A fish rots from the head down. T.J. Parsell, author of "Fish," either by some natural capacity or some infused grace whose chief characteristic is a refusal to give up on us as human beings, not only has kept his head from rotting subsequent to his ordeal of systematic rape in a Michigan prison in the 1970s but also has put it to markedly effective use in the service of humanity, becoming one of the chief advocates for the redress of a practice known by penologists to be routine in American prisons.
There are a great many survival stories of rotten childhoods aimed at telling us that despite everything, there is goodness in the world. "Fish" is a beautiful book written on an entirely different level -- a level of truth and moral seriousness commensurate with the true stories of survivors of the Holocaust.
When "Fish" arrived at my desk, a short scan of the flap copy told me I'd heard this story before, at a conference concerning child and adolescent sexual abuse in relation to what is now called dissociative identity disorder. I can still hear myself silently declaring (despite the beautiful young man's telling of his story in such a still-startled voice it made him seem a witness for the prosecution in a case of felonious assault against someone else), "Well whatever else this kid's suffering from -- such as the after-effects of unbearable pain and humiliation -- it's sure as hell no kind of dissociative identity disorder. Whoever he is, that's who he is, and nobody else."
He was, and is, T.J. Parsell, and the story he told that day, expanded and refined during years of obviously anguished and fantastically courageous work into this book, was and is the story of a "fish," prison slang for a newly arrived inmate and also designative of a male marked out to be sexually used in a macho environment in which he has been deprived by law of any control over or even integral access to his needs, wishes or anything else, except the belief that he may one day be given back his freedom and returned to the world.
At the end of the conference, a somewhat older acquaintance came over and said in a dry, droll voice, about Parsell's story, "What did you think of that?" I said something about being almost dumbfounded, to which he shot back "You were, huh? I wasn't. I don't buy it." That such a thing could be said, even felt, shook to its foundations whatever quantified evidence there was in me of the belief that somehow the world is fundamentally good.
My immediate feeling of kinship with this heroic kid came as such things can, from the merest shadow, the most fleeting taste of what he had been put through for years by the state of Michigan. As a 22-year-old at the now legendary Everard Baths in New York, I was surrounded by three older men, pinned face down on a narrow cot and, my face stuffed into a pillow as skinny as I was, raped. I was then picked up, carried downstairs and thrown into the Everard's pool to the accompaniment of cheers. And what I remember most is not the sharp physical pain but, hardly able to breathe in the moments defined by that pillow, the terror and absolute certainty of imminent annihilation.
As for Parsell, I buy it, and because I cannot imagine a better written memoir of any kind coming along any time soon, I urge you with all my heart to buy it too.
James McCourt is the author of numerous books, including the novel "Mawrdew Czgowchwz" and "Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985."