Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row

I’ve spent a lot of time in prison. Not as an inmate, but instead coaching inmates, helping them craft their personal stories. Stories destined to land on a stage at TEDxDonovanCorrectional in 2017 and 2018. Donovan Correctional Facility is a California State prison, located at the very southern edge of San Diego County, overlooking the international border shared with Mexico.

To say that the experience was profound would be an understatement. Many of these men had spent the majority of their adult lives incarcerated, which in the beginning led me to question whether they had much in the way of wisdom to share with an audience. But over a two year period I continued to be impressed by the insights, the compassion, and the empathy that formed the foundation of their stories. If I had been talking to them on the phone, I would have assumed they were college educated.

The Longform Interview

So when I read the description for the Longform Podcast with Tessie Castillo and George Wilkerson, I dropped everything to have a listen. While I had heard many stories from prison, none of those stories had come from inmates on death row.

“I want other people to see what I see, which is that the men on death row are human beings. They’re incredibly intelligent and insightful and they have so many redemptive qualities…I don’t think I could really convey that as well as if they get their own voice out there. So I wanted this book to be a platform for them and for their voices.”
–Tessie Castillo

“For me, writing was like a form of conversation with myself or with my past, like therapy. So I just chose these periods in my life that I didn’t really understand and that were really powerful and impactful to me, and I just sat down and started writing to understand them and make peace with them.”
–George Wilkerson

Instead of the usual format, whereby host Aaron Lammer interviews an author, in this case Tessie Castillo, the twist to this episode was calling death row inmate George Wilkerson to bring his voice from inside prison to the outside world.

As often happens in life (I could never have predicted that I would spend time coaching inmates inside prison) Tessie had no connection to death row or the death penalty when she met someone at a Super Bowl party who happened to be a psychologist working with death row inmates at a prison in Raleigh, North Carolina.

When she found out that the new warden was permitting classes on death row, Tessie applied to teach a journaling class. Her discovery of who these men had become was similar to my own. It would behove you to spend 43 minutes listening to the interviews. You’ll come to view men on death row in a new light.

Essays From Death Row

Beyond the Longform podcast, and the basis for the conversation, was the book Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row, written by Tessie Castillo and death row inmates: George Wilkerson, Terry Robinson, Michael Braxton, and Lyle May.

Crimson Letters by Tessie Castillo

Through thirty compelling essays written in the prisoners’ own words, Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row offers stories of brutal beatings inside juvenile hall, botched suicide attempts, the terror of the first night on Death Row, the pain of goodbye as a friend is led to execution, and the small acts of humanity that keep hope alive for men living in the shadow of death.

Each carefully crafted personal essay illuminates the complex stew of choice and circumstance that brought four men to Death Row and the cycle of dehumanization and brutality that continues inside prison. At times the men write with humor, at times with despair, at times with deep sensitivity, but always with keen insight and understanding of the common human experience that binds us.

Beginning with the journaling class that she started, Tessie frames the narrative from the perspective of someone who has walked the halls and forged story-based bonds with the men. The series of essays that comprise most of the book take you inside the hearts and minds of these inmates, as well as take you back in time to share the trauma of their childhood experiences.

After spending time with these men and listening to their stories, I don’t claim to know them thoroughly or to fully comprehend why they did what they did. Nor do I defend the crimes of any many on Death Row…But I will defend their humanity because I see it every time I walk through those prison doors.
–Tessie Castillo, excerpt from the Raleigh News & Observer, May 2014

It took me back to my time at Donovan, hearing about lives so different than my own, making it difficult to predict how I would have acted in such circumstances, how my life would have turned out. It’s not a matter of blaming others, or wanting a hall pass for mistakes, but the harsh reality is that downward spirals are challenging, even for the best of us, especially when navigating through a turbulent world of drugs, crime and violence.

The spankings had started a year before our mom left. At first it was just a few pops on the butt every couple weeks or so. But as time went on, the slaps hardened and became more frequent, the bruises took longer to heal. Then he began whipping off his heavy leather belt and the slaps turned into punches that cracked bones.
–George Wilkerson

One of the most difficult aspects of spending sixteen years on Death Row is being stowed away from the outside world. Unlike other facilities, Death Row implements a measure of isolation that wedges a gap in the mental evolution of its denizens.
–Terry Robinson

Our culture was built on three main pillars: Fightin’, stealin’, and gettin’ drunk. Fightin’ was a rite of passage and it determined your position in the hood hierarchy. The better you were at fightin’, the higher your status.
–Michael J. Braxton

In prison, night’s hourglass has extra holes in it. When sleep comes, gone are the plodding daylight hours, confining walls, and thoughts of letters. Sleep is relief for most of us. With this blessed comfort comes dreams of love, companionship, and peace. Desires glow so vivid and deep that reality is a disheartening comparison. Sleep cannot be degraded, beaten or chained. In sleep lies our freedom.
–Lyle May

“I believe that little separates people inside Death Row from those outside it. We are all a complex jumble of hopes, dreams, virtues and mistakes. We strive to be better people. We often fail. Being human is learning to rise again – as these me do, despite the odds – to prove we are more than our worst crime.”
–Tessie Castillo

Time to Reflect

While there is a dark sadness within some of the pages, there is also bright joy that comes from these four big hearts. And though it may not be an intuitive conclusion, as I finished the last page the notion occurred to me that these men have learned more about themselves, and applied that learning to become far more compassionate humans than most of us ever will while we blissfully enjoy our ‘freedom’.

Death Row isn’t a place that lacks humanity, like some people say. It is where humanity is rediscovered and restored. On Death Row the meaningfulness of life tremendously exceeds the inevitability of death. We are all human beings and as such we’re prone to mistakes, but many inmates are simply paradigms of the great fall before triumph. Our humanities are not beyond repair and any judicial system that conceptualizes such nonsense is flawed. To give up on a person’s humanity says a lot about our own. We can never fully share in the humanity of others until we have recognized and repaired our own tendencies towards cruelty and unconscious bias. This means forgiveness, accountability, faith, and in many cases a second chance. No matter our personal or collective opinions, no one will ever deserve to die.
–Terry Robinson

Three Reasons We Don’t Tell Our Story

Some folks are eager to tell us their story. They know their message is one that others could benefit from hearing, and they’re always looking for an opportunity to share their ideas, their wisdom, or the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Whenever I meet one of these people and mention that I used to produce TEDx events, they quickly shift into pitch mode, expressing a desire to be on stage. They’re not the least bit shy and their storytelling passion is front and center.

But I also meet a lot of folks with powerful stories worth sharing, yet they’ll come up with reasons to avoid telling that story to an audience. They’re resigned to remaining silent as I hear them say something like the following…

  • I’m not a great public speaker, and I’m not a professional
  • I just don’t know how to make my story sound interesting
  • I might make a mistake, or even forget what I want to say

Sound familiar? Well, you’re in good company, but I’m here to tell you that none of these reasons should stop you, or even slow you down. So let’s address them, and get you motivated to begin sharing your important stories with the world.

You were born a storyteller

That’s the first thing I want every potential speaker to know, and to embrace. As babies we learn about the world around us by watching and listening. And it doesn’t take long before we learn to speak and begin telling our stories. Simple stories at first, but stories that gain in confidence and complexity day by day.

Think about the thousands of stories you’ve told since – to your family, kids in the neighborhood, and your classmates at school. You’re always telling stories. That said, we’re rarely taught how to tell a story designed to impact others – a story that’s very intentional in its wording, structure and delivery – a story with meaning beyond recounting past events.

Like any other skill that we wish to master – playing an instrument or a sport, for example – we must spend a lot of time and effort to make that happen. The more times you speak in public, and the more effort you put into writing and rehearsing your stories, the better you will get at it – so you don’t need to be a great speaker (yet), or a professional, you just need to be you to tell your story.

Create an interesting story

While we’ve spent our lives telling random stories to each other, stories told to an audience are more intentional, and structured to express an important idea or convey a specific viewpoint. So there are a number of skills to be mastered.

I approach the story process using three steps: ideation, narration, presentation. Before you write a single word of your story you need to define the main message that will drive the narrative and represent the gift that you’re giving the audience. The proverbial pearl of wisdom.

Using a classic marketing mantra, ask three questions regarding your audience:

  • What do you want them to think?
  • How do you want them to feel?
  • What do you want them to do?

Will the essence of your story shift their perspective, teach them something new, touch them emotionally, challenge preconceived notions, or inspire them to act? Ideally, your message is original, imaginative, one they haven’t heard before.

With clarity on your subject, look for story elements that will support your view. Check out these Story Blocks for examples of how you can create a compelling narrative. Utilize elements that will be of interest to your audience, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a captivating story.

Mastering your narrative

Telling a story that includes specific elements – events, observations, feelings, thoughts – presented in a specific order to maximize impact, requires practice. Rehearse, rehearse and rehearse some more. Rehearse by yourself, then do it in front of friends to get feedback. Do they understand the intent of your story?

Take advantage of your phone, tablet or laptop by recording your talk. When played back you will hear yourself saying words you wouldn’t normally use in conversation. Editing at this stage will result in a more naturally sounding talk. Next, capture your presentation on video. Note your body language and facial expressions. Words are always most important, but delivery can add emphasis.

You don’t need to memorize your entire talk (more on this at a later date) but you should know your opening and closing by heart. Starting strong gets the audience engaged, while closing strong will make it memorable. You also need to remember each element of your story, and the sequence of presentation. Delivering your narrative out of order will often confuse the listener.

As to making mistakes, the audience doesn’t have a copy of your talk, so in most cases they won’t even notice if something is missing. But if you do catch yourself saying the wrong thing, such as stating a wrong date or quoting an incorrect number, pause for a moment, take a breath, and correct yourself. The audience will appreciate your honesty.

Conclusion

I could spend hours going into each of these subjects at length, but the bottom line is that there’s a strategy for dealing with each one and you should never allow them to get in the way of sharing your story with a larger audience – your story can change the world!

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

The Challenge of Finding Historical Truth

My last post touched on the art of Interviewing From a Historical Perspective as a way to enrich your story by including the experiences of others. But finding the truth in history can be a problematic topic unto itself, as so much of what we think of as history deviates from the truth in sometimes subtle, and sometimes dramatic fashion.

The decisions we make are largely based on our perceptions of the past, which means the only way we can tell a true narrative is to understand the past correctly. As long as we live within a lie that others have told to protect/enhance their reputation or further their false ideology, we will create/enable a new generation of liars. ~ML

In a recent Longform podcast episode Evan Ratliff spoke with Michelle García, and part of that interview dealt with the issue of determining what is true, as well as the difference between just telling the truth and telling an honest story.

Do listen. It’s a masterclass in coming to understand who you are, where you come from, and the challenges of telling an impactful story others need to hear.

How You Alter the Narrative

If your intent is to capture a story’s essence, to reveal a fundamental truth to your readers/listeners, then you need to be aware of the perspective that you bring to the table, a perspective that affects the process of assimilating the facts, coloring the raw landscape that you’re attempting to faithfully paint.

This process of self-examination and reflection embraced by Michelle guides her in the story creation process, and as you will hear, it requires a special sense of awareness – of your beliefs, your values, and your way of experiencing the world in each present moment.

That the facts are all there, and they’re all accurate, and they’re all right, that I began to wonder, just because you have the facts right, does that mean the story is true in its essence? ~ Michelle García

At one point Michelle refers to a conversation that she had with a law professor on the topic of history repeating itself. His observation was one that we should consider when trying to understand any chain of events: “It’s not that history’s repeating itself, it’s that this is the present moment, reaching into the past, to define its future.”

Take a moment to ponder that statement and consider how it relates to the story that you want to tell. You’re writing in that present moment yet recalling a myriad of events you’ve experienced. The conversations, the environments, the emotions, the interpretations. And you’re telling your story for the simple reason that you have a desire for others to understand what you have learned or come to believe, and maybe, just maybe, their future will be different as a result.

The true power of storytelling lies in the fact that your story can become part of someone else’s story. ~ML

Michelle García as Restless Rebel

I’m always fascinated by the journey that creatives embark upon, or become a part of beyond their will, as they etch out the path which brought them to the current moment of creation. What drives you, pushes you, frustrates you?

I was such a rebel. I was punk. I was angry. I was Sex Pistols. I was The Ramones. I wanted to kick doors down. You have a fury that no one has articulated, put into words, taught you how to channel, and so now you go about the world like a loose cannon, which is what I did, looking to find where you can sort of catalyze all of this energy. ~ Michelle García

Michelle came from a small Texas town that in one narrative would have been a footnote, but in today’s climate of immigrant controversy, of demonizing the other, has taken on a more relevant meaning.

To be able to write about where I was from, was, in a way, to capture a spirit of storytelling, a spirit of what it means to be a journalist, in a way that I had not known before. ~Michelle García

Is that true in your case? Is place a character in your story? A character that’s woven into the fabric of your storyline? How has your origin story shaped the reality of your present moment? The role that it plays is often overlooked or sidelined by speakers/writers. Don’t let it take a back seat. It’s part of your truth.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

Interviewing From a Historical Perspective

The process of crafting an impactful story often begins with identifying events and insights from your life’s journey, but such stories become more compelling and diverse when they include the experiences of others, as additional voices will broaden and deepen the narrative landscape, allowing audience’s to better understand the point you’re proposing, or the lessons you have learned.

One way to do this is by interviewing people who can offer listeners/readers a perspective that expands beyond yours. As with the disciplines of writing and speaking, interviewing is an art form that one must study and practice. When clients ask me how to conduct interviews I steer them to the On Being podcast, hosted by Krista Tippett.

Her interviews with renowned scholars, writers, poets, scientists, and religious leaders explore the most fundamental and profound questions. What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And who will we be to each other? If you’re looking to sharpen your storytelling skills, consider this podcast is an interviewing masterclass.

The podcast recently replayed a timely episode recorded on November 17, 2016: This History is Long; This History Is Deep – it’s an interview with Isabel Wilkerson. By reading the transcript while listening you can identify when Krista is diving deeper into a particular topic, or moving their conversation into new territory.

…our country is like a really old house. I love old houses. I’ve always lived in old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done. And just when you think you’ve finished one renovation, it’s time to do something else. Something else has gone wrong. ~ Isabel Wilkerson

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95,000 Names – 95,000 Stories

Traditions are an essential element of every culture. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.” Stories, in other words. But not just spoken, as humans are prone to create celebrations based on these stories. Such is the case with Pride Month.

The Christopher Street Liberation Day March took place on Sunday, June 28, 1970, one year after the Stonewall Uprising, and provided the sparks that would ultimately ignite the LGBTQ+ movement for equality. In subsequent years gay pride marches and parades would spread to cities across the United States and throughout the globe. The number of events continued to increase rapidly, and in 1999 President Bill Clinton declared June as “Gay & Lesbian Pride Month.”

The modern version of Pride events are largely celebratory, but a remembrance of those who lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic remains a solemn component. Some five decades later, the month of June 2020 has become a focal point for many others whose lives tragically ended before their time, as COVID-19 deaths approach half a million and protesters take to the streets with voices raised in support of Black Lives Matter, protesting to eliminate extreme police violence.

With Pride events cancelled this year due to the virus, it felt as though origin stories which were threads of the tradition would fail to find a public voice. But last week The Kitchen Sisters broadcast an insightful podcast episode that told one of these stories – 95,000 Names: Gert McMullin, Sewing the Frontline.

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