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    illustration of a hand tool

    Not Everything Can Be Fixed

    Perhaps some things can’t be repaired, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

    By Carlo Gébler

    January 12, 2024

    Available languages: Deutsch, español

    • David McManus

      Very insightful, thankyou

    Repair, repair. oh, blessed word. Something is a bit wonky, or even broken entirely. Then, it is repaired. And then it is, as the saying goes, “as good as new.” How could the broken revert to what it had been before? This has always baffled me, but not nearly as much as the claim that sometimes the broken thing, once repaired, was actually even better. A broken bone, for instance. I remember teachers explaining to me in primary school: the bone, once it knitted back together, would be stronger than ever, said the teachers. Ah, the power of the body, they told me.

    They talked a lot of other guff as well, these dispensers of lore. I swallowed their guff, of course. They were adults and I was a minor. I had no idea there was nothing innocent about their rhetoric, although it did have a perverse generosity about it. They meant well, my elders, my superiors. The thing is, they knew what was coming – it was death. Furthermore, they knew that death, the great unspoken and unacknowledgeable horror, was the dreadful culmination of bodily mishaps that were unrepairable. So, of course, the adults of my childhood were keen to emphasize the efficacy of repair. Anything but death for them; their encomiums of repair were as much to cheer themselves up as to inoculate me.

    illustration of a hand tool

    All artwork from Ten Winter Tools series by Jim Dine, lithograph on paper, 1973. All artwork public domain.

    What the teachers started in primary school was augmented as I entered adolescence. The newspapers I read, the programs I watched, the radio shows I listened to, and the teachers who continued my education all told me the same story in different ways. It went like this: In the country I lived in, Britain, repair was ongoing, producing slow but steady progress. And it was ever thus; it had been going like this forever. Despite the odd reverse (always rectified in the end) the overall direction of travel had always been one way: upward. By the time I started work in 1979 (I was twenty-five), these beliefs were deeply embedded: life might not be easy but nothing stayed broken; everything eventually mended. I suppose this can be characterized as optimism, and that in my early adulthood I would have been characterized as an optimist.

    My experiences at home growing up should have taught me otherwise. During my childhood and early adolescence there was precious little conversational traffic between me and my dad. But I was an ardent eavesdropper, and I did pick up a few things about his autobiography. I learned that his own father, Adolf, had been imprisoned as an enemy alien from 1914 to 1919 – a Czech with Austro-Hungarian papers, he was from the wrong side in World War I. Shortly after Adolf’s arrest in Dublin, my father was born, and for the next five years he had his mother all to himself. Neither of the camps in which my grandfather was detained – in Oldcastle, County Meath, and later on the Isle of Man – permitted family visits. So, when Adolf finally returned to Dublin in 1919, his five-year-old son, my father, was appalled. He never attached to his father. That is why, I think, my father and I never really had that bond either. Dysfunction, as we know (or at least believe), cascades through the generations. Many things damaged my father, but the thing that did him the most harm was his father being in prison.

    So, in the nineties, when I was invited to work in Northern Ireland’s prison system as a teacher of creative writing, I knew I had to do it. By working with prisoners, I could help fathers to repair – there’s the word again – their ruptured or broken or attenuated relationships with their sons. I did think about the daughters too, and the wives and mothers, but right down in the kernel of my being the impulse sprang directly from my own family history. As a prison teacher I would be repairing the damage prison did to the father-son relationship. I realize now this included some magical thinking: I felt if I could repair the lives of others, it would somehow fix what was broken in my own.

    illustration of a hand tool

    I started teaching prisoners in 1995 (I was forty-one) and I haven’t stopped; currently, I work for the Prison Arts Foundation, a Belfast-based charity. Many prisons offer creative writing classes because it is thought that this kind of self-expression can generate repair, or, to use the penal jargon, “catalyze rehabilitation.” There is certainly a need for repair. As I learned from listening to prisoners – and prisoners, contrary to common belief, are truth-tellers more often than dissemblers – they had caused all kinds of chaos. Besides the catastrophic ruptures in their own families’ lives, there was the harm caused by their offenses: lives lost, victims traumatized, businesses destroyed. And though they had been punished, rarely had the mess they’d left behind outside been properly repaired. Yes, there had been a court process and, in some cases, compensation might have been paid to the victim, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred these repairs were never sufficient, never enough. So much of the consequences of an offender’s offending went unrepaired. And the prisoners themselves, who had invariably led lives that also called out to be repaired, were rarely if ever repaired either.

    And, of course, if you fail to repair, you shouldn’t be surprised if catastrophe ensues. Prison is, according to popular belief (among those who believe in prisons), supposed to rehabilitate inmates. Recidivism rates, however, tell a different story. If prison is so brilliant, why would so many released prisoners re-offend? Many people cleave to the fantasy that if prison were even more punitive, that would dissuade released prisoners from re-offending. But after twenty-eight years of teaching, I have yet to hear a single prisoner tell me he was improved by punishment. Nobody has ever said to me, “Suffering made me better.” If anything, it has been the opposite, “Suffering made me worse. It made me want to kick against the system.” On the other hand, what prisoners have said when we have gotten to the subject of the benefits of prison (and I have had such conversations) is that kindness, tolerance, and humane interaction were the beginning of their transformation, and when it came to deep repair, it was education that did it most.

    Well, the beady reader might at this moment be thinking: How does this writer who so believes in repair through education explain his failure (and the failure of all teachers) to curb recidivism? After all, he doesn’t seem to have done much good with this creative writing malarkey, has he? It’s true, I haven’t, but not for want of will. And here’s why: unless a prison system commits itself wholeheartedly to rehabilitation, rather than mostly focusing on dealing out punishment with just a little bit of education on the side, it can’t do what it’s supposed to do according to the writing on the outside of the tin. It can’t repair the broken (and all prisoners are broken; yes, they’ve broken others but they are also themselves all broken) and if you don’t have a complete repair culture, then the broken will just remain broken and they will go on breaking others.

    Every life has a major event or two; something unexpected and unplanned occurs; not necessarily a Damascene conversion but a moment that, looking back, you realize was a great gift from the universe. For me, entering prisons was that major event, the greatest gift in my life after my marriage and my children. It taught me a huge amount, and one of the most important lessons I learned is that prisoners don’t react well to civilians – in this case teachers of creative writing – who openly declare they have designs on their students’ psyche. Telling prisoners, “I’m here to help rehabilitate you” is the quickest way to empty a classroom. Far better are statements such as, “This is what I have to offer. You can take it or leave it – it’s entirely up to you.” By having no overt expectations put on them and no pressure to achieve results, the prisoners I taught were left free to focus on the writing. And when they were left free, sometimes something happened; some aspect of the prisoner’s internal life was changed for the better as a consequence of reading or writing. And, yes, sometimes nothing happened. There was no repair. Nothing changed. But the repair that did come about through those classes – the kind that happens organically and is unforced – is, I discovered, the best kind.

    illustration of a hand tool

    Nearly half a century on, the twenty-five-year-old optimist I once was has turned pessimist. The views and certainties I once held – that nothing stays broken, that everything eventually is mended – aren’t shared by the sixty-nine-year-old writing this. I’m appalled and troubled by what I see around me. Everywhere I look, I see the need for repair. The scale of what is broken is so great, I feel overwhelmed when I try to think through what I can do about it. And once I feel overwhelmed it isn’t long before I feel panic-stricken and paralyzed. Considering our vast problems always leads me to a place where I know if I keep on struggling and fretting and striving and planning, I’ll end up unable to function. So, I remind myself that if I want to change things, I need to remember what I’ve learned in prison. I have to give up any idea of being effective and getting results. That improvement program must go and, in its place, I need to simply concentrate on writing and teaching in the hope (but not the expectation) that repair may follow. May. May. I can’t guarantee it will and I can’t force it. But I have hope that it may, that it might.

    In this hope I am not alone. I often think of the final passages of George Eliot’s Middlemarch: Dorothea’s hard-won understanding “that the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” and that at least half of the good that accrues comes from those “who lived faithfully a hidden life.” One has to admire a writer (George Eliot) who doesn’t make immodest and preposterous claims; she admits the hidden people’s work only does about half the job. Eliot knows activists are part of the picture, but she’s writing here for those at the other end of the spectrum, among whom I number myself and my students. I’d like to think my prison classes are “unhistoric” in Eliot’s sense: unshowy and undemonstrative, private work properly done, with no overt agenda. I write to the best of my ability; I teach to the best of my ability. And somewhere out in the universe – unplanned, unscheduled – repair occurs, but not because of my actions. It just happens.

    Contributed By CarloGebler Carlo Gébler

    Carlo Gébler is a novelist, biographer, and playwright.

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