Harold Jaffe's docufiction

by Harold Jaffe

cover image of Beyond the Techno-Cavefrom Beyond the Techno-Cave:
A Guerrilla Writer's Guide to Post-Millennial Culture

(Starcherone Books, 2006)

o dedi
a dada orzoura
o dou zoura
a dada skizi
(Antonin Artaud)

     In his 1890 oil, Prisoners at Exercise, Van Gogh's inmates walk round and round in a narrowly enclosed, stonewalled courtyard. A stiff-backed prison officer, arms crossed, looks on, and alongside him, in relaxed poses, two important civilians confab.
     The prisoners are hunched, downtrodden, most with their hands in their prison trouser pockets. Except for one, in the circle's center, red-haired, intense-eyed -- Vincent himself -- hands held stiffly at his side. Unlike the others, he's not looking down at his feet, but glaring boldly, defiantly at the viewer in silent, furious protest:
     Why us?
     Because we dared to say No to your lies?
     Prison? What constitutes prison?
     And what about you in your finery?

     To say that the schizophrenic speaks is to use the word improperly. He unspeaks, talks incoherently, reversing the process by which statements are formed. Attempting to break down the fence of cramping speech, he shatters meaning back to its categorical and lexical components, its underlying articulations -- and plays with them -- (Luce Irigaray)

     Conceived by the Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the Panopticon was to represent the quintessence of technical rationality as applied to institutions of exclusion. As Louis A. Sass in Madness and Modernism (BasicBooks, 1992), describes it, the Panopticon "consists of two elements: a central observation tower and an encircling building containing numerous small cells, each open on two sides, with bars on the outer wall allowing light to flood the cell and bars on the inner wall exposing the occupant to the gaze of the watcher in the central tower. In this way, those in the cells would always be within sight of the implacable tower, which itself was darkened and fitted with narrow slits so that those within could peer out without being seen."
     In Discipline and Punish, Foucault employs the Panopticon to represent the unceasing systemic surveillance of the powerless, the deviants, the resisters: a "regime" that increasingly characterizes our postmodern era.
     For Foucault the Panopticon finally represents a perpetual "discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgment that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed."

     Xbdqgxatuvwaytiviskitos, alsaqualificatifsogo bibscoloyatel domiconilosiskibitos; alleuiyabisloyosicos ürwisky yoyodelsicomatociscoyatismoyos; Jagocesissa Jgdcovry-iscovoyaviscotismayomatissistos; viviscos J. d'Arc! pipisiscotoyomaticcosyovadismoloyadelmos prépare, de très grandes surpises,à tous les peuples nomades -- (Jeanne Tripier, diagnosed schizophrenic)

Virus (3)


     "Dreams aren't glass and steel but made from the hearts of deer, the blazing eye of a circling panther. Translating them was to understand the death count from Alabama . . . I didn't think I could stand it. My father couldn't. He searched out his death with the vengeance of a warrior who has been hunted."
     The Creek poet Joy Harjo wrote those lines in her prose poem "Autobiography." Because he had been forcibly removed, displaced from his Alabama homeland to reservations of Oklahoma, Harjo's father "searched out his death with the vengeance of a warrior." His self-murder was a warrior's response to having been murdered in spirit by the colonizing white culture.


     During the long sexual drought in the mid-Eighties and early Nineties generated by the official AIDS discourse, young Americans began to pierce, cut, brand, and mutilate themselves, as if to declare that despite the anti-sexual edicts they still controlled their bodies and could do as they choose. And if they piecemeal destroy their bodies, it is to appropriate the large-scale destruction wrought not by AIDS but by the AIDS ideology in its attempt to nullify sexuality of any kind outside of marriage.


     Madness, schizophrenia, dementia praecox, bipolar disorder -- whatever the current designation is -- might also be understood as a self-annilhila-ting commentary on an institutionally mad culture.
     With your profit mania, depersonalization, blandishments, policing of desire, blind reliance on technology, you turn us into sheep with teeth or drive us mad.
     I'll drive myself mad to escape your clutches.
     Broadcast your virulence.

     Many things come out of my lovely blue eyes: bed sheets, smoothly ironed pillows and quilts of soft feathers (white or colored), bedsteads, commodes, baskets, thread, stockings of all colors, clothes from the plainest to the most elegant; and, finally, people fly out, fortunately not naked but completely dressed -- (Diagnosed schizophrenic [unnamed], quoted in Sass)

     Just how insupportable is the world?
     The made world, you mean?
     No one with eyes open without satori can -- or should -- support it.
     It is bad, then, this world filthied over by men?
     To the core.
     And the core's core?
     You mean . . .
     Dream, the timeless depth charge of dream?
     Timeless because dream is . . .
     Vertical, a-chronological, contra the horizontal time-induced stresses of the wake-a-day we conspire to call "real."
     What of the dead?
     Mineral pulse of the collective dead . . .
     "Mineral pulse." I like that.
     What exactly do you need to know?
     Whether dream and death have been colonized?
     Dream is in the process of being colonized. Death: no, the official contagion discourse has not yet manifested there.
     That is where I will go.

     Once institutionalized, the patient is free to express himself gratuitously, and he is exonerated from the anxiety of human relationships and social responsibilities. No longer having to use language as an instrument, since his faculty for so using it is challenged, he can make play with it for its own sake -- (Michel Thévoz)

     British psychologist Carol Tavris puts it this way: "Medical labels encourage us to look inward, to pathology in our genes, hormones and brains; social and political explanations encourage us to look outward, to the condition of our lives."
     Given the incontrovertible facts that the US has vastly widened the disparity between rich and poor, committed itself to the construction and privatization of prisons, dumped its mental patients into the streets, fatally marginalized the aged, corporatized whatever could be corporatized, one would expect that psychiatrists would at least consider certain deviations from the norm to represent a political response. No. the enforced consensus among practicing psychiatrists is organic, chemical. And the bible of the organic genesis of deviation is The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Its current edition is 900 pages long and contains 300 "disorders."
     According to Kutchins' and Kirk's Making Us Crazy: DSM: The Psychiatric Bible and the Creation of Mental Disorders, the DSM's inclusion of mental "disorders" is in large part based on "cultural prejudices, special interest groups, and political pressures." Rather than proven scientific data, inclusion of a so-called disorder depends on a vote of practicing psychiatrists, with their insights, biases and ties to major pharmaceutical corporations intact.

     Anyone who wants to strike a city by spraying anthrax from a plane would need a crop duster with custom-built nozzles that could accommo-date germ particles between 1 and 5 microns in size.
     Particles smaller than that would not have enough mass to float in the air properly.
     Larger particles would not be properly absorbed into the lungs.
     To generate high casualties, the anthrax would have to be turned into freeze-dried anthrax, which can yield potencies of 100%.
     Except that freeze-drying requires complicated, costly equipment that can handle the spores in airtight containers.
     Only government-sponsored bio-weapon programs, such as Iraq's or North Korea's, are likely to have such equipment.
     Anthrax is simpler to handle in a wet form called slurry.
     But the potency of this wet material is typically 10 to 15%.
     Employing slurry, a low-tech terrorist could efficiently assault an institutional headquarters with a hand-held sprayer.

     You Gentlemen and Ladies of quality, who frequently don't know yourselves what Christian virtue and justice are, look at the sunken, deep-set eyes of the lower classes, where you can see all too clearly the sorrow and misery that weigh on their hearts. Not everyone who sees his grieved and martyred face in the washroom mirror in the morning is a drinker; on the contrary, the grounds for his misery are to be sought elsewhere. You friends near and far. If among you there is anyone without sin, let him come to me, and I will implore him for compassion and mercy--(Adolf Wölfli, diagnosed schizophrenic)

Prisoners at Exercise
     Smoke ambushed his eyes as V stepped outside D Block kitchen that sullen Thursday morning in 1971.
     In a fiery flash, the intense-eyed, red-haired inmate witnessed all the hate that roiled through the walls of New York's Attica State Prison explode into a mob hysteria that would rain death upon 43 souls before order was restored.
     Men screamed and chaos reigned.
     Flames swept over concrete-block walls from the chapel and watchtower.
     Guards were beaten and herded into a central yard.
     One was heaved out of a second-floor window and later died of injuries.
     "A guy said, 'Take this, you're gonna need it,' and handed me a boning knife from the kitchen," said V, whose memories of the deadliest prison riot in American history haunted him all the way to California.
     "I saw the tower burning and I took the boning knife."
     V, now 59 and working as a caretaker in Chula Vista, near the Mexican border, spent the next 100 hours huddled against a concrete wall.
     Equal parts scared of living and dying.
     He survived the bloody uprising only to be raped and tortured by vengeful prison guards.
     Nearly thirty years later, the balance of his life long defined by those five hellish days, V still trembles when speaking of his time behind bars.
     Nonetheless he has been speaking more about that hellish time.
     Reason: the state of New York has finally agreed to pay up to 8 million plus legal fees to resolve the decades-old suit filed on behalf of the 1280 inmates locked inside D Block those five days in 1971.
     The records show that only three of those inmates, including V, are alive and not doing time.
     V has no idea what to do with any money he might get, but he's already called one of the lawyers who negotiated the settlement and is awaiting a bundle of paperwork.
     "It would really help if it did come through," said V, an on-again, off-again heroin addict for 45 years.
     "Maybe I could help my son, maybe help my daughter.
     "Do something good on this earth for a change."
     V grew up in a mean corner of the South Bronx, the youngest of three sons born to an Italian mother and Puerto Rican father.
     Like most of his life, the day of V's birth was difficult and dangerous -- the result, he said, of having a partly developed twin attached to his backside.
     Doctors cut away the malformed fetal tissue, but left a wide-flat scar across his back that reminds him daily of the twin he left behind.
     V never took to schooling; he was sick for most of his youth and gave up on school at 13 after a bout with the whooping cough.
     "I'd go out and get strong and something would pull me down," said V, who read at grade-school levels, had little ambition and began experimenting with drugs.
     The sickly kid from the Bronx said he started smoking pot to kill the pain from a childhood bike accident.
     He moved on to hard drugs and was addicted to heroin by the time he was 15.
     To help finance his habit, V dealt to his homeys.
     He was arrested and sent to jail several times through his late teens and 20s.
     After each time he was locked away, V vowed to go straight.
     He took odd jobs -- cleaning stables at Aqueduct Race Track, baking bagels in Queens.
     In an effort to avoid the New York drug culture, in the late 1950s he moved in with relatives in National City, a working class community south of San Diego.
     But the lure of the Big Apple proved too strong and he drifted back to the Bronx.
     By the late 60's V was married to an ex-junkie-prostitute and the father of two children, both with Downs syndrome.
     He was out of work and hooked on heroin.
     After one conviction too many -- caught in Spanish Harlem with eight bags of shit -- V was sentenced to four years at Ossining State Prison, also known as Sing Sing.
     The date was May 21, 1970, just weeks after Richard Nixon ordered troops into Cambodia and four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University.
     Nixon threatened to bomb Cambodia "back to the stone age" and set about doing just that even though Cambodia was not a player in the Vietnam War.
     V was transferred to Attica a year later.
     For the first time, V took an inventory of his life.
     He learned to read past the "Dick and Jane" level.
     He read books embracing theology, philosophy and psychology.
     He studied behavior and quoted Freud, Jung and Schopenhauer.
     V even dared to map a future for himself.
     Those good intentions lasted until September 9, 1971, when mutinous inmates launched a full-scale takeover of the Attica facility, wresting control of all four cellblocks with makeshift weapons and holding dozens of guards hostage.
     V squeezed the handle of the boning knife in his palm and hoped for the best.
     The first hours were frantic.
     State police used tear gas, submachine guns and rifles with telescopic sights to regain control of the four cellblocks commandeered by prisoners armed with knives, clubs, and brass knuckles.
     The revolt leaders retreated to D Block, where blindfolded hostages were held in a tight circle.
     Two inmates opposed to the riot were offed the first day.
     Others were raped and beaten over the course of the weekend.
     V camped against a thick concrete wall a few yards away, as far out of sight as possible.
     "The whole place was going nuts," he said.
     "All I could smell was shit and blood."
     Rebel leaders put together a list of demands, including more religious freedoms, an end to mail censorship, and better phone privileges.
     At one point, they demanded passage to "a non-imperialist country."
     When the sun rose that fateful Friday, more than 700 troopers had joined sheriff's deputies encircling the yard.
     News reporters launched a 24-hour vigil.
     Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller called in the National Guard.
     Sharpshooters paced the rooftops of secured prison buildings night and day.
     But the standoff pushed on.
     An impromptu citizens panel -- including a member of Congress, a New York Times reporter and famed Chicago Seven defense attorney William Kunstler -- attempted fruitlessly to mediate, despite an overnight caucus that lasted more than five hours.
     By Sunday, Rockefeller, called Rocky, was losing patience.
     The army outside swelled to more than 1,700.
     Neither side would budge.
     Nightfall came and went.
     A driving rain rolled into the area early Monday.
     Contemplating another run at the Presidency, Rocky, characterized as a "liberal" Republican, wanted to show he was hard on crime.
     He gave orders to swarm the complex at 9:46 a.m.
     Helicopters lurched above, dropping tear gas while police stormed the yard with guns blazing.
     "I heard a volley then saw one guy -- the side of his head was blown off," V recalled.
     "I knew then they weren't messin' around.
     "It felt like twenty minutes, they were firing freakin' bombs.
     "I just covered up."
     When it was over, 43 people, including 11 guards, had died in the siege, most from gunfire on that rain-soaked Monday morning.

     The aftermath proved equally violent for those who survived.
     One by one, inmates, including V, were stripped and ordered to run across broken glass through a gauntlet of angry guards.
     They were beaten, kicked, clubbed and threatened with death.
     One doctor who was still tending patients a week later estimated that 45 percent of the inmates, whether or not they participated in the mutiny, suffered gunshots, broken bones or other injuries.
     Two years later, a congressional committee concluded that the use of shotguns by troops storming the prison resulted in needless wounding and killing of both hostages and inmates.
     Back in the early Seventies, Margaret Maas was an eager, justice-minded law student at Fordham Law School, in New York City.
     Instead of doing drugs and orgying on weekends, she would hunker down with her law books.
     Disgusted by the treatment Attica inmates had received from vindictive prison guards, Maas filed a class-action suit in 1974.
     The case was tied up in court for the next 26 years.
     "The whole system of justice is based on accountability," Maas said.
     "When law enforcement and state officials go bad, which is what happened at Attica, everyone is accountable."
     Technically, each of the 1,280 men locked in D Block on Sept. 13, 1971, is eligible for a slice of the $8 million settlement.
     Of the three inmates, including V, who are alive and not doing time, one has pancreatic cancer.
     The actual amount each prisoner receives depends on how many have filed claims and the extent of their damages.
     Nor will the money be available to inmates or their survivors for at least three more years.
     "What happened in Attica was outrageous," Maas said.
     "No amount of money would compensate them for being murdered, shot and humiliated."
     According to Maas, New York State settled only because the suit had dragged on for so long and there were so many fewer plaintiffs to pay.
     New York State sees it differently.
     "From the state's perspective, it caps our liability," Deputy Attorney General Richard Rifkin said.
     Tony Orlando & Dawn's "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" crackled over the bus radio as V bussed to the Bronx after being released from Attica in 1972.
     He and his family wasted little time leaving the state.
     They ventured west to the raunchy southern suburbs of San Diego where V had visited as a teenager so many years before.
     They rented a house on two acres in National City, with the intention of raising chickens.
     The venture was never realized, and V fell victim to his familiar weakness.
     He abandoned his family, was slow to find work, and spent years scratching out a life on the mean streets of National City and Chula Vista.
     Still in the rundown San Diego suburbs, V was collecting cans in the mid-1990s when he was befriended by a born-again South Korean Hyundai executive.
     The relationship blossomed, and when V promised to stop using drugs, the man gave him work and rented a room to him.
     Years have passed and V remains clean.
     Five days a week he rides the bus to a clinic in San Ysidro, bordering Tijuana, where he eats a fish taco and swallows a small cup of methadone to ease his decades-long addiction to opiates.
     The bus driver eyes him suspiciously, but V is used to that.
     "I went through a freakin' war, but I found out how physically capable I was and how mentally capable I was," he says today.
     "I am a very lucky man."
     V holds no illusion that the anticipated $6000 state payoff will change his life all that much.
     He would like to buy a Hyundai for himself, a computer for his mentally challenged son (his daughter died in 1989), and maybe start a business importing Mexican arts and crafts.
     V, a Scorpio, can hardly believe he is barely a year shy of his 60th birthday.
     "I never thought I'd be around this long," he said.
     "Watch me die now just when I'm starting to do some stuff right."


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