Crying With Murderers
Locked in a maximum security prison, finding my freedom.
I am locked in the prison chapel, a large concrete room without windows and without prison guards. I’m standing toe to toe with a man I just met as he recounts the harrowing tale of how his friend, still free on the outside, married and then murdered his daughter. He’s on the verge of breaking down, breaking through, or exploding… maybe all three.
I’m playing the role of his “friend.” It’s my job to antagonize him. I stand up tall, look him directly in the eyes, and do my best to channel a man I’ve never met, a man who violently took the life of this man’s baby girl before she reached adulthood.
We are surrounded by 7 or 8 men, a few from the outside and a few from the inside, who are holding the space for me and this man to do what we need to do. A prisoner from the surrounding circle steps in, grabs a fistful of fabric from the back of my shirt, and quietly whispers in my ear, “If he flashes, I’ll pull, and you hit the ground.”
Despite being warned multiple times and signing countless waivers, in that moment, it hit me… this shit is not safe.
“The Work” is both the intensive group therapy that happens on the inside and the name of the award-winning documentary about the program. The film was shot before I was brought into the group, but I’ve now had the opportunity to meet and “do work” with some of the men from the film.
The man standing across from me is bigger than I am. He’s crying and I’m trying not to tremble. It’s my job to prevent him from running from his feelings. When he starts to shut down or tries to disengage, I remind him of what “I” did to his daughter. When he starts to cry I press harder and talk louder because he needs to feel the pain. He needs to feel the hurt and in this circle, he can’t run.
He doesn’t run. He doesn’t flash. He cries.
For the men on the inside, showing emotion outside of this circle is not an option. Being vulnerable could get these men killed, literally, but during these 4 days being vulnerable is required.
Both the men on the inside and the men on the outside were invited to this sacred weekend for a reason. No one is allowed inside the group unless they have been invited by someone already in the group. After being invited, there’s a very strict vetting process that ensures the newly invited participants can get vulnerable, find their deepest suffering, and confront it.
I didn’t go inside to volunteer my time. I didn’t go inside to help others who haven’t been as fortunate as I’ve been. I went inside to do my work.
The rules are simple, do your work or gtfo.
Really, if you can’t find your suffering and confront it, regardless of what your suffering is, you have to leave. I saw a man who was invited to the group and flew in from Florida to attend, but despite trying his best, he couldn’t open up… so he had to leave. Those are the rules and they are required to create an environment where everyone does work, so everyone is equal in that regard. It sounds crazy, but after only a few hours of seeing men of all kind doing their work, the division between who is free and who is not gets blurred. By the second day, it doesn’t matter because you start to realize that we’re all in some kind of prison and we’re all looking for freedom.
I didn’t know what my work was before I went in, and that’s ok, but I had to be willing to do it when it emerged… and both times, it emerged loud and clear. My work was a lot different than most of the inmates and at first I felt a lot of guilt around that, but the prisoners told me to let that go immediately. Each man has his own work, and no man’s work is better, worse, harder, or easier than anyone else’s.
My work was, and still is, personal but I can tell you that I was able to confront and challenge the stories I’ve been telling myself about myself since I was a young kid. I broke through the bullshit I believed about myself and came out the other side stronger and more confident than I’ve ever been.
Doing work can get physical. Sometimes it takes finding and channeling anger, or even rage, to get our emotions out… especially as men who’ve been told our entire lives that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. My work did get physical and I had to fight 4 or 5 large inmates who were pinning me down to find anger I didn’t know I had been bottling up inside me. I left that session bruised and bloody, but more proud and free than I’ve ever been.
Fight Club, which I already loved, makes a lot more sense to me now.
The man across from me has regained his composure.
He’s stepping up to me again but this time to “de-role” me. He says aloud, “You are not my friend that did horrible things to my daughter, you are Jason.” This final step in the process ensures that both he and I know that I am not role playing anymore. He gives me a long hug and thanks me for having the courage to help him do his work.
He says I’ll always be his brother… and I know it’s true because I feel it also.
I leave the long weekend with a lot of mixed emotions; proud, confident, sad, exhausted, and excited to go home and show my family the new me. The new me looks a lot like the old me, but the new me feels different, the new me feels everything, the joy and the hurt that comes with having an open heart.
The men on the inside don’t have the freedom to drive home to their families, so they ask that I love on my family for them also. They ask I that I stay present and stay open when I return home. They ask if I’ll be back in 6 months. I tell them, “I will, I need it,” because I will, and I need it.