Fear and Loathing at San Quentin

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Cool Hand Luke

Barbara Bechnel, Phil Gasper and others are admirably articulating the ideological factors that led to the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams. I want here to try to address another dimension because I want to believe that those who supported Stan’s death remain members of the human community and so can be addressed accordingly. Perhaps even persuaded to reconsider their views so that what happened in San Quentin on December 13th will be terminated.

Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird tells his children that before they judge a person they should spend an hour walking around on that person’s porch and in that person’s shoes. To judge whether a man has redeemed himself after 10 or 15 or 24 years on death row one must make some effort to understand the experience of living there. In a November 29th contribution to Counterpunch I offered readers that experience in the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by a man who I interviewed last May who has been on death row in San Quentin since 1989. I here want to speak more directly about the experience that he shares with many other men on the Row. During our conversation this man, who has become a friend and brother, put it this way. A man on death row has only one of two choices. To harden into a monster or to undertake what men on the Row refer to as “the Journey.” That long process requires becoming totally honest with oneself, accepting full responsibility for one’s deeds and doing all one can to help other human beings undertake the same process. (Contra the governor’s self-serving statement, all the evidence indicates that Stanley Williams was one who fully lived out that journey.)

But the above description, while ethically precise, is far too abstract. To live alone in a cell with one’s deeds is a harrowing process. My friend spent 6 years doing nothing but reading. And on the Row only the most serious books are found worthy of attention. No time for light reading or popular fare there. My friend’s self-education was only the prologue to a far deeper struggle. Like Tookie he spent an extended period in solitary confinement and for over 3 years of that time he was overtly psychotic. Most people are so afraid of their psyche that they keep themselves drugged all the time-with incessant happy talk, a capitalist world of creaturely comforts and, yes, Jessus, though their version of Christianity has nothing to do with the real thing. My friend, in contrast, refused medication, somehow knowing in his “madness” that there is only one route to regeneration. To endure a self-torment in which one suffers one’s entire life. (Yes, from the beginning my friend admitted his deed.) Out of profound and prolonged inner suffering and the courage to plumb the depths of his psyche my friend was eventually reborn into one of the gentlest men I’ve ever known. But also, like Tookie, a man of frightening honesty. Those who descend to the darkest places in the human heart return with the power to look deeply into our souls and our collective delusions. Stanley was such a man, as is my friend. For such is the ethical power of tragic experience. It offers us an example of what human beings are capable of when they have the courage to suffer.

My point is a simple one. Walk for one hour in such shoes and one will not only spare but treasure the life of those who have redeemed themselves in the only way it is possible to do so. I add a personal note. My friend’s appeal is now at the Federal level so there is a likelihood that in the not too distant future he will face Tookie’s fate.

But I fear my plea falls on deaf ears. For the media and those who lack the courage to walk for an hour in their own shoes have programmed us to salivate, like Pavlov’s dog, at the idea that the death penalty is the only way to give “closure” to the bereaved and the community. That’s how ideology operates. Once an idea has been planted as an emotional necessity people find it impossible to feel any other way. (And then they fabricate whatever “thoughts” they have to in order to justify the fixity of their feelings.) After all, this is Amerika. We’re all individuals by rote and ape whatever we’ve been programmed to believe. And thus we can’t conceive that the idea of “closure” is a preposterous fraud that commits its believers to nothing but a life of vindictive cruelty in which they poison the springs of their own humanity.

And thus, in the spirit of the holiday season, a few reflections on “closure.” First, that there is no such thing. “Closure” is a pseudo-idea dreamed up by the Amerikan mental health industry to give people a way to deny the reality of traumatic experience. The greatest contemporary example of this fallacy is the Amerikan response to the trauma of 9-11. The panic anxiety of vindictive rage toward a country that had nothing to do with an event we can only “suffer” by seeking surplus revenge. Well, folks, we’ve been Bamboozled. There is one eventuality that comes to many of us in the course of life. Irretrievable loss. And there’s only one authentic human response to it-to suffer it for the remainder of one’s life. There is only one closure-the Big Jab and the Big Sleep. Until then some human beings try to exist. Others harden their hearts and close their minds. The result of the latter is a fateful fixation on the self-stultifying appeal of magical thinking; that is, the idea that some event-such as the murder of another human being or the littering of Iraq with depleted uranium-can resolve one’s trauma and take away all one’s painful feelings. In short, belief in the necessity of “closure” infantilizes.

The cruelty of the idea, however, is a lifetime of meaningless pain-a pain that can’t be internalized so that it humanizes the way suffering humanized Stan and my friend. Instead one waits in perpetual rage for a day that in most cases never comes (there are, after all, over 600 men currently on the Row in San Quentin) while one devotes the energies of one’s heart to the belief that only the murder of another human being will bring one peace. Try it sometime: waiting (as in Beckett) in hate and spite and resentment with those emotions eating away at one’s soul until there’s nothing else. And then, at long last, the blessed day arrives and one rushes to embrace the “closure” that alone makes it possible for one to live again. And when does it come: when the needle goes in or the delighted 20 minutes you get to spend watching them search for it; when the chest heaves and the eyes roll backward; when they roll him out on the gurney; or later, at the champagne celebration when one tells oneself once again that one’s motives are good and true and just and have nothing to do with the pleasures of vindictiveness?

But enough. Walking around in the other person’s shoes has its limits. As does this effort of an ardent atheist to remind those who bray their Christianity that the primary article of their faith is compassion. For compassion requires a humanity one can’t get by going to Church or selectively misreading the Bible or wrapping oneself around an abstract morality that insulates itself from the complexities of experience. Compassion requires opening oneself to everything one doesn’t want to know about oneself and making that experience the one that binds one in humanity to the other. The cruelest thing about the death penalty is what it does to those who believe in it. For the kill one’s capacity for compassion is to murder oneself.

I know I’ll be told that I’m failing to show compassion for the victims. And so I’ll close with another heretical idea that may be worth pondering. Perhaps we show the deepest compassion for the victims when we extend compassion to those who like my friend have made the Journey. For me the most moving experience in our time together was when he spoke of the young woman he murdered. But here I can only quote his lines as reproduced verbatim in the monologue. “It’s like what Patricia Krenwinkel said, how she wakes every day knowing she’s a taker of life and deserves to wake each day to that knowledge. That’s what I try to live too, knowing that every breath I draw comes after the woman I killed drew her last. That’s how she lives in me. She is all I denied her and all she could have been-a pure possibility that must become cleaner with each year.” She thus inspires the Ethic he tries to live in her name by helping other men on the Row begin the Journey.

And so, again in the spirit of the season, let me close my Quixotic effort with its dedication: For Tookie-with a raised fist and a pained heart.

WALTER A. DAVIS’ book on the Bush Administration, Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche since 9-11 will be available from Pluto Press in March of 2006. He may be reached at davis.65@osu.edu.