This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
My heart was beating fast. I threw off my sweater — suddenly I was feeling very warm. And then I read this line in my student’s essay: “Mein Kampf was my go-to book.”
I facilitate the Words Beyond Bars book discussion group, which meets in a cinderblock classroom in Colorado’s largest prison facility. It’s a bi-monthly education class, and the final book we read last semester was In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson. A psychological history of U.S. Ambassador William Dodd’s tenure in the early, developing years of Nazi Germany, it ignited a discussion that ranged from world politics to the end of German cultural enlightenment to Hitler’s early bedazzlement of his nation.
But even volunteering in prison, I didn’t expect to read an essay like this one.
“I hate government and nothing good comes of it and most people in it are vile,” wrote my student, who is serving a 60-plus-year sentence for an assault conviction. “There was a time when Hitler was a glorified word, and he was considered Uncle Adolf by me and those I lived around.”
His words forced me to check my own mantra, one I’d had to hone in order to work in a prison: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, their own story. The question I now had to ask was whether knowing this man’s views was a game-changer for me more so than knowing what his crime had been. Did I suddenly dislike him now?
The 25 participants of my class — a racially diverse group of black, white, Latino and Native American inmates — are required to submit reflection papers after completing each book. As their facilitator, I critique their writing after I return home, frequently impressed by the deep thinkers and their attention to plot, character and setting.
In this case, the plot included the nonfiction extermination of the Jews.
Was this book a poorly considered selection? A lifer in the last group had written me a kite — in prison lingo, a written request — touting it as a favorite, and it had five stars on Amazon. So why not?
In our discussion about Larson’s book, the questions ranged from, “Why did everyone hate the Jews so much?” to, “Does anyone notice how Hitler’s timing was as perfect as Donald Trump’s?” At one point in the conversation, I shared that my own parents had fled Germany early on, reviled for their religion as early as 1933.
But this essay was the first time a student of mine had exposed me to his race-related beliefs and the mantra of “white survivalism.” Almost worse, he was sharing his views quite respectfully, almost eloquently — he’s not a bad writer. He’d been a book group participant three sessions in a row and had devoured everything we read with perceptive and illuminating observations. He was an asset to the program and generous with praise to others—I’d really liked him.
I just didn’t know all that was inside him. I didn’t realize that the man clad in prison green sitting across from me had been raised in a family for which National Socialist ideology was the gospel.
I read on through his confessional paper, sipping my coffee in silence. As I absorbed his remarks about the demise of white culture in our country today, I felt hoodwinked, foolish for ever believing that our book discussion group could be as transformative as I passionately insist it is. Interacting as a small community of readers is the model for this program, never mind that each person who enters the room committed a felony and is guilty of a serious, often violent, crime. We sit in a circle to symbolize equality. I absolutely believe these men are more than the thing they did, often decades earlier.
Why, then, was I questioning this man, whom I know and respect? Who was the hypocrite here? I was not being duped by this man’s story — he was stating his truth. I felt misled, but by myself: accepting these men as long as they didn’t cross my boundaries with their beliefs. Or maybe I’d been romanticizing my ability to “heal” them with the right book.
Could what a warden once suggested to me be true — that the guys show up in my class just as a diversion, to get out of their cells and hang around a woman?
My student admitted, toward the end of his paper, that he was apprehensive to share his background. After explaining that it was how he was raised, he confided, “I have not totally given up on it, but I have backed way away from much of the extreme hatred that is carried with the Nazi party followers.”
Returning to the subject of the book discussion group, he began a final paragraph with, “I found a way to break free from those suffocating bonds. I joined Words Beyond Bars, a book club. It helps people open up and look at things in a different light. Expanding your mind and being around people you normally wouldn’t talk to.”
I came to this work as a way to thread together my love for literature and my desire to nudge the culture of mass incarceration toward a less punitive, more humanizing system. The men are, in general, polite, grateful, engaged, and desperate for more education. They long for validation and a way to retain their individuality in a grey landscape of sameness, day after day.
The closing of the paper was both moving and disturbing. The writer concludes, “I’d do anything to be a productive member of this society. In doing so I have begun to change. The confines of prison have led me to a certain degree of personal freedom. Freedom in prison — what a concept.”
By the time I get to the end, gone is my sense of being misled. I no longer question my book choice for the discussion group. And I have reached an understanding about this man, one of many.
Karen Lausa is the developer and facilitator of Words Beyond Bars, a book discussion group held in Colorado correctional facilities.