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Writing cracks open a door at juvenile hall

True Notebooks; Mark Salzman; Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $24

September 21, 2003|Thomas J. Cottle | Thomas J. Cottle is a professor of education at Boston University and the author most recently of "A Sense of Self: The Work of Affirmation" and "At Peril: Stories of Injustice."

The exploration in philosophy and psychology of the nature of the self is among the most vexing yet enticing of all enterprises. For Immanuel Kant, the self is a form of consciousness that we experience essentially when we reflect upon it. Said differently, it is in the act of reflecting on my self that it reveals itself to me. It is not, in other words, anything that may be called embodied. You can't lay your hands upon it or discern it on an MRI. In contrast, David Hume imagined that our (sense of) self is pretty much like a body living within our body. It's the little man in the big man, as John Locke suggested.

William James may well have fired the starting gun for self explorations in psychology when -- seeking to differentiate the notion of the "me" from the notion of the "I" -- he advanced the ideas of the known and knowing self: "I think this is what I am, and I think this is how I know what I am." However we understand these propositions, each represents a courageous stab at comprehending this elusive yet seemingly palpable thing called the self, this thing we turn to in the act appropriately labeled self-reflection. It is the thing that, in more popular discourse, we call our voice. "To know ourselves," psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written, "is the greatest achievement of our species.... If we don't gain control over the contents of consciousness we can't live a fulfilling life, let alone contribute to a positive outcome of history."

Which brings us to the writings of a group of young men typically forgotten or, more likely, maligned. The gifted writer Mark Salzman, noted for his previous books "Lying Awake," "The Soloist" and "Iron and Silk," traveled twice weekly for months to a Southern California juvenile hall to work with inmates -- murderers most of them -- ostensibly on their writing. A respectful, knowledgeable teacher with the sparest outline of a curriculum, Salzman befriended his young apprentices, eventually freeing them not merely to write prose -- and on occasion remarkable prose at that -- but to exercise their inner voices and explore their known and unknown selves, the very regions Kant and Hume, Locke and James traveled.

With the barest of hints, Salzman offers topics for essays. His class, changing in population almost from week to week as inmates are sentenced and shipped off to state youth centers or county prisons -- some of them to serve life terms -- responds. Indeed, more inmates want to enter the class. Granted, there are all the discussions and yelps and vulgarity one would expect, and the predictable conversations about sex and cars and girls and cars and sexual organs and cars. But at the interstices, Dale, Francisco, Benny, Kevin, Nathaniel, Victor, Patrick and Jimmy regularly stun their teacher with beautiful and telling narratives. (Nathaniel: "My mysteriously forgotten childhood which only exists through stories of my chaotic behavior.... The need to know my past causes me to retreat deeper into myself to ascertain the arcane beginning that brought me to where I stand.")

Living with what social activist and author Luis J. Rodriguez calls a "smoldering rage," many of the young writers rail against authority, a culture dominated by rules and punishments or families that forgot them. (Dale: "Deep down inside this angry person awakens.") They write of incarceration and freedom, of family trips to cemeteries, of being blocked from the glories of nature, of events they rue, of mothers they have disappointed, of fathers they have never known. (Kevin: "The feeling of meaninglessness starts to set deep within my soul as each day goes by.") In the end, these narratives constitute the products of consciousness explored. Whatever the power or content of an idiosyncratic story, what emerges stands as the construction of a living self, and in some instances a dying one. Salzman, in a word, has called them to their stories, and they respond exactly as his prison archangel, the indomitable Sister Janet who oversees the prison writing program, has decreed.

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