As a writer and TV reporter I have received praise and criticism of my work. Over the years, I have tried to benefit from both, but some recent feedback came from an unlikely source. It has been quite a joyful learning experience for me. So on a serious note this week…
The story begins at WFYI, the local NPR affiliate where each week I read my column for radio listeners after it has appeared in this publication. From her prison cell where Tanya (not her real name, of course) has been in solitary confinement, she tunes in regularly to my segment. She wrote the station to say how much she enjoyed it. In gratitude, I sent her a few of my books, including Indiana Curiosities, a compendium of the offbeat people I have met and quirky places I have visited in our state. Tanya writes in her thank-you note to me, “I am not sure that a book with so many bad puns and bad jokes should not be banned or burned.” She had a point. Then this observation on a chapter about Indiana’s smallest town with a population of three people: “I want to live my whole life in a town like Pinch. I think that would be cool.” Tanya is alone in her cell. Life in Pinch may seem like a modest wish, but it would more than double the human contact she has now.
About my book Mornings with Barney, she wrote: “Alone in my room of concrete and steel, I experienced laughter. Laughing this hard is precious to me. For so long my mind took a vacation...the antidepressants amputating my joy, keeping my emotions firmly anchored on a short tether.” Tanya went on to explain that in prison, she once helped train dogs as part of a program to assist the elderly and the handicapped, and she relates the story of her own dogs prior to incarceration. “The closest to children I ever had,” she laments. Then she delights in telling me about her Labrador Retriever who had no interest in retrieving unless there was a treat involved. Shades of Barney.
Her letter is abundant with insight about her plight. She is perceptive and introspective. “Sometimes it is all too big to deal with. You can’t whisper an acknowledgment of what is happening for fear of a chain reaction. It starts in your head, squeezes your heart and pools in your eyes. You hold it back and then some well-meaning person asks if you are okay. Boom! Open the floodgates. Drown in sorrow. Fall apart. Float away.”
I know little about her case. I am a humorist, not a sociologist or criminologist. That is not the purpose for my sharing her letter. For me, her observations are simply evidence that in most of us there is some spark of humanity, a reservoir of reflection, even if it is not apparent to others. As for her enforced solitude, it may well be deserved, but one wonders if there is still something in her that can be preserved.
Tanya is a gifted writer. She is working on her memoirs, hoping that all those who read her words might question the ultimate value of the treatment she endures and its ultimate effect. At the close of her letter she notes: “I want you to read more of my writing, but would you like it? Your approach in your books is so lighthearted; I wouldn’t want to offend your sense of decency.”
For me, the decent thing to do was to share a little of her story.