their single moms work nine-hour days and fight to keep the electricity turned on. Some grew up in families where the adults were drunk, mentally ill, or on drugs; in families where nobody checked their homework or took them to lessons or encouraged them to explore careers related to their interests. I also grew up in a family scarred by alcoholism, mental illness, and drug abuse; but services were available to my family that made a difference; I had access to books and the ability to lose myself in them; I had ways to escape the family drama and be successful: so I became a college professor and not a convict.

As I sat surrounded by ten cons last night, watching Mutants who could freeze water, fly on great white wings, sprout blades from their fingernails, walk through walls, or vaporize rocks with a gaze, a knot tightened in my throat. Where most of these men came from, “making it” in American society appears to require super-powers. They acquired the powers they could. They took power the only way they could take it. And then they got caught. After years of serving time they will eventually be free again: and they will be X-men. They’ll be men with X’s on their backs–cons. Most jobs will be closed to them. They’ll have a hard time getting an apartment (“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”). No matter how skilled they may be as writers, they’ll have to have superpowers to create legitimate lives in the free world. John and I gave them two assignments for the break: write about a gift you’ve given or received; and write the story you would have liked to read when you were a kid.

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-172 responses to “Watching X-Men in a room full of cons”

  1. Wonderful post, interesting to read about X-Men from such a unique prespective.

    Thanks for all the work your doing.

  2. Nacho says:

    Kendall, I made it here. : ) Great post indeed. I am a bit of a fan, not as much as my oldest (20 this month), but I have enjoyed the X Men. Didn’t see them through this lens though, and that has been beneficial.

    I do know some folks who have come out of jail however — one who served 20 years (and is now about 43), and invariably they come from the ranks of the poor (and others they knew) and disadvantaged. When I say that to social conservatives I usually get a developmental or cultural theory that runs like this: “a culture of poverty leads to…” their analysis often fails so early because they don’t seem to want to extend their thinking into how systems chew and spit out people, especially many who already start with social disadvantages. Even when they agree that some people are disadvantaged, they don’t tend to give enough credit to how differences, disadvantages, bad choices, and a host of other factors can compound life circumstances. That is not to say that I am blind to choice, and to the fact that many seek easier paths in life. But in my life I have come to see that it is not as easy to make it for a great deal of folks, and that they work hard to make many ends meet indeed.

    I had a conversation with my oldest son a few years ago about coming to college, etc. I told him he was one lucky person, and that I had worked hard and gotten a job at this university, far from him for three years, just so that he would have a chance to attend a school and not get in as much debt as I could. He at first was all reluctant and spoke about whether he really needed to go to school, or how he could later go to community college, etc. Those were tough conversations for me. For one I am so attached to notions of education as a way of moving us forward. I’m also attached to the life of the mind, and the pursuit of higher ed, etc. So, I wanted my son to love those things also… But I also taught at community college, and I told my son that indeed the ability and opportunity to attend a university or college is not something to take for granted, that his choices were critical at this juncture, and that they did not preclude particular outcomes but did shape the things to come. Much of my conversation with him was about such choices in life — the not having them, the having them and squandering them, the things an education would facilitate, and how lucky I was, and he was in turn. Since, we’ve replayed that conversation with so many other issues. He has come to realize that there are too many folks without these easy choices — and that there is a different world out there where the things we assume and take for granted are in dreamland.

    I show my kids in school a documentary by Big Noise Films titled “Black and Gold.” It is a documentary about the Latin Kings (Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation). There are some very nice parts to that documentary, but I enjoy most the parts where the viewer is reminded by many of the people in the film that there is a different world out there that is kept from us, a world of class war, not necessarily race war… the image of police brutality they see, and the descriptions of systemic abuse, really shock my students. Good. They come with their eyes closed, having such big blinders on…

    I’m ranting, thanks for the opportunity to rant here Kendall. : )

  3. admin says:

    Rant on! I’m going to look at “Black and Gold.” I bet I can use it in my teaching, too. My students ARE the “underclass,” but they might like to see reflections of their personal truths.

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