Warning: The following article contains sensitive subject matter.
To evaluate and rate a man’s life is to declare experience a fallacy, and empathy a defect. This is why the following is not a review, but a broader look at the spectrum of violence one can both exist on, and drag others onto inadvertently.
82189: Confessions of a Prison Bitch is an unpolished — and largely unfinished — memoir penned anonymously by a man serving a life sentence for several counts of rape. His work, published posthumously under the name Henry Bellows, allowed the author to reflect on his disturbed youth, as well as the sexual exploitations he endured within the walls of countless prisons.
The text, written with startling self-awareness, acts as the spine of the narrative. Much of the meat that would have added both sense and substance was never added because of the author’s unexpected death. And yet, what does remain deserves some deliberation.
The man behind the shocking, harrowing account of assault was born into a house, in which violence was a dreaded recurrence. His mother was both sexually and physically abused by his father, while the author was routinely subjected to the latter — often to the point of temporary impairment.
He also notes that he was both confused and aroused by the sounds that would reach his bedroom at night; a heady mixture that affected the way he experienced his mother’s presence. In fact, confusion is a prevalent theme in 82189. Without seeming to realize it, the author depicts the way violence can shift one’s plane of awareness.
After being molested as a child by his teenage babysitter, the author then subjects his friend’s sister to the same treatment. What’s interesting is that the action isn’t spurred by malicious intent, but by a genuine curiosity regarding the female anatomy. Having been previously ridiculed by his peers for not knowing the particulars, the speaker echoes the movements that were performed on him.
And so, without recognizing the signs, the victim becomes the perpetrator. Of course, later instances lack the veil of innocence that is present in this scene, but this first crack in the boy’s composure is a vital step in his unraveling. The author also notes that, unlike most boys his age, he never stumbled on masturbation.
For him, self-exploration was the result of witnessing a sex act at school, sharing an intimate moment instigated by a friend, and subsequent submission to a fully-formed, alienating impulse. His apprehension is a painful thing to witness, and sets off a surprisingly — almost uncomfortably — empathetic reaction to his actions.
This is felt particularly keenly when the humiliation and brutality he undergoes in juvenile detention centers seem more appealing than returning home. What emerges from the speaker’s focus on certain occurrences is the essence of power; that of his body over his awareness, of the unsettling sexual stimuli over his body, of revulsion over his inclination toward passivity.
In the end, the power he both craves and yields before proves an unruly beast. The speaker commits atrocious crimes against several women, which he describes with chilling detachment. This is the turning point for many readers, the crossroads where impression and sensation merge. This is, understandably, the cut-off point for the average person’s compassion.
The urge to seal the book and hide it far from anyone’s reach is visceral. But to persevere, memory has to retrace its steps. It has to try to make sense of compulsion, which is often a futile effort. At the age of fourteen, after being captured for a minor crime, the author was placed in a room full of adult male prisoners for the duration of the night. As he writes, the officers “must have known what they were doing”.
And what they allowed was the gang rape of a teenage boy, with many of the perpetrators returning for seconds and thirds all night. Since he put up resistance, he was also beaten to the point of suffering from a broken bone. He goes on to describe the experience of being several inmates’ sexual property, of being used and passed around between bouts of savagery.
Above all, the author relates the challenge of surviving in such inhumane circumstances, and the confusion that stemmed from learning to reap pleasure from his sexual encounters. And yet, the memory that stays with the reader is that of his ongoing quest to make sense of the temptations and urges that conquered his young body; ones that never failed to baffle him, even at the other end of his life.
The relentless puncturing of the speaker’s purity resulted in the impulse to make others suffer as much as he had. But rather than manifest itself as a conscious need, this thirst for pain became an ingrained element of his sexual fabric. And while Mikita Brottman, the author of the memoir’s introduction, argues that the speaker fails to kindle any sympathy in the reader, this sentiment remains largely subjective. Violence begets violence, after all.
Publication date: April 3, 2021 (Nine-Banded Books)