In the Hall of Two Truths

Teaching in prison, I learned that there’s nothing simple about justice or forgiveness

Photo by Rick Hunter, manipulation by Jess Zimmerman

Adam was an earnest student in my prison writing class, a compact but formidable African-American man with creased deep-set eyes who sat to my right at the conference table. He wore bleached white t-shirts and a bead necklace. He was serious and solemn, often copying his texts over and over to get everything right. Sometimes I thought of him as an early scribe, scratching with his pen until everything was perfect.

I didn’t know his crime — we weren’t allowed to ask — but I often tried to envision what it was. He would scare me, I decided, if he confronted me in an alley, whether he was armed or not. But I didn’t know if he had ever actually hurt anyone or just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In class, talking about citations and topic sentences, he did not scare me. In fact, I felt a sense of uncomfortable invincibility—I was untouchable just because I was from a different world. This allowed me to be beneficent. I told my husband that in San Quentin, I was probably the safest I’d ever been.

Adam’s paper was about Maat, the ancient Egyptians’ conception of truth and justice. In early Egyptian society, each person in the community was supposed to comport himself in a way that maintained the rules of Maat, the rules of harmony in the universe. Someone who disobeyed Maat, by causing a disturbance or acting in an unjust manner, was punished.

Maat is also a person, Adam told me. She’s a goddess of sorts and looks like a beautiful young woman wearing a single ostrich feather. Sometimes she looks a little bit like the statue lawyers have on their desks, the one who holds the scales of justice. But Justice is blindfolded. Maat is not. The ancient Egyptians believed that when people died, their souls would proceed to the Hall of the Two Truths, where they had to proclaim to Maat that they were innocent of a whole list of sins that would offend her. Then Maat would weigh their hearts against her feather, to see if it was weighted down by lies. If your heart was lighter than the feather, you’d go on to the good afterlife. If not, your heart was devoured by a she-demon, part lion, part hippo, part alligator.

Adam’s paper was about the application of Maat to today’s world, particularly to African-American communities. He wrote that an understanding of Maat would help young inner city men; crime, he posited, happened because men didn’t understand the link between family, truth and justice. Our communities needed more Maat.

I asked him, “Who’s your audience?”

He scratched his chin. “Everyone,” he finally said.

Sometimes, I like the idea of a beast who eats the hearts of wrongdoers. I’ve been a victim, although it’s not a word I use to describe myself. Actually, until quite recently, I might not have said that word at all. I would’ve explained that it’s not because I felt ashamed, even though I can’t quite articulate another explanation why.

The rape happened while I was in college, and it didn’t just happen once, because he was supposed to be my boyfriend. I never told anyone, but people knew in the way that people know something is wrong with you, that you’ve been marked. Something rots inside of you when it happens, and everyone knows the smell. People distance themselves and say that you are troubled; they don’t want to get involved.

Our relationship was, as my high school friends might have said, “full of drama,” which I’ve learned is a euphemism for violence. He was violent all the time. Sometimes I didn’t consider him my boyfriend because of the things he did, which I knew weren’t things that people who loved each other should do. Mostly, I thought that if I were thinner, prettier, more lovable, it would stop.

I don’t talk about it much because I don’t remember what happened, not exactly. My memory of those months is fragmented, pixelated. I remember a white ceramic bathtub, the dreadful kind in newly renovated apartments with the caulk dried in huge snot-yellow drips, and there was no shower curtain, which bothered me immensely as I washed off. I remember my hair falling out in clumps and my mother buying me vitamins and expensive hair care products because she wanted to think that was the problem. I remember cooking chicken in the wrong kind of pot, and it burnt and stuck to the bottom. I scrubbed and scrubbed with SOS pads until my fingers were raw and threw out the pot anyways.

He never said he was sorry.

“Penitentiary” comes from same root as “penitent.” This imagines prison as a place where people confess, contemplate, and come to regret their crimes. But it also comes from the same root as “repentance,” actively renouncing and making amends for a crime. In many prisons, inmates still perform labor. They fight fires, build roads, clean kitchens and sweep. They make office furniture, license plates, gloves, and glasses. They get paid less than a dollar an hour. The prison authority can deduct up to half of that amount for restitution, money paid to the victims or the state.

A common phrase for serving time is “paying one’s debt to society.” Prison labor literally pays that debt.

I grew up Catholic, and the familiar version of the Lord’s Prayer — the one I memorized with a sticker reward chart — says “forgive us our trespasses.” In one of my old books, there is a footnote: “trespasses,” it said, means “debts.” As in: I have trespassed on your generosity for far too long and now I owe you. I am in your debt. When these sins are weighed, they are heavy, a pound of flesh.

I never knew if the man who raped me felt sorry right afterwards, or whether it took a while, or whether it never happened at all.

At some point, I managed to rid myself of him entirely by hiding in my dorm room and filling out law school applications. I said in them that I wanted to protect the innocent, by which I meant me.

I saw him at a college party, one of the few times I went out. I was filled with rage. I couldn’t believe that he was allowed to walk, to drink, to talk, to laugh. In my mind, he should suffer. I was drinking, and I lost my senses.

“You raped me, you know you did,” I drunkenly yelled over and over. I told him he had done a terrible thing. He hung his head.

“Yes,” he said. And he did look really sad, maybe even miserable.

He didn’t say he was sorry, and I am glad of it. I wouldn’t have believed him.

My mother once told me that being sorry meant that you wouldn’t do it again, but are people who make the same mistakes over and over really incapable of regret? At the time, I think I believed so. Now, I think that maybe those people feel the sorriest of all.

“Yes,” he said, and I screamed, “Not good enough!” I was enraged, like a woman with serpents for hair, and only then did I feel like I had dislodged a demon that might otherwise eat me alive forever. All of the years of therapy and the tissues and gentle reassurances did nothing compared to that one moment. Yes, I lost control. But I also knew exactly what I was doing, and I was pleased to be the one doing the judging. And even if I were confronted with a monster more frightening than myself, I do not think that I would ever say that I was sorry.

If I could be specific, if I could say “on this day, I was raped,” I think it would be easier to understand. It would also be easier to explain. But, in my case, it was a gradual dissolution of something that should be beautiful, the diminishment of what it means to have a relationship.

I feel a great deal of complicity in the whole thing, as if it were my fault. I know that people will say that’s not true, that I was a victim, that abusers use this strategy to maintain control. And I know on the surface that it’s true. But I still can’t understand it, not really, and truthfully it hurts less if I think that I was a little bit to blame. I can change things when the problem lies with me.

When I ask my students about what makes someone change, they tell me that it’s all about accepting responsibility. They tell me that in the past, they blamed other people for the bad things in their lives. That’s why they are in my class: to learn something new, to show their parole boards that they have, in fact, changed. One student tells me that change, real change, takes time. How much time, he wasn’t sure. “Seven years,” another inmate suggested. I asked what was magic about seven years. He shrugged. It seemed like a good number, he thought.

Seven years seems like a reasonable amount of time; it’s a lucky number. It’s now been more than twice that since I was raped. I’ve certainly wanted to think that I could change. I’m less persuaded that I have. I do not know if I can ever make myself light again.

All of the men I see inside are paying for what they have done wrong. This is something they tell me again and again. “I had to take responsibility,” they say. “I’m the only one who can control my actions.” “I need to choose peace over violence.”

It’s persuasive, this idea that people can make different choices. The men urge each other to look forward and not look back. But behind all of this positive talk is a lot of pain. Once, I tried to find someone who felt he was truly rehabilitated. Most of the men I asked told me that they were not. One man shook his head sadly and laughed. “I’m not who you want,” he said.

“Show me someone who has changed,” I begged, but I see now that it was the wrong question. I was asking them to show me their hearts when they were not done with them yet.

Once I went to a therapist who asked me to describe my sexual assault. I remember that she politely asked if she could record our conversation; she was a grad student, I suppose, and worked for the university. I agreed. But when she asked me what happened, there were just no words.

“I’m ugly,” I said. I started to cry and couldn’t talk. I felt as though a great wound was opening up inside my throat. The words were consumed.

She spent the remainder of the time reassuring me that I was beautiful. But that wasn’t what I meant at all.

Rehabilitation is the act of change. It’s acknowledging you’ve done wrong and trying to make amends. Sometimes it can happen as soon as the act has occurred. I know that feeling.

I’m usually sorry immediately after I’ve done something wrong. I used to ask my parents to punish me so that I could have pain on the outside to match the pain I felt on the inside.

“Hit me! Hit me!” I’d cry. They’d refuse.

Years later, I got into a fight with another boyfriend, and I ran and hid behind a bush, like someone in the trenches. “Don’t hit me!” I screamed, and he was incensed that I thought he would.

It hurt more to anticipate the violence than to feel it, to know that the judgment was coming. Once punishment comes, the matter is resolved. There is no more waiting to see how it will all turn out.

When I started visiting prisons, I had nightmares that I would end up in one. I imagined that someone would find out something bad that I had done, and it would be against the law, and I would be arrested and found guilty.

As a result, I worried about what would happen to me in prison. How would I survive? I asked an ex-inmate about prison riots. “What are they actually like?” I said. I wanted to know, how did it feel? What is it like to be in danger?

He told me that there was no sense. “You are always involved,” he said. You can’t pretend that a riot isn’t about you. Everyone is implicated, and everyone is punished.

I could understand then why justice was an ancillary concern. You can’t survive if you keep asking why. To be condemned is a swift end, but to be judged worthy means that more perils lie ahead before you are rewarded.

When I was a child, I asked my priest whether it was a sin to hate if you didn’t act on the thought. What I wanted to know was, did I have to forgive someone, or could I just fake it?

You’re supposed to forgive and move on or you’re supposed to seek revenge. But what happens if you feel nothing?

And what if the person who wronged you doesn’t need your absolution? Forgive us our trespasses, the prayer goes, as we forgive those who trespass against us. But how do we forgive when the forgiveness isn’t sought? What if no one wants it? What if, in other words, my rapist didn’t care? What if he forgot?

Perhaps more frightening than being judged is the idea that the judgment doesn’t matter, that what we do and how we think represent nothing. That the people who hurt and the people who forgive receive the same fate in the end.

I’ve never stopped being amazed at the human heart, how far it goes. Nor have I stopped being amazed at the terrible things people can do. I don’t know if there’s ever a way to make it right, a way to restore balance, but I admire those who try. If we could only preserve our hearts and keep them safe so that they can be weighed, I wonder if they would all be heavy, and if that should be a judgment on us all.