birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Testing Intimacy

I’ve been teaching interpersonal communication to a cohort of twenty five men in a maximum security prison for the last year. Most of them are LWOPs, or life without the possibility of parole. Although three of them who have been there for more than 25 years, and who did a crime when they were teenagers, recently had their sentences commuted to 25 years and may get out next year. They all plan to move into a half-way house near my campus to continue their education, most likely as social workers. They received the privilege of enrolling in the course because they had proven themselves to prison authorities for several years: They have made amends to their victims; they have participated in restorative justice programs (such as giving talks to young people, or raising funds for the homeless); and they have avoided getting involved in any racial cliques or prison gang entanglements.

One of my greatest joys last semester was when several students responded to a prompt about jealousy in intimate relationships. The question was: “What if you found out that your romantic partner is testing the relationship by making you jealous?” I asked two students to read their responses out loud:
Sarge, a rough and gruff former veteran read from his essay something like: I would never talk to that person again and I would be very upset, because I don’t like it when people play these games!”
James, a very caring man and a coach in group therapy sessions wrote some thing like: I would feel honored, and I think it would be cute. And I would tell the person what my boundaries are and what emotions I am able to handle, and let the partner know what is my level of investment in and seriousness about the relationship!

There was an uproar in the class and Sarge accused James of kissing up to the instructor and not really meaning what he wrote. He was livid!

I decided this would be a wonderful opportunity to dig deeper! Several people in the class sided with Sarge and several others sided with James. In the end we turned this into a performance, with lyrics and accompanying guitar, quoting from both of their essays!

For some of us in that exercise, this was a cathartic experience. I never asked about details, but I assumed several people in the class knew very well about the epidemic levels of violence in intimate relationships. I guess this was my “do-over” too – for all the times I felt jealousy but did not have the language or the courage to do what James asked us all to do.

Path to left of path to the right