Once upon a time, in a land so far away it now borders of the realm of story, 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.
That story of induction, culture shock, torment, and loss of identity I’ve written about elsewhere. Incarcerated for the crime of coming from an unstable household, not for criminal behavior, I was that middle class kid who fell into the subterranean world of the criminal class.
I grew up in a saga of continual incarceration: juvenile halls, Skinnerian behavior modification programs, shelters, group homes, and foster homes. I lived a fair amount on the streets as well. To deaden my pain, I skated perilously close to alcoholism and drug addiction, but at age 15 sacred plants and molecules blessedly intervened and began to reorient 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 for inexplicable reasons, unable to leave that old, old prison.
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 the bardo I had experienced as a boy, a subterranean place below consciousness I would glimpse in liminal states, where I could feel demonic beings parasitically feeding upon me (this is what PTSD looks like from deep within, I reckon).
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 us spiritually.
And then one night “I” (Who was that “I”? The boy, the grown man, an amalgam of both, a dream of its own within a dream?) again found my/himself caught in the prison system. Another endless confinement stretched before me/him.
But that time, the reaction to the dream was decisive. I spun on my heels, and headed straight to a registration desk. There a man sat behind a computer.
“I don’t belong here,” I told him. “There’s been a mistake. I don’t belong here.”
The man looked me in the eye. Then he said, “Okay, I’ll check.” He typed, studied the monitor, typed some more. Finally, he looked up 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 haven’t been back since, and I pray for the perpetual freedom of my family, my descendants, and for all beings.
Now, when asked about my childhood, I answer, “I had marvelous parents and a blessedly happy childhood. I am so grateful.” Like the ocean waves pounding upon a sandy shoal, story-time has eroded away my memories and I am allowing them to be incorporated, grain by grain, back into its realm again.