If I were to be incarcerated, I would send away for photocopied pieces of the Sistine Chapel from people who still cared about me. I’d get an outstretched arm from an aunt, an ascension from a friend, a talking snake from a former lover, all of which I’d arrange in order, imagining that I was in the Vatican, head back, gazing at the real thing. I started talking about Michelangelo when I was nine years old. I went to a public elementary school in Los Angeles, which meant my classes were often held in musty doublewide trailers that squatted on seeping black pavement. My 4th grade teacher, a woman fresh out of college who hadn’t yet faded into the beige of bureaucracy, once gave each of us a thick slice of paper with a rough pencil sketch of a panel of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I got “The Creation of the Sun.” She told us to fill in rest of the picture as accurately as we could with yolky Tempera paint, then pinned each creation to the trailer’s pockmarked ceiling and told us to look up: this was our home, too, she said, and we could make it beautiful.
Since then, I’ve imagined Michelangelo in every room of captivity, from classroom to prison cell. When I turned 18, I began to put serious thought into what my life would be like if I committed a felony, and not just murder or assault or larceny: the list continued with tax evasion, texting and crashing, perjury, copyright infringement, fraud, and opening a neighbor’s mail. As I imagined myself in a sweaty cell with a gleaming, seat-less toilet, I thought of “The Creation of the Sun” and the rest of the Sistine ceiling, of how I would re-create it with tape and paper on the ceiling above my government-issue cot. I realized that I wouldn’t want to look at difficult art. I would need Michelangelo’s puff-pastry bodies in swathes of gem-toned paint to remind me that something exists beyond the gray scale, and I wouldn’t want the images to make me think about my life and what I had done or how any of it still mattered. I wouldn’t want to think at all. I would want to look at angels bathed in light who told me stories I already knew. I would anesthetize myself with soft art that wrapped around my heart like gold tinfoil and kept it warm.
I wouldn’t want to be wounded.
I decided that my prison experience would be like laughing gas: sterile and buoyant. I would save up my commissary money to buy bubblegum and dry soups. I would gossip with the guards. I would sleep in hair rollers and paint my lips. I would learn how to ice cakes. I would write in Pig Latin. I would chew my cud.
I would lie on my back and fall asleep to “The Creation of the Sun.”
As a woman in my mid-20s, I was deeply disgusted that any part of me had ever wanted to decorate the idea of prison. I was a young, privileged white woman from LA, an infinitesimal statistic, inserting myself in a fleeting thought that, for millions of Americans, is a distinct and calculable reality. Prison, most likely, would never happen to me.
Growing up, I lived in constant fear of losing control and hurting others, so much so that I altered my daily activities against even the smallest possibility of violence. I’d swirl the point of my sharpened pencil on notebook paper until it was a dull, convex meniscus, just in case I lost control. I’d use a butter knife to cut through overcooked chicken. I’d drive with my hands tight around the wheel, eyes tighter on the road. I’d never look at the gun on a policeman’s belt, take shop class, use drugs, drink, hold babies, linger on the top of a mountain or by a fire, knit with long needles, stay awake after others went to sleep, or climax––just in case I lost control.
In my mind, ordinary moments became unwanted opportunities to inflict pain. I’d see the dark possibility of everything, savage tools shrouded in everyday instruments, vicious images turning in my mind like clicking cells in a nickelodeon. The guilt, and the severe depression that existed alongside it, was paralyzing. I longed to escape my own mind. I had convinced myself that I was dangerous on the inside, an impulsive criminal ready to strike.
To this day, my only recorded infractions are a speeding ticket and a noise ordinance violation I received from the City of Iowa City for the ill-fated Great Gatsby-themed party I threw in graduate school. I skinny dipped in UCLA’s outdoor pool at midnight but was never caught. I lied about my weight on my driver’s license but was never caught. I picked a candy cane carnation from a botanical garden but was never caught. I never meant to hurt anyone––a sentiment commonly found in the pleas of even the most heinous crimes. I never expected to get caught and never was. I’ve never truly desired to commit a violent crime, and my fears and ruminations were eventually diagnosed as textbook Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Therapy and handfuls of pink horse pills every night have treated the disease effectively, though I still have spontaneous, uncommitted thoughts of cruelty from time to time:
I’ve been on a plane and imagined how many people I would have to trample to get to the emergency exit. I’ve thought about karate-chopping another person’s birthday cake, of smacking a screaming child upside the head, of touching a painting at a museum, of plucking the bottommost apple from a grocer’s stack.
I’ve looked at a spoon as if it were a knife.
In literature, it’s known as Edgar Alan Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.” I explained the concept to one of my undergraduate creative writing classes, asking:
“Have you ever been walking with a friend near the edge of a hill and had the sudden thought of pushing him off? Have you ever opened your mouth to speak to a room full of nice people and suddenly feel the urge to yell obscenities? Have you ever felt the urge to grab the crotch of a superior?
“Have you ever felt the impulse do something, as Poe would say, ‘merely because you feel you should not?’”
I glanced around the room and focused my eyes on my kindest, most thoughtful student. He looked away. After class he approached me and said,
“How did you know? These things kill me inside.”
I began my research at California State Prison, Corcoran’s Protective Housing Unit (PHU), a maximum-security wing of the prison that houses celebrity criminals, informants, and other inmates unsuitable for the general prison population. I had grown tired with journalistic “true crime” narratives, mostly because I found them inefficient. America’s prisons had become too overrun and ubiquitous to shape a clean story around, and I knew that a change in genre might evoke this untamed emotional frontier more effectively than journalism. I wanted to see how far the essay could go.
I completed all of the necessary background checks and clearance paperwork to perform my research at the PHU, though it was impossible to access the inmates’ living quarters. No photographs were allowed within the dormitories. I performed all of my live interviews and investigations over the phone, via mail, and in a designated visitation room, where we were allowed to pay a vendor a few prison-issued tokens for a misty Polaroid photo at the end of a session. Other than that, I was prohibited from seeing the personal spaces of those I visited. I couldn’t see what they taped above their beds or propped up in the corners of their rooms, though I knew the doors to their cells were painted cardinal red (Chinese tradition says that a red door means “welcome,” while Judeo-Christian tradition says the color represents the lambs’ blood that protects the Israelites from the Angel of Death). Many of the men in the PHU were spared from California’s death penalty by arbitration or sheer luck, especially old Charlie Manson, whose death sentence, along with those of the rest of The Family, was irrevocably commuted to life in prison when California’s death penalty was briefly overthrown in 1972.
Mike, who was also spared, was PHU inmate #P08669. He was as handsome as a saint. At the time of his crime, Mike had a thick mat of black hair and a clean-shaven face, but over the course of nearly 20 years his features inverted: a shaved head, a neat, short-boxed beard, and a pair of reading glasses lent him the air of someone dining al fresca, a professor sipping coffee in a busy square, a man, as Isaac Babel would say, with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart. Tall, pale, and lean, the prisoner seemed to have avoided the sun and wear of the perilous Central Valley, though he had spent many hours a week in the yard and tilling the prison garden. Rarely fed fresh produce, Mike and some of the other inmates would save any seeds they picked out of their meals and plant them in a small patch of rich soil. They’d grow peppers, tomatoes, watermelons, and anything else they could palm from their cold, gelatinous meals.
Hornets would tear into their calves as they harvested.
Mike sent me a letter that he had written in response to an Oxford University study about life without parole.
“I killed an innocent man,” he wrote, “during a botched robbery a month after my 18th birthday. After 18 months of legal wrangling I was sentenced to life without parole and sent to state prison. Two years into my term I embraced Christianity and began to view the sentence as a path of repentance. This, in turn, led to a painful process of disassociation from prison politics, and a resolve to battle my drug addiction, as well as the decision to abandon my post-conviction appeal when God gave me the desire and strength to confess my guilt to my family and to apologize to those whom I victimized, as a token that I will never get out.”
In her presenting statements, one of the victim’s sisters wrote: “I would never wish upon his mother and family what he has done to ours.”
“How does that fit into the ‘grand scheme of things?” wrote Mike. “Upon what leverage of justice or human dignity can I learn when hoping for a reprieve when I have already received such unsought mercy when I least deserved it?”
When I first met Mike he had been in Corcoran for 15 years, 4 months, and 25 days. Only in his mid-thirties, he had been in prison nearly half his life. Though he had been spared the death penalty and had been given the option to appeal his life sentence, he rejected offer out of shame, writing to the deputy attorney general,
“Although my appeal is in its beginning state, I don’t want to continue with it because it’s based on falsehood and deceit. I am guilty and want to do the right thing. I also need your help. Let me please explain. More than anything, I want to apologize to the victim’s family. It is my duty as a Christian, and it’s the least I could do after the great wickedness for which I am responsible. This is way overdue, and though my apology is late, it’s still the right thing to do.”
So, he stayed. His adoring Ukrainian grandparents visited him nearly every weekend. The three of them would share a bowl of nuts from a prison vendor and speak quietly, smiling and squeezing each other’s hands upon every warm inflection.
“I am the sole son of my mother,” he once wrote, “the only grandchild of my grandmother, the only nephew of my aunt, and I have left them destitute in the twilight of their lives. I am to blame, yet my loved ones continue to struggle alongside with me, bearing with my antics. With their love they teach me to approach others in the same way. Their presence in my life is a vital source of my desire to be worthy of them, to be considerate of their wishes and live here in a manner that will not harm them more than I already have. How will things be once they’re dead, once time severs our natural bonds, once they’re no longer my encouraging ‘checks and balances’? Life without parole answers these questions whether or not one asks them.”
When his grandparents weren’t there, Mike, a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian, would study and pray with a traveling clergy member. At the time of our introduction, Mike was helping a group of academics translate the Bible from Ukrainian to the language of the Gagauz people, a tiny ethnoreligious group in Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania. The Gagauz language is spoken with a clenched jaw and sounds like a faucet stopping and starting:
Insannar hepsi duuêrlar serbest hem birtakım kendi kıymetindä hem haklarında. Onnara verilmiş akıl hem üz da läazım biri-birinä davransınnar kardaşlık ruhuna uygun.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
We met over a pile of snacks. On visiting days a vendor would bring in food from the outside and set up camp by the surveillance station, laying out his colorful bounty: shrink-wrapped burritos, bricks of birthday cake, wedges of pumpkin pie, personal pizzas, chips, tamales, apples, bananas, avocados, candy bars, nuts, and microwavable popcorn, which Charlie Manson was known to accidentally burn from time to time. I was visiting Dave, Mike’s only friend in prison, and we had risen from our visiting table to inspect the food. Dave and I hovered over some burritos, while Mike naturally opted for a bag of nuts. Old and grizzled Charlie deliberated soberly between a Snickers and an Almond Joy, pointing to them without touching their wrappers like a scholar reading Torah.
After a few moments of soft silence, Mike looked at an old Coke bottle and said,
“You don’t see those anymore.”
We chuckled. Charlie kept studying.
A former gang leader with face tattoos walked his young, smiling wife around the perimeter of the room, her small, manicured hand on the elbow of his crooked arm.
Though we had to return to our designated tables, there would be many more of these friendly encounters between Mike, Dave, and I. Though Dave had been convicted of murder, he was primarily in the PHU as a trial informant and was one of the only men who had a good chance at making parole. He told me that Mike was the only good guy in the PHU. They prayed together. They lifted weights together.
A few weeks later, Mike called me as I drove through the streets of West LA, past rows of post-war tract homes with crippling mortgages.
“Who is your favorite artist?” he asked. Though Corcoran State Prison wasn’t exactly the Oracle at Delphi, Mike surrounded himself with art and literature that he scrapped together between correspondences and prison library visits.
“Mark Chagall,” I replied. Chagall had always been my favorite, though if I were to ever be incarcerated, I would keep his work out of my cell. It would remind me of the dreams of my family, of my Jewish heritage, of the need to fly over my home in ecstasy. It would make me sick with longing.
“Mine’s Caravaggio,” he said.
Caravaggio, the absentee father of baroque. The Italian artist, who died from fever in 1610, defined his style with wine-dark oil paints highlighted with incandescent whites, creating a voyeuristic look into the shadows of his subjects’ most vulnerable moments: Narcissus staring into pitch black water; Thomas sliding his naked, salty finger into Christ’s open wound; General Holofernes in the middle of his own beheading by Judith. Perhaps his most recognizable work is that of the severed head of Medusa, painted on a leather jousting shield in last few years of the 16th Century. Medusa’s eyes and mouth gape in horror, her face illuminated against a tangle of black snakes, spikes of garnet blood stretching and cracking from her neck.
Then, there is “David with the Head of Goliath.” Young David, ruddy and good looking, emerges from the black, one hand gripping the head of Goliath by its hair, the other holding the sword of the defeated, uncircumcised Philistine. Blood spills in stiff ribbons from the giant’s open neck. Though Goliath’s eyes and mouth gape in morbid indifference, David’s face is tight, ruminative, lost in the reality of killing; later, King Saul would approach him and ask “Whose son are you, young man?” and David would say, “I am the son of your servant.” He would one day become Daveed Ha’Melech, leader of nations, but in this moment he realizes that he has killed a man not much larger than he, though he had once thought him giant, the only thing in his world who seemed bigger from afar.
That year, Caravaggio sent this version of “David With the Head of Goliath” to the papal court as petition for pardon of the murder of his rival, the pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni. Caravaggio “bungled Tomassoni to the floor” in an attempt to castrate him in a spontaneous fight over Fillide Melandroni, a prostitute whom both men had desired. Caravaggio knifed Tomassoni in the groin, severing the femoral artery that pulled bright red blood away from the pimp’s heart into the air.
I sent Mike a Taschen coffee table book of the complete works of Caravaggio. The cover had a portrait of a young, brass-haired woman with the same reflective stare as David, her face and décolletage dusted in rose gold, an oblong pearl tied to fishhook of her earring with a black silk bow. If you could see beyond the edges of the cover you would know that the woman is Judith and that she is gripping General Holofernes by a knot of his hair, pulling his head back and slicing thorough his neck with a silver blue blade.
Taschen advertised Carvaggio as a man “violent in temper, precise in technique, a creative master, a man on the run.”
I had the book sent to Mike though an approved 3rd party service. Correspondents were not allowed to personally send anything beyond a simple envelope to the prison; even the thinnest onionskins were subject to search. The 306-page, 9.2lb monograph had to be trucked through a grid of stinking farmland and carried in someone else’s arms to prison authorities who turned its pages with their nitrile-gloved fingers as if it were an illuminated Guttenberg. Framed against the beige and gray of the prison, the colors must have seemed orgasmic:
St. Jerome wrapped in a saffron cloak, staring at his clenched fist, a skull on his desk the color of patina. The deep folds of Mary Magdalene’s dark green shawl, black as singed bone. David swathed in crinkled lilac, clutching the severed head of Goliath.
The guards brought the book to Mike and told him that it could be used as a weapon. Something about its sheer immensity. Mike asked if it could be donated to the prison library.
He needed to be near it.
It was still a threat, they said.
The guards decided it would be best to cut the book into thinner, lighter parts, which could then be checked out one-by-one. They stood around it, turning it on an invisible axis, discussing how to slice the cover, then the pages, into a paper julienne. Mike looked on like the true mother in Solomon’s tale and begged them to spare the book.
“It was the most decadent thing I have ever seen,” he’d later tell me.
After negotiations, the guards agreed to send the book to Mike’s Ukrainian grandmother in Los Angeles. Mike prayed that he would one day see his book again.
He called me shortly after.
“Old babushkas can make miracles,” he said before exhaling.
Though Caravaggio’s paintings are rich in life and color, they remind me of Victorian death photography, known as memento mori, Latin for “remember that you will die.” The advent of the 1839 daguerreotype gave many people the opportunity to memorialize their loved ones in a way that was less painstaking and expensive than a painted portrait, though the process was still considered a luxury. Oftentimes, the only photograph ever taken of a person was shot after he or she had died. Family members would dress a corpse in fine linen and lay it on a bed of white flowers. Other times, the photographer would prop up and position the corpse using a concealed apparatus to make it look like it was still alive. Family members would pose with their dead as if they were taking an ordinary family picture, and it could be hard to tell who was dead and who was alive, though their stares often revealed the answer. The living seemed to have an aura. Because early photography had a very long exposure time, staying still was particularly difficult, and even the smallest movements would result in a blur. The dead were eerily defined. Photographers would often retouch their photographs by painting rouge on the corpse’s cheeks or penciling its eyes into focus.
Oftentimes, the photographer couldn’t get to a dead person’s home until long after the soul’s departure, and no amount of pinking or propping could hide the obvious.
I discovered why my mind had formed a connection between Caravaggio’s paintings and memento mori. The painter often used corpses as models, most notably that of a drowned prostitute for Mary Magdalene in Death of a Virgin, much to the public’s chagrin. In Death of a Virgin, someone has set the woman’s corpse on a bed for viewing, her glowing white face and hands sprouting from her crimson dress, a ring of men around her, looking. Though Caravaggio’s paintings are of monumental artistic importance, my first reaction his work, like my reaction to death photographs, is instinctual instead of intellectual. In both, darkness is just as important as light. There is no line between ghastliness and saintliness, religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy. Eyes are off-center. Something has left, or is leaving.
Pale, dark-headed, and brilliant, Caravaggio roamed the streets of Rome with his black dog, Crow, and the rest of his degenerate gang, which took the motto nec spec, nec meto ––“without hope, without purpose.” A witness once wrote,
“After a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ballcourt to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument.”
Before his fatal castration of Ranuccio Tomassoni, Caravaggio had already been arrested for “assault, legal weapons, harassing the police, and complex affairs with prostitutes and courtesans.”
He begged the papal court to pardon the murder, giving them David with the Head of Goliath, in exchange for sanctuary. He died a few months later, hidden in Tuscany, at the age of 38.
During the course of my research, I lived with my father in our family home off Mulholland Drive.
One night, as I stretched out in my soft, four-post bed, I looked up at the empty white ceiling and thought of the time it nearly caved in. After an unusual attack of heavy rain, water had begun to pool into shallow baths on our flat roof, seeping through the fillings until it formed an archipelagic stain on my bedroom ceiling. My parents had the plaster re-layered and smoothed like royal icing. We were lucky. During another storm, our neighbor’s house had slid down the mountainside, lurching through the mud into Laurel Canyon until it was nothing more than tombstones in lava. There had been rumors about the people who owned that property: that they had kept tigers in cages behind their pool, filmed hardcore pornography, and used the house as a criminal front. I once heard that a man and his young daughter, who had been housesitting at the time of the storm, were pulled down the hill, too, buried up to their necks in mud as if they had been subjected to some strange initiation ritual.
Growing up in the hills meant letting spirits wander into my home. Hollywood stars who died peacefully in their hillside mansions. Hippies and vagrants who disappeared into smog. Neighbors who died by their own hands, some by another’s. Sharon Tate. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Ennis Cosby. The Wonderland murdered. Victims of the Hillside Strangler, victims of the hillside. The legends of their killers bleed together into the same caricature: the fabled hook-handed psychopath who butchers sexually active teenagers on the lookouts. But, to me, the spirits of the victims took on a different quality, bending like light through a prism around the corners of my home, not seen, not heard, not felt.
That night, as I stared at the ceiling, I reassured myself that the spirits were just my obsessions, that the metallic tang on my tongue was adrenaline and not a presence. My family home had always been a place of loving kindness, and all aching spirits were welcome––those with bodies, that is. In an effort to purge every trace of magical thinking from my obsessive mind, I had given up religion, and though my Jewishness was still intact without its Judaism, I still had momentary lapses towards an ancient faith, believing that the spirits of my dead neighbors had sought out my home as a place of divine refuge.
I stared at the naked ceiling to clear my mind before sleep. I didn’t need any art up there; I didn’t need to be comforted or wounded. I just wanted to doze. I was trying to live an un-obsessive life, and my personal and civic freedom allowed me to explore an outside world of meaning and beauty while keeping my home soothing and neutral. I could go to the Sistine Chapel and look up at its ceiling and be reminded of my childhood classroom. I could go to MoMA and look at Chagall’s “I and the Village” and have an orgasmic cry. I could go to the Galleria Borghese in Rome and see “David with the Head of Goliath” and think of Mike. I didn’t live in a cell.
Art wasn’t all I had.
And I thought, what is art but the shaping of one’s impulses, the taming and exhibition of that inner brute? If I were to lay my head on a regulation pillow and look up at a prison ceiling, I would want to see Michelangelo’s bodies wrapping around trees, characters whose colors had once dripped back into the artist’s eyes as he painted at the top of a creaking scaffold, flat on his back, looking up. In his time, of course, this was revolutionary, but to me the point has dulled: there is little impulse left. It’s all perfectly rounded interpretations of stories I already know, and though scenes of expulsion and eternal love touch me––though they are still art––I wouldn’t be moved. I wouldn’t want the images to make me think about my life and what I had done or how any of it still mattered. I would just want to be comforted.
But, Caravaggio. He shaped his impulses––vanity, sadism, bellicosity––into something that wounds. For a moment, he let his obsessions kill. As I looked at my bare ceiling, I realized that both art and crime are filters of ones impulses; they choose what comes and what goes. Both the artist and the criminal must recognize their impulses and obsessions and act on them. People who create without shaping their raw impulses are not artists, just as people who kill without the ability to think are not murderers.
I wondered why Mike wanted to look at Caravaggio’s paintings in prison. Was he trying to torment himself, making himself feel the pain of his crime over and over again? Or, did he want to relive the moment?
Did he want both?
“He just blasted him.”
In 1997, 27-year-old Ennis Cosby, who had overcome dyslexia and mentored the poor and the homeless, was in the midst of completing his doctorate degree in special education at Columbia University. An intelligent, accomplished, and caring young man, Ennis had been an inspiration for the character of Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show. In January, he flew from New York to Los Angeles to visit friends and borrowed his mother’s convertible Mercedes Benz. Around 1am, he pulled off the 405 Freeway in the hills and parked on a dark street to fix a flat tire. 18-year-old Mikhail “Mike” Markhasev was at a nearby park-and-ride. He ran to Ennis with a gun in his hand and demanded money. Ennis, terrified, moved slowly, too slowly, according to Mike, who grew impatient and shot him, point blank, in the head.
Mike wrote a letter in jail, bragging: “I shot the nigger…I went to rob a [drug] connection and obviously found something else.”
The 18-year-old Ukrainian immigrant had bent under the radar. In March of 1997, The New York Times profiled the young man who had just done the unthinkable:
”He dressed like a normal teenager, wore the baggy clothes like everyone, seemed normal,” said his North Hollywood landlady, Olga Faynshteyn. ”Nobody ever complained about him.”
In high school, Mike worked at Mainly Seconds, a plant and pottery store near my home. His boss, Jim Herzoff, remembered Mike, stating ”[He was] someone who was really nice to customers, spoke good English, always on time to work — and that’s about all there is to say.”
He was a gifted student.
Most people couldn’t really remember him.
Mike had grown angry and no one knew why. He developed a heroine addiction and joined a gang. Two years before murdering Ennis, he and some other kids attacked two black men with a knife, and Mike was sentenced to six months in a juvenile correctional facility.
On July 7, 1988, Mike was found guilty of first-degree murder and attempted robbery. The Cosby family requested that the judge spare Mike’s life, and he was thus sentenced to life in prison.
He longed to read about Caravaggio in the comfort of his cell, to run his fingers over concentrated dots of color.
Mike sent me a Thanksgiving card that had a drawing of red Indian corn above the words “Abundant Blessings.” A small piece of paper slipped out.
“Michal,” it read (he called me by my Hebrew name), “this is a good snippet given to me by a neighbor here.”
There’s nothing like crisis to expose the otherwise hidden truth of the soul. Any soul. Remember Alexander Solzhenityns’z admission? “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good…So bless you, prison, for having been my life.”
Take away the cushion of comfort, remove the shield of safety, interject the threat of death…and it’s fairly certain most in the ranks of humanity commence prayer.
Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.
I asked myself what I would do if someone or something––myself included––took everything away from me and gave me forever. Would I want to be comforted, or wounded? What would I look for in life, in death? Are those “first stirrings of good” indications of a need to wound oneself in order to progress towards meaning? Is a murderer who longs to be wounded living a less important life than an innocent person who begs for mindless comfort? I had devoted my young life to the essay and liked to think that, in a time of profound loneliness, I would turn to Montaigne, Chagall, and Caravaggio and seek to be wounded, to visit the remotest reaches of myself and find purpose in my existence. I thought that the essay was made to survive through anything.
I thought that, if I were to be catapulted into a living or dead eternity, I would be more like Mike and less like Old Charlie, whose internal conflict from having to choose between an Almond Joy or a Snickers from the vendor’s snack pile provided an adequate amount of emotional friction on which to burn.
I thought of the drowned prostitute, of the corpse propped up and pinked before the camera, of Sharon Tate. I imagined those whom Death flew over.
I thought of the Cosby family, who were given an eternity on Earth without Ennis. In his letter to Oxford, Mike wrote,
“The innocent, the unsuspecting, the virtuous, the righteous, they also must suffer and endure tremendous agonies, and with the afflictions they’re forced to make the same decisions as the life without parole prisoner: how will he or she respond to life’s difficulties? What does life require of the individual in a given tragic scenario?
“It also compels me to engage in that often invisible and irrational task of inner change––the tough grind of transformation which receives no attention or accolades, but which is my only means of staying above the surrounding debris of purposeless and hedonistic emptiness.”
But I knew I would save up my commissary money to buy bubblegum and dry soups. I would gossip with the guards. I would sleep in hair rollers and paint my lips. I would learn how to ice cakes. I would write in Pig Latin. I would chew my cud.
I would lie on my back and fall asleep to “The Creation of the Sun.”
“David with the Head of Goliath” is a selection from a series of developing essays about the Protective Housing Unit at Corcoran State prison.