Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home, by Lauren Kessler. A Book Review


Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home, by Lauren Kessler

                        Reviewed by Neal Lemery, author of Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains

            “We want those to have done harm to us to suffer, to pay for what they did. But in making them suffer, we create the kind of human beings we do not want back in our communities.”

            This engaging book takes makes us uncomfortable and asks us deep and provocative questions about America’s criminal justice system, and how we look at justice and rehabilitation, revenge and compassion.  Kessler takes a deep dive into the lives of prison inmates and their efforts to emerge from prison life with a sense of purpose and hope, and be able to move on with their lives, and become productive members of society.

            As a teacher in prison writing groups, she engages in deep conversations of the lives of some of America’s prison population, pointing out that 95% of all prisoners regain their freedom and attempt to reintegrate into mainstream American society.  America has one of the world’s highest rates of incarceration, with 2.3 million Americans in prison or on parole. With 5% of the world’s population, we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. Our incarceration rate has increased 225% since the 1970s, far exceeding any changes in the crime rate. 

            The failure rate of parole is complex, with many parole violations being technical in nature, rather than the commission of new crimes. “Many failed not because they continued to live a life of crime, but rather because the road to reentry was – is – steep and rocky, full of potholes, a winding path with unmarked detours.”

            This engaging, and well-written and often disturbing book tells the stories of some of her writers’ lives, their own devastating and traumatic childhoods, upbringings, adolescence and young adult lives.  Each chapter takes us deeper into their lives, their struggles, and the institutional barriers and disrespect for their own needs and efforts to grow, recover, and move on into productive lives.  The reader is challenged with uncomfortable and tragic stories, yet inspired by the bravery of those who share their stories with Kessler. The stories are told with a mixture of hope and the bitter truth of the failure of our criminal justice system to offer meaningful rehabilitation and reformation of lives shattered by abuse, addiction, neglect, and violence.  

            As a volunteer mentor for prisoners, I have heard these stories, and gotten to know and appreciate the tragic histories and the struggle to change lives and move on, as well as the indifference and ineffectiveness of the system.  For those of us who work for change in the System, this is a work that has long been needed, as it gives voice to those who have not been heard. This book not only compiles the grim realities of a broken system, it offers insight into what works and what needs to change, giving the reader a comprehensive perspective. The stories are also full of hope, personal achievements, and the efforts of effective programs and dedicated volunteers who are making a difference and offer effective progressive ideas that are making a positive difference. 

            Free is a groundbreaking, well-crafted work, offering solid information and analysis and also personal stories of courage, determination, and personal insight into some of America’s most challenging social and political issues.  It is a call to action, and a beacon of hope for true understanding and action for much of what needs to change in American society.  

            It is both an uncomfortable yet affirming read, written by a skilled author whose talented storytelling both informs and motivates the reader to deeply understand the system and the lives of the often forgotten.  Kessler not only tells important stories, she shows us the way to truly make the changes that are needed, work that will truly make all of us free of the fear and brokenness of the criminal justice system.

Small Things


                                                

                                                            by Neal Lemery

                                    published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 1/19/2022

            We live in a complicated and interconnected world, a world where a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific creates sound we can hear, alters our air pressure, and sends tsunami waves up our beaches and rivers.  Natural and political forces from other places affect our lives, requiring us to respond and alter our lives. We can search data bases and communicate effortlessly with people all over the world. The enormity of all of that is often overwhelming. It is easy to feel insignificant, ineffective, the problems of our lives too big to handle.

            Yet, it is the small things in our lives that are often the most important and the most transformative. 

I’m joining others this week in donating blood.  Being part of the Red Cross blood drive in my town has been something new for me, part of my efforts during the pandemic to do something meaningful for others in need.  I’ve learned it is good for me, too, helping me to feel part of something bigger, making a difference, even saving lives.  I feel involved and I feel I’m acting for the common good. 

Recently, I couldn’t help but overhear part of a conversation between good friends who were digging deep into sobriety and personal accountability.  There was a sharing of experiences and the giving of heartfelt advice and encouragement.  I tried to give them their privacy, yet I felt the energy of their friendship, their mutual respect for each other and their friendship, and their passion for improving lives and building a community based on knowledge and mutual positive regard. Those golden conversations occur a lot, I think, the sharing of experience and wisdom, the love for a friend, building up rather than condemnation and rejoicing in the misfortunes of others.  

That experience reminded me of the deep conversations on addiction I had with a son, one on one, digging in deep to the heart of the dilemmas and questions we both had. We loved each other, we trusted each other, and we both wanted to move on with our lives and deal with the elephant in the living room: addiction. We were both tired of feeling angry and not finding resolution, both wanting to be loved and to give love. I cherished those hard conversations with him.  

When he invited me to his AA meeting, proudly introducing me to the group, I experienced the trust everyone there had with each other, and their passion for changing their lives. I felt my relationship with my son change then, and I grew.  Part of that growth was painful, and included recognizing some uncomfortable, hard truths about me.  That recognition, I have come to realize, is part of my own growing and changing.  

            Such work may seem like small talk, small work that doesn’t make much of a difference in the world.  Yet it does. Such conversations, such truth telling and empowering changes lives.  A changed life changes other lives and changes our communities.  Hope and faith find their voices and people find the strength to change.

            The storms in our lives often give us renewed faith and strength to endure and to change. Dolly Parton reminds us “storms make trees take deeper roots.”  By believing in ourselves and our own and collective goodness, we gain strength, we become the healthier giant trees in the forest that is our community.  

            We live now in the midst of many storms, the pandemic, drug addictions, violence and thievery, houselessness, depression, and other situations that often seem to defy solutions and relief.  Yet, we endure, we cope, and we often move into solutions and remedies that we may not have previously imagined.  The pandemic is teaching us that there is much work to be done to realize our dreams and to heal the wounds that now need our attention.

            The work that needs to be done is often silent.  Confucius reminds us, “a seed grows with no sound, but a tree falls with huge noise. Destruction has noise but creation is quiet. This is the power of silence … grow silently.” 

            We are a resourceful community, and our successes in coping and managing often go uncelebrated.  Yet, like the quiet conversations one has chanced to overhear, that work goes on and changes lives.       

1/19/2022

The Gift of Sobriety


“I know my limit,” one young man kept saying, his bloodshot eyes and pale complexion seemingly at odds with his statement, as he held his energy drink, hands trembling. We were both in line at a store, he and his friends rehashing last night’s alcohol-soaked party.  They boasted to each other about last night’s consumption, getting through hangovers, and the drunk friend who “overdid it”.

 

Addiction doesn’t care.

 

“It reverberates through the whole family, affecting entire generations for years,” a friend recently told me. “Our kids saw that, and it affected each of them. Some were drawn to drinking like a moth to the flame; others were repulsed, and became angry and bitter about their childhood.  The devastation was so widespread, and we are still dealing with it.”

 

Give the gift of sobriety this season.

 

This gift is not a gift to someone else.  It is a gift to you, from you.  Others won’t respond to your preaching and your nagging, except to become even more entrenched in their behavior.

 

Give sobriety to yourself.  Put some distance between you and the behavior, the “stinking thinking”.  Enjoy the quiet when that clutter has been moved to a safe distance away from your corner of the world.

 

Take care of yourself.  Nurture yourself.  Spend some quality time with the real you.  Surround yourself with the things you truly enjoy.  Indulge in the simple pleasures that you hold dear and treasure. Know your limits for addictive thinking and action.

 

Find acceptance in the silence, away from the chaos and noise.  Find the genuine you; that person is an old friend. Honor the innate, fundamental goodness that is your very essence.  Love yourself, for you are worthy of that love.

 

Being sober isn’t just about one’s consumption of alcohol and other drugs.  It is about clear thinking, about avoiding the pitfalls of untruths, propaganda, and self-aggrandizement. When we adopt falsehoods and fashion our lives around deceptions and lies, we lose our direction in life, our ability to fashion a life based on reality and honesty.  Being honest with ourselves is perhaps our most challenging task, but, in the end, coming to grips with what is really true truly serves our selves and our souls.

 

At its heart, sobriety is clear thinking and the pursuit of being honest with yourself.  Recognize the agendas and intentions of others to trick you, manipulate you and tempt you to serve the ulterior and selfish motives of others. Addiction enjoys the company, but it really doesn’t care about you.

 

Be true to yourself.  Search for the truth, as brutal and loud as it may be.  Ignoring truth chips away at our souls, and keeps us from finding and loving our true selves.  Seeing one’s own truth is the path to freedom.

—-Neal Lemery 12/24/2018

Witnessing Truth


“Truth is beautiful and divine no matter how humble its origin.” –Michael Pupin.

He spoke, his voice barely audible above the noise of the visiting room at the prison. We’d played a few hands of cards and munched on some cookies. We’ve only been visiting regularly for a few weeks, chatting about school and his family, and what he wanted to do when he got paroled.

I’d seen it in his eyes, a dark inner story pent up inside, needing to be told.

Tonight, it was time for truth, raw, unvarnished, naked and real.

Sweat beaded up on his forehead, his eyes locking into me.

He laid the cards down, leaned towards me, and began to tell his story, about how he ended up here, making some bad choices, wrestling with the many demons that had stalked his childhood, sending him down his dark road.

His thirteenth year was the worst, the culmination of so much darkness.

His eyes glistened, and he wiped a tear away, as he kept telling his story, filling me in on where he’d been in his young life, and where he wanted to go.

We were doing his homework tonight, working on an assignment that was past due, a requirement for his real graduation, getting out on parole and moving on with his life. This was his duty, to get real with me and tell his story, with all its darkness and shame. In the telling, he held the keys to the door. Being open with me was his path out, his road to freedom.

“I’m scared,” he said. “I just want to be a kid, to have a childhood I never had. Out there terrifies me.”

“I doubt that I’m ready,” he said.

I nodded, telling him we all find the world scary, challenging even in the best of times. We all have our demons and our doubts, I told him.

“You’ll do fine,” I said. “You have your act together. You’re a good man. You’ve got your support team.”

“I’m here to listen to you,” I said.

He wiped his eyes again, and told me more about his life, unloading his shipload of guilt, shame, and remorse.

“I’ve written this all out, and shared it with my family,” he said. “But, I’ve never said all of this out loud before. It was too hard to say the words.”

He’d brought paper and a pencil, but after he wrote out the names and ages of his victims, he laid the pencil down.

“I’ve got to just say this,” he said. “I’ve got to tell you face to face.”

He paused, looking me, a look of expecting something horrible.

“And man to man,” I said. “I’m here for you now.”

It all came out, one slow sentence at a time. He’d look at me, half expecting me to throw a punch, curse at him and walk out on him. His eyes told me that his sins were beyond horrible, unforgiveable, nearly unspeakable.

But, I didn’t move or bat an eye. I stayed there, glued to my seat, ears open wide, my heart aching as his river of pain flowed across the table and flooded the cold cement floor of the visiting room. I was an audience of one, my mission to listen, not pass judgment, to be here as a vessel of unconditional love.

Truth was being told here, his truth, with an occasional tear falling on his hand of cards for the abandoned game, and the rest of the cookies, now forgotten in the telling of this tale.

I leaned forward, eye to eye, and heart to heart. One man to another. Two survivors, two men on our own journeys in life.

“I hear you,” I said. “I hear your truth.”

His shoulders lowered a bit, and his hand waving the half eaten cookie stopped shaking.

I waited, letting him have his space, room to find one painful word after another. They came out slowly, one story and then another, the autobiography of a strong young man.

Finally, there were no more words. I felt at ease. My brave soldier breathed deep and let it all out.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thanks for being brave. And honest. For telling your truth.”

He nodded, the cloud of shame and guilt clearing, the atmosphere in the room easing up.

“Do you want to finish our game?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “You’ve done great work here, and you’re tired. I’ll go so you can get some rest.”

“Being brave and telling the truth is hard work,” I said. “I’m honored to have heard your story tonight.”

He nodded again, a faint smile lighting up his face. We hugged, and I told him I was proud of him, proud of who he was becoming.

We’ll do this again next week, and he’ll tell me more. Not that I want or need the details. I am merely his witness. He needs to tell his story, and speak his truth to the world. He needs to be free of so much.

–Neal Lemery June 2, 2016

Healing


“Until you heal the wounds of your past, you are going to bleed. You can bandage the bleeding with food, with alcohol, with drugs, with work, with cigarettes, with sex; but eventually, it will all ooze through and stain your life. You must find the strength to open the wounds, stick your hands inside, pull out the core of the pain that is holding you in your past, the memories and make peace with them.”
—-Iyanla Vanzant

Today, I am healing from surgery, from lasers cutting eyelid skin, sutures lifting and resizing my eyelids, restoring my peripheral vision. I am healing so that I can experience the world in a richer, more complete way.

This morning, I walked down the lane, greeting the early morning sky with a new enthusiasm, with literally a new vision of the new day. I am re-experiencing the miracle of sight, and of experiencing the world.

Now, my task is to heal. I rest, I sleep, I eat healthy foods, I manage my pain, and I tend to my wounds. All of my day’s tasks is focused on my healing from my surgery. Time is on my side, as I rest and heal, and do the work that is needed to do to recover, to take care of my body, and to celebrate the precious gift of sight.

As I lay back, ice pack on my eyes, letting the cold sink into the skin, into my head, into the wounds, I let the miracle of the cold bring fresh blood to the wounds, more nutrients, more of my life force. My nature is to seek warm, to be comforted by heat, to soak up the sun and bask in the cozy comfort of my bed, reveling in the last bit of drowziness before my day begins.

Yet, it is the cold, the adversity, that brings the healing. To be tested, to be on the edge, and to have to struggle a bit, against the cold, that makes my body stronger, that brings the healing energies I need.

This process is a metaphor of my struggles as a man, to be able to see my wounds, and to take the steps I need to heal, and to be a complete, whole man.

As I grew up, and as I lived through childhood, teenage life, adolescence, and young adulthood, I was wounded. I struggled, and my questions of who I was and what I was all about were unanswered, even mocked, ridiculed. I faced violence, indifference, degradation, and falsehoods. I was led into the wilderness, and then laughed at when I became lost, uncertain as to where I should walk to find my future, my sense of place, my sense of being in this world.

Love of self, and love of others remained a mystery to me, and I was left in the cold, unsure of who I was, unsure of what my role in this world was to be. I was lost and needed to be found, and to find myself.

Those wounds did not bleed like the wounds on my eyes this week. Those wounds were not so easily treated, with sutures, and salves, and the healing powers and potions of my surgeons and nurses. Those wounds were not easily cleansed by sleep, and food, and the loving care of my family.

Yet, those wounds were the most painful, and the most dehumanizing. I was led to believe they did not exist, yet they were the most infectious, the most unnerving, the hardest to treat.

Other men embraced me, encouraging me to push my shoulders back, to open my eyes, and embrace these wounds, and to embrace the challenges of becoming a whole man, a healthy man, a man who has his place in the world, and a destiny to fulfill.

Yes, I am a good person, I am a child of God, I am healthy, and strong, and I have purpose in my life. I have a place in this planet, and I am valued. I am important, and capable of fulfilling my destiny.

I have work to do. I have missions to accomplish. I have tasks to complete, and I am called to be a citizen of the world, and to do good in my life. And, in preparing for that work, in undertaking that work, I must tend to my wounds, and I must do the healing that is needed in order to be healthy, to be strong.

Real health, and real strength comes from embracing my manhood, from seeing my wounds, and treating them. It is my task to open them, and let the pus and infection drain away, and then it is time for the healing. I have a duty to heal, and to give time to myself to be tender with myself, to clean the infection, and to medicate myself with unconditional love and understanding, with acceptance, and with a friendship with God, so that I become healed.

Others helped me. Others showed me the paths to take, and the medications to use. Others offered advice and direction, and comfort. But, most of all, they offered me unconditional love and acceptance, of who I was, and who I was becoming. They accepted me on my journey, and offered support, and kindness, and understanding. They offered patience with me, giving me time to grow, and to heal.

The real work was done deep inside of me. I needed time and confidence, I needed to find my own tools, and to learn how to use them. I needed to go deep, and to connect with God, and to find who I am really am.

I needed to be on my journey, and to take on the leadership that my soul needed to move ahead in life. I am the captain of my ship, and I needed to take the wheel, and to sail through the storms, and to plot my course to the safe harbors. Yet, I needed to be tested and to discover, for myself, that I am strong, that I am capable, that I am filled with love, and that, if I put my soul into a struggle, then I will succeed, and I will find my destiny.

Today, I heal. Today, I move on, learning, accepting, meeting the challenges of today. Today, I embrace my manhood, my humanity, my cloak of being a child of God. I am loved, and I am loving. I know my destiny.

—-Neal Lemery, 2/21/2014

Coronary Care


Being
present
with my friend,
wheeling into heart surgery
so close to dying, yet that loving
heart now
reborn,
oxygen and blood
and life flowing
strong
again,
in every beat.

Hearing his voice
stronger now,
tears joyfully on my face, his
healing already begun–
his heart attack self home
the next day
after the surgeon
is inside his heart,
opening up arteries
with new science.

Life
more precious now
richer in blood and oxygen–
Spirit soaring–
nothing taken for granted
everything previous
everything so
alive.

Neal Lemery
9/6/2012