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Reply To: Incarcerated, But Not Imprisoned,” with Mythologist Dennis Slattery, Ph.D.”

Dennis Slattery

    Hi Stephen: thank you for two provocative questions to lead us into the discussion. First, I want to let you all know what a joy it has been to enter this new modality of teaching inmates in a federal prison in California. It is all done by mail; they have no access to computers and so write all their responses to the questions I pose to them, anchored in a number of pages from Hero with a Thousand Faces. The men I work with are self-selected, namely, they want to improve their lives while serving their sentence. Covid has been devastating in the prison they are in, which is true of prisons across the country. In spite of their struggles to remain healthy, they have continued to mail fine, deep and soulful responses to Campbell’s thoughts on the pages assigned. They use his thinking to launch into their own stories, which touches on Stephen’s first question: their back stories.

    I don’t ask them what they did, how much time they have served, or how much longer before a parole hearing. That all surfaces on its own, naturally and when they are ready to let me know. Some inmates have histories with gangs, drugs, living outside the law; others have been bullied by others and sought revenge that caused greater damage than they had anticipated. Living life in the mode of reacting, often without thought, has brought them to prison. Their own stories were often the story of the gang they belonged to that insisted they buy their narrative and excise their own. Others had such weak senses of themselves that they felt their story was not of any consequence.

    In prison, they realized that they could continue the narrative of an angry, directionless and self-absorbed person, or they could take control of their own story: some returned to their religious beliefs often abandoned years before; others joined AA groups and in time began to lead them. This second option touches on Stephen’s second question above. I will return to it in a moment.

    Others began to study Buddhist thought and incorporate these teachings into their lives. But all realized on some level the value of learning and the value of serving others to pull themselves out of the prison they had constructed around them. They realized that within the confines of a prison, with its tight regimen each day, they could begin to experience, perhaps for the first time in their lives, that freedom is as much an attitude as it is making choices.

    I am what is referred to as an adult child of an alcoholic household. My father, God rest his soul, worked at a modest job all week; on Friday evening, he would begin drinking; by Saturday afternoon he was in full roar mode, venting his frustration of his own life on to his family. I have three brothers and one sister and we all suffered from his outrages, but none more than my mother. Her saving grace came into her life when she discovered Al-Anon. Through regular meetings she reclaimed the dignity and integrity of her life that she had lost. The rest of us coped with this pattern of rage and terror each weekend for decades.

    I have read and tried with some success to practice the teachings of both AA and Al-Anon, which I have fortunately found so many parallels in Buddhist thought, especially the books of Pema Chodron. As Stephen asked above about parallels between the stages of the hero’s journey with Twelve-step Recovery Programs, I discovered so many motifs shared by all three: Campbell’s stages of the journey, twelve step programs and Buddhism. I was gratified to see that several of my student inmates also saw the echoes in their working the steps and reading Campbell’s hero’s journey.

    The inmates I work with have made it part of their own journey towards being inwardly free, serving others in prison who reach out to them. Each of those I guide also share a developing realization that being compassionate towards themselves is a new experience, which, in gratitude, they share with others. They each in their own fashion discover, as Campbell outlines beautifully on pp 90ff of A Joseph Campbell Companion, how we each have two realms to feed: the matter of our bodies and the spirit of our souls. I think that coming to know this truth is one of the major breakthroughs of the inmates.

    Not long ago, one of my students painted a beautiful bird in water-color and sent it to me with one of his assignments. I was breathless when I received it because of the talent it revealed in this man, who has added creating artworks to his daily practices. I had it framed and it hangs in our living room, close to the front door. My wife Sandy and I look at it each time we leave the house. It is a reminder of how many treasures are in all of us, that are often blocked because of some self-harming choices, but when they are given space to flourish, the results are miraculous.

    I hope these observations serve you who read these posts to further your own insights. I look forward to your insights and observations.