Maddening (Dis)Empowerment of Women

Poem #620 by Dickinson begins by declaring ” Much Madness is divinest Sense –/To a discerning Eye –/Much Sense the starkest Madness –” (1). Upon first glance, this has the appearance of creating tension through the ambiguity of opposing terms (Madness-Sense) and amplifies this tension with a second opposition (divinest-starkest).

These oppositions only remain if we treat the text as separate from the historical-political context in which it was written. Specifically the regulation of women’s bodies through the mechanism of psychiatric diagnosis. In “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?” Gilman illuminates the autobiographical nature of her story “The Yellow Wallpaper”(2), a story in which the protagonist is described as possessing “temporary nervous depression — a slightly hysterical tendency”(3). The diagnosis of hysteria and others like it became common in the beginning of the Renaissance(4). This diagnosis arose from conflict between the Apollonian nature of the Christian male majority and the Dionysian nature of the human psyche. This difference became a means to tighten patriarchal controls on womens’ bodies (5).

Furthermore, regardless of the controls manufactured by patriarchy, there is a history of what has come to be called “madness” being treated as, not just natural and normal, but as a blessing in and of itself which can provide a valuable service to the community, assuming the community was willing to support individuals going through various forms of madness (6). However, our culture, and even more so the culture of the 19th century, has been unwilling to “Make a person as comfortable and safe as possible, and then allow them to go through their inner journey to the end.”(7) That is, allowing a person to do what they need to do to take care of themselves even if it goes against social norms and logic.

Because of this, women such as Dickinson and Gillman were restrained by social convention and the threat of institutionalization and thus weren’t able to fully express their humanity or their womanhood. They were, just as we are, not allowed to engage in the Dionysian activity in an Apollonian culture, not allowed to engage in the divine madness necessary to maintain one’s starkest sense.

This is the perception (Eye) that allows us to resolve the apparent oppositions within Dickinson’s poem and discern meaning.

In fact, with the understanding gained from our exploration of a possible meaning of the first three lines, the remainder of the poem becomes an unambiguous extension of the argument. Women were, and still are, expected and required to submit to harms imposed by an uncaring patriarchal society in order to be considered sane and risk institutionalization (in prison or asylum) for doing otherwise.

Footnotes
1) Dickinson (2017) pg 104
2) Gilman (2017) pg 856
3) Gilman (2017) pg 844
4) Walker (1983) pg 421
5) Sjoo (1991) pg 295-297
6) Sjoo (1991) pg 188
7) Sjoo (1991) pg 296

Bibliography
– Dickinson, Emily. (2017) “620”. *Norton Anthology of Literature*. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.
– Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. (2017) “The Yellow Wallpaper”. *Norton Anthology of Literature*. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.
– Walker Barbara. (1983) “Hysteria”. *The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.* Harper, San Francisco. pg 421
– Sjoo, Monica Mor, Barbara. (1991) “Moon and Womb” *The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth*. Harper, San Francisco. pg 288-297

The Butt of People’s Jokes

People in prison are treated as a legitimate target for scorn and exploitation. Because of this we have our voices and agency stripped from us and people who know nothing of life in prison are free to fill the silence. They leap to the assumption that incarcerated people are dirty, violent, rude, racist, drug addicted rapists and killers. They then use this assumption to say we must be kept in our cages, or simply make us the butt of a throwaway joke.

These jokes do not help. The most common one I see is based on presenting us as having a complete inability to share space with others. I, as an incarcerated person, usually chuckle at these, but not for the reason you might think.

In prison, there is no such thing as “personal private space.” A cell as small as most peoples’ bathrooms, 2 meters by 4 meters (7′ x 14′) is shared by two people who, much like college freshmen, often meet at the same time they move in together. Chain busses full to bursting make trips that can be as long as 15 hours during which the passengers get a single water bottle to drink, nothing to eat, and the chemical toilet in the back lacks not just a door, but walls as well. Doctors’ waiting rooms are regularly packed to standing room only while the sick and injured wait for hours to be seen.

If there is one thing people in prison know how to do, it’s navigate and negotiate crowded spaces in respectful ways that create a minimum of conflict.

Society forgets that prison has good people and bad, brave people and cowards, angry people and those with the patience of a saint. We laugh, weep, argue, forgive, and yes, we even love. Ya know, just like any other group of humans. What sets us apart is that we have made mistakes and poor life choices which caused harm to other people. That’s why we are in prison. Many of us, like myself, will spend the rest of our lives trying to mend the unmendable. I don’t chuckle at jokes which degrade incarcerated people because they’re funny. I laugh because it hurts.

COVID-19 in a Washington Prison

COVID-19 has got everyone in TRU freaking out, including me.

There are protective measures in place, but they feel so insufficient. Partly because we are in Snohomish County, Washington, the epicenter of of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US.

C/O’s have their temperature taken before they come in to work. They’ve been authorized to have unlimited sick leave with no repercussions so that the sick will stay home. An old defunct unit (TRU-E) has been set aside as a quarantine sick ward. Unit porters bleach high touch surfaces multiple times a day. All volunteer activities (both religious and secular) have been canceled.

We are scared. The unit I am on is mostly older folks, age 60 and up. If the virus comes here, most of them will not make it.

So far there are roughly a dozen people in TRU-E unit on quarantine status, and according to the housing roster for our unit, there is one person on quarantine in TRU-B unit. The prison, for official reasons, maintains the fiction that there are no COVID-19 cases here.

In the last two days we have been locked down five times for the C/O’s to escort a sick incarcerated person to medical and test them for COVID-19. Each time we hold our collective breath. Is it?

Currently A/B unit of WSR is on a 14 day quarantine lockdown because a C/O came to work and tested positive for COVID-19. A near miss which has me worried sick for John. That’s where he lives.

I have taken to mostly staying in my cell and staying away from people. This limits my potential exposure to the following:

+ morning pill line
+ lunch and dinner meals
+ afternoon mail call
+ going out to big yard every other day

It’s not really possible to practice social distancing here, something about having to stand in line for literally everything. It doesn’t help much if while I maintain a two meter (six foot) gap between me and the person in front of me, the person behind me insists on (sometimes literally) breathing down my neck. So I end up going to the back of the line, a lot.

A few days ago I employed this strategy and it backfired horribly. While waiting for pill line they called a code for someone being sick in D unit. I had to rush to get out of the way as the person passed within three meters (nine feet) of me while not wearing a mask. C/O’s then directed the thirty-some people in pill line to sit in the chow hall until the code was cleared, an hour and a half later. I have no way to know if I was exposed, and no way to get tested. So now I’m self isolating as much as possible for two reasons, self preservation and, just in case I was exposed, to keep others safe.

Return

I am sorry for my absence, I’ve had to sort through what my life is now. Sort through difficult feelings and uncomfortable truths I’d rather not acknowledge.

I now have to relearn how to live life without my best friend.

I’ve finally come to a place where I’m ready to engage with the world again, but it’s hard to find the motivation to put myself back out there when what I am coming back to is a world in crisis. It is, however, what I have to do. How will I ever find the will to go out into the world (assuming I ever get clemency) if I cannot bear to engage with that world?

So I’m back.

During the months before my hiatus I feel like my focus was shifting, I spoke about prison more and big ideas less. In the process of that shift I let more of my anger and frustration show. My humor slowly diminishing.

I think the shift of focus is neither good nor bad, but the loss of humor was not good. I believe that humor is necessary to maintain one’s sense of perspective when dealing with the wide spread pain, suffering, and fear which is inherent to living in prison, to living in today’s world. It helps us resist internalized oppression and gives us a way to call things out and name harms without exhausting ourselves with righteous indignation.

So I’m recommitting myself to writing. To writing in a way which is real, painfully honest, and helps build the resilience of myself as I write it and of others as they read it.

I hope you choose to spin another lap with me here in this digital space. Thank you for reading.

Amber Is out of the IMU

Amber got out of the IMU yesterday. She had an infraction issued and was told she had to spend nine days in the IMU, which was how long she had already been in the IMU, so she assumes it counted as time served.  She is doing better and seems hopeful for the future.

There will likely not be posts on here for a couple of weeks, because I’m very overwhelmed right now in graduate school and will likely not have time to update the blog until spring break next month. I apologize.

-Megan

Amber Is in the IMU

This week, Amber declared herself to be experiencing a mental health crisis and asked to be placed in the IMU because of it. She was also issued an infraction because of this, but thinks she may be able to challenge it at her hearing next week. She’s hoping she won’t be in the IMU as long as she has before but will have a better sense after her hearing this week. Please keep her in your thoughts.

-Megan

A (Belated) Cry for Voting Rights

10/20/19

Guy Fawkes’ Day is approaching rapidly and with it election day. I want to encourage everyone to vote because I cannot. As an incarcerated person in Washington state I am not allowed to have a vote, and by extension, I am not allowed to have a voice.

This year my lack of voting rights feels particularly burdensome. It is only a matter of time before number 45 turns his attentions to the people already in prison, as opposed to simply pushing for people to be thrown in prison for the crime of not fitting in to his white supremacist patriarchal capitalist vision of American empire. Thus, I have the following to say to voters and elected officials:

Please stand in support of giving incarcerated people the right to vote.

I believe this is important because by not letting incarcerated people vote the state has created conditions where the exploitation and oppression of incarcerated people is inevitable. This takes many forms. Some examples are:

– Incarcerated workers are paid $0.42 per hour for a class 3 job and between $0.60-$1.70 per hour for a class 2 job. These wages are too low for us to be able to support our loved ones or save for the future. We have not (as far as I know) had a raise since the 1970’s.

– Incarcerated people are not able to engage in the common discourse. We do not have internet access and those of us (like myself) who are writers by trade, find our first amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press actively opposed by the WA DOC.

– Incarcerated people are not allowed to have loving relationships with each other. Physical intimacy and affection is criminalized to such an extreme degree that even holding hands and hugging can be subject to a WAC (Washington Administrative Code) infraction and punishment.

Harms and violations of basic human dignity of this sort would not be able to remain unchallenged, as they have for decades, if incarcerated people were able to vote for politicians who will support our interests and against politicians who support the “tough on crime” rhetoric which has created mass incarceration.

All of this is compounded by incarcerated people being, in effect, “wards of the state.” The decisions of elected officials have a greater impact on incarcerated people than on other citizens. If a given service is not provided or is under funded, we do not have the ability to seek out other options. If there is not enough funding for the prisons’ kitchens, then we go hungry. If there is not enough funding for the prisons’ clinics, then we go without medical treatment. If there is not enough money for the prisons’ schools and libraries, then we remain in ignorance and, most likely, return to prison.

Because incarcerated people cannot vote, we are not able to insist on having our needs met or hold elected officials accountable when they sacrifice us on the altar of political expediency. This is why I am asking that those who have a voice, those who have a vote, and those who hold office to publicly speak out in favor of incarcerated peoples’ voting rights.