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Swimming with Oliver Sacks

August 31, 2015 | by

Oliver Sacks died yesterday at eighty-two.


Oliver Sacks swimming in Rhinebeck, NY, in July 2015. Photo: Bill Hayes

I met Oliver Sacks at the Blue Mountain Center, an artist and writers residency in the Adirondacks, where we spent August of 2012. The room I was assigned had a pretty view out onto Eagle Lake, but it was tiny—there was no way I could pace in it, and I needed to pace, so I disappeared into the mountains several times a day. I walked and walked, got lost in the pouring rain and knocked on the cabin doors of strangers, hoping to be adopted, maybe. Instead I was given haphazard, passionless directions back to the colony. While I was feeling the dark of the woods pressing heavily on my shoulders, Oliver was writing to the sounds of the loons on the lake. He was seventy-nine then. Read More »

Maximum Sentence

February 28, 2014 | by

How prisoners perceive—and misperceive—life in the outside world.


Richard Robles’s self portrait, 2013

I mailed a copy of my book Among Murderers, about the struggles three men faced when they returned to the world after several decades behind bars, to Richard Robles, a pen pal serving an indeterminate life sentence in New York’s Attica Prison. Prison reading and mailing policies are designed to reinforce the feeling of punishment. Family and friends cannot simply send books; they have to come directly from the publisher or an online bookstore. Most prisons only allow paperbacks—Attica, a rare exception, permits hardcovers. I couldn’t find detailed mailing instructions on Attica’s website, so I called the prison. “Send it through the publisher—and don’t hide no weapon in it,” the employee blurted. Richard wrote me that he almost had to return the book.

[My] name wasn’t on the “buyer’s side” of the invoice. The guard said something about a new rule that prisoners have to buy the book. But as you can see I did get it, after another guard said something to him. Miracles, right?

I did consider it a small miracle when, a few weeks later, I began to receive letters from men who had borrowed the book from Richard. Prison is a dark world far away from ours, and communications travel slowly. We may have forgotten “them,” but they never forget us. My book quickly made its way around Richard’s cell block; several prisoners mailed me their reviews, chronicling their ambitious attempts at self-improvement and their struggle to prepare themselves for a world that doesn’t want them back. Read More »