Mikita Brottman's "gutter chic" apparel stood out so in the cloisters of Oxford University that her tutor once handed her a glass of wine, at a faculty reception, with the words, "I’m sorry, my dear, we don’t have any syringes."
It stood to reason that Brottman, with her taste for such grittiness, would be attracted to the works of William Burroughs. In fact, it was Burroughs' book Junkie that she selected when she furthermore realized that teaching literature to inmates in a prison was just the thing.
Alas, the experiment did not go well:
At the prison, we took the books slowly. The men would read a certain number of chapters during the week, then we would meet to discuss their impressions. The first week we met to discuss Junkie, I noticed that Guy wasn’t sitting with his pal and cellmate, Steven. What’s more, he had a black eye. He’d been bitten in the face, he said, by the service dog that Steven was training and which shared the two men’s cell.
. . .
Guy had served four years of an eight-year sentence for drug dealing, a sentence that took into account his prior convictions: theft, possession of a firearm with a felony conviction, and burglary in the second degree. I found it difficult to imagine this indolent young man in the role of a violent criminal. He had a limited attention span. Often, after half an hour of discussion, he’d rest his head on his folded arms and nod off to sleep.
I didn’t mind if Guy dozed, since the other men in the group all seemed involved in the book. They were intrigued by Burroughs’s descriptions of the guns he’d owned, his accounts of robbing drunks on the New York subway and weaseling morphine scripts out of the less-than-scrupulous doctors known as "croakers." They were also curious about the kind of drugs used by Burroughs and his cronies (mainly morphine, heroin, Pantopon, Dilaudid, codeine) and how much they cost
Guy ceased showing up for the lit-rature classes. He was in solitary for using drugs:
"It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have asked him to read Junkie," I told the men. "That must have been what sent him back to doing drugs."
Someone gave a snort of laughter. Guy, the inmates told me, didn’t go back to doing drugs — he’d been high since he got to prison.
Of course, I recalled, you can get anything on the black market. Deprivation creates desire, and desire creates demand. Drugs can be bought on the inside just as they can on the streets, and the boredom and monotony of life behind bars must surely increase the temptation to use.
Guy’s black eye, Steven told me, had actually been the result of an unpaid drug debt. Looking back, it should have been obvious — how could a well-trained service dog give his handler a black eye? — but, too excited by the men’s interest in Junkie, I’d failed to notice the presence, right in front of my eyes, of a sleepy, nodding drug addict.
So much for the power of literature, I thought. According to the other men, Guy hadn’t so much as cracked open the cover of Junkie. To tell the truth, they weren’t even sure if he knew how to read.
I still believe in the power of literature (English majors have to believe this!), but I submit that a bare minimum for being transformed by a great novel is the ability to read.
There seems to be an emphasis today on social improvement through the arts. It doesn't always end well. To be fair to Brottman, she doesn't talk about social improvement. Maybe she just wanted to walk on the wild side. What could be better than reading Burroughs with violent prisoners?
It's charitable to visit prisoners but maybe don't read William Burroughs with them.