angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: crime

An abundance of plays at the Edinburgh Festival revealing the shadow side of the alpha male psyche

Two shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival left me feeling… well, strange. One was about a male ex-prisoner, the other about a female victim of rape. Light, cheery subject matters for me as always, but actually, intense and personal story telling abounded.

The first play was Doubting Thomas, created by multi-award winning director Jeremy Weller. The listings said: Thomas McCrudden, a man with a tortured and violent past but with hope for a different future, tells his own complex and moving story about abandonment and the stress of being forced to take on multiple roles, in Thomas’s own words, “…none of which were me! When I was growing up, I wasn’t able to accept love, and that created not just a man without a conscience or empathy. It created a monster.” 

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I sat in the front row of the little theatre, on the same level as the actors. Extreme violence was played out at my feet – at one point I had to move them in order not to inadvertently become part of the script and another of Thomas’s victims. Then, at the end, Thomas faces the audience and tells us to ‘ignore people like me at your peril. If they are released without having changed, without having been really seen, they will come to get YOU’. And with a jab of his finger he pointed at me and a couple of others in the front row to emphasise his point.

To be honest he picked the wrong person to jab his finger at as, what he said has of course been part of my message for decades, albeit expressed differently. And “seeing” prisoners is an essential part of my work. But coming from him in the wake of his displays of all too realistic anger and violence, I found myself suddenly devoid of any feeling towards him or his story and was left with a sense of discomfort instead. Why though?

The next day I saw Fabric. A Guardian Review described it thus: Nancy Sullivan is completely engaging and utterly heart-breaking as Leah who grew up dreaming of marriage and who thought she had found her prince in Ben. Abi Zakarian’s script for this one-woman piece is beautifully observed and funny too. What initially seems to be a whip-smart contemporary version of an Alan Bennett Talking Head turns into something far darker as romance gives way to reality and Leah’s life is stained in many different ways. Clever set and sound design, too, in a show that brings dirty little male secrets out into the light.

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Again I was in the front row. This time the violence inflicted on her was alluded to through brilliant use of the stage sets and story-telling by “Leah”. But I still felt like I was right there with her as she was anally raped in a filthy toilet by one of her husband’s friends. The people I was with left raving about both plays, and they were both genuinely good, but also after this one, I left feeling numb.

“… as romance gives way to reality”. Is a woman’s original vision of her life really so “romantic” and “reality” really so brutal? Maybe it is and maybe that is why now, on reflection, I realise I am full, like a Hoover bag that cannot take in any more. Like a brain that has fused through overload, a suitcase whose lid cannot close. All rendered useless. The violence of men that fills the news stories – from Isis and Boko Haram, to the war in Syria and terrorist attacks; the widespread rapes and treatment of women; the sexual abuse of children in the refugee camps… Then there are the stories of greed, egos and abuses of power – Philip Green, Putin and Boris Johnson; the counter-intuitive decisions on our planet, health and general well-being made by our largely (in this current government) male politicians…

I am tired of hearing about yet another cock-up or atrocity as a result of the largely patriarchal structures and values that exist in so much of the world. I am tired of seeing the on-going neglect and abuse of so much of what it means to be female. Of course I am not painting “men” per se as violent perpetrators, scammers and dickheads, nor “women” as delicate, innocent victims. And maybe my involvement with prisoners (95% of which are male) naturally exposes me more. But, as a woman who likes to keep informed, I feel a genuine sense of despair at being constantly confronted with the shadow side of the alpha male psyche as it is played out on the world stage, and the stages of our land, with women, children, the elderly, vulnerable and sick paying the price.

I clearly need a holiday…!

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PRISON Part 2: People are calling it “the biggest shakeup in prisons since Victorian times”? It’s certainly a welcome start…

Finally, finally, the news is exposing what an appalling mess our prison service is in. For the first time ever the Queen, a Tory Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary, the BBC, both  prisoners and staff alike are all singing the same tune the pesky Inspectors of Prisons and irritating campaigners – once dismissed as idealistic, bleeding heart liberals and ‘soft’ on crime – have been singing for decades. There’s no going back now and I am in my element!

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Prisons filled the headlines of last week’s media. We saw the rusty bars of our Criminal Justice System being rattled by the Prison Reform Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech and hailed as the “biggest shake-up of the prison system since Victorian times”. There was the BBC’s inside coverage of HMP Wandsworth, truly shocking footage of a lawless human jungle of drugs, violence, squalor and terror, right in the midst of our consumer-, digital- and sugar-fuelled society. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36327325?SThisFB) That the BBC was reporting on the state of our prisons as if it were breaking news, would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic to those of us who have been working or living in these environments for years and saying as much. Never the less, many of us welcome the exposure and the steps being taken, such as giving more autonomy to governors in six Reform Prisons to create their own regimes. But the scale of the problems that desperately need addressing – like sentencing laws, over-crowding, under-funding, under-staffing, the increase in violence through the widespread availability of legal highs like Spice – dwarf the measures outlined in the bill making it look hopelessly inadequate and above all desperately slow.

You can read the main proposals of the Prison Reform Bill included in the Queen’s Speech  here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/biggest-shake-up-of-prison-system-announced-as-part-of-queens-speech. But what I find makes more exciting reading (!) is Dame Sally Coates’s Prison Education Review, which was commissioned by Michael Gove, Justice Secretary, and also released on Wednesday 18th May:  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/524013/education-review-report.pdf

I was fortunate enough to have had an opportunity earlier this year to meet her and contribute my ideas on the vital role of the arts within prison education (You can read some of them here: http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com/the-case-for-the-arts/ or come to one of my Talks on the subject http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com/speaker-3/prison-public/ ) So, it was with huge joy that I saw these ideas included in the foreword and dotted throughout the excellent report.

  • “Many prisoners will have previously had unsatisfactory experiences of the classroom. They will need encouragement and support to take their first learning steps. This should include greater provision of high quality creative arts provision, and Personal and Social Development courses. Both improve self-knowledge, develop self-confidence and therefore help tackle reoffending.”
  • “The provision of art, drama and music courses is not a core part of current OLASS arrangements. Where they do operate, and where there have been one-off projects or performances with visiting arts companies, they are often the first thing that prisoners, staff and Governors tell me. The arts are one route towards engaging prisoners when they have had negative experience of traditional classroom subjects, or struggle with self-esteem and communication. They can be the first step towards building confidence for more formal learning…
  • “There should be no restriction on the use of education funding to support the creative arts, Personal and Social Development opportunities. These can be used to engage prisoners in education and support them to make progress against their Personal Learning Plan.”

Dame Sally Coates really listened to all those with whom she consulted. Her recommendations for education – if implemented – would genuinely be the “biggest shake up since Victorian times” and would bring about real and lasting change for everybody: the prisoners, the staff, the government, the taxpayer, and society in general. I just pray they are now taken on without further delay  because as one audience member said after one of my recent talks on the subject: “What you are saying is so bloody logical, such common sense. So why on earth isn’t it just being done?” I had no answer for him.

PRISON Part 3 will follow next week after I have taken part in The Forgiveness Project’s 3-day RESTORE programme in HMP Parc.

 

I haven’t worked with many terrorists during my prison years but there was one who for years I, and my class of eight male prisoners, called ‘Habibi’ – the word for ‘my darling’ as we later found out.

Behind every terrorist act is a human being with a grievance. Some will probably call me a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ for saying that, but one of the most important lessons I learnt from working and talking with countless criminals is that people themselves are not innately evil. Their deeds might be, but they themselves are not. That’s why many of the over-simplified, dualistic discourses in the recent ‘To bomb or not to bomb in Syria?’ debate really got under my skin. Action vs. Non-Action, Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong…

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I have no first-hand experience of today’s terrorists (thank goodness) but in the nineties I did work closely with a Lebanese man awaiting trial for his major role in one of Germany’s biggest terrorist attacks in which five Kurdish politicians were blown up in a restaurant in Berlin in 1992. As a terrorist he was considered a potential danger and security hazard and kept in enforced isolation. So for him my art class became his only excursion from his cell. Why the authorities found it fitting to place him in my care when I myself was locked in the room with no beeper, no key, no guard, still puzzles me! He asked the group to call him Habibi, so obligingly we did. It was only many years later that I discovered that was the word for “my darling”.

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Back then you would have never associated Habibi (I will stick with that name for potential legal reasons) as looking like a typical terrorist. Today his big dark beard would possibly arouse an involuntary prejudice against a stereotype, but other than that he had smiling eyes, a polite and gentle demeanor and wore shorts and sandals. In an introductory exercise to my mural workshop I got the men to plant a painted seed into a painted earth and let it grow up into the (painted) sunlight. Habibi’s seed blossomed into a beautiful, expansive, healthy looking shrub with red flowers.

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He subsequently translated it onto the wall and then, with a newly found artistic confidence he painted another tree, and added birds. But these birds looked war torn with tatty feathers as if they were fleeing exploding bombs – the bombs that were tearing his country apart, or the bomb that he himself had helped plant? One bird painted with special care was sitting on a nest of five eggs. I couldn’t help but make a link to the five for whose deaths he was in part responsible.

One day Habibi entered the classroom looking like a freshly shorn sheep. He was trembling, in shock and somehow horrifyingly naked. I encouraged him to tell me, and subsequently draw, how he had come to lose the big dark beard that was both his religious and personal identity. This proved to be the trigger for a huge release of pent-up rage first against the prison guards, thirteen of whom had frog marched him out of his cell, chained him to a bed and, pinning him down, shaved off his beard. His rant didn’t stop there however. He raged on about the war in his country and how “they” were killing “his” children. He clearly felt his bombing activity to be justified. It was self-defense derived from a sense of total injustice and helplessness, a state in which he and his people were the victims not the perpetrators.

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Does this ring any bells? Is this not part of what is happening today – for both sides? Reacting to violence with violence perpetrates… well, more violence. And more innocent victims whose deaths need to be avenged. Of course it does, and as this progresses each side feels ever more justified in their violence. So when “taking action”, in itself a potentially positive thing, becomes synonymous with bombing and every other attempt to solve the problem is seen as taking no action, don’t our leaders too become advocators of the very eye-for-an-eye Old Testament mentality that we are trying to combat?

Armed with more national self-reflection, basic human psychology and a genuine will for peace, our leaders could become real leaders in their quest to find solutions for some of the worlds’ massive and complex problems. But for them to be that they need to act completely differently to the real terrorists.

 

 

 

“German court sentences 94-year-old ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ to four years in prison.” Is this Justice? Or is this the German Judicial System’s attempt to atone for its appalling failure since WW2 to bring more of the real culprits to justice?

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This is an obvious choice of topic for my July blog for it touches on all my main themes: WW2 Germany, prison, punishment, forgiveness, redemption.

What we have here is a 94-year-old former SS officer whose job at the age of 21 was to sort the luggage of the new arrivals to Auschwitz and register the prisoners’ goods and valuables. Oskar Gröning was not a guard but a bookkeeper who counted the money the Nazis stole from the Jews. During the trial that started in May in the German city of Lüneburg he admitted: “It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.” Today he was sentenced to 4 years in prison after the German Courts found him guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 people.

For more than a decade Gröning has been giving interviews with a candidness that is very rare among other surviving SS men and women. He fully admits to what he did and saw, knowing all too well that his honesty would help get him convicted and most likely sentenced to spend his last days in jail. He is clear that he wants his testimony to be used against those who deny the Holocaust – “I would like you to believe that these atrocities took place, because I was there”. He also gives valuable insights into his now-inexplicable mind-set and motivations describing how as a young man his enthusiasm for the Nazi cause had quickly turned into euphoria, not least because of Adolf Hitler’s success in dealing with Germany’s horrendously high levels of inflation and unemployment. On being offered to join what he considered to be the “dashing and zestful” SS, he didn’t hesitate to leave the bank where he worked. He explains how German people believed there was a conspiracy amongst the Jewish people against them. They represented an existential threat, as did the forces of the Soviet Union. “Between those two fights, one openly on the front line and the other against the Jews on the home front, we considered there was absolutely no difference, we exterminated nothing but enemies”.

These kind of insights into the workings of the minds of the people who made up the Nazi killing machine is invaluable even if it doesn’t excuse in any way at all what Gröning did. Reading my grandfather’s letters from the Eastern Front I was similarly struck by the genuine sense of threat the Bolsheviks posed to the Germany of the 1930’s and 40’s. So big it justified the invasion of Russia. As island people it is harder for us in the UK to understand the territorial vulnerability of having nine different – potentially hostile – countries nestling up to ones borders. I am not excusing, just trying to comprehend, as always, the motivations and intentions behind the deeds. The first prisoner I ever worked with, a bank robber in Long Bay Jail, Sydney taught me the most valuable lesson I learnt for working with criminals. “Angela, in the 12 years I have been in prison I have never met a single person who committed their crime out of evil intent…” I’m going to leave you with that thought for now as it took me many years of challenging it before I could agree with it. Back to Gröning.

Everyone involved in Nazi war crimes obviously has to take responsibility for what happened. But is a 4-year sentence in prison the right way for this 94-year-old? Is 4 years justice for the crime of being “an accessory to the murder of 300,00 people”? “It’s a ridiculous proportion” according to Michael Wolffsohn, author of Eternal Guilt?. Surely we need different measures for such cases? Prisons are designed to act as centers of deterrence, rehabilitation (in theory at least) and punishment. Deterrence? This man is not going to re-offend! Rehabilitation? This man is already re-habilitated. Punishment? Yes, his actions seventy years ago more than deserve it. But as Eva Mozes Kor, the 81 year old Holocaust survivor, asks: “What is the purpose for what we are doing?… Putting them in jail does not do anything to help the victims feel better or heal their pain… I would like someone to demonstrate to me how exactly that helps me or other survivors. I didn’t say they should get away with it, but the attention is given to the perpetrators and not the survivors, and that to me is what is wrong.”images-1

Well I’m with her totally. Even by trying to do what they think is expected of them, the German Judiciary is going down the same, strangely illogical path I feel our Criminal Justice System does time and again. We love punishment but Gröning has admitted his guilt, apologized for his wrong doing, he has asked for forgiveness and he has been putting atonement and restitution into practice by speaking out to students in person, or by Skype even, about what happened. All the desired outcomes of punishment have already been achieved! So as with Restorative Justice, why not come up with something that will restore rather than punish? As Eva suggests, “give him 4 years, if he lives that long, to lecture as a community service… Every time he lectures to a group of students, he will testify about it and will relive those experiences. I don’t think it is an easy thing for him to deal with. In jail he doesn’t have to talk about it – he can just rot away. But I am really interested in him telling young Germans, ‘It happened. I was there. There was nothing good about the Nazi regime. It brought tragedy to millions of innocent human beings, to the Germans, and even to the perpetrators.’ That is the lesson – we have to prevent it from happening again. That would benefit Germany and the rest of the world.”

So I wonder, is this really Justice? Or is Gröning paying the price for the German Judiciary’s failure to bring about real justice at the time it was really due?

VE Day 70 years on – a time to celebrate victory or a time to also to look more closely at the price of war to women and girls?  

Within the context of my interest in WW2 Remembrance, May offers a welcome break from the misery and darkness. It is indeed a time to celebrate, for on May 8th 1945 Churchill was finally able to announce that the war was over in Europe. The jubilation was naturally boundless and Britain threw the biggest street party the country had ever seen. The Allies had triumphed over the Nazi enemy, Germany had unconditionally surrendered, and it would be the end of death and destruction.

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May 8th 2015 was the 70th Anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe Day. It too offered an opportunity both to celebrate as well as to honour and thank those alive, and dead, who helped bring about the victory. The BBC is broadcasting a whole range of programmes and coverage in this vein, but so far there has been one that has stood out for being a break in what at times comes across as a fairly one-sided or incomplete narrative. In The Rape of Berlin broadcast on the BBC World Service, http://bbc.in/1GBlBDs Lucy Ash looks at the subject that even Germans today have difficulty in re-visiting. It looks beyond the simplified duality of the triumph of the victors versus the evil of the losers, to the very dark underbelly of war and its largely unacknowledged victims. I am talking here about the fate of millions of German women and children who fell victim to the biggest mass rape in history.

They both killed... they both died (AF, 2010)

They both killed… they both died (AF, 2010)

For German civilians 8th May was, of course, no relief; no assurance that their misery would end. They would continue to be at the mercy of the ever-advancing and avenging Soviet army that had been sweeping westwards since 1944, and were considered free game for many an allied soldier who wanted to exact revenge for Hitler’s war of annihilation. As a result women and children from 8 – 80 years old were brutally raped, often multiple times and over long periods, many killed in the process or dying from their injuries. The violence against German women was, however, seen by many to be justifiable. The Soviets had propaganda posters positively encouraging it. “Soldier, you are now on German soil, the hour of revenge has struck!” UK and US soldiers, possibly others too, were also guilty of that war crime. For G.I.s rape would normally result in execution but no G.I. was executed for the rape of a German citizen.

Papa, kill the German! 1942

Papa, kill the German! 1942

Wartime sexual violence against women and girls is a widespread and age-old weapon of conflicts all around the world. We just have to look at what is happening – everywhere it seems – today. But rape is rarely mentioned as an inevitable by-product to warring nations, despite history showing us time and again how it goes hand in hand with the more familiar images of warfare – munitions, rubble and death. I find it problematic, as anyone reading my other blogs will already know, that in our Remembrance ceremonies our attention is almost exclusively focused on the heroics and bravery of war, the soldiers who fought or fight for us, the victories. Of course this is a vital element, but it so easily sanitizes what is usually insane, turning it into an honourable, admirable thing even, yet overlooking the unbearable suffering of civilians, none of whom get medals or recognition for their bravery.

Social acknowledgment of rape is possibly one of the ways towards healing for the victims. And in my trilogy of talks The other side I am trying to present a fuller picture of WW2 by including the experiences of German women and children. The overwhelming response of my audiences has been an initial stunned silence followed by a quiet “I had no idea”.

I really feel it is time we did have an idea.

Finally, I am looking forward to watching Savage Peace on BBC2 tonight at 10pm as it is all about this.

What makes us act, or not act, in a violent way?

In the first half of this month I had an experience that showed me first hand what lies behind so many acts of violence, malice, destruction and aggression. What drives a person to put a seductively dark thought into action? And what stops them from actually doing so?

I felt badly wronged by someone close to me; disrespected and unfairly treated. The innate need to right the wrong sent my mind into overdrive plotting delicious forms of revenge with the creativity (or should I say destructivity?) and imagination that goes into producing an artwork. By indulging my dark fantasies I could re-write the narrative allowing my character to emerge in tact instead of in tatters.

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Through the countless conversations I have had with convicted criminals I became aware that it is precisely this sense of having been disrespected – “dissed” – that leads to so many brutal crimes. In his insightful article Pride, Guilt and Shame based on his work with violent prisoners in Broadmoor, (http://internationalpsychoanalysis.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/shamegilligan.pdf) James Gilligan, the psychologist, identifies that it is the desire to restore “pride, dignity and self-esteem” that lies behind the often fatal outbursts. Among gangs, respect is key and disrespect can be fatal. The human need to re-establish respect comes often at any cost, no matter how inhuman the means. In 1920’s / 30’s Germany, after the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the ground became fertile for a strong desire to restore face and respect with consequences more devastating than ever before.

In today’s digital world it would only have required one little tap of a finger for me to deliver a blow. I am lucky though. My upbringing and education equipped me with a moral compass, emotional literacy, self-discipline and a mind that can ‘understand’ or as they say in German, “verstehen”, a word which implies standing in the other person’s shoes. I am fortunate that I have access to infinite good examples of how to deal with (self-) destructive thoughts rather than exercise revenge.

So many people aren’t that fortunate. Their upbringing, religious convictions, lack of guidance or simply their experience of the world don’t equip them with what it takes to hold those thoughts in check. I believe that far behind the heinous acts that fill our newspapers actually lies a deeply hidden need to be understood, respected and seen; loved even. It’s so hard to do, but I know I want to try.

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