Prison, Bottoming Out, Mother
What spirit awaits in prison? The question dogged me while I waited, waited six tedious months, for my final appellate decision and inevitable entry into federal prison. During this wait, people—close friends, family, and just met strangers—freely gave advice about what I should do while imprisoned. Their comments ranged from assurance that prison was no harder than the novitiate I had endured with the Franciscans, to assurances that prison, though a satanic hell, was a crucible in which my spirit might be purified. My life had come to a point, however, where I had ceased to trust what anyone said. I had trespassed a boundary and mistrusted even my own thoughts. I would enter prison naked in mind and soul.
By the time I left prison, I had an answer at once deceptively simple and innocently complex. I found that an evil presence stalks the prison corridor. I found that prison is a sacrament of this presence, more specifically, it is a sacrament of the ghastly shadow side of The Male—a perversion I came to know as The Lone Male. It is sacrament because the institution—the Place called Prison—makes real this presence whether one seeks it or not. Indeed, this realization fundamentally altered my Traditional spiritual understanding for it revealed that Prison is the primary sacrament of patriarchal Biblical culture.
Yet, the story to be told is that Prison is also inhabited by a nurturing, comforting, healing presence (though not by invitation). Because of my experience in prison, I would leave as a pilgrim in search of fuller communion with The Mother.
Who I was and how I came to enter and exit prison requires some explanation. More, to grasp my special understanding of prison as sacrament and to value one spirit I met (The Mother) requires an understanding of how I saw while in prison. At some point in the late Sixties, I had begun to peer, that is, I no longer saw things as people normally claim to see. My vision, both physical and spiritual, was altered. Because of this, I acted in a way which made me an outlaw.
Peering: the notion is central to my story. By it I mean seeing in the obvious more than is visible to the naked eye. Peering re-visions, and so re-defines. Through it, the political, cultural and spiritual planes of reality became intertwined in my life. As you yourself begin to peer, the reality of The Mother’s presence will become manifest ... and you will understand prison as the sacrament of patriarchal feminization.
I became a peerer between the Winter of 1969 and the Spring of 1970. The Vietnam War seemed without end, Nixon had celebrated Christmas by bombing Cambodia, and students laid slain on the campus of Kent State. It was a watershed. Up to then, I had participated in the anti-war movement as if it were a college practicum. I had not defined myself as being at war. I had become a conscientious objector and then a draft-card burner without deviating from my chosen career path. The war was a political aberration, a dismal chapter in American history; but it would soon end and its policies would soon be righted. Though "politically" a criminal, I felt secure in my moral identity as a "cultural" American. I could ground my civil disobedience within an American tradition stretching from the pre-Revolutionary Quaker John Woolman to Martin Luther King, Jr.
I became a peerer because, during these seasons, the government peered at me. By so doing, they altered the way I saw myself—and them. In fact, my story can be told in terms of how I came to see, to peer as the government peers.
After my first visit with the FBI, I was amused by the situation and pleased with my performance. It was a rush. They had come to question me—me.
They had questioned me about a draft office raid in St. Paul. This raid, by the "Beaver 55", was the largest in Movement history. The raiders had penetrated the main Post Office skyscraper with its round-the-clock guards destroying forty-five draft offices, and stealing blank draft cards and official stamps. (To this day, no one has been caught.) They questioned me because file cabinets with stationery from my office had been found in an upstate field. Someone had used the files for an experiment in cordite bombing—a military technique used for destroying sensitive files when an enemy has broken through the lines. The FBI wanted to know how all the pieces fit together. I was evasively cooperative. I played doublespeak with them, and I felt I had played as their equal.
How unequal I was only became apparent when Fred Hampton was murdered. Hampton, a Chicago Black Panther, was betrayed by an intimate, and machine-gunned while he slept. I had known Fred. After several campus speeches which I had arranged, he provoked me to think about and support his racial battle. I fled Chicago because I couldn’t handle his world. I justified my flight as a return to my own battle, the Vietnam War. Back in Minnesota, I started my alternative service as a conscientious objector. During that service (as program director at a university Newman Center) the FBI visited me. When I sat in that same office, reading the account of Fred’s assassination, it was as if Fred had asked me to be his sponsor in baptism. I had witnessed his life, and the spirit of his journey called upon me to testify.
Fred was more than a challenge to Mayor Daley’s political machine. He threatened its cultural undergirding. He had access to political power, however, and he used it well. Society as a whole refused him dignity as a person. Fred’s claim to dignity, and cultural visibility, was the reason they murdered him. He fought in the streets of America for the right to be a man. He had said to me, "To them I am the enemy." His death made me shudder. I began to peer at myself as the FBI did. I pictured the scrawled memo: "The panther today...the peacenik tomorrow!" I joined a group in support of the Beaver 55 action and began to speak for their cause on campus, in church, at adult education forums, on radio and TV.
Although I was supporting outlaws, my conscious mission was education. I refused to search out the deeper significance of Fred’s death. Yes, I was living dangerously and had accepted the label of Enemy. I walked each day anticipating ambush but the shift was merely from part-time to full-time commitment. I persisted in my efforts to help people understand the causes for which Fred and the Beavers stood. Like many, I placed my hope in "the people." If only they knew what was happening, surely they would rise up, and revolutionize the government. But the thrust of my educational mission was soon radically altered by the revelation of the secret war in Laos. It is difficult, today, to appreciate how shattering this secret event was. Today, government lying is widely assumed. However, the day I realized that the government was deliberately lying, that truth telling was against policy, my identity was transformed.
Previously, I had been a reformer. Even my support of the lawbreaking Beaver 55 was part of an effort to say, "Enough!"—and to call the government to its senses. Now, I was confronted with an impossible dilemma: if the government was lying, how could I speak to it? I considered leaving the country. I visited Toronto, but was convinced that my challenge was to speak to my People. But how? I pondered what the FBI saw as they peered at Fred Hampton. How had he made himself visible to them? I realized that I would have to redefine myself as an agent of the symbolic. Yet how could I or anyone consciously appropriate symbolic material? As I lost my story—the version of American history which had grounded me in a shared public morality—I grew mad.
The thought of being imprisoned or murdered obsessed me. I was no longer amused by the FBI. My antiwar activities became the discipline of my spiritual search. I no longer thought of the future—of a career, marriage, or getting old. In this state, peering revealed the symbols.
I found a way to speak symbolically: return one draft card, burn the next, refuse induction. I did it in union with others. The government heard us. Destroying a single draft card was desecration: a ritual of alien spirituality; idolatrous allegiance to a strange god. I had been an outsider; I now became an outlaw.
I began to peer at everyone and everything and could not believe what I was seeing. I watched Walter Cronkite on the evening news and saw his cue cards: "Lie! Lie!" I scoured the morning newspaper; the photos exposed the verbiage as lies. I listened with paranoid attention to governmental sermons and, slowly, the Nixon Lie unfolded. Watergate had not yet taken place, but its future servants were already about their mission of converting America.
The haunting chill set in. I feared to walk down the street. My physical and spiritual sight altered. I saw the carnage: Cheerful mothers pushed strollers with mangled bodies hanging out, babies ribboned in flesh. Old women were gored to death on the guitar bayonets of rock and roll marauders. At hip farewell parties suicide squads impaled themselves on hashish sticks and gassed themselves with nitrous oxide ampoules. Parents raced to sacrifice their children, clogging the roads. This is what I saw when I peered. It was worse than I can now recall; but I beheld it. At communion, the bread was a bit of flesh—I gagged, then swallowed it amidst a taste of vomit.
In the mirror I could see no face. I was a face of death, peering back at me.
On July 10, 1970, I drove with Mike Therriault to Little Falls, Minnesota, to encounter the spirit set loose in the world by those who envisioned me as their enemy. In the Little Falls draft office, I renounced all allegiance to the spirits which had bound me to the government’s and the Warrior’s America. I destroyed some draft files. Much to my surprise, the FBI was waiting in the wings. They had spied; Mike and I had walked into their trap. It seemed inevitable. In the Spring of 1972, as a captured enemy, I entered Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution.
In prison, things go backwards. Time is tricky, here. I escape, often, yet am always a captive. Constitutionally, I am a slave of the State. Existentially, I am the freest of all humans. Freedom is sung to the rhythm of the chains, the cadence of cell doors slamming, the clang of spoons on grub trays. I can feel that the world is my captive, that my legal dying is indeed a being born again.
In prison I am back at Creation: Genesis. Time goes neither forward nor backwards but is a presence of remembrance, remembering an embrace whose heart has been cut out. Who is the criminal exposed in the hissing indictment: My God, my God why have you forsaken me?
It is a playful experience. Its thrills and pleasures span the macabre, the horrible, the orgasmic, and the spectacular. It is a theater whose rules I partly know; I will never know more.
Prison gives rise to peculiar ways of thinking because it is a sacrament. Its ritual and liturgy deliver me into the alien presence of criminality. Backwards to Cain’s confrontation with Yahweh. Backwards to Jesus’ sacrilege on breaking the Sabbath. Cain is here. And the condemned, death-row Jesus.
Powerful exterior forces play tricks on me. Things, everyday things, are not what they seem. My name is my number: 8867-147. My clothes degrade rather than express me. The hair under my lips is a privilege, granted by a controller who owns the body that was mine.
My convict’s eyes condemn me to see what only God should see -- the play of sin and the repentance of pain. My face is no longer young or old. It is eternally innocent: fresh to the touch and warm as a newly dead corpse. When I look at others, I am denied the comfort of grace. I no longer see them in the beauty of their differences—shades of skin and shades of bone, gimps and rugged cowboys. I see the self-torturers at the weightlifting pit, their bulging bodies but husks for tormented souls.
Prison’s backward jolt throws me into the primal experience of what it means to be a male in patriarchal society. The jolt is sacramental, delivering me into an awesome presence. I am immersed in a darkness, blinded by its stark light: blacks and whites, no grays. There are only He and She.
Most prison stories are wrong. Prison, they allege, is a male stronghold where the most macho and violent males are corralled and beaten into discipline by other males, super-males flexing the glistening muscles of steel death, brandishing the symbols of a potent sexual power. On some days it looks like that; the appearance is illusion.
Prison is changing me into a female. The idealized woman of the patriarchal culture. I am the prisoner of The Lone Male, bride of The Man. My married name -- 8867-147 -- will be mine to the grave. I am chattel and wear the clothing of khaki anonymity—that The Man finds fetching. He constantly guards me and counts me in the light and in the darkness of my time serving him. Courteous, he opens doors for his lady who waits, keyless, and calls for The Man to unlock the knobless doors. I wait. He is checking out my restrictions. I wait. I wait. He has a lock on the keys to my heart.
And it is his power, the fearsome force of that exterior institutional power, which makes me bend over and spread my cheeks. [Scream: "C’mon, it can’t be, we’re both men!"] The sacrament takes effect: I, at any moment, am his: night, morning, afternoon delight. At any place: I am walking the hall and he says, "Open your mouth"...he probes my ears, I rake my hair, shake out each shoe...and bend over. And, then the door is banged: it’s over. So simple. So quick.
It happens every day, every time I go to the Visitors room. Take the cartoonist eye: behind the wall is arse mouth being inspected; as on the other side the family awaits: sons and daughters, dads and moms, lovers, babies. I emerge not looking raped. I neat up. Primp and pat. But it is done. I am now the trick. His squeeze
It’s like that. No intimate space permitted. I am not just possessed, but ravished. (He pauses, waits for my response: Shouldn’t I admire his great virility?) I am now feminized. I am now the real presence of the symbolic actions that constitute prison.
To be such a female, is an experience searing in its complexities and contradictions. Questions: Am I afraid of—or truly fascinated by—his terrifying mystery? His power over my time, my space, my flesh? Do I dare confront what I have become? Do I dare admit the security my married identity brings?
The answers have equal yeses and noes. After all, what is his power if it is all playtime? He knows that he can get me to pull down my pants at any time, but he also knows that I am sticking it in his face. I have days when I am relieved that I am in prison—at least I know who has the gun. But, I recall mashing my face against the Yard’s chain-linked fence, envying the insects who flitted between the weeds and the flowers.
It took some time for confession to reach my tongue. I knew that I was feminized, but could not, would not, confess it. The Lone Male, confronted, is ghastly Warrior shadow. Desirous to enslave, not just for the State but for intimate reasons. Indeed, prison shows the grim truth of the slogan: "the personal is political." I first realized its meaning when I found that the government had no conceptual or juridical category for political prisoners. In this way, it could deny my existence. In court, I was charged with breaking and entering—not with interference with the war in Vietnam. My trial lasted several weeks during which Vietnam Vets, historians, theologians, biological warfare scientists, and I testified. In his instructions, however, the judge directed the jury to disregard everything which I and my witnesses had said. It became clear that the government sees every criminal act, not as a political or economic threat, but as defiance of its spiritual guidance.
The government’s Spirit is that of the Biblical Warrior. It lies behind its politics, economics and morality. It is present in its perverted form as shadow, but because the government is so thoroughly identified with The Lone Male Warrior, they believe that it is the Light. Their language reveals what they see when they peer at themselves: War is peace, poverty is wealth; "All men are created equal." (Tough luck for women and other patriarchal females: prisoners of the ghetto, inmates of the Reservation.) They attempt to obliterate anyone who transgresses. They obliterate through sacred sacrifice, offering the holocaust. The government tolerates no myth other than its own, The Lone Male Warrior. It despises the Female. The prisoner must be made impotent. He must be turned into a lady. To achieve rehabilitation, I must accept transformation into a fag.
My experience of this process clarified another unsettling experience. For years a memory had lingered in my dreams because unanswered. I had been asked, "Are you a fag?" From within the prison’s darkness, an answer came forth, a whispered answer, buoyed by light...and it came at The Bottom as The Mother embraced me.
Before I can properly talk about Her, I need to bring together two experiences. One, the occasion of this fag question which came early in my anti-war days; the other, my post-prison adoration of The Bottle.
I am back in 1968 Chicago, on a panel discussing the war, at a post-Mass meeting. A bloop-bellied man stands up and asks, "Are you a fag?"
I look at the other panelists and they at me. The question slides into a side pocket of the discussion. My baffled "No" lays the curious matter to rest. Yet, this event defines my memory and casts my experiences into a recognizable mold. It is, I find, The Lone Male’s central theological question. It is the foundation question that is never clearly articulated, "Was Jesus a fag?" To hear it clearly asked, to begin to respond to it, to be disturbed adequately with its fear and hope, I had to bottom out.
At The Bottom, in the Summer of 1980, the question wings in again. I am recovering in a perspiring room. I have just undergone an aversive therapy treatment for alcoholism. I am lying here, having raged through a battle against myself, when he comes back. I hear him shout a word of The Lone Male. From somewhere, he screams: "Are you a fag?"
The room is suffocating me, body and soul. Jesus, am I going crazy? I stink. (I look around: after retching my guts out, they have closed off the room and left empty bottles and drenched rags.) An evocation of the odor of sanctity. Yes, I physically stink. I am in no mood for this memory, I just want to be alone, to rest. Christ, I have just vomited my soul. For five days I have labored against myself, conceiving a new body within me through this therapy. But, that question stands (is it immovable?)... that invitation. Admit it! I am a Fag! Savor it. I am not The Lone Male. Not now, not ever, can never be. I have failed. I am shit!
To rise from The Bottom...to move and so to surrender prison—the prison which I had been unable to relinquish...I am compelled to testify: Yes, the bottle is my prison sacrament. I carry it with me -- my own private cell. Whenever I feel like a fag, I drink its sacred liquid and commune my God, The Lone Male. And, while in the bottle I can make dreams of power and escape, fly into patriarchal innocence—justify using women, relish my self-deception.
"I have been tricked!" "I am the trick!" I adore the bottle: wine and whiskey become the blood of life. The Lone Male’s first temptation: that the Warrior can live by blood alone. As a fag I yielded to a second temptation: I am the authority, messiah, Son of God. The Lone Warrior turns himself through Jesus into God. He perverts the healing, nurturing and non-violent spirit released by Jesus’ submission into crusading force. He proclaims not the Suffering Servant but Christ the King. Jesus’ maleness is consumed by The Lone Male shadow. And I confess, "I have imitated you!" I am here with my wine bottle and my whiskey bottle. I will no longer fondle them, suck them, shove them into my mouth or bash them against a wall. I will refuse all male registrations and rituals. No draft cards, no booze. I am a fag, dear Jesus, just like you. Amen.
At The Bottom: clutter of The Lone Male’s psyche. I find myself imprisoned within my own prison, fagged and boozed out. The glimmer of Her presence in prison stirs within me. But what is my way out? My daily discipline? How am I to act? ... I will reach the way of The Mother. My passage is through Fag Culture.
Prison, The Bottle and The Bottom have been my ways to The Mother. In each I met myself as Warrior Lone Male shadow, as Fag. My personal experience revealed something about the culture at large.
How are males taught to see the real Male, feel masculine identity? In this media culture—with its prime time wars: "Am I watching a War Movie or the Movie War?"—the line separating the fag from the "real man" is simple. If you do not become John Wayne, "The Duke," you are a fag. It is easy to slip-over the line. The Duke’s world is starkly black and white, no grays. And only idealized females are allowed into his embrace. Touched by his shadow they bend their necks for his boot.
Eros does not charge the air around The Duke and his ladies. He does not seduce them, nor they he. He corrals them, like so many fillies. His eyes never dance over their bodies. He lusts instead to possess their female power. The inevitable storyline is that of a spunky, strong-willed woman whom The Duke breaks to the saddle. In the end, each of The Duke’s leading ladies, as they say in prison, assumes the position: she bends over and is jammed with the magic wand, the redeeming patriarchal phallus of a real man.
The Duke’s power is unbridled. There is no Male identity outside his spirit. He transforms the nurturing, healing, teaching and other feminine traits of his women into tools for conquering the frontier of the American spirit, which The Duke has transformed into The Lone Male shadow.
Paradoxically, The Duke catalyzed my cultural deviance and criminality. When I had to "take the beach"—register for the draft—I was distressed that he—my Male messiah—had not saved me. The Duke’s Maleness was transcendental. Though I would not, could not, follow him into bloody battle, I strove to sacrifice vicariously. I fashioned my anti-war activity in imitation of The Duke. I took pleasure in the battle. Flexing intellectual and moral muscle, I fought toe to toe with the war warriors. I took their blows, their taunts and insults, their handcuffs and barred cells, their byzantine legal degradations. I would show them that a non-violent warrior was no wimp, homo, queer. Like The Duke, I rejected the deviance from the idealized male role: I made my stand on being, penis to penis, as totemic as he was.
I slashed and burned my way into prison. They took me resisting to the last. I was impervious to their chains and cuffs, iron cots and mealy grub, loud insults and hissed threats. The years of Resistance had taught me how to use my body to state what could not be directly spoken. My enemies were Warriors ... my companions were Warriors. So was I....I stood naked and proud among them, The Duke of Non-Violence. ... I confess: I am a fag: The Lone Male’s "woman." ... Absolve me of my past pretense, of not peering fully! I thought that I could resist evil, counter The Lone Male—in Warrior style. Now, I confess my failure. "Duke, I’m fagged out!"
This I mentally grasped in prison, but only felt at The Bottom, as I inhaled my puking stink. "Yes, I am a fag!"
At The Bottom, the shrill "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" pierces the desert silence. No answer comes, no salvation from The Lone Male as Father. At The Bottom—where desperation rules, where we will make any promise in our yearning for rescue—we face, stunned, the collusive impassiveness of The Father and of Satan. At The Bottom, we crave the easy answer.
But there are only hard answers. There are no answers to the condemned Jesus’ cry, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" ... Why? -- Satan provides the insight: "Worship me." Worship me because I am like The Father. I turn stones into bread. I give you authority and glory. I am worthy of worship because I am The Father’s equal.
In fact this is Prison’s Revelation: its Truth and so its Lie—that Satan is The Father’s Lone Son, not Jesus.
Jesus’ satanic temptation was and is mine: to shrink God to Only Father—to worship Lone Maleness. That as Lone Male and Father I shall be faithful to the Warrior God. At The Bottom, this makes Satanic sense.
I have lived within The Lone Male’s illusion: obeying a Church which claims that God is only Father authority and that there is no Goddess: no Mother, no feminine spiritual power .... a State which claims that it can change the stones of war into the bread of peace. I have acted within this illusion: transubstantiated into Messiah. I warred in the name of peace. But Prison shattered all these Warrior illusions. Its many follies were scrawled on the cell-block walls.
At that choking moment when my convict eyes observed myself as fag, as the idealized female of The Lone Male fantasy, a Presence and a Power strengthened me. A Presence which asks no one to become enslaved, no one to become a patriarchal female.
At The Bottom, I met the Goddess who is present as Mother.
How does one now testify to the unnerving calm of metanoia? Of turning to face the person whose presence was as close as an embrace—an embrace by one whose face one does not see -- The Mother? At the third temptation, I had to respond, testifying as to whom I worshipped. Not the God whom Satan imitated—the lonely, solitary confined Father, the patriarchal Warrior Male shadow. But turning from him, testifying to that of God which is not magical and seeks authority over neither me nor the world—The Mother.
But how is the Mother recognized? At first I didn’t see her. There is no one here. Just empty beds, foursquare for the inspection. Neatness and savagery. At night Prison beds creak with lonely lust and the air carries hissing indictments of The Father’s abandonment. "My God! My God!...." Orgasmic surrender, in dreams, in the flesh: I roll over and pull the pillow over my head. I awoke, ten thousand times, that first year of parole and kissed my bottle: "...in remembrance of me."
I felt some presence around me, smelled her, ached with a pregnancy months over due. I sought salvation in female messiahs. They must know! I was desperate. What was within me was feeding upon me and I was withering. No messiahs! Are there no messiahs of any sex?!
Jesus. Talk to me, Jesus. Did you understand The Lone Male shadow? Did you hear an answer, however imperceptible to others? I wouldn’t be surprised that you heard Her. Yet those who follow understand the Cross as the hilt of the Sword.
At bottle’s Bottom, I experienced Her impatience. She laughed at my Messianic urges. She said that there are no Messiahs, male or female. I surrender Mother, accept me though I stink. My mother stood by me through prison and my wife through The Bottom. Now The Mother’s presence enfolded me.
At my moment of blood lust, She comes. There are 70 men, inmates in this room. I am being locked up and counted, again. I hate that son of a bitch Matthews. The fucking hack runs mind-games on me. Fucks with my mustache, fucks with my locker, fucks with me standing in line for chow. I wake from my grave with his eyes staring at me, raping me. I must kill him. I am pleased by the thought...I would give anything for the power to crush him, fucking head by fucking leg into a little pile of shit!...."It is consummated!" ... Now, I know that I have been rehabilitated ... for I am now Him: Lone Male Warrior.
At this moment of blood lust, She comes to me. I hide. What shames me? It was only fantasy ... No! I tasted him dying in my mouth. What more need I know but that I willed it? And so the startling moment of First Communion. What appears as the dying of pregnancy is the shattering, trembling delivery of a presence from within. Is this your resurrection, Mother? I know The Father’s—risen to conquer. Is this yours—conquered to rise? Why tell me about birthpain, are they not but your violences? Your truth is too hard.
Has it come to this? A simple peasant’s message delivered by angelic light? Birthing reveals that only by accepting my Lone Male Warrior violence can my life come forth. That being non-violent is a way of creatively imagining one’s Warrior violence.
Where is She within me, Mother? Tell me how to talk with Her, companion Her. She was there in the post-partum resurrectional glow. Snuggling Jesus, homeless, first among the least. Receiving his slimy body with all the joy she remembered from his birthing. Yes, this is the final transformational crossroad: for me, The Lone Male, to accept being accepted. Being accepted unconditionally, with all of my violences, mad fantasies, and betrayals. I pray: to live feeling how everyone accepts me. Receives me as She did. To live allowing the feelings of all strangers to be mine. To live as revealed through prison time: with no place, no person more precious than you, here. It is all queerly strange. Prison is Satan’s haunt. Yet it is The Mother’s body. As such a sacrament of birthing, of pregnant months, of unfailing embracing.
There are so many prisons of The Lone Male shadow. So many rituals which enslave and degrade. So many minor liturgies to match the major rites of prison and the Selective Service System. Ah, She is wonderful! May I be her worthy child! as I "set prisoners free" with simple kind words and the dismantling of the sacrament of patriarchal feminization.
I laugh, a very, very hushed laugh, imperceptible but to me. "So, this is it!"
At The Bottom, angels come to minister. The task ahead: to carve with a tongue unused to these alien categories, my sacrilegious words. God The Mother embracing God The Father made present through Child: each and everyone one of us ... each and all present, here at The Bottom, my family: Holy.