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Excerpt: An Understated Voice

By Robert Ellis Gordon — February 01, 2001 6 min read
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While teaching inmates how to write, author Robert Ellis Gordon stressed that less is more. A child molester resoundingly proved his point.

His name was Orlock, Victor Orlock. You probably wouldn’t like him. He had a soft, pulpy handshake; he was shaped like a pear; he didn’t take showers; and he had a very serious case of body odor. His hair was greasy, his skin was greasy, and his pudgy face was riddled with pimples.

Orlock fashioned himself to be an intellectual, and though I suspected he wasn’t as well read as he claimed, he clearly had access to a thesaurus. He used lots of big words in the stories he wrote, although you really couldn’t call them stories. They were musings, I guess, philosophical musings about trite metaphysical questions (does God exist/do souls really die/what is reality/blah-blah-blah). He never came up with anything original or deep. He was, from my vantage point as editor/teacher, avoiding his emotionally powerful stories by hiding behind an intellectual mask.

And Orlock was a loser. Boy, was he a loser. In a classroom filled with society’s losers, with society’s most reviled individuals, it required only one look around to get a sense of the pecking order, to ascertain that Orlock had no allies or friends, that he was clearly the biggest loser of the bunch. I never read his “jacket”—criminal history—and there was never any need to do so. I knew for a fact, the moment I met him (I never shook his pulpy hand again) that he was an incurable child molester. “Baby Rapers,” as child molesters are known in prison, often practice poor personal hygiene. And the passage of time only served to underscore my initial diagnosis of Orlock’s crime. For I’d noticed, after teaching inside for several years, that the stories composed by hard-wired pedophiles tend to be maddeningly elliptical.

Orlock, in short, was repugnant. But I was his teacher, and my mandate, whether I liked him or not, was to help him become a better writer. I started by urging him to avoid the use of gratuitously esoteric language. (A student in class once put it more bluntly: “Hundred-dollar words don’t mean shit,” he said, looking at Orlock, not me. I can’t remember the student’s name or face, but I frequently thank him in my thoughts. For whenever I catch myself coasting along in a slick, self-indulgent mode, I hear that student calling bullshit on me, and I respond by attempting to grapple with the subject I’m using stylistic flimflam to avoid.)

As for Orlock, I informed him that if he wanted to be profound, the profundity must emerge from his stories. I said it cannot be imposed from without. Jesus often spoke in parables, I pointed out, and he did so for good reason. Talking down to one’s listeners by preaching abstractions is as ill-advised a strategy for a Messiah to follow as it is for a candidate for town alderman. Condescending preaching causes people to recoil and, ultimately, to reject the speaker. But Jesus had a few tricks up his sleeve and knew something that Orlock didn’t: We humans are suckers for stories. Hence, if one wants to impart a moral or a theme, one must weave it, in a manner that is subtle and deft, into the fabric of a mesmerizing tale.

I challenged Orlock, again and again, to summon the courage to make himself vulnerable; to stop hiding behind the mask of intellectual superiority; and to write simply worded stories from the heart.

Orlock, in short, was repugnant. But I was his teacher, and my mandate, whether I liked him or not, was to help him become a better writer.

This was at the Pine Lodge Prison in Washington state, a minimum security facility for offenders who have less than three years to go on their sentences. During the day Pine Lodge offers literacy, job training, and other such programs designed to prepare its residents, some of whom have spent more than 20 years in maximum security institutions, for re-entry into the outside world. Classes such as mine, which are considered to be recreational, are conducted in the evenings. And Orlock responded to the many gauntlets I’d thrown by not showing up for three nights. I blamed myself for driving him away, but I didn’t feel too guilty about it. I just figured that Orlock didn’t have any courage when it came to taking risks in his writing.

Then, on a Friday night, he reappeared. And instead of handing out his customarily vapid 10- to 20-page string of long words, he distributed a three- page story. Once each of us had a copy in hand, he commenced to read his story out loud. In a quavering voice, with his whole body trembling, Orlock proceeded, through the use of simple, unadorned, and straightforward language, to both entrance and devastate his audience.

The story was about a 2-year-old boy who climbs out of his crib one morning. The little boy wanders into his mother’s room, where she’s sleeping with her boyfriend. The little boy cuddles in bed with them. Then a light bulb goes on in the mom’s boyfriend’s head, and he suggests that they do something kinky. The mother giggles at the thought and agrees. So that morning they start doing kinky things to the boy—unspeakable kinky things—and pretty soon it becomes a daily ritual.

Orlock was weeping when he finished the story. “Are you satisfied now?” he asked me.

The room was absolutely silent.

“It’s a powerful story,” I said at last. Then, not knowing what else to say, I praised Orlock for employing admirable restraint, for using an understated voice. I noted that by giving his readers the facts without condemning the antagonists in his story, he avoided the very seductive trap of telling his readers what to feel. Had he done so, I said, he would have deflated the tension, thereby undermining the piercing, desolate, and chilling effect he had worked so hard to achieve. He gave us room to emotionally breathe, I told the class, to generate our own sense of outrage. “In the presence of hot emotional subject matter,” I said, as I’d said in countless classrooms before, “the use of a cool and understated voice is invariably the most effective strategy.”

We humans are suckers for stories. Hence, if one wants to impart a moral or a theme, one must weave it, in a manner that is subtle and deft, into the fabric of a mesmerizing tale.

My literary analysis was on the money. But my words sounded hollow to me. This was a breakthrough moment in Orlock’s life—in his screwed-up-beyond-repair of a life—and now it was I, not he, who was hiding behind a mask, in this case the mask of pedagogy.

I felt like a hypocrite and rightfully so. I didn’t know what to do.

I looked at the other students in the class, but I expected no help from them. Orlock was, after all, a known Baby Raper, and merely to talk to a known Baby Raper, let alone to show sympathy for him, can lead to serious repercussions in prison.

So that’s why I assumed the other students in class, most of whom had committed (or at least pretended to have committed) “honorable” crimes such as murder, wouldn’t help me get out of this mess; a mess that I, alone, had created by goading Orlock to muck with his demons.

But my assumption proved to be wrong. I had underestimated the decency of my students. They knew, as I did, that the last thing Orlock needed was a technical analysis of his story. And they knew, as I did not, what he needed: to hear that what had happened was not his fault, and that he had, with regard to the horrors he’d endured, absolutely no cause for shame. And so, one by one, slowly and gently, the other students began (I don’t know how else to say it) to coo to the class pariah. They spoke, in hushed tones, about the terrible things that they, too, had endured when they were children. They told Orlock it must’ve been rough. They praised him for the courage it took to write his story, and they told him how powerful it was. They quietly talked about the harshness of life, and told Orlock how sorry they were.

We had five or six other submissions to workshop that night, but we didn’t get to a single one. Something much bigger and more important was taking place, and it lasted until class was dismissed.


A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Excerpt: An Understated Voice

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