Prisons and Imprisoning Ourselves

Lately, prisons and the concept of imprisoning ourselves has popped up in my periphery so much that I thought I would write a bit about that. By imprisoning ourselves, I mean both the mental, emotional, or cultural prisons we, as individuals, seem to put ourselves in or get put in, along with the more general practice of placing great numbers of our populations, i.e. ourselves as Americans, in literal prisons.

Public domain. Wikimedia.

In the local news, there are reports and reviews of the Wayne Morris Law Center’s Symposium: “The Borders Within: Immigrants, Race, and the Politics of Surveillance and Enforcement in the United States.” Recently, I started reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness because my friend Andi highly recommended it. Just two weeks ago, by seeming happenstance, I also saw the TED talk by Bryan Stevenson: We Need to Talk About an Injustice which also addresses America’s incarceration rate. Finally, I am attending the Pacific Northwest premiere of Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book of the same name.

If that weren’t enough, in my personal life, I am reviewing how shame has imprisoned my sense of self and self-worth. Shame means being told numerous times in various ways, that “I am the problem,” rather than being told “this or that is the problem.” One way that put me into a bind early on is that being smart was really important to my family. However, our culture says to girls and women “Don’t be smart. Especially, don’t be smarter than boys or men.” Why? “Cause no one likes a smart woman (or smart little girl).” The cultural message for a smart girl or woman, is “If you’re smart, you won’t be loved.” No high stakes there! Stay out of that lonely, horrible prison! Yet, no matter how hard I tried, at times I just couldn’t hide being smart. Publicly, I was and have been shamed for being smart, and by doing so did have affection, approval, friendliness, and, love withdraw from me. Privately, during my childhood, being smart is one of the ways I got those things.

Naturally, as a feminist mythologist, I view many of our current social narratives as imprisoning us individually and collectively into to ways of thinking, behaving, and valuing that don’t allow us much real freedom. Instead our myths, as a direct by-product of our social structure, enforce homogenization, heterosexuality, hierarchy, and conformity. I’ll be writing more about being imprisoned, literally and figuratively, as I continue to give this all more thought.