By Lindsey Crittenden, Sunday, February 17, 2008, The San Francisco Chronicle
I always had a soft spot for criminals, especially good-looking ones who made me laugh. My favorite TV show in fifth grade was "Alias Smith and Jones," and as a teenager I practiced kissing on a poster of the Sundance Kid. And then my little brother, the funniest person I ever knew, grew up and became a drug addict who supported his habit with petty felonies. Fourteen years ago, he was shot in the head and killed after stealing a vial of crack, which wiped clean my penchant for romanticizing outlaws. By the time I come to be sitting in a room with 16 lifers at San Quentin State Prison, I'm no pushover.
The men in the room, most of whom are serving time for homicide, are part of Katargeo, San Quentin's longest running in-house rehab program. (See box, Page 19.) Jacques Verduin, Katargeo's facilitator - and executive director of the nonprofit Insight Prison Project, which sponsors the program - can't be here today, so my friend Jack Dison, who mediates Victim-Offender Dialogues throughout the state, is sitting in. I've never been in a prison, but that's not what makes me nervous.
When I got the e-mail from Jack asking if I'd consider coming to San Quentin, I wrote Of course! Then it took me four days to hit Send. Ever since I was a girl, growing up 10 miles away, I've been curious about the place. Every time our station wagon passed the prison on our way to my aunt's suburban swimming pool, I scrutinized the apparent normalcy on the other side of the barbed wire: tidy guards' houses, Schwinn bicycles just like mine parked out back. Yet, I'd heard about Charles Manson, and knew he spent time there. When California reinstated the death penalty in 1978, I knew this was where it would be carried out. Tucked away on 432 bayfront acres on the edge of Marin County, San Quentin seemed a compelling and shameful secret, a scar no one talked about on an otherwise flawless face. It fascinated me.
But Jack didn't invite me to indulge my curiosity; he had a specific purpose: to talk about my book and my brother, he wrote. That's why it took me four days to answer, and why I have a pit in my stomach now. I love to talk up my book - a recently published narrative of coming to prayer as a skeptic. But my brother? I adore him, love him more than I've ever loved anyone - and he's dead. I've written articles, stories and a large part of my book about him. I poured my heart into that work, into grief - and now, well, I'm talked out, tired of recounting the details, impatient with the role of the good sister standing in the shadow of her dramatic, tragic (and, yes, charismatic) brother. Plus, the prospect of using the story of his life as entree into this world felt sullying. And yet, without him, what credibility would I have? What could I possibly have in common with 16 lifers?
I had to find out. So I sent my reply, and a few days later spoke to Verduin on the phone, giving him my driver's license and social security numbers for clearance. He advised me on what to wear: no blue (the inmates wear blue), no open-toe sandals or heels (harder to run in), no low-cut shirts or short skirts (no s-). He told me to leave behind knives, cell phones, any wrapped objects. And reminded me that you never know, there could be a last-minute lockdown, but I should show up at 2 o'clock at the main gate.
So, this Tuesday, I took the Last Marin County Exit and drove through the pretty little village of San Quentin, past the neat bungalows, the man scything a bush, the seals bobbing close to the shore, the crescent beach with the uninterrupted bay view. Jack was waiting for me at the main gate, and we walked past the banner proclaiming TOBACCO-FREE ENVIRONMENT and showed our IDs. At a second guard station, we had our hands stamped and walked through another gate, this one floor-to-ceiling metal that clanged shut, momentarily trapping us, before a second identical gate shuddered open to let us through. The sally port, Jack called it, and my entire body reacted to its clang: You're inside now.
A California flag flew over a circle of grass and leggy roses. Jack pointed out the location of Death Row and steered me toward the medium-security yard, where men in blue walked unescorted, sat on picnic tables, shot baskets. We shook a few hands and headed down the steps to the education buildings. Just before walking into a trailer, I paused: The view was familiar. Not just the sight - Mount Tamalpais - but its framing. Give or take a mile, it was the exact angle I once saw every day from my high school's parking lot.
It's been a week since the men of Katargeo have met, and they bustle around, pushing chairs into a circle and tables against the wall. They seem intent, not wanting to waste any time. Jack suggests starting with a check-in.
Michael, who has been married to the same woman during 28 years of incarceration for murder, wears square, plastic-framed glasses behind which eyes shine as black and glossy as beads. "I'm doing good," he says, and shrugs. "A few relationship issues."
William, whose bald head looks so smooth it could be polished, holds a small spiral notebook in which he has written my name in taglike letters. He's spelled it correctly, and I feel a pulse of alarm. "Ask me anything," he says. "I'm an open book."
Lamonte, who sits next to me, suspects the random drug check in the library wasn't random at all; he's going to look into it.
Louis is nervous about his parole board meeting coming up Friday.
One by one, they say they're doing well, had a good week, feeling fine. One by one, they meet my eyes with nods of welcome. Their gazes are direct; they're not hiding a thing. I feel chastened, and not just because I've caught myself suspecting otherwise. These are men who could be in prison for the rest of their lives, and they describe themselves as doing well. They've disarmed me.
It's my turn. I say I'm glad to be here, I thank them for opening their circle to a stranger, I tell them I'm a little nervous. I look around the room, the way I do when I'm teaching a new class, and make eye contact. They make it back. I'm not here to teach these men, and yet I feel their curiosity, their openness to whatever I have to say. And their skepticism too, just as hard-won as mine.
"So what does Katargeo mean?" I ask.
Bernard, who's serving seven years to life for attempted murder, answers. "It's Greek for putting away the things that bind you." He says this without irony. Later, I'll find out that the word occurs 37 times in the New Testament and has what one biblical scholar calls "an anarchy of different English approximations" - one of them from a passage familiar to me because I read the chapter at my mother's memorial service: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways." (I Corinthians 13:11) I never thought of "childish ways" as "the things that bind you," but now I won't be able to get the idea out of my mind.
I begin my story: how from an early age I wanted a sibling. How I was 5 when my brother was born, and how the fact that he was adopted did not matter. I played with him and adored him and dressed him up like a doll as long as he would let me.
A few chuckles around the room.
We were close growing up, I continue, sufficient summary to lay the ground for the detail that will follow. I add, "just a few miles away." As teenagers, my brother and I grew apart. I was the good girl; he was the troublemaker. I was shy and bookish. He was popular and athletic. I had to stay safe; he had to push every boundary he found. By 14, he was smoking pot every day.
He climbed the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Nods again, this time deeper. Eyebrows raise. It takes a lot to impress a lifer, I think, and I've just done it. Or rather, my brother has.
"With a bong strapped to his back," I add, and laughter breaks out. "Of course," several of them say.
And then it occurs to me. "I've been calling him 'my brother.' I should tell you his name. His name was Blake." I take a deep breath. "When Blake started smoking crack in 1986, he told me it was no big deal."
The men don't look up but stare at the floor. Is my story too tame - the story of a privileged woman whose privileged upbringing was granted a bit of drama by a druggie brother?
And then Bernard, directly across from me, leans forward. The gesture is enough to keep me going, and as I do, I hear my voice change. I'm telling the story I've told before, but the words don't feel rote or dry. There's a quality to the men's listening that I can't put my finger on. And then, somewhere after saying how Blake's addiction worsened as he went from job to job and recovery to recovery, how he ran away from lockdowns and lived on the streets and stole from our parents and went in and out of jail and got his girlfriend pregnant, I recognize what the quality is. The men in the room are hearing from the inside, the way I'm speaking. There's no judgment.
"I went numb," I continue. "My brother and I barely spoke for several years. I know it sounds lame, but I didn't know what to say."
And then, one spring day - I tell them - something inside me snapped and I yelled at him that he was throwing away his life and hurting those who loved him and why didn't he take a gun to his head and save us all a lot of trouble.
Heads nod, brows furrow, an eye is wiped.
I tell how Blake and I spent the last four months of his life talking every evening, how we spent our last day together, and how the next time I saw him, a week later, he was comatose in a hospital bed with a bullet lodged behind his eye socket.
I reach for my book. "Maybe I'll read to you about that."
"Please," Jack says.
I've read the passage many times in bookstores without as much as a crack in my voice; now, the almost memorized words make me weep.
"That's about it." I close the book.
The men start slowly. PJ - who's 47 years old, has served 20 years for second-degree murder, and has had three release dates vetoed - raises his hand. "What you said about it being lame you couldn't do more." He shakes his head. "It wasn't lame at all. There's nothing more you could have done. When you called him and yelled at him, you told him what he needed to hear. You showed him you loved him."
That's exactly what Blake said, and I remember his voice breaking as he said it: "You told me what I needed to hear."
Eric, who appears from across the room to be one of youngest men in the group (later I'll learn that he's 40 and has served 16 years at San Quentin for second-degree murder), speaks next. "You know, when you were talking about your brother's lying and stealing, you could have been talking about me. I did those things. I never drove off without paying, but I'd cut $20 bills in half and fold them so only the 20 showed and pay with that." Bernard says that when he was dealing, he would drive around after making deliveries, cocaine in the back of his car. He'd tell himself, No, or Just this once, and pull into a liquor store for Zig Zags. "That's how I took it, sprinkled over dope and smoked."
I'm reminded of how Blake used to tell me the details of his drug use as if showing off, trying to shock his staid sister. Now I see it differently. The attention to the rolling papers, the needle, the pipe, the whole theater of getting and fixing and using holds the same pull as the features of a lost love. Even when a lover wrongs us, we never quite get over those blue eyes, that crooked smile, the effort we went to. "And then I'd wake up, two days later, in a motel room. I'd sit in my car in shame, unable to go home to my family. I had a family, like your brother did, a family who loved me. Nothing - nothing - grabs you like crack."
Eric's head moves like a bobble-head doll's, nodding with agreement, shaking with regret. "It talks to you."
Blake told me that, too, one night over sushi in Cow Hollow.
"It lies to you," I say.
Eric can't take his eyes off me. "It lies to you," he repeats. "You'll do anything for it. Anything. Man, I could be your brother, what you're saying."
"Blake used to say no high beats the first high, so you keep trying to get it again. He said the rush was in getting it, not in doing it."
"Yeah!" Eric nods. "Chasing the white horse, we call it."
I'm no longer in prison. I'm just in a room, talking to people as honestly and openly as I've ever talked to anyone. I'm reminded of the first time I heard my brother admit his powerlessness over drugs; jargon aside, he had stopped making excuses. He had stopped trying to con me or humor me.
"So how'd you do it?" I ask Eric. "How'd you stay clean? How come you could do it and my brother couldn't?" Tears fill my eyes.
"Coming in here. Man, coming in here saved me."
Next to me, Lamonte chuckles. At 53, he hasn't been in the group the longest - that would be Robin, who has served 34 years and been with Katargeo since its beginnings, 17 years ago - but his graying hair and lined face grant him the air of a respected elder. He's spent the whole time staring at a space between his shoes, but I've felt his attention tuned to every word. "I never did dope until I got in here. Then I thought, Man, you're stupid. If you never did it out there, you don't need it here."
"You get clean," Eric says, "and you have to have your feelings."
I've been paying a therapist $100 a session to have my feelings.
We're an hour into it, but time has stood still. Nothing exists outside of these walls covered with posters outlining Five Steps to Writing a Resume and Successful Cover Letters, the window through which every 10 minutes a guard takes another head count. (Where, I wonder, would we all go?)
Bernard asks why I think Blake fell into drug abuse: "You think it had anything to do with him being adopted? You think that was the pain he was masking?" Countless others have suggested this to me, but coming from Bernard, the connection holds more legitimacy than it ever has before. Later, I'll realize it's because Bernard emphasized not so much the cause and effect, but the emotional complexity. He used the word "pain" as someone who knows what he's talking about.
Red's gaze unnerved me during check-in - maybe because, after waiting three-and-a-half years for a space to open up, he's the newest member of Katargeo, having been in the group only one month. Now he speaks. "You know those boundaries he was always testing? Maybe they kept giving. Maybe he was looking for the one that wouldn't give."
I stare at him. He's spoken exactly what I've thought ever since I watched my brother get away with throwing water balloons and stealing pennies from Dad's top drawer.
PJ asks about the son Blake left behind. "How was he told about his father?
"What about the boy's mother?" Lamonte asks.
We talk about all of it.
I lean forward. "Can I ask you guys something?"
"How'd you get to be here? In this group, I mean, where you can be so open? I've seen movies, I've read articles about prison" -
"Man, the media." Derision all around.
"You know what we hear," I continue, "prison is a place of gangs and rape and watching your back, not showing any emotion. How'd you get past that?"
"You reach a point you can't go any further," Michael says. "You reach the end of the line, you hear what I'm saying?" He continues talking, and I keep nodding although I don't, really, get where he's going with what seems a series of increasingly vague abstractions. And then, his jet-black eyes boring into mine, he says, "I want to apologize to you."
"To me?" I raise my palm to my chest. "For what?" Maybe he assumed that I wouldn't have anything very interesting to say, and now he feels bad.
"I want to apologize because I took a life."
The room is quiet. I don't take my eyes away from Michael's, and he doesn't look away, either. "Someone took your brother's life," he continues, "and I took someone's life. I don't get the chance to say it to someone from the outside often enough. I'm sorry."
"Be careful," someone told me before I came here: "those guys are experts. They'll sell you every story in the book." I'm sorry is the oldest story there is, of course, and I've heard it my entire life - from my brother, from students, from lovers, from myself; to placate, to make excuses, to hush up and smooth over. And I like to tell myself my BS sensor is set pretty high. But as I hold Michael's gaze, I hear the purity of the words used without guile. Thank you seems insufficient for what I feel, and I don't need to say it. Besides, as much as gratitude floods me, I'm struck by something else, something I've never looked straight into, until now.
Since the day of my brother's death, I've had no interest in who shot him. I've never felt any desire for confrontation, any call for vengeance. "Do you know who did it?" people ask, and I shrug. "I don't care. It won't bring him back." I've always found the scenario of my brother's death so rife with injustice - a botched drug deal in the housing projects of San Francisco where hundreds are shot every year, where 10-year-olds deliver drugs, where guns are rampant, where eyewitnesses don't see a thing - that knowing the name and the fate of my brother's killer seems beside the point. What killed my brother wasn't a gun or the gang leader who (supposedly) fired it. What killed my brother was chasing the white horse.
And yet, looking into Michael's eyes, I'm face to face with the fact that a person did kill my brother. I don't fool myself that that person has repented his action, or come to anything like the "radical accountability" of Katargeo. But sitting in this room has shown me a compelling if horrific logic. A $20 vial of crack may have been the reason, but someone fired a gun at Blake with intent. I knew it all along, sure - but I never felt it until now.
Lamonte lifts his head to look at me. "What you asked about how we got here, you know, after a while it doesn't matter what other people think about you. What matters is what you think of yourself. Yeah, some guys give us a hard time, call us - excuse the expression - pussies. They say, 'You're in that Katargeo group,' and I say, 'Yeah, you should come check it out.' But I don't take it personally. I know why I'm here. That's what matters."
I reach out my hand and then stop. Is touching the inmates allowed? I leave my hand an inch above his arm. "You're lucky. Don't get me wrong. I know you're in prison. I don't want to sound patronizing. But this group, your honesty, your letting go of what binds you" - I look at all of them now - "I wish more of this happened outside." Michael peers at the floor, and I follow his gaze to a small, pale spider. He scrunches forward in his chair, reaching out his foot, and the spider darts away.
"I've been watching that thing the whole time," someone says.
Michael's foot has almost reached the spider when William - who has been quiet since check-in - holds out his arm. "No, man, let it live."
We all laugh in a kind of relief. It's almost time to go. Lamonte stands to give me a fatherly hug. Eric and Red and Bernard shake my hand and tell me to come back again. William thanks me. PJ asks me to read one of his short stories. Louis crosses the room to offer me a packet of cheese-flavored crackers, an offering I cannot, under prison regulations, take. And then it really is time to go.
One Sunday morning, a few weeks later, sitting in church, I'll hear another version of the instructions I received before going to San Quentin: "Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals," Jesus tells his disciples after warning them, "See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves" (Luke 10: 3-4).
Wasn't that the expectation? I would bring something to the men of Katargeo; I was the innocent storyteller going into the den of wild animals. As Jack told me over the phone, the evening before my visit, "You have a lot to say to the guys. They'll really value hearing your story." What I couldn't predict - although the part of me that wrote Of course! right away seemed to - was that they would give something to me.
Katargeo hasn't just loosened what binds each of its members. It's unbound me, too. I think of what Blake told me the night he called me sobbing from jail, of what he told me over pot stickers and sushi. I think of what has terrorized me during my own bouts with despair, what scares me still. Being alone. Not independent or solitary or on one's own. But existentially, supremely, uncompromisingly alone. The human condition, sure, but also the flip side of something equally human, ultimately freeing and supremely stronger than any barrier that separates us: the need to connect.
How to Help
Katargeo is sponsored by the nonprofit Insight Prison Project. IPP volunteers work in group facilitating, peer education and restorative justice, all of which require training. All IPP programs have at their core the guiding principle of "radical accountability," which emphasizes taking responsibility and making conscious choices. For more information, contact Jacques Verduin, executive director, (415) 459-9800, or visit www.insightprisonproject.org.
Marin Literacy trains volunteers in tutoring inmates in reading and writing. (415) 485-3318; www.marinliteracy.org
California Re-entry Program provides workshops and individual advising (by volunteers) to help San Quentin inmates with the logistics of parole, from child support and financial aid for college, to transitional housing and job training. The program also brings speakers to San Quentin. For more information, go to www.ca-reentry.org.
Prison University Project welcomes volunteer instructors and teaching assistants; write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
All volunteers at San Quentin must undergo a background check and attend training. Programs often require a minimum commitment of six months.
Lindsey Crittenden is the author of "The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray," (Harmony Books) and "The View From Below: Stories." She lives in San Francisco. www.lindseycrittenden.com
This article appeared on page P - 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle