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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Our "hideous progeny": A Prisoner's Take on Frankenstein

Yesterday in the Gothic class, we started our unit on Frankenstein. I gave a little background information on the period, and then we began talking about the idea of monstrosity and how it relates to creation. As a writer, I'm always particularly interested in Mary Shelley's reference to her book as her own "hideous progeny," as well as the tale that the first draft of Frankenstein was composed in a mere weekend. One of the prison students surprised me, though, with his take on not only the novel, but the whole concept of "the monsters we create." He argued that the media creates monsters every day by vilifying criminals and by giving criminal attributes to whoever opposes societal norms.

Another student picked up on this and mentioned the oil spill in the Gulf, and how "monster" language was being used both by BP and the government, and still another mentioned terrorism and 9/11. Then a fourth student brought us back to the text and pointed out that Victor Frankenstein's "real problem" was not so much his creation of the monster, but his utter avoidance of it once he did create it. And then he looked at me with a desperate, haunted expression, and said, "Dr. Paterson, don't you think we're like Frankenstein's monster? Society creates us, decides to punish us, but then locks us away and never looks at us again. They just don't want to think of us."

As usual, I walked out of those gates yesterday having learned so much more than I taught.

6 comments:

Mylène said...

Kathryn, I'm curious: do the prisoners tend to believe only that they are creations of society--or do they take some responsibility for their own "monstrous" acts (as indeed Frankenstein must do)?

What a complex experience it must be, sharing such a text with such an audience.

Kathryn Paterson said...

Short answer: some do, some don't. But at the prison where I teach, the "monstrous acts" might be fairly mild. We get a lot of drug and gang related crimes, not a lot of violent crimes. Not that the drug and gang stuff isn't "monstrous" in and of itself, but it's not in the way that many people in the "free world" (as they call it) see it. Where I think the comparison especially applies is with the war veterans who are there for a variety of reasons, but many of which have to do ultimately with some sort of addiction. A large percentage of the men I work with are Vietnam vets, for instance, and ended up drinking or doing drugs as a way to escape the torment of the memories.

But yes, it's a very complex experience, and the same thought passed through my mind when the man said that. Sometimes I think it must be easier for them to see themselves only as society's creations, though, than to take the responsibility and drown in their own guilt.

Colleen Thompson said...

Wow, what a thought-provoking post.

I think your student has a point. Every war, every genocide, and way too many ugly political campaigns involve the dehumanization of "the enemy." Calling opponents monsters is just an extension of that tendency.

He's right, too, about people in the free world wanted to look away from "the prisoner problem." But I also get Mylene's point about personal responsibility.

It's an incredibly complex problem, and it's good that literature gives a venue to explore our feelings with words.

Good work.

Mylène said...

People whose sole crime is that they have taken a drug (I'm not talking about dealers) do not belong in prison. Period. It drives me insane.

Joni Rodgers said...

Nodding to all of the above, including the antediluvian drug laws that do more harm than good. Thanks for sharing this, Dr. KatPat. I love that you're chronicling this experience. Of course, you can't go into something like this with book deal on the brain, but if ever there was a terrific book just waiting to happen...

Kathryn Paterson said...

You know, Joni, I have really thought about it. In fact, I'm considering writing some short non-fiction pieces about the experience when I'm finished with my current project. The only caveat is that I do have to be careful what I say--I feel fine talking about it here on the blog, but I've already been warned that if I write much about it and actually publish, I might have to quit the job. It really depends on how ardently I want to argue on their behalf and how specific I would need to get. But I am definitely thinking about it.

Oh, and you want to know something even more inane than the drugs? I've had some guys in there for having three DUIs. Now I agree that people driving drunk should be punished, but I'm just not sure a lengthy jail sentence is the best way to go, even if they ended up killing someone. As someone whose father was almost killed by a drunk driver (he survived with a broken hip and had to spend several weeks with his leg in traction), I have mixed feelings on that issue.

I also have a lot of complex feelings about criminology and the mentally ill, some of which are coming out through my novel. So many felons have mental illnesses that were undiagnosed at the time of their crimes and continue to go un or undermedicated in prison. I've always thought in those cases that our justice system needed something besides guilty or not guilty due to . . . Something that recognizes the person's responsibility but also recognizes their pathologically limited judgment.

Sigh. There's just so much I could say.