I have been amazingly fortunate. Two writers from my prison classes have produced exceptional works. Ken Hartman, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, worked on a memoir in my class at Tehachapi Prison. It was eventually published as Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars.It won the Eric Hoffer award for a memoir and received spectacular reviews. It’s a powerful work, profound, frightening, moving. And now another student of mine, John Nelson, has come up with an equally stunning work, also a prison memoir: Where Excuses Go To Die.
“Where Excuses Go To Die” is funny, touching, wise. Nelson gives you the desperate, grinding prison reality in fire-cracker language that has you shaking your head in admiration. This guy has an eye and an ear and an instinct for what really goes on behind the walls, what criminals are truly like, the relationships between staff and convict, how the whole circus cartwheels along. Want to know how a bright, middle-class kid ends up a convict, serving seven years for bank robbery? Want to know, feel, taste the innards of California prisons in hilarious, disturbing detail, how one survives or doesn’t in fantastical situations absurd, brutal, terrifying? I spent thirteen years teaching in maximum-security prisons. My one-man show, Murderers Are My Life, is a revelation of that world—I thought I had seen it all– but John Nelson pulled the curtains aside and showed me the core of incarceration, stuff that I never could have imagined.
In one section, Nelson writes about a stint he did in solitary in prose so powerful you feel in your guts the horror of solitary confinement.
“Until you make peace with what you’ve done or make this environment your own, you tend to lie on a prison bunk and obsess. There’s not much more to being locked up. In the Hole, though, that feeling is downright crushing. Even things I thought I’d already come to terms with came back with a vengeance… Rocking back and forth in self-loathing there in the Hole, I realized I wasn’t any different or better, just wholly ineligible for the immediate futures my friends would enjoy…When my (dinner) tray arrived I ate in slow motion, nearly a single bean at a time: anything to prolong the diversion. Once I’d polished off the squish of meat paste my anxiety returned. I paced, held my breath, and made toilet-paper origami. I hung upside down from the top bunk, looked down at the ground, and wondered what it would feel like to straighten my knees and drop, face first, onto the cement. What would break first, my nose or my neck?”
Nelson was in the hole for a few days. The California prisons have been on a hunger strike to limit time in the hole to five years! The UN has said that anything over 15 days is cruel and unusual punishment. The barbarity of our prisons is unconscionable and while John Nelson writes of this with energy and humor, the horror remains.
The narrative progresses and shows that for a long while Nelson manages thanks to superior smarts and an innate sense of proportion, to avoid much of the brutality visited on most inmates. Eventually, though, the violence of the place comes to him. A slob of an inmate named, appropriately, Dirt decides Nelson has too many things and invites himself to relieve Nelson of a few of them. At first he asks to borrow Nelson’s walkman. When Nelson refuses he becomes more menacing and demanding and eventually Nelson is forced to physically tangle with him. Their fight is absurd and funny and horrific and sad and shows us how banal and painful the convict life is. It also shows how a superb sensibility and razor-like talent can find humanity and meaning in outrageous and random brutality.
John Nelson accomplishes something that only the best writers achieve: he is able to see and understand and balance that delicate seesaw of ambivalence that is at the core of our reality. Nowhere is this more effective than how he deals with his relationship with his parents. His father throughout is eminently supportive. He accepts calls, he visits, he works with lawyers to mitigate Nelson’s situation. He is the bulwark supporting his son. His mother on the other hand finds it almost impossible to talk with him on the phone. In the years he’s incarcerated she speaks to him five times. She never visits him. In one of those scarce phone conversations he tells her that he took an IQ test given in the prison and that he tested above average. Her response? “You’re average, John. Don’t fool yourself.”
And yet—he tells us that his relations with his dad had always been strained. That during his teen years they engaged in ferocious screaming matches; that he never, even after his release from prison and subsequent successes, felt that his father ever deeply related to him. His mother on the other hand, after his release, hugs him and he apologizes to her and tells her he loves her and she accepts this and tells him that there are two kinds of education in life: one that teaches you how to make a living and one that teaches you how to live. And we sense that John Nelson’s foolish, embarrassing criminality has helped teach him how to live.
Where Excuses Go To Die is a great book. It reveals to us in abundant, humorous detail, terror-filled, wisdom-filled, what it is to be human in the most severe of circumstances. You’ve done well, John Espinosa Nelson. You’re way above average. Let’s make sure everyone hears about this book.