Like It Is

I went trolling back over some oldMissouri Review Blog posts the other day. As a resident of Columbia, I know some of the contributors, and I always find what they have to say about literature interesting. (I was also avoiding student research papers.) I read a few posts by Michael Nye and Anne Barngrover. I let Wes Hazard expand my ITunes. I even went back and picked-up a few Austin Segrest musings.

Then I stumbled across a post from someone I do not know, one that is part of the Literature on Lockdown series, a series that “shares narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either.”

I read an essay titled “Flossing with Razor Wire” by author Tim Boland. It’s a pretty good short piece, and I’m interested in prison narratives (for various reasons), and so I looked this guy up, thinking that he might have publications elsewhere. I also admit I was curious as to what the “colossal achievement in idiocy” that he lists in his author bio might have been—I admit it, I wondered what he was in for.

What I discovered is that Tim Boland was convicted of manslaughter for his role in the brutal beating to death of a woman.

Now, please don’t think that I stand shocked at the crime itself. I was reading a blog written by someone in prison, and I am not entirely naïve about prison. While I have never so much as been arrested (thanks white skin!), on any given day of my life I have had relatives doing time for everything from meth, to spousal abuse, to murder. That kind of violence, while thankfully not part of my immediate experience, is not so entirely alien to it.

I am also not shocked because this appears on the blog of a highly-acclaimed literary journal. Frankly, it would be shameful and pointless if the Missouri Review vetted the contributors to the blog via the crimes of which they had been convicted. The point, I think, is to provide a forum for often-dismissed voices, and people convicted of crimes are dismissed more often than not.

But I do find something deeply troubling about how Boland is representing himself in his Bio.

Maybe I am troubled because the crime includes violence against a woman. The other day I watched CCN spend hours reporting on Monica Lewinski’s newest statement about blow jobs she gave to President Clinton nearly twenty years ago, all while young girls remain missing in Nigeria. It seems pretty obvious that people care more about a woman who fellates a powerful man than women who are actively trying to be educated. Want people to know your name? Close the books and get on your knees.

Jesus, even my handling of this is misogynistic as hell. Why am I slut-shaming Lewinski? What I should have said is: Many men, especially powerful and charismatic men, have convinced a good portion of people (including women) that a woman’s primary value is sexual, and that this must be a sexuality in service to their needs.

Or something like that. I’m still working on articulating what I think about this, and I probably won’t ever do so publicly, as writers and thinkers far better than myself have done so and continue to do so. My deepest thanks to you all, by the way.

But as you can see, this is an issue that’s looming pretty large in my brain right now, so I have no doubt that the impetuous to write this entire blog is built off of the anger and frustration of being a woman in a world where women are not valued. And I have no doubt that this will seep into my writing, and that it colors my perspective. But I’m going to work against this to the best of my ability. Or work through it, at any rate, because what I want to talk about here is not the case itself exactly.

I read various accounts of the case, from the mild to the much more dramatic. But I haven’t done any real investigation into it. I wasn’t present for any part of what occurred. I don’t know the people involved personally or casually. I have not conducted any interviews. I have never even been to Minnesota. Also, I have never studied Law, so I’m not going to try and deconstruct what happened in legal terms.

What I want to deconstruct is Boland’s Bio.

Now, author Bios are tricky things. A standard one goes something like:

Bob Jones received his MFA from Elite University where he was a Famous Dead Author Fellow and a recipient of the Local Hero Author Award. His work has appeared in The Fancy College Review, The Hip Online Journal, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Small Liberal Arts School and lives in Quaint Town with his wife Lilly, their daughter Euphoria, and Jackson, an irascible Boston terrier.

Okay, okay, I’m being an asshole.

What I mean to say is that the standard author bio (rather than the quirky ones) gives the following information: education, publication, awards, current residence and job. Sometimes, particularly if the place adds validity to the work being produced, it might also mention where the person grew-up or where the person lived in the past at some point. For example, in the past my author Bio sometimes included that I grew up in Oklahoma because my work was often set there, and I felt like I needed to legitimize myself as an insider.

And it’s this need to be taken as an insider (or a quirky outsider) that I think informs pretty much everything that goes into an author Bio.

So let’s imagine that the Bio I produced up top (the one where I am being a classist asshole) seems to be the standard one that I read over and over again in journals. I’m probably going to then assume that these are the kinds of people journals want to publish, and that the journals do so because these are the kinds of people who read journals.

These are not inaccurate assumptions.

Now, let’s imagine that I am someone who never finished my undergraduate degree, much less a graduate one, and that I have no journal publications, and that my current residence is a prison cell. Let’s imagine that I what I have to say and how I want to say it (through creative work) has been repeatedly dismissed by my culture (and probably even my own family and friends). I want people to listen. I fear they will not. I know if I can show them we are alike, that I am an insider, they just might.

This is the context I imagine Boland working in when he wrote this Bio.

Now, I have some (limited) experience in being told to sit down and shut up, not because of what I am saying, but because of my twang, or my gender, or my not-all-that-impressive educational pedigree.

It’s frustrating. It’s maddening. There have been times when it has made me fearful to speak at all for fear of being shouted-down. So while I do not understand the pain and frustration of being silenced to the degree of many others, I have at least a teeny inkling as to what that feels like, and it feels like fear. What I want to do is try to see Boland’s Bio as being constructed within a context of this fear.

So let’s take a look at what Boland constructed in this context.

Boland begins his Bio by telling us what he isn’t, rather than what he is (much in the way I began this post claiming that I did not want to discuss the case itself).

He is not “a thug or an ice-cold menace or a career loser.”

This, Boland seems to assume, is what people who run and read literary magazine blogs believe all prisoners to be, and he wants to begin by disclaiming this identity because it is one that will not be heard fairly. It will position him as an outsider.

Again, these are not inaccurate assumptions.

Now, what exactly constitutes a person as being a thug or an ice-cold menace or a career loser, I’m not sure. Violence? Repeated arrests? Sociopathic tendencies? I guess the image Boland denies that comes to my mind is someone like this man:

 

white supremacist prisoner

 

Boland denies being this man because he assumes the literati imagine that men like this man aren’t worth a listen. Instead, he claims himself to have been something closer to this man:

frat guy

 

A kid just like his assumed readership, one with a future, “who went to State (St. Cloud) on a baseball ride and majored in creative writing and wrote for the campus paper and chased tight skirts and noble dreams”

Mentioning the fact that he went to college and majored in creative writing is his listing of education. Mentioning that he wrote for the campus paper is how he fills the “publications” part of a bio. Insider. Insider.

The noble dreams? I’m not really sure. Surely there is no assumption that all writers have noble dreams. Many, it is well known, have quite the opposite.

I’m also confused as to what kind of noble dreams this kid aspired? Racial equality? Better public schools? Universal access to clean water?

It certainly doesn’t seem to have been women’s rights, as even years later, when he is trying to prove himself to be an insider, he uses the phrase “chased tight skirts.”

He doesn’t even say he chased girls or co-eds or Phi Beta Kappas. I could handle dames. Christ, at this point in our culture, I think I’d take chicks.

But no. He says tight skirts. He thinks of these young women as articles of clothing. And those articles of clothing are not even dresses, which at least cover the entire body, rather than one specific area.

Okay, that might be a little too far into the psycho-analytical realm for one not trained in psycho-analysis. I warned you that my just-beneath-the-surface anger might pop-up.

But even if we completely take-out the phrase chased tight skirts, I do think we can see Boland insisting that he is ‘just a standard, healthy, heterosexual male who was even a little bit smarter and more thoughtful than his peers’ You know, just like you and your friends, reader.

And hell, maybe that’s who he was. While I’m not convinced that this equals a voice I want to hear, plenty of other people do, so it is not an unwise strategy.

Nor is it unwise to then develop this ‘good kid lead astray’ story by letting us know that he “then one day drifted off and got reckless and lost in a ten-year cocaine smog.”

Cocaine. The downfall of so many good kids, right? But a drug people bounce back from, unlike those dirty cousins—meth or heroine or crack.

I’m not sure I need to take-on words like drifted and smog because they remove a level of clarity and personal responsibility and choice. That’s me not knowing the circumstances that lead Boland to drug use. And it’s me not understanding drug addiction.

And I readily admit to you right now, that this is me having certain prejudices to the harm drug addicts cause their loved ones.

I would never claim to understand either drug addiction in general or Boland’s story in particular.

Which is why, in this particular case, I am less concerned with Boland’s drug habits or what lead to the events for which he was convicted than I am with the way, years later, he soberly phrases these events. These events to Boland are “a colossal achievement in idiocy.”

Man. I just really can’t get over it. Every time I type the phrase it sends chills down my back.

I arrive at two possible reasons why he might call his role in the death of Natasha Waalen something this innocuous, though my imagination is limited and there are probably others.

1) He fears his guilt will make the reader dismiss him.

2) He believes himself innocent.

I’ll tackle the first reason first. In order to do this, I’ll go back to that context of fear. I’ll do my best to get back to empathy.

Okay, so I’m a prisoner worried that I will be dismissed if people discover that I have been convicted of a violent crime. I’ll call this the “dismissal of the unvirtuous voice,” and it definitely exists in our culture.

People with a history of mental illness are dismissed as crazy.

Women who openly engage in sexual intercourse are dismissed as sluts.

People convicted of felonies are dismissed as ex-cons.

If I am someone convicted of manslaughter, I know that the most direct and honest version of my Bio might be: Amanda Bales was convicted of manslaughter in 2011. She is scheduled for release in 2015.

But I am worried that my manslaughter conviction will cause readers to dismiss me. Maybe as a way to avoid this dismissal, in my Bio, I do not mention being convicted of manslaughter: Amanda Bales was sentenced to prison in 2011. She is scheduled for release in 2015.

This is a tidy aversion, especially since the brevity of my prison sentence would make a reader assume I had been incarcerated for something non-violent. If my fear of naming the act is so strong that I find I cannot do so, then resorting to not naming it at all might be one way to handle this fear.

But instead, Boland names the manslaughter; he just calls it something else. Instead of manslaughter, it is “a colossal achievement in idiocy.”

If he admits to that he bludgeoned a woman to death with a baseball bat, then to call this “an achievement in idiocy” is horrifying.

This seems as bad, somehow, than not naming it at all. To not name his actions is to try to erase them. To name them in this manner is to mock them.

So maybe it’s not a matter of simple fear of dismissal. Maybe it’s the second reason, that Boland believes himself innocent. This means he believes himself either innocent of the act itself or of his culpability in it.

Maybe, as it seems from his essay, he might believe the latter. Maybe he thinks he isn’t responsible for his actions because he was high at the time he committed them.

But that’s what manslaughter is, right? The taking of another human life without malice aforethought? The intentional killing of another person in the heat of passion and in response to adequate provocation? To claim innocence would be to claim that you did not commit the act. Being high might remove the rational intention, but it doesn’t remove the act itself.

Which leaves being innocent of the crime itself.

So maybe Boland genuinely did not bludgeon Natasha Waalen to death with a baseball bat. For this crime, he did not plea a straight-up guilty, but rather an alford plea. This, from what I understand is like saying “look, I didn’t do it, but I’m pretty sure all the evidence is gonna say I did.”

Maybe someone else bashed-in Natasha Waalen’s skull.

Okay, but Boland does admit to trying to conceal the murder. And, by his brother’s account, this concealment included placing Waalen’s body and a motorcycle into the back of a truck, then driving down a highway with the tailgate down and jerking the wheel until the motorcycle and the body fell out.

Even this, the best possible scenario for Boland’s culpability in the death of Natasha Waalen, does not excuse phrasing his part in her murder as “a colossal achievement in stupidity.”

Whether under mind-altering medication or not, whether as the perpetrator or as a witness who tried to cover-it up, referring to even the smallest part played in the brutal taking of another human life as an “achievement in idiocy”? As if it’s on par with a Jack-Ass skit?

Unconscionable.

Let’s be clear. This is a blog post, not a researched interview or news story. I don’t know Boland. I have never spoken to him. I have no real idea why he chose this as the phrase to convey the reason for his incarceration.

There I go, “the reason for his incarceration.”

I have no idea why he labels the part he played in the death of Natasha Waalen as “a colossal achievement in idiocy.”

Nor do I know why it bothers me so much that he did so.

Except that I’ve been thinking a great deal about the importance and power and hard, hard work of honest naming lately. 2014 has been a tough year so far. A loved one died. A friend committed adultery. A student overdosed. A man I loved told me he did not love me in return.

All of this occurred before May 1st.

And all of this has left me trying my best to be honest in the naming of what has occurred and how I feel, no matter how hard it has been to do so.

Most of us spend our lives trying not to do so. Loved ones do not die, they pass away. Those who cheat on their partners rarely call themselves adulterers. Alcoholics get a little sideways sometimes.

At one point in my life I ate fewer than 500 calories per day and at no point, not even after developing a thyroid problem, did I call myself anorexic.

Rapes are incidents.

Wars are military operations.

This avoidance of naming, and the intentional misnaming, has hurt me. Has hurt others. Continues to hurt us all.

And I believe that is what hurts about Boland’s phrase. Even understanding the deep context around it—the the slippery surface of self-representation and the dismissal of the unvirtuous voice—even knowing this, the phrase grieves me.

And yet, in all my grief, would I want to silence Tim Boland? Get him to apologize? Make him change his Bio?

No.

Boland chose this phrase, for whatever reasons, and his phrasing has a right to be heard, no matter how much it offends one woman in Central Missouri.

And I am in no way advocating that TMR begin fact-checking the bios of any contributor, especially those in the Literature on Lockdown series, as this would create an immediate place of judgment and mistrust—certainly the opposite of the intended effect of a blog that tries to give people too-often dismissed a chance to be heard.

Silencing others, dismissing others, seems to be at least part of the problem.

Maybe after all this rumination, the only thing for which I advocate is this—

That we all do the difficult, painful work of naming the hurt that we’ve done, no matter the fear that others might dismiss us for our honesty.

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