17.11.12

"Regarding Responsibility/ Disregarding Cautionary Tales: Some Thoughts on The Other Wes Moore" (Talk given in Jacksonville University, 11/15/12



When I first sat down to prepare my presentation for tonight, my written comments quickly took the form a letter. A letter addressed to the the student body, the faculty, and all other members of your university community. A letter written from the perspective of a prospective visitor. A traveller who now appears before you in response to a beautiful invitation to come and share my thoughts and impressions about a book. I say beautiful because it is our shared condition as readers that brings us together and I earnestly believe that literature (and all those involved in the endless chains of literary production and consumption) partake in the quiet, almost imperceptible dissemination of beauty across the world. And I was so overcome by my direct participation in such a process that I stopped writing my letter to you. Overtaken somewhat, you could say, by the huge responsibility I assumed the moment I accepted your kind invitation. 

Responsibility does that to me at times. It takes me aback and I become inactive and unresponsive. Even the most joyous and enjoyable activities (such as reading, writing and talking about books), become difficult. Burdensome. So I put the letter away. And turned my attention to other books, so as to distract me from my responsibility with you all, my fellow readers.
The problem with literature, however, is that it does not really operate in the form of a distraction. The moment I start reading is the moment I start questioning myself as to how I react and respond to the text in front of me. I begin to wonder about the relationship between myself and the author; or the characters in the book and me; and ultimately about the relationship that may or may not exist between myself and all the readers and authors and characters out there in the world. Thus, I started thinking about you again and my responsibility to come and talk about the book we have in common. It then occurred to me that I wasn't so much a visitor, an outsider to your university community as I was (and am) a member of the very specific, of the very real reading community that has formed around The Other Wes Moore. And I found comfort and in such a thought. Happily so.
With this in mind, I returned to my letter and quickly realized that it would be kind of silly for me to write a letter to a group of people that I would actually have to opportunity to meet and talk with. After all, nobody writes a letter to somebody else so as to appear before them, and read it. It wouldn't make much sense. In fact, it makes as little sense as hearing about a man imprisoned for murder and write him simply because he happens to have your same name.
That letter would at the very least seem illogical. Why would anybody sit down and write an inmate, motivated solely by what? Curiosity? Coincidence? I mean why would anybody without a previous personal connection (by ties of family or friendship, for example) or lacking any formal ties to some sort of social-political or community project focusing on prisons, inmates and quality of life, feel compelled to write? The fact is that the recipient of such communication (a convicted felon, a murderer) is perceived as an unfit pen pal, and therefore the sender's motivations must be easily explained away (usually by way of a previous relationship which, once the person is in prison transforms itself into a burden for the person outside to carry as he/she attempts to imbue the relationship with some sense of normality throughout the other's incarceration). Either that, or they become suspect.
Because, come on, you do not simply wake up in the morning, drink your coffee, walk the dog, return home and write your local cop killer. Why would you? After all, when one considers that there are so many other known and unknown others out there in the world, to whom one could reach out, an inmate (a person responsible for the death of an off duty cop, husband and father) would certainly be at the bottom of that list. So why would you write a letter to such a person? The tone of the question actually becomes rather accusatory with repetition: Why would you? It is as if the fact that the recipient is guilty of something (whether something quite atrocious or simply illegal), somehow makes the sender guilty by association. But guilty of what? Of simply reaching out, perhaps.
The reality is that we as a society, do not “reach out” to inmates. We “reach out” to so-called troubled or at risk youth. We “reach out” to people in need or to those affected by a particular crisis in larger or smaller scale. But we don't actually reach out to people in prison. We have specialized personnel who deal with them. And the principal way in that we as a society deal with inmates is by not reaching out to them as individuals but by treating them as an undifferentiated mass of undesirables, who by way of their actions (whether actually quite atrocious or simply illegal) have decided to exclude themselves from society. They are what we typically refer to as lost causes. And you do not reach out to those who are already lost. You reach out to those who are in danger of losing themselves. Mostly because, we as individuals must set limits to our range of action in regards to others. Of the Good we are willing to do for others. This common sense notion of “there's only so much.” And “in the end every one is responsible for themselves.”
It thus occurs to me that the moment you sit down to write a letter to an inmate, meaning a person proven guilty of SOMETHING and who also happens to be a complete stranger, totally unrelated to you, is the moment you surpass a limit. It is in fact the moment when pure curiosity and coincidence come to carry more weight in your life than a prior, established and perfectly reasonable (and understandable) connection between two individuals.
I want to emphasize the concept of reason here. It is far from reasonable that Wes Moore, upon hearing the news of the other Wes' conviction and incarceration felt compelled to reach out to this perfect stranger simply because the name and the place spoke to him in a profound way. It is one thing to feel drawn to the story of a stranger who happens to share your name, and happens to come from pretty much the same neighborhoods as you and happens to be the same age as you; and quite another to treat those mere coincidences as motives (and/or reasons) to contact him. In the end, regardless of name, place and age, the two Wes found themselves in completely different life situations. Their lives-- up to the point were one reached out to the other— had no common ground, just shared reference points. Name, place and age which, could really amount to anything. Which, lets be frank, can amount to nothing.
For example, tonight after this talk (or during, if you find yourself feeling bored), write your name on Facebook's search bar and scroll down the number of individuals subscribed to that service, who happen to have your same name. Then narrow them down by age and place. Now, depending on your name that list may be reduced to zero or it may in fact include a decent number of people unknown to you, but who happen to have that much in common with you from the get go. Then consider reaching out to them, writing a message saying: “Hey, you're the other so an so. And we live rather close to each other, but i've come to find you here on Facebook and I was kind of wondering who you were and what you were like. Just out of curiosity, you know? So, anyway, write me back when you get a chance. Oh, I sent you a friend request, by the way.”
It would be weird, right? The person would probably block you or report you or something along those lines. In the two Wes' story however. One wrote, purely out of curiosity and coincidence. And the other answered, perhaps because he felt compelled to do so, because he felt that he was somehow bound to the manner in which curiosity and coincidence motivated the other Wes Moore to write him in the first place. And that initial letter served to notify him of a bond that existed between the two, even when he had no idea who that person was.
My contention is not that curiosity and coincidence combine to create obligations, per se. They might however combine to form responsibilities. The question is: Are we somehow responsible for the manner in which curiosity and coincidence combine in our lives to set up an encounter with an other. We might then unreasonably ask of the text under consideration: In what way is one Wes Moore responsible for his counterpart?
Wes, the author of the book in question, assumes a certain responsibility. Specifically, the responsibility to tell a tale of opportunity and circumstances and how they combined to produce two different sets of results in the life of two individuals who happen to have the same name. A responsibility that, for him, is tied to considerations of manhood and socio-economic advancement. A responsibility that, for him, extends further than the particularities of the two Wes's lives and is written with the intention of reaching out to countless young men who might find themselves in similar circumstances as those that shaped the lives of the two Wes Moores. In this respect, the book is what we typically call a cautionary tale: the story an individual tells of the struggles gone through and the mistakes made by him/her during his/her life in an effort to identify certain pitfalls for the benefit of readers so they don't have to go through what he/she went through.
However, I am admittedly less interested in this book as a cautionary tale. For the book, read in this manner is no different from any other rags to riches type story-- a tale of how hard work and determination can overcome bad luck and/or social circumstance. These stories we know. They depend on the extraordinary ability of perfectly ordinary individuals to rise up and persevere. Become the first person to go to college. The first person to go from the streets to Wall-street. The first person to make something of him or herself when the world around him/her did not expect anything of him. These stories move us. They inspire us. They provide us with role models that remind us of how even the darkest, most desperate night, a single flicker of hope pulls us through and onto bigger and better things. These stories are also extremely boring, insomuch as they follow a set pattern of cause and effect to arrive at a very expected and rather cliched ending: success, personal discovery, fame, redemption etc.
It may be that I'm not the ideal reader for this book. It happens that as the reading progressed I found myself asking the wrong questions. As opposed to reflecting upon let's say the role of the mother in the upbringing of young urban black males, or how the absence of a strong father figure or the helping hands of a loving extended family can make or break a young man, I found myself considering what the opening line of a letter to a total stranger might read like. What would one share of oneself? What would one ask of the other? Questions that are quite similar to those that Wes faced when considering to reach out to a convicted felon. From the book:
I wrote him a simple letter introducing myself and explaining how I'd come to learn about his story. I struggled to explain the purpose of my letter and posed a series of naïve questions that had been running through my mind. Who are you? Do you see your brother? How do you feel about him? How did this happen?

Questions that are mostly left unanswered and rapidly become substituted for seemingly more important and pressing queries regarding the fine line between personal tragedy and individual success. What makes a man a man of good, the author seems to ask himself over and over again; and in order to answer he rummages through his and his counterpart's respective biographies, offering both of their lives as case studies. It becomes quite apparent from the beginning of the book, that the author seeks to understand how one becomes committed to doing Good by those around him, which he translates into being responsible; into assuming responsibility for one's actions. The problem is that responsibility in this text is treated as part and parcel of the process by which one judges and assigns guilt to another. And so, we read of the failings of the people who were responsible for the other Wes' upbringing. And we read of Wes' own irresponsibility with his female counterparts, with his children, with himself. All the while, our author asks which of these people, circumstances or events is ultimately responsible for (meaning guilty of) the manner in which Wes' life turned out. The things he did. The people he hurt.
A bigger question, from my perspective, is for what Good in the life of others are we responsible regardless of who they might be or what they may have done? You see Wes's focus on responsibility as guilt, expressly keeps him from regarding the other Wes Moore as anything other than a murderer (or a failure). And insomuch, as he continues to assert his innocence on the matter, our author remains weary of him; incapable of accepting him as simply another Wes. It is as if he not only had to show repentance and seek forgiveness from the victim's family but also from our author. When in truth, he owes Wes nothing. NOTHING at all. Apart, of course, from answering that first letter, and the second,and the third and visiting with him, and sharing his story and in essence reaching out to him from the land of the lost.
Our author, however, is so overly concerned with readers not getting the impression that he somehow may be portraying Wes as a sort of victim (of the system, of social circumstance, of the correctional institution etc.), that he forgets that the other Wes regularly makes a conscious and loving decision to remain willing to receive him. And that that willingness amounts to a Good in his life. And that Wes is in no obligation to pay for his crimes within the contours of their relationship, for their relationship has in truth been made possible by the fact that Wes is locked up, paying for his crimes on a daily basis.
I mean, punishment must have its limits, right? Where would the Good be in people “paying” for the harm they may have caused others, if the “debt” can never ever be paid in full? Moreover, where would the Good be in people having to “pay” for their crimes, if past, present and future relationships are to be contingent upon and shaped by them accepting what others expect them to accept in the form of guilt?
Don't get me wrong. This is not an argument on behalf of causing harm to others and somehow getting away with it or of being able to start from scratch in the world as if nothing happened. As the saying goes, there are harms suffered by people that can never be undone, but that does not mean that the person responsible for the harm is to be held responsible before others for the duration of his/her life. After all, we do have institutions and specialized personnel that handle that (which is an entirely different conversation). What we are talking about here are the dynamics between individuals who happen to establish a relationship at any particular point in their lives and my contention is that they are only responsible for the Good that relationship brings to each of the parties involved. Within that context, Wes Moore can be viewed as a victim. The other Wes Moore as well. Consider the conditions under which they are forced to meet:
Immediately upon entering the building I was sternly questioned by an armed guard and searched to ensure I wasn't bringing in anything that could be passed on to Wes. Once I was cleared, another guard escorted me to a large room that reminded me of a public school cafeteria. This was the secured area where prisoners and their visitors came together. Armed guards systematically paced around the room. Long tables with low metal dividers separating the visitors from the visited were the only furnishing. The prisoners were marched in, dressed in orange or blue jumpsuits with 'DOC” emblazoned across the chests. The uniforms reinforced the myriad other signals around us: the prisoners were owned by the state. Lucky inmates were allowed to sit across regular tables from loved one. They could exchange an initial hug and then talk face to face. The rest had to talk to their families and friends through bulletproof glass using a telephone, visitor and prisoner connected by receivers they held tight to their ears.

They are victims insomuch as their relationship must be explained to an outside authority. Victims insomuch as their interactions must be closely monitored, held to a set time period, be determined solely by the needs and according to the formal protocols of the institution that serves as a setting for their interactions. Of course, the obvious counterargument to my claim is that one of the parties involved is an inmate in a prison and you cannot expect individuals' feelings, interest and needs on a very personal level to override the very real security concerns and rather serious social responsibilities that the institution has regarding the safety of those inside and those outside its walls. True. All that is true, but only insomuch as the prison system is not designed to foster connectivity among individuals, or secure previously existing relationships. It's designed to break existing bonds and/or impede their future formation. Which makes sense, if our interest is punishment.
But The Other Wes Moore is not a tale of punishment—although at times it seems to veer in that direction. It is a story of connectivity between total strangers and I read it (or misread it) with the intention of learning about how to foster that connectivity with others in my own life. So, when I am confronted, as a reader, with that visiting room and how Wes and his fellow inmates must attend to their family and friends; when I am confronted with the security checks that those family members and friends must pass to simply gain access to the facility, I cannot but see a harm being done to them. Of course, the obvious counterargument to my claim is that if in reality such a harm exists, the inmates brought it upon themselves and their loved ones by way of the crimes they committed (whether heinous, or just plain illegal). True, all that is true. But only insomuch as we consider punishment an expansive and unending life condition; one, which like the harm that justifies it, cannot be undone.
I for one do not believe in sustaining conditions of harm for countless known and unknown persons, nor do I believe in extended punishment for those who are found guilty of causing harm to another. For however logical punishment as a response might seem, from the perspective of public safety, crime prevention and public policy, it certainly should have no bearing on the manner in which we structure our relationships, right? It does, however. Unfortunately so. You see, as I read the book, I could not help but pass judgement upon Wes Moore and those closest to him. I would find myself wondering, “well, why couldn't his mom just pay less attention to the night life and her romantic interests and more attention to him? Or why couldn't she be more like the author's mother who sacrificed so much for the benefit of her children and when her son began showing warning signs in terms of his behavior, and the company he was keeping, she shipped him off to military school? Or why couldn't Tony, Wes' older brother, practice what he preached to his younger sibling early on instead of actually serving as an accomplice to the crime that landed both of them in prison?” And when I pose myself those questions, I find myself unable to answer and immediately “resolve” my quandaries by righteously declaring “it serves them right. All of them.”
Then, I would sit and wonder why anyone would take the time to write and sit with a person capable of taking another person's life but who can't even admit what he did years after, while living behind bars. And I say to myself, this person does not even deserve the kindness afforded to people who will never ever cross our path; people who we will never meet nor know anything specific about their existence. I'm talking about the small, minute, theoretical type of kindness with which we perhaps say the word humanity, when referring mostly to a shared condition of existence rather than to an actual gathering of individuals in this here planet.
But then I catch myself again and consider the term humanity (how flat and empty of life it sounds as I repeat it under my breath) and happily remember that Wes Moore is not humanity as such, he is a person, whom, thanks to this book, I know quite a bit about. I know about his childhood and his children; his social circumstances and his missed opportunities; his pain and his court assigned guilt and punishment. And when I consider all that I have come to know about Wes Moore it becomes hard for me to disregard those learned details of his life and dismiss him by simply stating that it serves him right. When in actuality it does not even serve me right, as a reader of this story, to act as if he were a person undeserving of being befriended and loved. Sincerely and intensely. To act as if the time the author spent in his company was time wasted for something so ambiguous and ambitious as humanity's sake.
The thing is that as a reader, you come to appreciate and care for not solely what lies upon the page, meaning the words chosen for telling the tale, but you come to appreciate and care for the real life matter and material those words respond and are indebted to. In this regard, as a reader, I love Wes Moore. Both of them. Although if you press me, I would say that I am more partial to the other Wes. The one who was lost to a life of irresponsibility and crime. And I am more partial to him precisely because he was lost and does not readily appear to be wholly redeemed or rehabilitated or totally remorseful or what have you. I am more partial to him because it appears to be a more difficult endeavor. A harder position to justify.
After all I can only substantiate my position by stating that I read a particular telling of his life, written by a total stranger to me and a friend to him. A friend who also appears in the book, and whose character, determination and generosity of spirit make him a logical and somewhat unreflective choice and an easy person to care for and admire. But I'm not drawn to him. Because it seems to me that in order to make a case for responsibility (not in guilt) in curiosity and coincidence; for responsibility towards who ever it might happen to be that comes along in our life, one must attempt to reach out to those who seem the most lost to us. Otherwise, what would be the point of it all. (from Derrida)
Otherwise, the fact that one stranger outside wrote a letter to another stranger on the inside of a prison, wouldn't be that important. Nor would it be significant that the stranger on the inside wrote him back. Or that reading and writing between perfect strangers can serve as the basis for a relationship, even when one of the individuals involved will remain sitting in the same cell for the rest of his life and may not ever admit to doing what he is imprisoned for. I wonder how you come to regard a person in those circumstances. Our author has quite a bit of trouble with it. For all the kindness and appreciation shown in the telling of his friend's life story, Wes cannot get over the fact that the other Wes will not simply accept that he killed a cop/father/husband. That reluctance keeps our author from really embracing Wes a friend, period. Without any qualifiers. Insomuch as, from his perspective, accepting responsibility in guilt is a precondition to acceptance by others in society.
And so, I pose myself the question. And I share the occasion of that question with all of you here tonight: What would it be like to accept Wes Moore in spite of/ not withstanding/ regardless of his reluctance to accept responsibility for what he was convicted of doing? Is it possible to love him while still hating the harm he caused? Is it possible to love him without a clear showing of remorse on his part?
I have struggled mightily with these questions, in particular because I've been considering writing my own letter to Wes on the inside. You see that's the thing with reading—curiosity and coincidence somehow combine to land a book in your hands that you open and for some unknown reason, you end up spending some time with it as you push through its reading (at times with great pleasure, others through great pains, or both). You walk with the book to and from work (or school). You have it on your desk or night-table. It keeps you company during the most painstakingly boring instances in our daily lives. That sort of thing.
And so, the book comes to mean something to you as does the particular combination of words used for the telling and the real life matter and material those words make public to the world. The reality is you end up caring so much for the fact that the book exists and for the persons responsible for its existence that you find yourself purely by curiosity and coincidence writing “back.” Now, the way we usually write “back” as readers and lovers of books is by simply putting pen to paper (or fingertips to computer keys) and producing our own pieces of poetry or fiction or drama or what have you. Pieces that will certainly be written in the spirit of the work we as readers just spent a considerable amount of time with. As such, it is quite likely that whenever we revisit those poems or stories, we will be reminded of the reading that served as the basis for our writing. That, I think, is how it goes for both sporadic and professional writers alike: we read and then we write back.
But in this particular case, I have not been confronted with a book of poems or a novel. The book that landed in my hands and that I proceeded to open finds it origin in a simple letter written and delivered that ended up making two perfect strangers somehow meaningful and important to one another. And while, thru its reading, they ceased to be strangers to me, I continue to be a stranger to them. Thus, it occurs to me that the way I should write “back” to this book is by actually writing “back” to one Wes or both.
I choose the Wes on the inside. However, I first need to answer those questions regarding the possibility to love him as such; without reservations or preconditions. This, I think, is important, in so much a letter from a perfect stranger should not impose upon the recipient anything more than perhaps the responsibility to respond if he/she sees fit. My letter to Wes should not read like a list of demands necessary for him to satisfy in order for me to trust and confide in him. A letter from a total stranger should be a simple offering in trust and in love, sent with great hopes. Trust that the stranger will read. Love him for doing so. Hope he'll write back. Anything else would complicate the matter unnecessarily.
Unfortunately, as of yet, I've been unable to answer those questions regarding my possibility to love Wes as such. I've become so frustrated even, that I often attempt to skip the issue entirely and simply write and mail the letter so as to just get it over with. It would read as follows:
Dear Wes,
I know your name because we have a friend in common. Well, not really a friend. He is the author of a book with your name on the cover. I'm writing because I recently read the other Wes' book and it only seemed fair that you know a little about me since I already know quite a bit about you. My name is Guillermo and you and I are about the same age. Chances are we would have never met if not for this book. By meet, I mean come in contact with. By contact I mean this letter.
I have a particular fondness for words, though I often struggle with finding the right ones for the occasion. I am unclear as to what type of occasion this might be, but still I have no idea what to say. Originally I was going to start the letter by sharing some fun fact about Baltimore. I myself have never been to Baltimore, and really it doesn't seem like much fun from what I read in the book, but still I wanted to open with something trivial and nice.
I grew up in very different circumstances from you, made different decisions mostly because I was given different (and quite honestly, better) choices than you. I have no children. Though I've always felt like I wanted to have some. Although, if I really think about it, I've always envisioned having children as something that somehow happens along the way; not necessarily something you set out and do. In any case, as it stands, I have none and I've begun to feel as if time in that regard has passed me by. Then again, it still might just happen. Out of the blue, so to speak. And that I think would make me happy. Quite a bit, actually. Although, writing this makes me feel weird. Not writing you, per se. Simply writing about these feelings. I wonder if you feel weird reading it. I hope not. Happily so.
Best, Guillermo.
I don't know if this is the type of letter you are supposed to write an inmate. It's simply the letter I wrote to a person I found out about in a book. I mailed it yesterday, thinking that Wes Moore might be curious as to who in the world has read his story. I wonder if other readers have done or will do the same. I wonder if my letter might coincide on arrival with theirs. I am curious as to what that coincidence might mean, if anything. For now, I stand waiting. Imagining the possibility of a response. Wholeheartedly in love with the process and the expectations.
As I wait for Wes's response, I also wonder about whether or not a letter might really do any Good to a person. To be honest, I'm unsure as to what it does to me. How do I feel about sharing some pretty intimate stuff about myself with a total stranger, free of any form of coercion? Then I realize that I have just made the feelings and thoughts expressed in my letter to Wes pretty darn public by reading it in front of you. And, again, I am unclear as to what exactly that reading makes me feel. But I was just curious enough to at least attempt to find out.
Now, we certainly couldn't call this meeting tonight a coincidence. After all, you did invite me here. And the book did not happen to land in our hands by chance. This writing community was planned by the university. And happily so. But isn't it curiously beautiful how the writing and reading of this particular book open and end with letters written to whomever the other person might be and that his/her possible acknowledgement of the letter and its author come to mean so much to both the sender and the recipient, that they just keep writing back to each other. Over and over again. All the while motivating countless other to reach out to somebody, whoever, and let them become meaningful in their lives. Just because.
That it my invitation to you tonight. It is my sincere hope that I have responded in kind.





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