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Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.



THE PRESENCE OF my old friend is a source of much pleasure. George is an intelligent man; the long years of incarceration have not circumscribed his intellectual horizon. The approach of release is intensifying his interest in the life beyond the gates, and we pass the idle hours conversing over subjects of mutual interest, discussing social theories and problems of the day. He has a broad grasp of affairs, but his temperament and Catholic traditions are antagonistic to the ideas dear to me. Yet his attitude is free from personalities and narrow prejudice, and our talks are conducted along scientific and philosophical lines. The recent death of Liebknecht and the American lecture tour of Peter Kropotkin afford opportunity for the discussion of modern social questions. There are many subjects of mutual interest, and my friend, whose great-grandfather was among the signers of the Declaration, waxes eloquent in denunciation of his country's policy of extermination in the Philippines and the growing imperialistic tendencies of the Republic. A Democrat of the Jeffersonian type, he is virulent against the old Warden on account of his favoritism, and discrimination. His prison experience, he informs me, has considerably altered the views of democracy he once entertained.

"Why, Aleck, there is no justice," he says vehemently; "no, not even in the best democracy. Ten years ago I would have staked my life on the courts. To-day I know they are a failure; our whole jurisprudence is wrong. You see, I have been here nine years. I have met and made friends with hundreds criminals. Some were pretty desperate, and many of them; scoundrels. But I have to meet one yet in whom I couldn't discover some good quality, if he's scratched right. Look at that fellow there, he points to a young prisoner scrubbing an upper range, "that's 'Johnny the Hunk.' He's in for murder. Now what did the judge and jury know about him? Just this: he was a hard-working boy in the mills. One Saturday he attended a wedding, with a chum of his. They were both drunk when they went out into the street. They were boisterous, and a policeman tried to arrest them. Johnny's chum resisted. The cop must have lost his head -- he shot the fellow dead. It was right near Johnny's home, and he ran in and got a pistol, and killed the policeman. Must have been crazy with drink. Well, they were going to hang him, but he was only a kid, hardly sixteen. They gave him fifteen years. Now he's all in -- they've just ruined the boy's life. And what kind of a boy is he, do you know? Guess what he did. It was only a few months ago. Some screw told him that the widow of the cop he shot is hard up; she has three children, and takes in washing. Do you know what Johnny did? He went around among the cons, and got together fifty dollars on the fancy paper-work he is making; he's an artist at it. He sent the woman the money, and begged her to forgive him."

"Is that true, Doctor?"

"Every word. I went to Milligan's office on some business, and the boy had just sent the money to the woman. The Chaplain was so much moved by it, he told me the whole story. But wait, that isn't all. You know what that woman did?"


"She wrote to Johnny that he was a dirty murderer, and that if he ever goes up for a pardon, she will oppose it. She didn't want anything to do with him, she wrote. But she kept the money.

"How did Johnny take it?"

"It's really wonderful about human nature. The boy cried over the letter, and told the Chaplain that he wouldn't write to her again. But every minute he can spare he works on that fancy work, and every month he sends her money. That's the criminal the judge sentenced to fifteen years in this hell!"

My friend is firmly convinced that the law is entirely impotent to deal with our social ills. "Why, look at the courts!" he exclaims, "they don't concern themselves with crime. They merely punish the criminal, absolutely indifferent to his antecedents and environment, and the predisposing causes."

"But, George," I rejoin, "it is the economic system of exploitation, the dependence upon a master for your livelihood, want and the fear of want, which are responsible for most crimes.

"Only partly so, Aleck. If it wasn't for the corruption in our public life, and the commercial scourge that holds everything for sale, and the spirit of materialism which has cheapened human life, there would not be so much violence and crime, even under what you call the capitalist system. At any rate, there is no doubt the law is an absolute failure in dealing with crime. The criminal belongs to the sphere of therapeutics. Give him to the doctor instead of the jailer."

"You mean, George, that the criminal is to be considered a product of anthropological and physical factors. But don't you see that you must also examine society, to determine to what extent social conditions are responsible for criminal actions? And if that were done, I believe most crimes would be found to be misdirected energy -- misdirected because of the false standards, wrong environment, and unenlightened self-interest."

"Well, I haven't given much thought to that phase of the question. But aside of social conditions, see what a botch the penal institutions are making of it. For one thing, the promiscuous mingling of young and old, without regard to relative depravity and criminality, is converting prisons into veritable schools of crime and vice. The blackjack and the dungeon are surely not the proper means of reclamation, no matter what the social causes of crime. Restraint and penal methods can't reform. The very idea of punishment precludes betterment. True reformation can emanate only from voluntary impulse, inspired and cultivated by intelligent advice and kind treatment. But reformation which is the result of fear, lacks the very essentials of its object, and will vanish like smoke the moment fear abates. And you know, Aleck, the reformatories are even worse than the prisons. Look at the fellows here from the various reform schools. Why, it's a disgrace! The boys who come from the outside are decent fellows. But those kids from the reformatories -- one-third of the cons here have graduated there -- they are terrible. You can spot them by looking at them. They are worse than street prostitutes."

My friend is very bitter against the prison element variously known as "the girls," "Sallies," and "punks," who for gain traffic in sexual gratification. But he takes a broad view of the moral aspect of homosexuality; his denunciation is against the commerce in carnal desires. As a medical man, and a student, he is deeply interested in the manifestations of suppressed sex. He speaks with profound sympathy of the brilliant English man-of-Ietters, whom the world of cant and stupidity has driven to prison and to death because his sex life did not conform to the accepted standards. In detail, my friend traces the various phases of his psychic development since his imprisonment, and I warm toward him with a sense of intense humanity, as he reveals the intimate emotions of his being. A general medical practitioner, he had not come in personal contact with cases of homosexuality. He had heard of pederasty; but like the majority of his colleagues, he had neither understanding for nor sympathy with the sex practices he considered abnormal and vicious. In prison he was horrified at the perversion that frequently came under his observation. For two years the very thought of such matters filled him with disgust; he even refused to speak to the men and boys known to be homosexual, unconditionally condemning them -- "with my prejudices rather than my reason," he remarks. But the forces of suppression were at work. "Now, this is in confidence, Aleck," he cautions me. "I know you will understand. Probably you yourself have experienced the same thing. I'm glad I can talk to some one about it; the other fellows here wouldn't understand it. It makes me sick to see how they all grow indignant over a fellow who is caught. And the officers, too, though you know as well as I that quite a number of them are addicted to these practices. Well, I'll tell you. I suppose it's the same story with every one here, especially the long-timers. I was terribly dejected and hopeless when I came. Sixteen years -- I didn't believe for a moment I could live through it. I was abusing myself pretty badly. Still, after a while, when I got work and began to take an interest in this life, I got over it. But as time went, the sex instinct awakened. I was young: about twenty-five, strong and healthy. Sometimes I thought I'd get crazy with passion. You remember when we were celling together on that upper range, on R; you were in the stocking shop then, weren't you? Don't you remember?"

"0f course I remember, George. You were in the cell next mine. We could see out on the river. It was in the summer: we could hear the excursion boats, and the girls singing and dancing."

"That, too, helped to turn me back to onanism. I really believe the whole blessed range used to 'indulge' then. Think of the precious material fed to the fishes," he smiles; "the privies, you know, empty into the river."

"Some geniuses may have been lost to the world in those orgies."

"Yes, orgies; that's just what they were. As a matter of fact, I don't believe there is a single man in the prison who doesn't abuse himself, at one time or another."

"If there is, he's a mighty exception. I have known some men to masturbate four and five times a day. Kept it up for months, too."

"Yes, and they either get the con, or go bugs. As a medical man I think that self-abuse, if practiced no more frequently than ordinary coition, would be no more injurious than the latter, but it can't be done. It grows on you terribly. And the second stage is more dangerous than the first."

"What do you call the second?"

"Well, the first is the dejection stage. Hopeless and despondent, you seek forgetfulness in onanism. You don't care what happens. ItŐs what I might call mechanical self-abuse, not induced by actual sex desire. This stage passes with your dejection, as soon as you begin to take an interest in the new life, as all of us are forced to do, before long. The second stage is the psychic and mental. It is not the result of dejection. With the gradual adaptation to the new conditions, a comparatively normal life begins, manifesting sexual desires. At this stage your self-abuse is induced by actual need. It is the more dangerous phase, because the frequency of the practice grows with the recurring thought of home, your wife or sweetheart. While the first was mechanical, giving no special pleasure, and resulting only in increasing lassitude, the second stage revolves about the charms of some loved woman, or one desired, and affords intense joy. Therein is its allurement and danger; and that's why the habit gains in strength. The more miserable the life, the more frequently you will fall back upon your sole source of pleasure. Many become helpless victims. I have noticed that prisoners of lower intelligence are the worst in this respect."

"I have had the same experience. The narrower your mental horizon, the more you dwell upon your personal troubles and wrongs. That is probably the reason why the more illiterate go insane with confinement."

"No doubt of it. You have had exceptional opportunities for observation of the solitaries and the new men. What did you notice, Aleck?"

"Well, in some respects the existence of a prisoner is like the life of a factory worker. As a rule, men used to outdoor life suffer most from solitary. They are less able to adapt themselves to the close quarters, and the foul air quickly attacks their lungs. Besides, those who have no interests beyond their personal life, soon become victims of insanity. I've always advised new men to interest themselves in some study or fancy work, -- it's their only salvation."

"If you yourself have survived, it's because you lived in your theories and ideals; I'm sure of it. And I continued my medical studies, and sought to absorb myself in scientific subjects."

For a moment George pauses. The veins of his forehead protrude, as if he is undergoing a severe mental struggle. Presently he says: "Aleck, I'm going to speak very frankly to you, I'm much interested in the subject. I'll give you my intimate experiences, and I want you to be just as frank with me. I think it's one of the most important things, and I want to learn all I can about it. Very little is known about it, and much less understood."

"About what, George?"

"About homosexuality. I have spoken of the second phase of onanism. With a strong effort I overcame it. Not entirely, of course. But I have succeeded in regulating the practice, indulging in it at certain intervals. But as the months and years passed, my emotions manifested themselves. It was like a psychic awakening. The desire to love something was strong upon me. Once I caught a little mouse in my cell, and tamed it a bit. It would eat out of my hand, and come around at meal times, and by and by it would stay all evening to play with me. I learned to love it. Honestly, Aleck, I cried when it died... then, for a long time, I felt as if there was a void in my heart, I wanted something to love. It just swept me with a wild craving for affection. Somehow the thought of woman gradually faded from my mind. When I saw my wife, it was just like a dear friend. But I didn't feel toward her sexually. One day, as I was passing in the hall, I noticed a young boy. He had been in only a short time, and he was rosy-checked, with a smooth little face and sweet lips -- he reminded me of a girl I used to court before I married. After that I frequently surprised myself thinking of the lad. I felt no desire toward him, except just to know him and get friendly. I became acquainted with him, and when he heard I was a medical man, he would often call to consult me about the stomach trouble he suffered. The doctor here persisted in giving the poor kid salts and physics all the time. Well, Aleck, I could hardly believe it myself, but I grew so fond of the boy, I was miserable when a day passed without my seeing him. I would take big chances to get near him. I was rangeman then, and he was assistant on a top tier. We often had opportunities to talk. I got him interested in literature, and advised him what to read, for he didn't know what to do with his time. He had a fine character, that boy, and he was bright and intelligent. At first it was only a liking for him, but it increased all the time, till I couldn't think of any woman. But don't misunderstand me, Aleck; it wasn't that I wanted a 'kid.' I swear to you, the other youths had no attraction for me whatever; but this boy -- his name was Floyd -- he became so dear to me, why, I used to give him everything I could get. I had a friendly guard, and he'd bring me fruit and things. Sometimes I'd just die to eat it, but I always gave it to Floyd. And, Aleck -- you remember when I was down in the dungeon six days? Well, it was for the sake of that boy. He did something, and I took the blame on myself. And the last time -- they kept me nine days chained up -- I hit a fellow for abusing Floyd: he was small and couldn't defend himself. I did not realize it at the time, Aleck, but I know now that I was simply in love with the boy; wildly, madly in love. It came very gradually. For two years I loved him without the least taint of sex desire. It was the purest affection I ever felt in my life. It was all-absorbing, and I would have sacrificed my life for him if he had asked it. But by degrees the psychic stage began to manifest all the expressions of love between the opposite sexes. I remember the first time he kissed me. It was early in the morning; only the rangemen were out, and I stole up to his cell to give him a delicacy. He put both hands between the bars, and pressed his lips to mine. Aleck, I tell you, never in my life had I experienced such bliss as at that moment. It's five years ago, but it thrills me every time I think of it. It came suddenly; I didn't expect it. It was entirely spontaneous: our eyes met, and it seemed as if something drew us together. He told me he was very fond of me. From then on we became lovers. I used to neglect my work, and risk great danger to get a chance to kiss and embrace him. I grew terribly jealous, too, though I had no cause. I passed through every phase of a passionate love. With this difference, though -- I felt a touch of the old disgust at the thought of actual sex contact. That I didn't do. It seemed to me a desecration of the boy, and of my love for him. But after a while that feeling also wore off, and I desired sexual relation with him. He said he loved me enough to do even that for me, though he had never done it before. He hadn't been in any reformatory you know. And yet, somehow I couldn't bring myself to do it; I loved the lad too much for it. Perhaps you will smile, Aleck, but it was real, true love. When Floyd was unexpectedly transferred to the other block, I felt that I would be the happiest man if I could only touch his hand again, or get one more kiss. You -- you're laughing?" he asks abruptly, a touch of anxiety his voice.

"No, George. I am grateful for your confidence. I think it is a wonderful thing; and, George -- I had felt the same horror and disgust at these things, as you did. But now I think quite differently about them."

"Really, Aleck? I'm glad you say so. Often I was troubled -- is it viciousness or what, I wondered; but I could never talk to anyone about it. They take everything here in such a filthy sense. Yet I knew in my heart that it was a true, honest emotion."

"George, I think it a very beautiful emotion. Just as beautiful as love for a woman. I had a friend here; his name was Russell; perhaps you remember him. I felt no physical passion toward him, but I think I loved him with all my heart. His death was a most terrible shock to me. It almost drove me insane."

Silently George holds out his hand.

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