No, that’s not a typo, although I do love the third movie in the Christian Bale Batman Trilogy. Like its prequels, it’s far too long but oh so good. Batman has come up a lot lately in my office. A teenage boy uses it to describe what people do when they get hurt in life – they put on armor and fight bad people. (Seriously, this kid is brilliant.) Another teen talks about how messed up Batman is and that is why he hides behind a mask.
While the Dark Night I am referring to is not Batman, there are a lot of similarities to be noted. I recently started reading the book Night by Elie Wiesel. Published in 1958, Night is the personal account of a young boy (the author) who grew up in a Jewish family during the invasion of the Nazis in World War II. Wiesel and his family members were taken to Auschwitz and he lived to tell the tale. Wiesel is quoted frequently in psychology books, so I wanted to read his most famous work. I had to put it down only 14 pages in. Described by The New York Times as “A slim volume of terrifying power”, I just couldn’t take it. Not right now. So I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird instead. Night is still sitting by my bed, taunting me with its unread pages.
I went into the 33rd Street Jail for the first time at night this week. Jail at night is very different compared to jail during the day. During the day, there is a glimmer of hope. The inmates have things to do and people to talk to and books to read. They have meals to eat and medicals to attend and trials to prepare for. Night is very different. The officers are more strict. The cells are darker from lack of sunlight. And nighttime is coming – a time when the inmates are forced to lie on their bunks and pretend to fall asleep as they are tortured by their own hearts and minds.
As I walked from the front gate to the women’s detention facility, I could already feel a difference. The officers were not nearly as talkative and accommodating as they are on Sunday afternoons. I was told by two uniformed and armed guards that I would have to sit outside and wait until they had finished counting heads since the women had just returned from dinner. When I walked into the same cell and classroom I go into every Sunday, I was told I needed to cut my class short so that some of the women could get showers before lights out. Ok, I can deal with that.
When I got into the classroom, two women who have been in jail a while and have become quite dear to me help me set up the room. We chatted about their days, their kids, their court dates, and who had done what that day. As other women filed into the room, they signed the roster sheet and made faces at me when I asked them to make large name tags for the table so that I can get to know them. They had signed up for a “Life Skills” class but I don’t think they realized the skills I planned to teach them would be more therapeutic in nature. As I started to draw pictures on a large white board of the brain and how it works, they started to ask a lot of questions. I asked them what they wanted to learn and we talked about their personal goals as well as the goals I have for the class.
I was able to see their personalities more at night than during the day. During church, they are more uptight and concerned with what others think of them. Tonight was different. I saw frightened, vulnerable, broken women appear from the tough shells I had been talking to for the past six months. I asked them if they had ever felt out of control, if they had ever said or done something they didn’t understand, or if they had ever tried to stop a behavior but couldn’t. All answered “yes” to each question.
As I passed around PET scans of different brain traumas and drew pictures depicting how our experiences shape our beliefs, a couple of the women started to cry. One was sucking her thumb. Another was talking to herself. I realized pretty quickly that I was going to have to slow things down and match their pace rather than the other way around. They told me they wanted to learn how to get “un-institutionalized” when they got out. They wanted help with their anger, their relationships, parenting, sex, and dating. They wanted to know how to raise kids with no fathers and give up past addictions and make different choices once they got out.
I answered as best as I could, but stopped every 10 minutes to just ask them where they were in the process. At one point I just looked up and said, “What is going on in all of you right now?” and one woman responded “A LOT”. I put my notes and markers down and said, “I know this is a lot. And I don’t want to overwhelm you. But I also think you are capable of learning and making different choices. I am not going to talk to you like you are…” and I couldn’t find the word but the same woman who spoke up finished my sentence for me. “Degenerates?”
What I am sure was half of a millisecond felt like a whole year to me. My heart broke. All I could muster was, “You are not degenerates, and I am not going to treat you as if you are.”
I told the women they could write questions down on blank sheets of paper and give them to me anonymously. My two friends who had helped me set up stayed after and confessed there were other topics that needed to be covered, but they didn’t want to bring them up in front of everyone. They said they look forward to next week, but that this feels hard. I agreed. As I walked out, most of the women were in line for showers and, wrapped in their “shower sheets”, they were waving and saying goodnight.
I walked back to the front gate, in the dark for the first time. It felt heavy and lonely. I wonder if that is how Batman felt at the end of a night. Heavy and lonely. I can’t even begin to imagine how Elie Wiesel and the other men, women, and children in concentration camps felt at night. That is so far beyond my realm of comprehension. It feels cheap of me to even attempt to compare.
I know night is the hardest time of day for me. I usually have a hard time falling asleep because I am restless and my anxiety kicks in with nothing else to distract me from my irrational but real fears. Budgets, calendars, data, files, plans, words, songs, and images flood my head and I am my own worst enemy at nighttime. And I have a comfortable bed and a safe apartment! Imagine what it feels like to face the night with no certainty of a day to follow.
Nighttime, however dark, always ends and is followed by sunrise. My hope in teaching and saying hard things on Monday nights is to bring a little bit of light to the dark nights these women have known inside and outside of jail. Maybe, over time, their own dark nights will begin to rise. And maybe I will grow a little less afraid of the dark.