After spending 3 years in a medium security Ohio prison, a friend of mine once asked me if the time spent there had institutionalized me. At the time my idea of what it meant to be institutionalized consisted of simply forming habits specific to life in prison. So I answered that yes, I had become institutionalized to a certain extent.
But I was wrong. It is impossible to truly know what it is to be institutionalized without actually experiencing it. To be institutionalized means to adapt your mind completely to life enclosed by walls and razor wire. It is the transformation of the outside world from a real place and a goal to simply a novelty; a queer thing that’s written about in the newspapers but with about as much significance as Los Angeles has to a poor Ethiopian villager. Institutionalization occurs somewhere around the time when a prisoner says “I can’t wait to get home” and is referring to his cell.
Not long ago I finished reading “The Story of Joe Gould.” The Story of Joe Gould as told by Joseph Mitchell, a columnist and staff writer at The New Yorker magazine from the 1930’s until the mid-60’s.
Mr. Joe Gould was quite the enigma. Sometimes monikered “Professor,” sometimes “Professor Sea Gull” due to his self-professed mastering of the mightily elusive seagull language.
Born a true Yankee just outside of Boston in 1889, the inadequate son to a successful physician father, Gould constantly felt like an outcast at home, so after graduation from Harvard he left Massachusetts for New York City where he ultimately settled into the life of a bohemian. Of course this was back when Bohemianism could be loosely considered a profession.
Living solely off his friends’ contributions to “The Joe Gould Fund,” Gould spent his days an eccentric, drinking and interacting with the city’s pop society of the time, inviting himself to parties or shocking people with his poetry readings, some of which had been translated into seagull.
But the main focus of his life was a book he was writing called “An Oral History of Our Time,” which was said at the time to be the longest unpublished work in existence. Over the years Gould could consistently be found scribbling away in his grammar school composition books which were invariably greasy and coffee stained from his “rugged” lifestyle. He would carry a few with him at all times, while others were stashed in the closets of various friends’ apartments. But the bulk of the material was said to be stored in a farmhouse cellar in upstate New York. This stockpile allegedly contained a stack of notebooks 7 feet high. Containing first six, then seven, then eight, then nine million words.
The Oral History was Joe Gould’s meal ticket. It was a collection of random essays and commentary on conversations overheard or participated in by Gould and thought by him to be indicative of the state of our country at the period of the Second World War; a piece of literature rivalling Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” In reality, several publishers who had read samples from the hundreds of nickel composition books described Gould’s writing as “grotesque” or “childish” or simply “illegible.” But Gould himself was thoroughly convinced that in posterity his Oral History, the collection of eavesdropped conversations between diner patrons, ambulance drivers, Bellevue asylum interns and Greenwich Village poets, would be regarded as the principal textbook of American culture. He often proclaimed that his will bequeathed 1/3 of the Oral History to the Smithsonian Institution and the other 2/3 to the Harvard Library. To be measured by weight.
And Joe wasn’t the only one with faith in his tome. There were dozens of men and women who supported his long career as a bohemian and who all (or most) had faith that this epic piece of writing would more than justify the years of weekly contributions to the Joe Gould Fund.
So upon news of his death in a mental institution in 1957 at the age of 68, there was a mad scramble among his friends and acquaintances to find these composition books. But where were they? Apart from the ten or so scattered among a few artists’ closets, nobody had any idea where the actual collection “a dozen times longer than the Bible” was. It was common knowledge that they were supposed to be hidden away in the farmhouse basement, but Gould had always been vague and cryptic when answering any questions about the location of this farmhouse or the name of its owner. The stash was never found, and never will be. The Oral History does not exist. For lack of a better word, the Oral History was a scam.
Joseph Mitchell had done a lengthy profile of Joe Gould for The New Yorker; this is the piece I just finished reading in an anthology of Mitchell’s contributions to the magazine. Even after the profile was completed and printed, their relationship continued for years. During that period Mitchell had the chance to read quite a few chapters of the Oral History, except that he found each was only one of 5 different chapters, all rewrites of each other; different formats but clearly the same topics. A sculptor friend of Gould who often stored some of the notebooks told Mitchell that in all the years he had been keeping the chapters, they had all been on the same subjects, only hundreds of different drafts.
It was this oddity and an incident with a publisher Mitchell had tried to set Gould up with that provoked the outburst which consequently revealed that the nine million words simply did not exist. The upstate New York farmhouse was a lie. The Oral History of Our Time was nothing more than a delusion of grandeur.
Not wanting to break the spirit of an old man whose almost entire existence revolved around a myth, Mitchell kept Gould’s secret until well after the latter’s death, even assisting in the grand wild goose chase for the missing notebooks.
Joe Gould spent decades of his life preaching to anyone who would listen that he was the author of an epic work of historical literature which never existed. It’s anyone’s guess why he never got past those initial 5 chapters. He may have intended his whole life to eventually get around to writing down the conversation he quoted from memory. But at some point he had convinced even himself that somewhere there really was a cellar with two meters of stained and dog-eared notebooks stored there. And real or not, the Oral History as a concept sustained him.
In just a few months I will be “celebrating” the milestone of having spent 7 of my 24 years as a prisoner. For 7 years I have done my best to convince whomever will listen that the future of Whitney Holwadel Smith is a bet worth wagering. I’ve prophesied the college degrees, the good jobs, the on-time mortgage payments and tax refunds. In my rhetoric to family and friends who have all in their own way contributed to the “Whitney Smith Fund,” I present a character in a vaguely written play who is unremarkable as a citizen and remarkable as a concept of myself, the two-time felon.
With more than half of my current sentence done and a little over 3 years to go, I should be giddy about the prospect of proving my words to be more than just empty rhetoric. But the mundane nature of my life in the hole has all but deadened my hope and anticipation. I have begun to wonder if all those things I claimed to my “contributors” are real or just a series of fictions which I have even convinced myself of.
I am teetering on the edge of becoming institutionalized.
I’ve spent 7 years trying to convince those I care about that I am worthy of their contributions. But are they empty promises? Will the time come to pass that, like Gould’s five raggedy installments, I cannot see past the chapters of my life spent in a cage? Will this be the only world I truly know? As my mind becomes slowly wrapped in the wet blanket of institutionalization, I am fearing so.
But my promises and hope are all I have left; I cannot abandon them.
These are the thoughts which consume a prisoner on a daily basis. This prisoner, at least.
About the Author: In late 2008 twenty-four year old Cincinnati native Whitney Smith begins writing a blog he titles “Super Friends” from his solitary confinement cell at USP Terre Haute, where he is half-way through a 6 ½ year sentence for unarmed bank robbery. With no computer access, he mails handwritten entries to his father for posting. Before long he has hundreds, then thousands of readers from around the world. Writing about his past and present, Whit’s insightful account is scrubbed clean of self-pity and gives off an energetic ruefulness combined with a keen sense of humor. The blog entries reproduced here are interleaved for the first time with letters Whit and his father wrote to each other. This moving self-portrait provokes serious questions about the dysfunctional apparatus that is our federal prison system. As one early reviewer writes, “I am blown away by Whit’s writing; his voice is clear, so funny, yet heartbreaking – and I can’t stop reading.” Check out his book on Amazon!