I like Louis Theroux. I like the way he masks determined confrontationalism and gritty balls of steel beneath a calm, genteel, ultra polite, very British veneer. I suspect it’s this mask of nervous warmth and humanity (though I have no doubt that it’s more than skin deep) that allows Louis to attain a proximity to the kind of people and situation that normally most of us would run a mile from.
Last night’s documentary saw Louis spending time within the formidable walls of San Quentin jail and getting to know some of the many in-mates. Although Louis’ approach with people seems to conjure up its own all inclusive comfort zone his interviews with the prisoners were nevertheless frequently on-the-edge-of-the-seat viewing. Both the living conditions of the in-mates and their candidness about their reasons for being incarcerated were sharply discomforting to say the least. But more than that: their very humanity – their very normalcy – was unsettling. Their honesty and good humoured acceptance of their fate (at least to the cameras) was even more so. It felt incongruous. I guess deep down we want them to be monsters. We want them to be visibly marked and set apart from the rest of us. To show evidence of a corrupted gene pool, some sign that they are, against the odds, a slightly different species.
We certainly don’t want to recognize certain of our own traits in a person who is serving 551 years for house robbery and torture... This particular lifer termed his crimes as “home invasion”. A far gentler epithet yet with far more disturbing and unsettling connotations... Louis questioned him closely about his criminal activities. It was interesting to watch Louis’ urbanity and almost effeminate politeness peeling away the steely body armour of machismo and de-sensitivity. I guess it worked because there was an uneasy respect maintained by and between both parties. And more importantly Louis didn’t let any of his reactions betray any kind of judgment about what he was hearing. No mean feat when the lifer casually described torturing his victims to reveal the whereabouts of their valuables, half drowning people in their own hot-tubs and using a pistol to abuse his victims sexually... this from a man who then calmly accepted he would spend the rest of his natural life in prison without a trace of anger or frustration twitching at the edge of his benign smile.
But I guess at the heart of the documentary was the simple fact that no matter what circumstance you throw people into they will “make do”. They will seek out and pursue some sort of life. They will make the best of it. They will take their comforts where they find them. Hence, married ex-Nazis forming intimate relationships with Jewish homosexuals, long haired rock star wannabes becoming the lovers of pre-op transsexuals... Although Louis could see the ironies his gentle illuminations were blanked by all the prisoners involved. It was weird to see such an optimistic openness and also such a fearful, self-denying closedness operating in tandem in their minds.
It would be too easy to dismiss life in prison as merely an alternate reality to life outside it. Certainly life in prison is extreme and people in extremis react in extreme ways... but I don’t think life in prison is that far removed from ours own. In a lot of respects it’s almost the same – just with less baggage; with more stripped down, more rarefied choices. In terms of the need for intimacy and relationships, the need of hierarchies, rules and rites of passage life remains the same. Yes it’s harsh. But isn’t life in the outside world too? A lot of the comforts are obviously filtered out. But a lot of the heavy responsibilities and burdens are gone too.
As Mr Home Invasion pointed out: he doesn’t have to worry about getting a job. He doesn’t have to worry about keeping a roof over his head. He’s going to be “taken care of” until the day he dies.
Hell, what are we all waiting for? Let’s sign up to the Hotel California!
Until you see the cells where these men spend every day, every week barring 2 hours in the recreation yard. They can’t have been no more than 4 feet across. You could almost smell the constant pall of sweat and testosterone. The noise was constant – shouts, catcalls, whoops, nasty laughter. It sounded like a madhouse. The food was basic and could hardly be described as a comfort. There is the constant threat of being beaten, stabbed, or raped. To avoid these scenarios there is the constant “invitation” to join any number of gangs who’ll offer to protect you against such ends provided you do a little work for them in return... beating, stabbing or raping people who have happened to find themselves on their hit-lists... Dog eat dog and dog returning to its vomit ad infinitum.
If prison isn’t an alternate reality but merely mirrors the society that has a need for the prison what does that say about our world? Do we measure the progress of our civilization by the best it produces or the worst?
Louis didn’t have the answers. At the end of the day that isn’t his shtick. He asked his personal questions, remained affable in the face of constant, potential danger and then walked out of San Quentin jail when his stint was done with a considerably lighter tread than when he went in. And I for one was glad to be leaving with him.
Suddenly I was glad that I have a job to be worried about. That I have to constantly fight to keep a roof over my head. That there isn’t an institution taking care of me until the day I die – just me, myself and mine.
True freedom comes by accepting the weightiest responsibilities that life throws at you... not by shirking them and taking the easy or the fast way out...