Thursday, December 25, 2003
Books: Life sentences
By Mike Prevatt
In perhaps the most memorable scene of the Oscar-winning 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, director/writer Michael Moore asks frequent teen-sociopath scapegoat and goth rocker Marilyn Manson, if given the chance, what he would say to the kids of massacre site Columbine High School, to which he replies, "I wouldn't say anything to them. I would listen, because that's what nobody did."
The oft-quoted soundbite floors even the most conservative Columbine critics and staunch Manson haters. But even more substantive is what the similarly neglected criminals and suspects of L.A. Central Juvenile Hall write down for instructor Mark Salzman, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer who, at the request of his pal and L.A. Times writer Duane Noriyuki, sits in on a writing class and is inspired to teach one of his own--for four years.
True Notebooks is the account of Salzman's experience with the Inside Out Program, begun by Sister Janet Harris so the young prisoners could, for one, have an outlet to express themselves without censor or judgment, and additionally, prove they weren't empty souls with nothing to contribute. Initially, Salzman was hesitant, mostly because he had already painted a picture of untrustworthy and thugged-out pupils who couldn't possibly offer anything more insightful than the less-than-accomplished students of his former creative writing classes.
Upon Salzman's first visit, he was instantly shown otherwise as Noriyuki's small group wrote revealing, poignant essays that were less gangster rap and more diary rock. These weren't the words of unrepentant miscreants who felt wronged by authorities and society, but often uncared-for souls deprived of direction, discipline, compassion or even just a little attention. Forget about the plight of the young offenders left to rot in prison for life--Salzman's students were HROs, or high-risk offenders--these kids were deserted, usually emotionally, before they picked up their first gun or robbed their first victim. Most of his pupils had little hesitancy in sharing these personal revelations. In fact, they often were rather eager to exorcise their histories and record their post-incarcerated enlightenment. Their enthusiasm and urgency quickly becomes Salzman's, and the reader's as well.
One particularly dynamic convict-to-be is Francisco, one of Salzman's first students and a notorious burden for the detention center's staff. Ironically, he arguably takes the class more seriously, and exhibits the most promise as a writer, than any of his juvie-mates. His rapport with Salzman is often friendly, consistently revelatory and always frank. Upon complaining that he can't get a minute's privacy in the bathroom--where grunts and grimaces are repressed for self-protective facades--a defeated Francisco bemoans, "That's what this place is about. Puttin' on masks." For rumination on toilet activity, it's an impressive metaphor for life imprisoned.
Just as it refuses to take the high road, True Notebooks doesn't try to make the case that the inmates should be granted some sort of leniency because theirs souls haven't completely blackened. On the contrary, a few of its Bards are portrayed as incurable delinquents and don't earn much sympathy. Also, the book doesn't hold back in the humor department. You get the sense it's a survival mechanism for most of these kids, but some of them are naturally witty and wickedly glib. Needless to say, they are the book's stars. Salzman deftly portrays them in his own affectionate if sometimes dry tone--he relied on memory when it came to conversations, which were natural, never tape-recorded and preserved in their own slang--but most of the accounts come directly from the kids' writings, some of which are jaw-dropping and deeply felt disclosures. They defy expectations, like their authors--typecasts who might not have developed had we'd been listening in the first place.