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

Why Storytelling Matters via Patrick Moreau

“Why storytelling?” It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, often preceded by the phrase, “Out of all the career paths you could have pursued.” The standard answer has always been, “Because it matters, because it expresses our humanity, because it can change the world.”

For me, it’s something that I have witnessed in my own life, and in the lives of many others. An accumulation of experiences over many years that led to a profound understanding, built like the pyramids, one block at a time. Though it’s a reality constantly evolving, never finished.

I would venture to say that Patrick Moreau‘s experience is similar in that he has spent many years honing his own craft of storytelling as the founder of Muse Storytelling, but in his case there was a pivotal moment when the telling of stories took on new meaning and purpose.

Every story is the opportunity of a lifetime and we just rarely realize it.

Many personal stories involve tragic events or circumstances that cause a shift in perspective about the world and our place in it. We come away changed, as well as conflicted and confused, yet clarity can also manifest. Take a few minutes to watch this video about Patrick’s journey, then reflect on your desire, and maybe reluctance, to share your story with others.

Transcript (with minor edits for readability)

Amina Moreau: So, I just came back from interviewing Patrick for our launch film, and I’ve got to say, we had a really great plan going into this thing. We knew exactly what we wanted our story to be. But every so often, when you’re in an interview, something so amazing, or so unexpected happens that you know you’ve got to pivot your story.

Here’s what happened:

Why does it matter to you so much that you live a life of purpose?

Patrick Moreau: That was my mom. She took her own life, and my sister and I had to go back to Midland and pack up her apartment.

I mean, for over a decade my mom struggled with bipolar, which means she’d have these manic phases where she’d fly to places like Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan and then would often come crashing down into a depression and somebody’d have to go and try and bring her back.

I went to Lebanon to try and bring her back when she became depressed, and I’ve sat on an airplane next to her for eight hours and she pretends to read, you know, because then it looks like you’re normal.

I can’t imagine the reality of somebody going through their life trying to hide their pain so that people don’t try and bother them, you know? And so, it just came to a point where she felt like she was more of a burden.

A lot of people would probably tell you that the depression killed her, but it was not having purpose anymore. It was not being able to follow her purpose. It was not being able to find it in herself to do anything that she felt would really make a difference for anybody.

It’s incredibly hard to lose somebody you’re that close to, but what allowed me to survive was having a purpose, was believing that what we’re actually doing really does matter and makes a difference.

So it’s a very deep-seated sense that purpose not only matters, it not only drives you forward, but it also keeps you going, and it also will help see you through, and it is one of the most fulfilling things that you can have. You know?

I don’t think a lot of us realize that being a storyteller truly is the greatest job out there, because not only do we get to do something, it can really make a positive difference, that we can really take things and share them with people in a way that’s gonna open their minds, let them see something different. But that we are also changed by those things.

If I have the ability to extract something from our experience and to bring together an incredible team of people who can come up with a repeatable way that different people, wherever they are in the world, can use this structure and these ideas to do what they do better and to love it more, I mean, it feels like a crime not to.

How do you not share that? How do you not take the opportunity to try and do that? I don’t know, I guess it seems bizarre ‘cuz people come up to you all the time and they go, like, why are you sharing this?

Like, why do you just give away everything you know? And I have such a hard time understanding that question. Why would I keep it? Are you gonna go and tell your best story and then go lock it in your bedroom and go, “No, no, this is for me!”

No, you share it with people. You want it to make an impact. Well, you know what? Muse is my story. It is something that I believe in that deeply, that it can be your journey, that can help you actually make a difference and that’s all it is. And so of course, I want to share that with as many people as I can. And I want them to be able to use it and take it and take whatever works for you and just do what you do a little bit better and I’m happy.

Every story is the opportunity of a lifetime and we just rarely realize it. You rarely realize that we have an opportunity to really let somebody be heard, to allow them to see themselves in a different way, and to share something with other people that could make a difference for them.

One of the last things that my mom really wanted was to share her story. It was to have it matter to somebody else other than her. For people to take her pain in her experience with bipolar and to learn something from it, to be able to live their own lives a little bit better.

And I will one day tell that story in a bigger way. And when I do, I want it to be the best damn story I’ve ever told. You know, I want to make sure that I’m not missing anything, I haven’t left anything on the table, and that’s why we’re building this. You know? Because that’s what matters to me, this story.

But everybody else, they have something that matters to them, and it’s just about creating something that allows us all to make the most of every story we tell.

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

 

You Matter – Your Story Matters

Over the years I’ve talked to thousands of people about storytelling, especially the impactful niche of personal storytelling, and the most common reason many folks are reluctant to tell their story is that they don’t feel their story matters much, that their experiences and lessons learned over the years wouldn’t be of interest to others. When I hear such explanations it can sound as though they’re saying they don’t matter, so why would anyone listen to them.

When I mention this view they quickly counter that they do, in fact, matter to their inner circle of family and friends, that they are loved and listened to. But in the grand scheme of things, to society as a whole, they don’t feel they have much wisdom to offer. That’s a belief I have never subscribed to, which is why I enjoy the process of working with these individuals to uncover the pearls of wisdom they have to share, and to build a narrative around them.

Working with entrepreneurs and business leaders, students and academics, immigrants and refugees, inmates and military personnel, I’ve seen how powerful these personal stories can be once they understand and believe that their story can positively affect the lives of others.

Which brings me to an insightful book that preaches the gospel of recognizing how much we matter and the benefits which can be derived at the individual level, and within our society. You Matter: Learning to Love Who You Really Are by Matthew Emerzian offers insights into the topic of why each of us matters, how acknowledging that fact empowers us, and why that newfound understanding and perspective ultimately benefits the world around us.

You Matter.: Learning to Love Who You Really Are by Matthew Emerzian

I had the pleasure of meeting Matt in 2012 after he gave his TEDxSanDiego Talk. It was hard to square up the man with a smile that exuded such happiness, positivity and charm, with the narrative he had just shared on stage.

From his perch atop the entertainment world as a senior vice president working on projects for artists such as U2, Coldplay, and Black Eyed Peas, Matt’s world crumbled around him as he fell into a deep abyss of depression and chronic anxiety disorder. A place of darkness and despair that could cripple the best of us.

I believe that self-and social transformation are first cousins and they happen interchangeably at the same time.

But thankfully Matt’s story is one of personal transformation and revelation as he came to understand the principles of living a life that recognizes the value each of us possesses, and the inherent value of service to others. Coming out of his ordeal Matt founded a non-profit, Every Monday Matters, committed to helping individuals and organizations understand how much and why they matter – to themselves, the community, and the world.

If you read his book (please do, it will transform you) you’ll experience a degree of openness and vulnerability that few storytellers dare to share. In doing so he illustrates the fact that the only way a story of change can have impact is for the audience to understand the full extent of the highs and lows, the doubts and rebirth. Such stories can’t be sugar coated, or stay on the surface. Authenticity must be front and center. They need to spend time in your shoes.

Judging is much easier to do than taking the time to invest in others, to learn their stories, and to understand why they might be different from us.

Along the way Matt also came to embrace the need for empathy and compassion, to hear the stories of strangers, as well as his friends and family. To ask questions. To see the value in experiences different than his own. I’m a big proponent of storylistening for just this reason, as our stories become more impactful when we listen to and respect the journey that people we meet have endured. Storytelling wisdom is gained when we listen more than we speak.

We cannot let anything get in the way of serving one another. So always be ready to serve – every day, in every way. Remember, you matter, but it’s not always about you.

The most impactful stories are those crafted with the audience in mind and formulated to resonate in a way that will alter their perception of an important issue. To that end I always tell speakers, It’s your story, but it’s not about you. When change is what matters most, the essence of your story should take the audience on a journey, leading to a new place of understanding, but do so with a sense of service, not with an objective of accomplishment.

When we all show up in a grateful and giving way, we help dreams come true for one another, and that’s a life well lived and a world well served.

As you come to embrace how much you matter, how much we all matter, and how much more we matter when thinking of each other, take a moment to consider how your personal story can exemplify this impactful paradigm of humanity. How it can reveal more of who you are, and create more profound connections. Remember. You Matter. Your Stories Matter.

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

 

Storytelling and the Power of Reflection

Personal storytelling consists of recounting events that have occurred in the past, describing the state of the world as it is today, or offering up our theory as to how the future may look.

As storytellers our narratives include a combination of external actions and events, as well as your internal thoughts or feelings. An audience rarely wants to hear a continuous string of facts which sounds like a news article. They want to connect to the storyteller and they want to understand what the story meant to them. They need the Pathos (emotion) in addition to the Logos (logic), and this is the power of reflection in storytelling.

It goes beyond what you saw, or heard, or read. It’s about your interpretation of events, how it made you feel, how it changed you. It can also examine an alternate storyline. What if you (or someone else) had said something differently, or reacted differently. The what if can be powerful, as the audience is given the opportunity to ask themselves, what if.

In a 2004 article on Transom.org, This American Life creator Ira Glass states his view that reflection is critical to radio storytelling.

“I usually think of a radio story (the kind of story we do on This American Life, anyway) as having two basic parts to it. There’s the plot, where someone goes through some experience. And then there are moments of reflection, where this person (or another character in the story, or the narrator) says something interesting about what’s happened.”

For some folks reflection comes naturally. They want listeners to know how they felt, or what they thought, or what they believe to be true. But for many people the process is not so easy. They lean toward reporting the facts and refrain from sharing their innermost thoughts. Sometimes it’s an issue of vulnerability, digging into feelings they are not comfortable sharing in public, but often times it’s about the common tendency to stay on the surface when telling a story, or believing their view would not be interesting to an audience.

Joan Didion is one of my favorite writers for many reasons (more on that in a future post), but one is her prowess when it comes to reflection. Much of Joan’s writing is about her views of people and events, as well as herself, and the nature of being human. It’s a style of writing that requires pausing, examining, digesting, and sometimes a long look in the mirror.

I was reminded of this trait while re-reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays that largely describe her experiences while in California during the societal upheaval of the 1960s. In one of those essays, On Keeping a Notebook, she reflects on the fact that we’re not the person we seem to be in the moment, but rather a collection of all the versions we’ve been over time. We frequently upgrade our operating system, for better or worse.

While the following line is her own reflection, one cannot but follow suit and think about the relationship that we have with our past selves.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

Joan Didion Slouching Towards Bethlehem

When I first read that line I stopped and put the book down to ponder my own paradox with past revisions of myself. Which personifications was I happy with and maintained a healthy relationship with, and which were best forgotten. The ones that, according to Joan, I should at least recognize for their contribution.

After that single sentence she could have moved on to the next topic, but her reflection went much deeper, diving into the consequences of not following a nodding approach.

“Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surpass us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. or a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we are.”

As you write your personal story, look for those moments when your thoughts, opinions or conclusions, your musings or insights can add depth and emotion to the narrative. Were you changed in the process? Can the audience connect to your story in a way that changes them?

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

 

De Oratore by Cicero – Book 2 – The Emotions of Oratory

In addition to being a lawyer, politician and philosopher, Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero) was also a preeminent Roman orator. Drawing on the teaching of Greek rhetoric and the craft of oration in Roman times, he composed De Oratore to highlight the principles he believed were at play whenever someone planned to speak on an important topic.

While political speeches and legal proceedings were at the forefront of public speaking during this time, the concepts presented here are valuable in the drafting of any nonfiction narrative. Written in 55 BC, and comprised of three books, De Oratore is a dialogue that is set in 91 BC.

Cicero shares a dialogue, reported to him by Cotta, among a group of excellent political men and orators, who came together to discuss the crisis and general decline of politics. They met in the garden of Lucius Licinius Crassus’ villa in Tusculum.

Lucius Licinius CrassusQuintus Mucius ScaevolaQuintus Catulus
Marcus Antonius OratorGaius Aurelius CottaPublius Sulpicius Rufus

Marcus Antonius speaking to Catulus:

For mankind make far more determinations through hatred or love or desire or anger or grief or joy or hope or fear or error or some other affection of mind than from regard to truth or any settled maxim or principle of right or judicial form or adherence to the laws.

It’s common to believe we make decisions based on logic first and emotions second – does it make sense, and then, do we like it – but sadly the reverse is our reality. Our choices need to feel good first, and if they do, then we look toward the facts as a way to seal the deal.

It’s the same process in storytelling, as well in storylistening. Too often a speaker will want to offer information as their narrative’s foundation, layering on the human elements afterward. I encourage clients to change course and give listeners a reason to empathize before engaging their brains. As I see it, information invites judgement, while emotions invite connection.

Antonius then offers:

The feelings of the hearers are conciliated by a person’s dignity, by his actions, by the character of his life; particulars which can more easily be adorned by eloquence if they really exist than be invented if they have no existence.

While the previous passage dealt with two elements of Aristotle’s rhetoric; Pathos (emotions) and Logos (logic), in this case, however, Antonius is addressing the mysterious nature of the third element – Ethos (ethics).

What is the audience’s gut feel about the speaker? Do they feel he or she is honest, authentic and trustworthy? Some speakers will stretch the truth a bit, embellishing their abilities and track record as a way to impress the audience. But in such cases the audience will usually see through a smoke screen of eloquent delivery.

Keep these observations in mind as you think about the sequence of your story blocks. If the audience believes what you’re saying, then finds their heart touched by your words, and the logic holds up, you will maximize the impact of your story.

[De Oratore excerpts from Delphi Complete Works of Cicero, Translated by J. S. Watson]

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