Tag Archives: prison inmates

Fish heads in an open bag — listening to the mentally ill.

Mcherryblossom_cover_smThese  are excerpts taken from my second book, “Cherry Blossoms & Barren Plains:  A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell.”  I have drawn from the chapter called Fish heads in an open bag. Becca, the subject of my book was serving sixty years for allegedly killing her five-year-old stepdaughter.
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I have listened to Becca for hours upon hours.  In every season of each passing year, I have sat across from her in the visit room looking at her drawn and tired face, listening to her struggle to find ways of expressing her mental and emotional realities.  What she says is not always cohesive, or narratively coherent, but over time, I have learned to piece together the fragments of her mental processes, and the images that she sees, in ways that blend with my imagination.  If Becca hears “voices” or “racing thoughts,” it might now be said that I do, as well.  I believe that I understand her and can, in one sense, show what Becca might say if she could find the words.

My name is Becca.  It was the 1980’s.  I was barely a teenager and the summer days were long and dry.  Bacon was frying in a black metal skillet, and the morning was clear.  My mother was talking and pouring her first cup of coffee.  Her voice was faint and the words made no sense and the sounds became one, like the annoying hum of a fluorescent light.  She probably told me that Dad and my brother were going fishing for the day, or that my room was a mess, or that I was just a bad kid.

I might have been thinking about the fish heads I saw at Friday night’s fish fry.  The severed heads were stuffed into open bags.  The bodies were gutted, washed, and rolled in seasoned flour, and cooked in black skillets like my mother used.  The heads were alive.  The eyes and mouths continued to open and close, and called out for help.  Their misery was real and hard, just like mine.  My mother’s shouting brought me back to her reality.  My mind jumped around a lot in those days.  Maybe that’s when my mind began to slip away.

The voices have no name.  They’re not these booming commandments from up above or down below.  They’re more like thoughts, racing thoughts that pound the inside of my head like a jackhammer.  Sometimes I write the words on a piece of paper, and then another, and another. Later, when I’m kind of normal, people tell me that the words make no sense.  They stare at me like I’m different, and then they turn and walk away.  It’s so lonely in my world of cherry blossoms and barren plains.  I wish that I could take you on a tour of my brain.  All of the twists and turn through the cerebral matter must be a bit like running through a maze.  Wherever I turn, I’m always lost.

It’s been nearly ten years and some ten-thousand pills later, since I killed Dani.  I can barely say it since I still don’t remember doing it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about it.  But each time I try, I end up seeing fish heads in an open bag.  Now I try not to think about that part.  I just think about what a wonderful girl Dani was.  I tell Larry, my writer friend to write more about Dani.  I want everyone to know her like I did.  I want them to know how she liked to read books, listen to music, and play make-up.  I bought her a long blond hair piece.  She loved wearing that hair piece.  

I haven’t gone completely manic since I’ve been here.  I take my meds eery day.  I can’t take a chance on losing control of myself.  But the meds are not easy.  I never feel right.  My hands shake, I get nervous, and I always have some kind of depression.  Sometimes I wonder if that’s God’s way of letting me know that I’m a bad person.  But that’s not what my psychologist says.  I get to see him one time a month.  And that’s not what Larry or the Pastor say.

How do you know when you begin to lose your mind?  I don’t think that you can pick a certain day, an exact time, or even an unusual event.  Maybe it’s a bit like cancer.  One day a doctor tells you that the MRI shows a cancerous growth the size of a grapefruit, and if untreated, you will die.  The tumor had been growing for some time, somewhere in your body, unseen by the naked eye.

My mental illness was the same and went undetected until the doctors told me in 1993 that I was bipolar, and if untreated, I would lose my mind.  Looking back, I believe it began the day when I saw fish heads in an open bag.  But as bad as I felt, I’ve always had my doubters.  Some think that I faked it and used mental illness as an excuse for my violent behavior.  Others believe that I’m an agent for the devil.  But until you’ve visited the dark side and felt my torment, I’m here to say that mental illness is for real.

My fourth book, “Supermax Prison:  Controlling the most dangerous criminals,” will be released in a couple of weeks.  Please check it out.

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Yes, the inmates and I sing the same song.

Mnemosyne coverYesterday I had a wonderful experience as I met with 70 inmates at the Shawnee Correctional Center.  I spoke for two hours on my latest book, “Mnemosyne:  A Love Affair with Memory,” which deals with childhood physical and sexual abuse.   As I expected, we do sing the same song, that haunting melody I had referred to in an earlier blog.  The strongest connection came when I said, “You can’t know what you don’t know.”  I heard the wheels in their brains begin to turn like a dormant steel mill that hadn’t run for years.  We talked about how we all know the difference between right and wrong, but we have been programmed to act out, which dominants our desire to do the right thing.  Our behavior can be traced back to our childhood — physical and sexual abuse, no role models, and an inability to know how to trust, to feel, and ultimately to love.  Yes, we sang the same song, but now we began to harmonize.  It was a beautiful moment, one that I would love to repeat.