Compassionate account of running a literary reading group among convicts at Maryland’s Jessup maximum security prison.
Psychoanalyst and author Brottman (Humanistic Studies/Maryland Institute Coll. of Art; The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals, 2014, etc.) hypothesizes that her own hardscrabble British childhood left her able to relate to criminal outcasts. “I’ve long been preoccupied with the lives of people generally considered unworthy of sympathy,” she writes. Beginning as a volunteer during her sabbatical, she’s kept the reading group going for over three years, despite her concerns that “the compulsion that draws me to these men is less an allegiance than…a form of survivor’s guilt.” Brottman argues that even dark literary works can salve the desperation of a long prison sentence, and she captures the camaraderie created within the group. Each chapter focuses on the group’s reactions to a particular work, while she develops the inmates’ personal stories in the context of prison’s rigors. Her perspective on her subjects becomes disarming, although several have committed murder and others struggle with mental illness. Brottman’s literary selections tend to be bleak and difficult: she began with Heart of Darkness and “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and then moved on to transgressive work by Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs. “To them,” she writes, “as to [Bukowski stand-in] Henry Chinaski, brutality was a fact of nature.” The book group remains a sought-after activity. The author claims that almost “no one dropped out unless they were released or transferred,” even as funding for such programs has diminished. Brottman’s own literary discussion is thoughtful, but the main appeal is the developing bond with her allegedly unsalvageable students, whose warmth and perceptiveness constantly surprise her. As one observes regarding Poe’s “The Black Cat,” “they bury us alive without thinking twice about it.”
Will not appeal to hard-core law-and-order types, but others will find this a brave and empathetic story of how literature brings light into shadows.