Danner Darcleight is the pen name of a 39 year old serving 25 years to life, in a maximum security prison. His crime? Homicide. It was committed 17 years ago. He had a good education, became addicted to drugs, and was fortunate enough to come in contact with Doran Larson, a writer whose novel, Marginalia, we published 19 years ago. For the past 10 years Doran has been working with prisoners, offering a workshop writing program.
Doran is a Wolcott-Bartlettt Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Hamilton College, editor of Editor of Fourth City: Essays from the Prison In America; and Director of The American Prison Writing Archive, and he was the one who sent us Danner’s memoir, Concrete Carnival, which we are publishing this September.
Darcleight began attending Doran’s workshop ten years ago and here’s what Doran had to say about him: “Concrete Carnival instantly places Danner Darcleight in the very top tier of writers working among the 2.3 million Americans held inside prisons and jails. But this is not simply a prison book. Darcleight’s verbal dexterity and streetwise insights, his honesty, humor, his narrative skills and unyielding search for the humanity in all of his subjects announce a writer who deserves a place upon the broad contemporary literary landscape. Like Jack London, Chester Himes, Nelson Algren, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Edward Bunker, Angela Davis, Patricia McConnell, Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Malcolm Braly, Mumia Abu-Jamal and many others, Darcleight shows once again that any distinction between American literature and American prison literature perverts our understanding of what America is as a literary enterprise.
“Prison walls quarantine bodies and minds. They also incubate thinking and writing that strip bare the human costs of the contemporary order. In an era of unprecedented, mass-scale incarceration—with nearly three quarters of a million citizens released from prisons and jails each year, and more than one-in-five citizens marked by a criminal record—we need this book in order to help us understand the very nature of the American experience today.”
Danner Darcleight’s Concrete Carnival is a moving portrait of one man’s long journey from hopeless and addiction to love and redemption. And the following blogs are about his relationship with his wife, Lilly, who he met in 2009 and married a year later. Lilly has given workshops and lectures in all 50 states about autism.
With that I turn you over to part one of Danner’s blog.
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“In a few months, Lily and I will celebrate our six-year anniversary, years that have passed by as if in a pleasant dream. Hokey as it may sound, I have the incredibly good fortune to have married my best friend, a smart, caring, gorgeous woman. Our paths crossed in such an unlikely and serendipitous fashion, that, looking back on it, I can't help but see our courtship as if it were the early scenes in a romantic movie I'd actually watch. After getting to know each other for a year, we were married by a friendly justice of the peace in a small ceremony - that took place in the foyer of a prison's visiting room.
“Take a breath, and listen to what you're thinking. Are you happy for me, and imagining Lily as a good person? Or, are you shuffling through a host of possibilities that explain why Lily would marry a prisoner? Theories abound. Perhaps she's deranged, mentally feeble, or wildly insecure - and, I' m likely a devious con artist, telling Lily what she needs to hear while I slowly bilk her out of her l life savings.
“That’s a gentle paraphrasing of the comment threads one can find, I'm told, on the Web site of the reality show Prison Wives. And by no means does that constitute a monopoly on such morally-superior passing of judgment. Granted, one must control for a certain amount of fat-mouthing on any issue, from gun control to the upcoming film adaptation of a sci-fi classic. Still, any story of someone marrying a prisoner will inevitably draw comments that could have come from voices of fifty years ago, openly disapproving of interracial marriages, airing their rancid prejudices, and assassinating character.
“I'm apt, however, to be more charitable in my estimation of you, reader. And so, together, we can unpack the deeper emotions that may be hidden within this issue. For starters, why the rabid negativity and hate? While we, as a nation, have made great progress in our attitudes regarding race, gender, and sexual orientation, one form of bigotry that remains socially acceptable, and so common as to escape discussion, is the fear and loathing of prisoners. We are misfit toys and wayward boys (and girls), the castaways who live in your midst, on concrete islands fortified with concertina wire. If we are thought of at all, it is as the Other, a homogenous group lacking all the traces of humanity— fears, loves, disappointments, desires, talents - possessed by those in the world.
“There was a time, in eighteenth century England, when the public made good spoil of joking about the twitching legs of the men and women condemned to death by hanging. Such humor has kept up with the times, embodied by cultural shorthand like ‘ride the lightning’ to blithely depict execution by electric chair. And today, rarely does prison show up in pop culture without a reference to the new inhabitant winding up on the receiving end of a (black and burly) Bubba.
“It's little wonder, then, that the local news will quote from the grieving family member of a crime victim, who, without a t race of irony, hopes that the perpetrator gets criminally victimized when he gets to prison. The newly aggrieved can be forgiven their revenge fantasies, but what can be said of the news outlets that perpetuate the ugliness, or the off-camera producer who solicits such a reaction? Politicians and the media —in a quest to garner votes or viewers—know exactly which buttons to push to scare citizens into overestimating the amount of crime that takes place in the community, exaggerating the likelihood of a recent parolee violently interacting with unsuspecting citizens.
“Emphasis is placed on the otherness of this thing that has broken the law and can never be redeemed. The person is de-personified with labels, and becomes the defendant, the accused, then, the guilty, the prisoner, inmate, convict, offender, and, eventually, the released ex-convict.
“In this media-saturated landscape, where we know so much, but understand so little, it’s easier to have our primal emotions —anger, indignation, outrage—triggered than it is to experience the more fragile and complex fellow feeling brought about by human interest stories. Unless you know someone who has done time, your source is the same poisoned well from which most of the public drink. So, after your day at work and myriad other responsibilities, you're not apt to do much thinking about the 2. 2 million people in America's criminal justice system. File us under To Be Avoided, and carry on with your life.
“But then you hear that one of you has married one of us, and something doesn't compute. To make things jibe with your inner narrative of the way the world works, you can either rethink your perception of prisoners, or make a character judgment about the person who chooses to be associated with one of us. Let it be said that the brain doesn't like to let go of a firmly held belief, it easily makes snap judgments, and it's lazy. Rather than thinking, maybe prisoners are people after all, and capable of redemption, or, at least the prisoner in question is, the woman is deemed to be a defective unit.
“Even my family, who loves me, thought there must be something wrong with Lily that she would choose to make a life with their black sheep. It felt like a betrayal when I would casually drop her CV into conversations with my brother, as if lines on an impressive resume would quell his cognitive dissonance. Family members I hadn't spoken with in years suddenly wanted to hear from me, and I could practically hear them puzzling it out: She has a successful career, financial stability; perhaps she had a psychotic break-down.
“But they’ve come around, and see how good Lily is for me. Perhaps that's the way toward more tolerance on this issue: Instead of looking at the woman who marries a prisoner, and seeing
her as your friend or sister, better to focus on the prisoner, and imagine that he is your brother, or the friend of a friend because, I assure you, in the jailingest nation on Earth you are not more than three degrees of separation from someone living in a cage.
“On visits with Lily, when she goes up to the vending machines, I take a mental inventory of the people visiting my peers. There are some young women in their late teens and twenties, girls from the neighborhood who probably won’t stick around for the long haul; several women who seem to embody the crude stereotypes traded in by Internet trolls; but the majority appear dignified and composed. I have many married friends in here whose wives, like Lily, are smart, compassionate women. They are tough and driven —some are teachers, nurses, lawyers, professionals—and none have made this life choice lightly (no drive-thru wedding chapels here).
“They wake up early and drive long hours to see us in far-flung reaches of the state, where the cost of admission is a TSA-grade screening. In some prisons, visits take place behind glass, with literally no physical contact While Lily and I can hold hands the entire day, we can only hug and kiss for a prescribed period of time at the beginning and end of each visit. On semiannual facility ‘picnics,’ held in the gymnasium, we are allowed the rare pleasure of walking together hip to hip, our arms snug around each other 's waist Since relatively few inmates have access to e-mail, letters—hand-written or typed—snail their way back and forth, carrying love, pictures, and news from home on perfume-scented pages. Prison profiteers don't scruple at price gouging the loved ones of a captive audience, and the cost of daily collect calls can easily surpass a hundred dollars a month.
“How does one explain the lengths to which these women go to make the relationship work—are they dumb, desperate, or self-deluding? I know that not to be the case, but don't take my word for it: go to prisontalk.com. On many of its comment threads, you can find a person who will confirm the stereotypes—naive, delusional, and worse—but the plurality, the women telling her what's what, offer a litany of savvy, mature wisdom.
“The fact that prisontalk.com thrives is a testament to how marginalized these men and women are made to feel for loving one of us. They speak of not being able to tell their family and friends about the relationship. The guilt they feel for keeping it under wraps sometimes causes t hem to wonder aloud, if what I'm doing isn't wrong, why am I hiding it?
“Yet, who can blame them for keeping the relationship quiet rather than dealing with guff from know-nothings. After it was made known that Lily and I were an item—on no less a bastion of high-minded tolerance than some asinine local radio show—complete strangers had shifted their narrative of Lily, once a pillar of the community, into the trope of Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The mere connection to me prompted more than a few moralizing jackasses and some complete reprobates to sanctimoniously question her judgment, and suggest that consorting with a prisoner in her private life would perhaps lead to criminal behavior in her public capacity. It made me sick with grief when she was made to resign from her job. She kept her head down, learned who her true friends are, and wisely chose not to dignify the gossips with an answer. Lily landed on her feet, and, in some ways, the episode was a blessing in disguise.
“The drama, however, resurfaces every now and then, when a guard from the prison shows up in one of the local bars, and divulges prison gossip about me and Lily, interspersed with his opinions on the type of woman who’d marry a prisoner. Five and a half years since the story of us became public, every time Lily goes out to one of the bars, there'll be someone for whom the clock is turned back, and because they have little else going on in their lives, they'll whisper. Just as bad are those who, out of a desire to ingratiate themselves, will tell her that they, for one, don't believe the idle talk, and, as one guy said to her recently, ‘We knew that was all garbage, because you 're not that stupid.’”
....TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
As always, I welcome your comments.