Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a ten-year boy whose mother (a police officer who had previously worked as a prison guard) took him to a children’s shelter and abandoned him there.
That distant land was the United States, the era was the 1970’s, and I was that child. Children’s shelters in the U.S. were, and probably still are, the equivalent of minimum security prisons. They are run upon the same principles, and the shelter I was left in was adjacent to the actual juvenile halls. The only difference was we could walk out the doors and jump the fence — although when I contemplated escape over the chain link to the roaring highway below I knew I had nowhere to go.
The process of induction, culture shock, torment, loss of identity and all the other traumatizing elements of my experience I’ve written about elsewhere. The point, however, is I was incarcerated for the crime of coming from an unstable household. I was not a criminal — I was a middle class kid whose shaky existence had shattered beneath his feet and who had fallen into the subterranean world of the criminal class.
I grew up afterwards without a family — except for a stint in my father’s house — and experienced incarceration in juvenile halls, Skinnerian behavior modification programs, shelters, group homes, and foster homes. I also lived a fair amount on the streets and to deaden my pain was well on my way to a full-fledged career of alcoholism and drug addiction when sacred plants like psychedelic mushrooms reoriented me to the deeper meaning of life.
At age 19, I entered a Zen Buddhist temple and began to practice serious meditation and from there began, piece by painful piece, to restore my humanity.
Yet the trauma of my incarceration remained in my soul — literally. Even in my forties, when I was married and working as a professor and writer, I would have dreams. Dreams like opium trances, where a terrible weight of time would descend upon me and once again I was incarcerated, punished, unable to leave a prison where I slowly rotted.
Finally, I would awake, my soul leaden, with an uncanny feeling of having lost months of my life in that strange limbo. I would drag myself from bed, telling myself, “It was only a dream,” yet I knew it wasn’t.
Psychologically, I was still wandering in a bardo, a hell that the prison system had cast me into. A realm that had parasitically fed upon my vitality as a boy.
I admit the intense subjectivity of this interpretation – that the soul can be trapped within a nightmare long after the physical circumstances have been left in the past. Yet it illustrates my claim that the prison system not only wreaks havoc in our lives (one counselor I encountered as a boy predicted, “I’ll be seeing you in San Quentin”), but also degrades our souls.
And then one night that “I” (Who was that “I”? The boy, the grown man, an amalgam of both, a dream of its own within a dream?) again found himself caught in the prison system. Another endless confinement stretched before him.
But that time, his reaction to the dream was decisive. Spinning on his heels, he headed straight to a registration desk. There he found a man seated behind a computer.
“I don’t belong here,” he told him. “There’s been a mistake. I don’t belong here.”
The man looked him in the eye. Then he said, “Okay, I’ll check.” He typed, studied the monitor, typed some more. Finally, he looked up at him and said, “You’re right, you don’t belong here.”
I woke up as if a thousand years of weight had fallen from my shoulders. True to his word, I’ve never been back since. And I will never allow another member of my lineage to return there either. I pray for the perpetual freedom of my family, and all beings.