Sunday, June 2, 2013

Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 2 of 7: A Double Life

A Zeal for Convict Justice

I had come into prison haunted by a sense of isolation and alienation, and now I found a real community with the bonds that come from a shared life and friendship.  And I wasn’t the only one.  A convict friend who was nicknamed “Bull” because of his stubbornness and simplicity, was released from prison and then complained to us on the phone that he wanted back in, that he missed his friends and solid cons.  We just shook our heads at that.  The fact that I found my place in a perilous environment also laid to rest, once and for all, my childhood legacy of living in fear and uncertainty.  I didn’t need to prove my toughness anymore; there wouldn’t be any more random fights with strangers or self-inflicted knife burns.  That was all in the past.  For if I could make it in prison, then I could make it anywhere.  Living under the convict code had also restored—however flawed—my moral sense: the fact that people and their possessions were owed a certain amount of respect and care. Though I had enormous blind spots, I actually became a partisan for justice, an enthusiast for the convict code, and I burned when some inmate would cause an injustice.  When I first got to prison, whenever I heard the sounds of a fistfight I would eagerly race to the scene to watch.  But after six months of that I became disillusioned and would just hang my head at the sound of a fight, since a fight meant that someone had violated the code—had been selfish and disrespectful—and now a friend might be going to the “hole”.  Though convict justice is not a Christian ethic, the code did a remarkable job of achieving relative peace amongst a society comprised of robbers and murderers. Moreover, the very harshness of the code was familiar and resonated with hard men who largely came from homes without mercy or gentleness.

Inmates working out in "the yard"

A Life in Books

My secure place in convict society gave me the peace to try to sort out who I was and find my place in the world.  I thought that by reading books that were considered wise or meaningful, I could clear away my confusion and set my life on a clear path.  And so while I was fully immersed in convict society and the ideals of the convict code, I also led a second life, a quiet life absorbed in books in a search for truth and meaning that transcended my circumstances.  This double life sometimes created an inner tension, and since I wasn’t willing to give up my status as a solid con, whenever there was a real dilemma I always gave the nod to the convict life. 

As soon as the fog cleared after my arrest, I began my self-rehabilitation by picking up a Bible.  I thought it best to give God—if He even existed—the first shot at my redemption, and so I began by revisiting my Catholic roots.  I attended a Catholic communion service and read the Gospels day and night.  I was really taken by the Gospels—the words seemed to zip off the page as though they were gently charged with electricity.  There was only one problem.  I understood that the Gospels were calling me to a life of simplicity, patience and mercy—a radical offering of the self—but I had already vowed that I would never be at the mercy of any one again.  This created a visible tension within me, and as I would walk around the prison meditating over the sweet words of Jesus, my fists would pulse and clench, ready to pound the first person that disrespected me.  Believing in the Gospels made me feel vulnerable and now something had to give.  At last I decided to walk away from Jesus, and not because I was convinced the Gospels were untrue, but because I thought, ‘Who can follow this?’  As time wore on, I would occasionally drop by for a Sunday service to see if that same electricity was there, but the service seemed bland.  Moreover, other than some solid Chicanos or Hispanics, most of the participants were sex offenders or other “weak” inmates that I usually avoided.  Only a handful of the solid cons attended the various Christian services, and it was understood that their faith was to be kept strictly private.

Judas walks away from the Last Supper

Once I walked away from grace, I quickly found the path that I desired.  I found a way to build myself up by relying on my own strength and talents, and not some unseen God.  At first I studied for my GED, and was pleasantly surprised when the lady who administered the test told me that I’d achieved the highest score the college had ever seen.  I then began to read widely: new age, Eastern religions, classics of literature and philosophy.  I quickly realized that new age classics like “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and “The Teachings of Don Juan” were ultimately shallow and didn’t offer a coherent worldview.  On the other hand, the popularized versions of Eastern religions were too esoteric, and I needed something concrete and practical since nothing brings a person back down to earth like living in prison.  I soon settled into a long romance with the largely secular classics of Western Civilization, and this romance would last fifteen years or up until the day of my conversion experience.  I eagerly examined these books for answers to all the big questions: the nature of human life, the way to happiness, the life of virtue and integrity and so on.  And so I devoured Voltaire, Rousseau, and tried to understand Hobbes; I read Tolstoy, James Joyce and Camus.  These authors were my daily companions as I spent long hours in my cell taking notes and offering written commentary.  Eventually I came to memorize over one hundred poems—some of them lengthy like T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.  I thought of these efforts as laying the foundation stone for after my release; when I would set aside the solid con and build a life around college studies.

A clever depiction of a line from the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

I had to scramble to find good books in prison, and so in order to help build the prison library, I wrote to various institutions and think tanks asking for free books.  My efforts were mostly wasted, but a kind gentleman by the name of George Weigel at the Ethics and Public Policy Center sent me an encouraging letter and an offer of a few books.  I didn’t know who he was at the time or that he would soon become Pope John Paul’s best-known biographer, but it meant a great deal to me because it freed me from a sense of intellectual isolation and gave me a sense of connection to a wider body of scholars.  When I bumped into Mr. Weigel many years later, he recalled the letter and was amazed that our paths had crossed once again.  

Unfortunately the delicate balance between the life of a con and the life of the mind began to crack when I was told that I would be transferred to a minimum-security work camp.  For most inmates this would have been excellent news, but I was determined not to go.  Like my friend “Bull”, I wanted to stay with my solid cons, and I was ashamed to skip off when some of my friends had a life sentence.  Moreover, I knew that work camps were not governed by the convict code, but were more like a boarding school for unfocused, immature adults where sex offenders and snitches freely mingled with everyone else.  Since I had come of age in prison, had became a man with a sense of my self and my place in the world—however flawed—I didn’t want to lose that in a “Boy’s Town”, and so I decided to foil the transfer by publicly beating a child molester.  At dinner the next day I solemnly broke the news and told my friends of my decision.  Two of the most influential convicts briefly glanced around the table and spoke on behalf of all the solid cons.  “King”, a nickname that was both his real name--Robert Haden King jr.--and indicated his influence in convict society, spoke first.  He looked like a pasty businessman with his Polo shirts and Vaurnet sunglasses, but he was a captain for an Atlanta crime syndicate who was convicted of arranging contract killings on the West Coast.  The syndicate lawyers continued to flood the courts with his appeals, and he was hopeful of his imminent release.  King simply said, “No.  No.  You don’t want this life…you don’t want to be like us.  Go to the work camp.”  Danny Tash, a high-level cocaine and meth distributor who killed an associate for being dishonest, finalized the decision, “King’s right.  Look around…you don’t want this.”  And that was it.  They made the decision for me and I knew I couldn’t challenge their judgment.  I didn’t understand the decision at first.  Why did they so easily say goodbye to a friend, a dependable con, and some ready “muscle”?  Then it hit me: because they really were my friends, and against their own interests they acted in real love.  Please say a prayer for them. 

Life after Prison

My two-year stay in the minimum-security work camp prepared me for a relatively seamless transition back to “civilian life” when I was released in 1995.  The State of Washington exempted me from any probation or oversight since I was headed back to Oregon, but they ordered me to make financial restitution and kindly asked that I stay out of their state.  Although I was still rough around the edges, people sensed that they should give me a wide berth, and so I was able to avoid bar-fights and other mischief.  I was still only twenty-one, and so I left prison full of hope and determination.  I dreamed of a career as a professor or a fellow at a think tank, and this seemed possible as I had finally achieved a certain self-mastery and discipline with the help of long hours of daily study.  I began work as a waiter and bartender, and enrolled full-time at Portland Community College.  After two years of perfect grades and a perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT, I was accepted into Reed College, a small, local liberal arts college.  It is best-known as the college that Steve Jobs dropped out of to found Apple Computer, but it also offered an elite program in the very books that I had come to love, and was known as a breeding-ground for future professors.  Once again I was surprised by my success there, but this was owed more to my maturity and level of focus than exceptional brainpower.  Finally, after my graduation and a surprising year spent working for a non-profit in the re-development of closed Catholic parishes, I was accepted into some doctoral programs in political science, and chose the University of Michigan. 

University of Michigan was a far cry from prison

At this point it would be thought that I was at the zenith of my life as I had marched up the echelons of higher academia, but just as I achieved my greatest success, my sense of drive and optimism began to falter. The problem was that while my life after prison looked great on paper—and one free-lance writer actually tried to pitch it to Reader’s Digest—in my moral life I had practiced one betrayal after another.  Now instead of believing in my future and the story of an ex-con made good, I had come to the point where I could barely look at myself in the mirror.  All of my earnest attempts to re-build myself in prison had slowly been undone in the eight years after my release.  I know it’s a startling claim, but I was actually a better person when I first got out of prison than when I left Portland to pursue my Ph.D.  How could that be?  At my release, I had a sincere inquiry into virtue and the pursuit of truth for the sake of the common good, but this slowly died as I became progressively narcissistic and closed in upon myself.  The solidarity and concern for the other inspired by convict society had faded and I had few friendships outside of whomever I happened to be dating.  Like many young men of today, I single-mindedly pursued exhilaration and intense pleasures wherever I could find them: some were honorable pursuits like mountain hiking, lifting weights and rugby, but others were dishonorable ones like spending all night dancing shirtless in music clubs, and dating an endless string of women.  In either case the point was to maximize the pleasures that could be extracted from my mind and body or those of others, and these resources were finally running dry.

Hiking alone with my dogs

Things finally fell apart shortly after I arrived at the University of Michigan.  One by one I became disillusioned with all the ideals and all the goods that I had strived after in order to give my life hope and meaning.  With the end of yet another long-term relationship, I finally knew that a woman’s beauty, charm, intellect, care and comfort—as well as having children someday—could not give me peace and joy if I didn’t have some of those qualities first.  I also came to lose hope in the prospect of a fulfilling career and the joys of the life of the mind.  My field of political and moral philosophy was hopelessly splintered, and even though we were all secular humanists, there was very little consensus on the worth and relevance of particular philosophers and their programs.  I had longed for a community of scholars, but we barely spoke the same “language” or held the same values, and so we weren’t in a real conversation.  It was as if a new Tower of Babel had replaced the Ivory Tower, and everyone was talking past each other.  Finally, the last ideal that failed was my health—my sense of vigor and strength.  At first I was stalked by endless stomach maladies, and then a depression as black as hell descended upon me.  For a year and a half I endured a nearly complete desolation and despair, and all I could do was hold on by my fingernails and try to make it through the night.  Whenever I reflect on that time, I’m still amazed that I held on.  

While many find God at their very bottom, God did not reveal Himself to me at that time.  I did visit confession once when I was at my most hopeless, and the gentle old priest in his eighties practically jumped out of the confessional when I told him I was suicidal.  In any event, God has perfect timing, and perhaps He knew I was too proud and would later question such a conversion as the last hope of a desperate man.  And perhaps my suffering was necessary as a partial atonement for my past life.  In any event, the depression took a lot of the vinegar out of me, and I emerged from my depression a more kind and patient person.  I would continue to slog through my doctoral studies until the day of my conversion, but without the passion that I had known while poring over books in my prison cell.

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