by Jerry Waxler
When I was a teenager I read a disturbing fantasy about a group of boys stranded on an island. Without any adults to enforce the rules, the characters in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” turned against each other. Their vicious behavior made me wonder, “Could civilization really fall apart that quickly?” Recently I found a chilling answer in the memoir “True Notebooks” by Mark Salzman. At the urging of Sister Janet Harris, founder of a program called the InsideOut Writers, Salzman volunteered to teach creative writing to a class of juvenile offenders. Not only did “True Notebooks” remind me that boys murder each other right here in American cities.
By telling them to write he allowed them to express things they would never have spoken. When the boys read their work, they engaged in some remarkable exchanges that showed me how they think and feel.
It looks like William Golding made some realistic assumptions about the brutality that boys are capable of, but the mental process of the Los Angeles gang members was more sophisticated than I expected. The gangsters maintained fierce loyalty towards their group, passionately defended their honor, and loved their mothers. Rather than being outlaws, they were actually doing their best, even risking their lives to follow the code of their neighborhood tribe.
However, while they were obeying the laws of one tribe, they were breaking the laws of another. When they murdered the kids of the wrong color, they crossed a line. Now that they were murderers, society could look at them with disgust. They had become the enemy.
When Salzman dragged my mind to the other side of the razor wire fence, I was at first horrified. But the more I listened, the more I saw real children with feelings and dreams and minds. A sob welled up in my throat, caused not by their failure, but my own. We all know there are kids out there being led down these paths.
Can’t we reach out and help them, before they veer too far off the path, the way another memoir writer, Erin Gruwell, was able to do? In Freedom Writers Diary she tells of using writing and literature to help high school kids see each other as human beings rather than enemies. (For more about Erin Gruwell’s memoir, the Freedom Writers Diary, see this link.)
As I broke past my reluctance and started looking at the world through the eyes of these murderers eyes, a light started to dawn. I realized their behavior was more civilized than it first appeared. I grew up watching war movies, during which I cheered every time an enemy died. It was part of my training as a civilized person. Any enemy holding a gun must be shot before they shoot you. The boys in prison had learned the lessons of civilization too well. They had joined their neighborhood army to defeat the enemies in the other neighborhoods. They were doing their best to follow the laws of civilization.
Once a rival was defined as an enemy, his life lost all meaning, making it easy to pull the trigger. My first impression was that these boys were learning some awful, primitive, tribal custom. Now I see that in their youthful enthusiasm, they were playing at the same “kill thine enemy” approach that I grew up admiring.
An even more horrifying observation comes to mind. I’ve been doing the same thing with these boys as they did to each other. I’m perpetuating the situation by my willingness to throw their lives on the garbage pile. If I want to stop them from dehumanizing their enemies, I have to stop dehumanizing them.
William Golding’s book “Lord of the Flies” created a sense of terror at the Shadow Side that lurks within the human heart. Salzman did the opposite. He showed me a glimpse of compassion where I least expected it.
When each of Salzman’s boys read his stories, the other boys responded with empathy. They began to see each other as real people instead of enemies. This willingness to open up and see their enemies as people is similar to what happened to me. Before they told their stories, they were outlaws and murders, consigned to the other side of an impenetrable line. After listening to them, the line moved, and I discovered they are people. As I watched their hearts open to each other, and mine open towards them, I am reminded of a much deeper lesson of civilization than “kill thine enemy.” The ultimate way to defeat enemies is to turn them into friends.
Have you ever felt like “The Other” for example when visiting a cultural center where you felt like an outsider? What emotions, vulnerabilities, or other human elements would you like to let these people know in order to convince them you are a real person.?
When have you felt entitled to remove the rights of others? By hating them, what aspects of that group’s members must you ignore?
Salzman was recruited to teach a writing course by Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program,