Arminzerella's Reviews > True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman
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Mark Salzman gets involved with the writing program at a juvenile detention facility in Los Angeles when his editor tells him that the juvenile delinquent character in his new novel needs work. He decides to inject some reality into Carlos by interacting with some real delinquents, and he sits in on one of their writing classes. The sophistication and honesty of the boys’ work surprises Mark, and after that, he’s easily railroaded by one very determined nun into teaching his own class.

Most of the boys in his class (and in the facility) are in on murder charges – waiting to go to trial or receive sentencing, so it’s a little intimidating to work with them. Eventually, though, Mark finds a way to reach out to the boys and get them to write something about their lives and experiences. Each class lasts an hour, and the boys write for about thirty minutes of that time and then each one reads what he has written to the group. Mark shares a lot of the work they did in these pages. Just like on the outside, some of the boys are more talented than the others, and some are more motivated, some are characters, some are quiet, some are angry and disruptive. The one thing they all need is someone who is willing to listen to them, who makes them feel like they matter – because incarceration is a dehumanizing experience.

The boys’ writing, at least initially when you’re not sure what to expect, is really real. They’re obviously thinking and processing a lot of things about their experiences before and after their imprisonment. It’s satisfying to hear them tell it like it is, to understand what their lives were/are like. But, there’s also only so much of that you need to hear before it all starts sounding the same. And the next big revelation is just one more kid telling one more gangsta story. Maybe this is what it sounds like to the judges and juries that try and convict these young men – just another drop in the bucket.

This was a thoughtful and provoking look at both the juvenile delinquent system and its products. It’s disheartening to see so much wasted youth, so many wasted lives. There’s something good in each of these young men that could be nurtured, shaped, grown, but no one has the time or energy or desire to really make a difference. It takes a lot to break out of the lifestyle, the neighborhoods, the mentality, the behaviors that most of them have learned. The people who condemn them fear that they will return to those things if they are released; they don’t believe that they can be redeemed. But 25-50 years in prison will make them hard, old, less dangerous. What can be done? One of Salzman’s writing colleagues asks him what the point of writing classes for inmates can be? What good does it do? If society has given up on these kids, what does this facsimile of hope/normality give them? Wouldn’t it be more useful to get involved with these kids before they get to prison? Hard questions. We are such a throwaway society. We throw away trash, we throw away food, we throw away opportunities, we throw away people. Perhaps the message to us (and to them) is that we are all valuable in some way, wherever we happen to be. The guys in prison probably need to hear that even more than those of us on the outside.

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