Elatia Harris

Since my early parole from jail — where I’ve done forty of a ninety-day sentence for public lewdness – will take effect on the condition that I attend group therapy, I hardly demurred. It wasn’t the first time I’d been invited into a behavior mod routine, and I entered it gladly, full of powerful knowledge: I could resist any amount of reprogramming while making a fine show of compliance. Besides, I’m an artist with a keen eye for physiognomy, curious to learn whether a gaggle of women with nothing in common but the wish to pare down their jail sentences shared any telltale facial quirks. A salacious, slack-jawed grin, for instance? Darting eyes? Or a certain dignified reserve, like my own.

I was given emphatic instructions not to bring my sketchbook along to the first session, so I felt downright naked – and said so. That raised a laugh. At least half the women there, like me, had done time for disrobing in public, a regal offense having nothing to do with actual unprotected nakedness. One doesn’t disrobe on the teeming streets to achieve vulnerability – like the panic I feel when the means to make art are forbidden me – but to force one’s nakedness upon others, as Louis XIV did, and LBJ. To fascinate, to subjugate, it is necessary to show skin.

That, according to the group leader, who hand-waved us into a circle of paddle desks while seating herself on a table like a platform, was the whole problem. We were a roomful of women in late middle age – the youngest among us was fifty – who had arrogated unto ourselves the right to show society exactly that which it conspires never to see: our flesh falling from the bone, our graying pubes, our every last unseemly ripple. We were assembled, she assured us, not because we were garden-variety exhibitionists – oh, no — but women with an important message, albeit one that we must find some other way of delivering. You know, she averred, leaning back against the blackboard and – probably inadvertently — showing us a triangle of panty, I do understand the meaning of all this, and I don’t exactly disapprove.

Well.  I’m sure she’s very enlightened – twenty-nine, toned, and eager for cred with cons. But I dislike it when anyone in the hire of the County makes up to me, and I do not require her inexact disapproval for the things I may need to do. Startled eyes around me locked, however, lips pursed.  It was something new for the others in the group to consider the meaning of their actions, whereas I consider little but the meaning of mine.

We would be learning all about a subject unfamiliar to many of us, our leader said – empathy. Did we know what that was? She slid off the table, chalked the word across the blackboard in her big compassionate loopy hand, then stood away from it a bit. It might have been some gnostic symbol with tremendous attractive power, the way she turned to admire it. Empathy.  Roughly speaking, the ability to take in experience as if we were the very people we were not. Oh, not that we needed to become like these other people, no. But we needed to tell them our stories effectively.  To communicate with them in a way they would let in.  To do that, we had first to empathize with them.

Really? Well, it lies beyond my power to standardize any audience I may have – how should I know who they are? I wish, cleanly, to outrage them and make them feel a little closer to the grave – not to tell them my story.  My narration.   Our leader should understand that disrobing before an anxious hurried public such as one finds in the streets of our city at noon is a broad-brushed, imperious gesture.  And the public – my narratee – gets it. Without being over-smart about it or having to think too much, men in suits and women in dresses see the skull beneath the skin – my skin – and, shielding their eyes, they peep helplessly though their fingers, arrested, even sinking, as if stuck in wet cement. This is as complete an artistic transaction as I could possibly desire, and to bring it about, I do not empathize but perform. Does our leader suppose I can learn to make do with handing out tasteful Xeroxed poetry?

Whatever my objections, this is rehab and I feign insight.  I have yet to meet a do-gooder who doesn’t relish the florid dawn of insight on an offender’s face.  As a fiercely dedicated repeat offender, I’m under wraps these days.  I write poems, sure I do  – but my real art form is public lewdness. And when I regain the full freedom of the streets, I shall seek only increased exposure to my narratee. It’ll be cold outside by then – imagine.

Meanwhile, permission to bring my sketching materials to the group has been granted me, and I am commissioned to do turning point portraits of all willing members. When an offender feels she has moved on to a more effective form of communication with her narratee than a crime punishable by jail time, and when our leader concurs with her that she has done so – not always the same night – she may sit to me for a flattering and upbeat record of her big moment.

Who am I to say the conversion experiences of my fellow offenders are as disingenuous as my portraits of them? All I can know is that they will return unsupervised to the streets, where they will either revert to type or sublimate – for make no mistake, we are being coerced to sublimation here, and that’s the fastest way I know of for truth in art to be vitiated – while I am safely sketching, inured to an awful lot of malarkey. One of these nights, the leader will sidle up to me and tell me that I have a deep and soulful gift: if I can draw women at crucial stages in their self-discovery – spiritually naked, undefended, and therefore perfectly beautiful – then might I not lay aside my recidivism and go forth into the world, the art-enraptured world, my portfolio of aging jailbirds a magic carpet?

Well, I cannot begin to tell the County how much less silly its rehab programming would be if the social workers who staffed it knew dick about art. It is in my view a wrong of a high order to encourage talent-free offenders to write poetry and fiction, to draw or paint, and to take these products to the public as art. Many in our group are now tragically convinced that the public will be as enthralled by their narrations as it was repelled by their crimes. But the equation is of course doomed. So, what happens when I go back to my life, which is lonely, and write bad poetry, which is unread? Why wouldn’t that catapult me right back into high-impact misdemeanors and worse? For aren’t we now factoring in a tremendously cruel letdown?  Undone math – be it on the county’s head!

Just last week, an elderly woman who is usually as quiet as I am spoke up, haggard in the fluorescent light of our meeting room, covered also with the sheen of panic. She lacked faith that anyone beyond ourselves would ever read her scribblings, as she called her poetry – and to my ear there was a thrilling clang of arrogance in her self-disparagement.  She had a narration, yes, but no narratee, as our group would not keep meeting for the rest of her life. So what was she to do with it, her narration? Type it up and wave it in the uncaring air? To read it aloud on street corners was perilously close to the behavior – disturbing the peace – that had landed her in jail in the first place. And she wasn’t at all sure she could read it aloud without shouting – a big, aboriginal shout, perchance to reach a narratee – thus disturbing the peace in a new and inadequately sublimated way. Did we all see? Oh, slouching in our paddle desks in a circle around her, paying sudden close attention to our stubby nails — did we see that she was now more afraid than ever to go forth?

Leaning back against the blackboard and showing us that triangle of panty, our leader had a ready answer. A narration doesn’t take place in a vacuum, she said. It is never a pure act of creation, a something brought forth from nothing, especially since one of its volatile components is the consciousness of the narratee. Even if we don’t intend it, even if we think we have no narratee. Did we not, all of us women, feel that much that we’d read by both men and women was written under a male stare? A comprehensive male stare that, like sunlight, fell on narrator and narratee alike?  Wriggling on her platform now, she bade us conceive of a new kind of narratee.  Since we were creating her consciousness as we wrote – yes, we were – seeding it with perceptions, might we not go the whole hog and invent her?  Why not work to escape the male stare entirely, by writing for a she-creature figured forth from our imaginations? I always write for my mother, anyway, one of the group volunteered. Oh, no you don’t, our leader assured her, your perception of your mother is not your mother. So even in addressing but one narratee, you invent her. What I ask is simply that you invent bigger than that!

Must she look human? It was the question on everyone’s lips! No, but she might look relaxed and enfolding – don’t you think? And perhaps she doesn’t loom and stare, but reclines and listens – and hears.

It was not for me to say that our leader had traded empathy for projection. Doodling wordlessly, I looked around at the sketchpads of others, where I saw much labial imagery, which disturbed me. Is a specifically feminine consciousness – even highly abstracted and only faintly, shaggily biomorphic – thought to be recumbent and oreficial, altogether easier to pitch a narration to than its masculine counterpart?  Is she less threatening and discerning than he – priapic, sneering, weaving this way and that to duck a direct hit? She oughtn’t to be – it’s much worse for her if bad stuff gets inside. The plain truth is, I’m not so choosy about my narratee: as an artist, I just want to knock you down.

The group is a sisterhood, you know, our leader tells us, under the protection of The Goddess. Heads go down, and nether-lips are chewed, because we can only be in for more theory.  I tune out, longing to return to the nursery, full of anatomically incorrect beige plush bears named Priscilla or Rupert for no other reason than because they were mine and I said so.  While I did not have to get myself locked up to learn all about The Goddess, the phrase is whispered like a password in the rehab areas of these confines.  It’s a sop, of course – what should we be worshiping here, the police?

Under intense pressure to cobble up that narratee, I try mightily to draw a bead on the narratee’s job.  It could be a big one, as big as that of the narrator, if she  — yes, call it she — were ever actually to do exactly as the narration directs her, and enter the full shattering gorgeousness of art not by stepping up to the looking glass but through it.  And when this happens, does the male stare seek shards of glass to lodge in his Cyclopean eye?  No more than the feminine listener craves these shards inside her penetralia. But I ask you, can there be real art, and a real understanding of real art without many such shards flying menacingly about and lodging where they may?  Oh, I doubt it. As an equal opportunity offender, I doubt it. That’s why I’m content to take my chances with the public. What it lacks in intelligence it makes up for in directness. If the group has taught me one thing, it’s that I do love an unsuspecting narratee.

I wonder, could I not finagle a few more nips and tucks in the terms of my parole? I’ve been so good, so very good. And I sorely need to stop hearing that The Goddess will fix my problems. What problems?