Fantastic Escapes: Disocciative Gestures in Prison Writing
Dissociation disorder is characterized by the creation of a second self; individuals exposed to extreme trauma develop a self that “can watch what is going on from a distance”; a split develops “between the ‘observing self’ and the ‘experiencing self’” (Van der Kolk 192). This paper argues that prison writing has, since Socrates, included rhetorical gestures that enact such a dissociative split. Prison writing that has withstood time has done so because of the value placed on instances of prisoners making moral judgments thought to transcend the immediate conditions of incarceration: from The Apology to The Consolation of Philosophy, from “Civil Disobedience” to De Profundis to “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the prisoner-writer, in using his own case to highlight the injustices of the everyday world of the non-incarcerated, is admired for, in effect, escaping a particular confinement to speak to a wider human condition. These texts are indispensable contributions to the ongoing moral critique of contemporary social institutions and practices, and of the bases of the authority of the state over individuals. By using the model of dissociation disorder to frame the rhetorical gestures required to enact this transcendence and critique, it becomes possible: first, to set these classic texts on a continuum with work produced by men and women in American prisons today; second, by this comparison, to understand that the very act of writing in prison—under surveillance, under threat of brutalization—is a therapeutic act that is ineradicably political. The writer-prisoner takes control of the separation imposed by the state, between the citizen and the prisoner; s/he internalizes that split through the act of writing, and thus transforms it into a creative/moral split between the writing self and the criminalized self. This paper articulates, finally, the implications of its findings for critical assessment of writing under oppressive conditions of any kind.
Keywords: Prison Writing, Political Protest
Prof. Doran Larson
Associate Professor, English, Hamilton College