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Lessons on Death Row

By Catherine Berresheim, Spalding MFA Creative Nonfiction Alum

I’ve been in and out of a variety of prisons for over the last decade. Even though I am accustomed to being in these penitentiaries, I wasn’t prepared for the foreboding atmosphere of Unit Two at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute—otherwise known as Death Row. Nor was I expecting to encounter the abundance of artistic talent within those cinder block walls and the lessons they held on teaching and practicing the art of creative writing.

My prison work began simply as a means to hone my teaching skills. While working on my MFA, I volunteered to facilitate a creative writing group in a minimum-security facility, Core Civic. This led me into teaching college-credited classes for Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI) on the medium-security campus of Turney Center Industrial Complex. These days I serve with Dr. Graham Reside from Vanderbilt University Divinity School co-leading a class on compassion and trauma on Unit Two.

As a nonfiction writer, I was sure these students had some fascinating stories to tell. They did not disappoint. When I began this work, I didn’t anticipate feeling so comfortable in these oppressive carceral environments, or that this work would grow into a passion that would lead me to teach creative writing to convicted murderers. I know their status only because of their unit assignment. As a rule, volunteers don’t ask and prisoners don’t talk about their crimes. What I have come to understand is that trauma not transformed is trauma transferred. When I read their work I don’t wonder what circumstances led them to death row, I shake my head at the injustice of their upbringings, saying, “Of course they ended up here.”

To say these men are vivacious learners is an understatement. Rather, because of their backgrounds, they value the opportunity for an education in a way that my outside students just don’t. The key word here is opportunity. Inside (prison) students feel privileged to even have a chance to earn a grade or take a class. Often my outside students feel entitled to an “A” because they paid for the three-hour credit course.

Prison writers cut through the niceties and the bullshit. For me, this is a welcome contrast to the disingenuous properness of academia.

Ironically, it is in these nontraditional classrooms that I am most challenged as a professor and a writer.

It is a visual artist, also a death row prisoner, who stretched my fundamental understanding of vivid description and sensory detail. Of course, when I teach freshman comp, I tie description with the five senses and a simple narrative. This provides a foundation of material for a beginning writer to tap. But when the writer has been incarcerated for three decades, the senses are starved and dulled, and memories are altered in the void of gray walls.

Kennath is a self-taught painter whose work is commissioned by outsiders. His clients supply the materials and a photograph of the desired subject. Many hire him to do portraits; others want landscapes or still-life creations. Inmates are not allowed to have too many possessions or profit from their incarceration, so for payment, patrons make a high-quality color photocopy of the work for his portfolio collection.

To fill in these gaps of where experience and/or memory fail, Kennath relies on stories and descriptions from others to inform what he is seeing in these photos provided for reference. It is the inverse process for a writer.

We spoke at length one night about how to create blond.

“What color is blond?” he asks, as he shows me a reunion photo he’s been commissioned to paint of an impossible family of a dozen blond-headed members.

My color knowledge seems like Crayola basic. “Well, it’s kind of a blend of platinum, and honey, and a cream color.”

“Cream, like the chairs we are sitting in?” he asks.

“No, it’s darker and dirtier in places.” I swirl my hair out to show him the number of colors that make up my shade of blond.

“This is your natural color?”

“Well, yes, mostly!” and we laugh.

As if out of gratitude for the conversation, he asks, “If I were to do a painting just for you, what image comes to mind?”

Thinking of his beautiful landscapes, without hesitation I say, “A ginkgo tree.”

“What is that?” he asks.

I explain that it is a prehistoric tree with fan-shaped leaves. They turn a rich yellow in the fall, and the tree sheds them all at once. The sound as a million leaves cascade down in a soft whisper of whooshes, like the ripples of water off a boat’s current, is fairytale-like. They cover the lawn in a blanket of gold, and they smell of moist earth. Kennath prompts detail after detail. The leaves are supple, I say, unlike the autumn brittleness of other deciduous trees. The only negative aspect of the tree is the putrid stench of its fruit in the fall. I try to draw him a leaf without much success. Finally, I walk over to an outdated library of Encyclopedia Britannica to look up a photo for reference. We learn that the ginkgo is in a scientific classification of its own, is deeply rooted, and is resistant to disease. I love the metaphor of this ancient Chinese specimen. When Kennath has more questions about the ribbing of the leaf and the angle of the branches (they are quite irregular), I struggle to answer, lost for the right words. I promise to make him a leaf rubbing and get some better photos.

It was a strangely intimate conversation.

He uses these stories because he’s been locked up so long he doesn’t know, or remember, or hasn’t had the experience of being on an ocean beach or a rocky lakeside shore, or the feel of the prickles on the cedar branch he’s been asked to draw. The storyteller fills in these details as if describing the view for a person with visual impairment. These men live in the low-ceilinged tunnels of the prison; like moles deprived of sunshine, they don’t know what is beyond the walls. Kennath paints with acrylics, I paint with words, but we both draw on images to make the picture realistic and the scene read true.

These death row students have taught me how to be exact in my own explanations: to see literature with an artist’s eye, which of course makes me a better instructor and writer.

Catherine Berresheim earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Spalding in November 2013. She is now a full-time assistant professor of English for Volunteer State Community College. Catherine’s journalistic work has appeared in Nashville area newspapers and magazines. She began teaching creative writing in local and state penitentiaries starting in 2009.



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