I went into the office at Brick for the first time in almost three weeks Wednesday. I’ve been gone getting new teeth in Costa Rica. I flew in early Tuesday evening to the sight of a 777 strewn over a runway at SFO. Wednesday was busy. With way too many action items, I decided I would not follow the normal schedule and drive north to Novato, instead I would stay at my apartment in Los Gatos and forgo seeing my lover and showing up at the Q for Veterans Healing Veterans. My sweetheart sanctioned my choice. But when I woke early Thursday I knew I couldn’t stay; I had a commitment to witness and support some twenty men. So I was at the coffee shop shortly after 6AM getting a breakfast bagel and large coffee, and soon headed up I280, through SF and finally arriving home at 7:40AM.
The morning went well, B and I had many nice hugs, warm words of being glad to see each other, only one flare. Then three intense hours of the kind of liberty afforded someone making a living doing software these days followed -- I sat on the couch, laptop on lap, writing code, and doing the other minutiae involved in software development in the early 21st century. At shortly after 11AM I was out the door to get a burrito that I would wolf down and drive to San Quentin Prison.
I met Nancy, the volunteer brown card holder authorized to hold this meeting, five minutes late at 11:35. But it was was a good day at the Q, we moved quickly through the outer gate, and then as quickly as ever through the inner gate. To get this far I’ve gone down the checklist: the right color cloths, take id out of wallet, no phone, knives, etc. Paper, pen OK. I could have my wallet, but this seems unwise. The outer gate gives access to the prison offices and to the inner gate. To get through it all you need is good reason and your name on a list of those cleared to enter, cloths that meet the dress code, show your id, and sign in. The inner gate, the count gate, does not have a list. The gate of hell; by passing this gate you are acknowledging your life may be forfeit if necessary to subdue one or more prisoners. The concerns may be more real, but compared to getting on an airplane these days it seems pretty easy. At the Q the inner gate is about 300 yards from the outer gate. There is a tower with guards above it, but when you come up to the door, since you are not an escaping prisoner, you forget it is there. The door leads to a wide hallway with another guard. This morning no prison personnel were coming in or out, which is one reason the passage was quick, because as a visitor one always defers. You sign in. Remove metal from pockets, move to the guard, show him your id. This morning he choose not to wand me. He stamps my wrist with UV sensitive ink. Nancy and I pass to the next step which is the wait for another gate and guard who sits behind bulletproof glass in a room between two steel bar gates -- like the prison walls you’ve seen in video your whole life. We hold up our ids indicating the we have the requirement to pass this gate. The gate lock buzzes and Nancy opens the gate, we both step through and I close the gate -- thunk. We hold up our Ids for the guard to examine despite the fact that she might be as much as six feet away -- at best she can note that they legal ids. She buzzes the second gate, we walk through and I close this gate behind us with the same thunk. Presumably we’ve been counted. We are in the prison.
This is familiar territory to both of us, this is my seventh time in the prison. If one does not look up and read the signs or notice the razor wire it could be a college campus or a church yard, which in some sense it is as there are two chapels, and multiple prisoner offices, to our right -- gardens, fountains, and a guard shack as well. Nancy now forgoes the alarm buzzer we can pick up from that shack and carry as visitors. When we started this a few months ago she did not -- she and I do not feel unsafe here among robbers, and murderers.
We proceed past this area and to the right around the large multi-story building in front of us. Fifty yards ahead is a three story wall -- I have not been beyond this wall but it has several towers with rifled guards, it has doors in a few places, and I know that this is where some prisoners work -- Prison Industries. The road goes left here and there are original prison cells no longer in use to our left as we round the corner. Soon we pass the building and come onto the yard. This time of the day there are many prisoners out getting exercise, playing games, walking or running the yard, gathering in corners, etc. You have seen this place, or some other yard much like it, in many movies. We are headed to the other end of the yard where the ARC building stands. The Addiction Recovery Center (or something like that) is where 12-step meetings are held as well as many other group meetings such as ours -- it is a permanent temporary shelter -- it is beyond a fence with yet another gate, but this is normally unlocked this time of day because the building has been in use, so this day we don’t stop at the guard shack in the yard to ask that it be unlocked.
We walk through the yard, sometimes being acknowledged by prisons, sometimes not, but always seen. The prisoners are hyper alter, walking point, appearing calm. Today Don, the leader and creator of VHV, and I guy who comes across even in prison blues as a CEO, is already in the building and has set up the circle. Don is not a CEO, could be, instead he is a decorated Marine; he holds a masters degree. Bill, another marine is also there. We spend twenty minutes talking business about VHV as the men arrive and take seats. A few minutes before 12:30 we move to the circle and take our seats. Today, which is common, some men are late, something is going bad in one of the cell blocks which will delay them. Some will trickle in, and some will not show. After some discussion we begin a check in. Don reminds us that this is physical, emotional, spiritual.
Before things get going, I walk around the circle and greet the men. I retake my seat next to JD, the official facilitator for this meeting, he picks Kent who is across the circle to start. Kent is emotionally tight, but is good with god today, and he picks the direction to his right for the next guy. The check ins proceed with good, good, OK, or pain, good, good, etc. When it gets to JC he mentions the exercise we are all invited to be working. Our first trauma.
The therapeutic process we are involved in is called narration therapy. The exercise we are working is to write about our first trauma -- this is our first exercise. I have brought my write up, which I’m a little anxious about. Some significant check ins. Steve who is very tight offers maybe his first real check-in, he is glad to show up. Next, JC, one of three out of twenty that said he could not remember his first trauma, but he says “I think I’m getting some ideas of what it might be.” This is the fourth session since we started reading our traumas -- I’ve missed two of these. JC clearly feels hesitant, uncertain. After JC, Toney tells us he has just started VOEG (victim offender education group) training and that he is a little raw, but that it is a good kind of raw. Nancy and JD check in as doing well though Nancy is stressed about her son, and its my turn. I’m aware that I’m glad to be here again, and with my “trauma” in hand perhaps I feel ready to join in. “I’m physically OK, and happy to have new teeth” -- I give a big smile which gets approval from around the circle, “emotionally and spiritually good.” We finish going around the circle.
[As I write I’m wondering who my audience is and how I can share who these men are, but I think I can only reflect who they are through my experience.] The common theme in this room is that we are vets (the only exception being Nancy, because we need one brown card holder -- I don’t have my six months in grade to qualify.) We are white, black, hispanic, and asian. We have educations from did not graduate high school, to masters.
JD is a thin black man, probably early to mid fifties, but he could be 60. Army, but not combat, at least not serious combat. I don’t know how he came to be here behind the wall. Today he is religious, or maybe spiritual, and religion is the way he knows to express this. He recently lost his mother, the last person from his life beyond the wall. He seems just a little unstable to me, but a good man -- maybe that is how he came here. But in this moment he is about to show great wisdom.
JD checks with the three scheduled to read today, that they are ready. It turns out one of them is Nancy. This feels good because this takes care of that little shadow of doubt that it is appropriate for me to do my work here also. But before he starts any of them he comes back to JC and asks: “seems you’ve had something of a breakthrough, care to share more about that?”
RC, still hesitant, describes his mother raging when he was five, with him as silent witness she breaks all the glass things in her room, cutting herself. He still struggles with the idea that this is trauma. But he understands that much of his extreme behavior is rooted here. The circle comes in to support, asking questions, explaining how they see it, sharing related experiences. He talks about not really feeling anything. There any many attempts to give JC context in which to see this. I think about mad, glad, sad, what speaks to me is to add something about trauma leading to not feeling safe. JC shares that his younger siblings stopped sharing with JC the bad things that happened, because JC would avenge. He talks about his brother who is also in the Q and does not know the story just shared. JC’s sharing is brought to a close by Don bringing it back to the exercise: great stuff, now the process is to write it down and read it to the group, because this is different than just telling it. JC has no resistance to this and agrees to do so -- he clearly has gotten something from today. The circle is alive, intimate.
I am struck over and over with how much identify with these men. There stories are different than mine, but not different enough not seem them as like me. I keep thinking about my trauma story as theirs are read, that being stuck here semi-permanent is luck more than wisdom.
JD picks Nancy to read next. Her reading is short -- two paragraphs -- her mother left her alcoholic depressed father with Nancy in tow when she was three years-old returning to Australia. Terrible nightmares with monsters followed. They came back when she was six, mother and father reunited. Here the depth of these men surprised me. Most of their questions were not deep or penetrating, but they also did not just let her sit there. They asked her questions, could the monster be about parents arguing, proposed that she loved her father very much, inquired about the well being of Nancy and her mother and father. Soon there were tears. The catharsis evident. Honesty and simplicity won the day, and allowed for release. Nancy had been close and connected to her father for the last fifteen years of his life, and this was very vital to her now that he is gone. There was acknowledgement that this was a good story, a hopeful story that shows redemption is possible.
Next up was Isaac. Isaac is one of the leaders of this group. He also participated in the previous group -- the first of this kind. I think, but am not certain that like Don he has participated in VOEG training. Some of the content and wisdom of the group was birthed in VOEG training. Isaac is one of those men that carries himself in a way that demands respect. He was an Army Ranger in Vietnam. He would say when questioned, “I joined the Rangers because my patriotism wasn’t about dying for my country but doing the job and doing it well,” and that he wanted to be with other guys of like mind that fully intended to get out alive. The demand for respect is exemplified in the respect he gives others.
As a five year old Isaac remembers his father knocking on the door late at night, but nobody would answer, and he was forbidden. His mother’s new boyfriend was there. Later Isaac witnesses a fight between mother and boyfriend where mom is almost thrown out a window of his little room. Only the reality that she was going out the window created the energy to get out of the man’s grasp. Mom kept men in her life because it made it easier to take care of Isaac and siblings. Over the years there would be more incidents, more boy friends that abused, some men that abused him when she was not around. He had to learn not to tell his father because this only made it worse.
Isaac is a strong man, perhaps buttoned down more than he would admit, but evident that he has done a lot of personal work. Kent challenges him on being buttoned down, his questions almost accusatory. “I was buttoned down like you, and when it exploded it led to bad shit, are you like that?” This is where Isaac explains why he joined the Rangers. Clearly Kent is projecting, but I also see something there. I wonder how Isaac came to be here -- this side of the wall. Isaac is not perturbed like a man in denial though, he takes the issue on directly.
Our time isn’t up, but we don’t have time for another man. The three stories have taken an hour and forty-five minutes, and only fifteen remain. JD suggests that we use the time to checkout, but first asks does anyone have anything to say, or questions still to ask. Several men offer words of support to JC, Kent, and Nancy. Then Steve asks, through some awkward searching, so where is the therapeutic stuff? “There is no therapist here.” Steve is a wounded man, he has referenced several times that he is scared about this process that some of the shit he has gone through is stuff he has never shared; he clearly is uncertain that he will. Plainly Steve wants to come out of his self imposed cage -- one more restrictive than this prison. This question shifts the energy, everyone knows this is big. There is a pause, then Don explains that the writing followed by reading is the primary process. A lot of discussion ensues. Men with more experience giving their version of why and how this works. Steve seems to get it and for the first time says he will write.
I’m blown away, there are tears in my eyes, but I’m too embarrassed to tear openly. Each time I have been in this circle I have been deeply moved. Twenty years in circles outside of this place and there have been few moments as deeply moving. Few moments where I have been witness to this kind of courage. Men allowing themselves to be vulnerable among those that can truly hurt them. They are doing this after just two months. I’ve seen men’s groups go years between demonstrating this kind of courage.
Nancy, Don, Isaac, Randy, JD, and I, as the leaders meet after the meeting. I am moved as I think I have been after every meeting to tell them they are doing remarkable work.
As Nancy and I reversed our path out the prison; through the yard, uncounted at the count gate, wrist under the UV light to prove I’m me, sign out, sign out again. I knew why I had got up in the morning and made the hour and a half trek. It wasn’t just that I had a commitment to these men, it was also that I wanted to be filled with their courage and to discovered what work is here for me.