Fred is one of the die-hards in our group on Rikers Island, has been participating for a year now. He is the first one there and the last to leave. He is so protective of me, that he sometimes has trouble relaxing during meditations, because he’ll get frustrated with inmates being noisy or trying to get in the dayroom to get coffee. He has said that he looks forward to yoga like nothing else. He says it helps him feel good in his body and it helps his mind. He is also proud to be known as one of the regulars. Today, after class, he said he probably won’t be there next week, because “this guy got stupid and I had to chin him.” Chinning means punching someone in the face. He wouldn’t be able to stay in a program dorm after that. Fred had no compunction about having dealt a blow, or felt that he could perhaps have refrained from doing so. Fred felt completely free to be honest, free to be exactly where he is, and I’m very grateful for it. Without condoning his action, we also don’t want to ask for accountability. We’d just be part of the same mental and societal system that creates the problem.
I’ve once interviewed an incarcerated man who sounded like the example of accountability, strongly encouraged by his yoga teacher. I stayed in touch with this man, hoping to find in his letters some clue as to whether he was donning a psychic soft armor, and expertly played into what’s expected of him – or whether he had truly taken responsibility for the murder he had committed more than 30 years ago. The justice system and parole boards are only interested in whether or not the person has taken responsibility for their action – understandably so – but to demand change without providing emotional guidance perpetuates the cycle of abuse. I had noticed from his record that he had started participating in programs right after he had been denied parole. After each parole hearing he added more programs, including yoga. After this man was released, I met with him. Feeling free to be himself, he was an entirely different person, speaking in very different tones – much rougher. In the course of three hours he convinced me that he was not rehabilitated. He spoke about a lady over whom he felt very protective, and a man who had sexually abused her. He said he would ” go and kill the guy, if she’d tell me who it is.” I exclaimed: “Aren’t you afraid you’d get caught again?” He had just spent over 30 years in prison. He laughed: “You are so naive!”
I know I’ll really miss Fred. I know he’ll really miss our yoga class. The Unconditionality Model seeks to address the very first stage of emotional growth, in which a baby feels innocent by being viewed as such by parental figures who – in this crucial stage – love it unconditionally, have no demands whatsoever, allow the baby to be just a baby. Without receiving at least that much, a person can get stuck for the rest of their life in an emotional template of exploitation. Fred’s protectiveness of me resembles the formerly incarcerated man’s protectiveness towards the young woman. While that protectiveness is flattering, it belittles me as a woman, and keeps him from truly connecting with me because he comes from place of superiority – a common survival tactic for male children of emotionally immature, often abusive mothers. Remaining protective of such a mother figure, a man can get stuck eternally competing with, fighting or killing men, forever trying to be that knight in shining armor as desired by the original girl-woman. I think I’m going to affectionately think of such men as ‘knights in psychic soft armor.’
I’ve seen incredible sweetness in Fred, and last week, I saw vulnerability. Being unconditionally accepting, and encouraging people to accept themselves exactly where they are, is the first step in healing, and we provide it inside the justice system because it is the key element that is entirely absent in the system. Fred received what he could, and I appreciate him and love him, exactly for who he is.