“What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?
Uh… I don’t know…sir.
Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man?
Sure, that and a pair of testicles.
You’re joking, but perhaps you’re right.
Mind if I do a jay?
Bunny Lebowski, she is the light of my life. Are you surprised at my tears, sir?
[inhaling the jay] Fuckin’ A.
Strong men also cry… Strong men also cry.”
-The Big Lebowski
I’ve long had (ever since I stumbled across an exposé in a 1995 Esquire) what is likely an abnormal fascination with prison. It’s not quite an obsession, but at times it has been pretty close to one. What draws me to it is the unfathomable horror of it all — the misery, the boredom, the myriad indignities, the violence. Particularly in that final year or two of my drinking freefall, I read and watched everything I could find about prison— movies, tv shows, articles, documentaries, books. I didn’t consciously think about why beyond a general curiosity, but in hindsight, I think there were a few reasons fueling it. One, I was giving myself some perspective on my own misery, delving into a far worse situation to remind myself of how good I had it compared to how much further down I could go. It wasn’t the first time I had tried this. Years before, during a time of awful, sickening heartbreak, mixed with being hospitalized (yet again!) for Crohn’s disease, I had read and watched anything I could about the Vietnam War. I guess I was trying to figure out how to grit my teeth and bear it — to “Shut up and take the pain!” as Sgt. Barnes yells at the screaming wounded soldier in Platoon — partly so that he won’t betray their position to the enemy, but also out of the cold cruelty of a man whose soul had shriveled and hardened under the relentless brutality of war.
I think the other unconscious reason for my prison fixation back then was that I was preparing myself for the (highly unlikely) possibility that I might end up there. It was an absurd fear, as I wasn’t doing close to anything that would put me there. I never sold drugs, never carried more than a few grams of weed, never stole anything worthy of a felony, never forged any prescriptions, or any of that. At the very most I was perpetrating very low-level crimes, stealing a few dollars or a few pills here and there, whatever could get me through a few hours or days. (For the record, I have since made full amends for these acts.) I didn’t have a car, so I rarely drove, but I suppose under certain circumstances I could have driven drunk and killed someone, which certainly would have earned me a stint behind bars. Fortunately, gratitude to all the celestial powers that be or may be, I am terribly, terribly lucky that that never happened. But mine was the irrational fear of a man not in control of his life, a man so full of chaos and self-loathing that he believed his fate could easily be, for no realistic reason at all, to live out his days in the worst place imaginable.