angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: School Talks

Light at the end of the tunnel…

Yesterday I wrote two words that I have frequently thought I would never get to write: THE END. Of course it is not The End by any stretch, but nonetheless this week, for the very first time, I caught sight of a teeny-weeny light at the end of the tunnel; just enough to be able to acknowledge its reality, in writing. I am talking about my book; the book that I have been writing for the past three years and researching for well over ten.

To be honest, I have never known a task so challenging. The idea arose out of my talks to schools and Arts Societies all over the country in which I present the Second World War and its aftermath “through the eyes of an ordinary German family”; my family to be precise. “I had no idea,” is the usual, unanimous response. And here in Britain, we actually don’t. So when audience members started asking me with such regularity “Have you written a book?” or told me in no uncertain terms “You must write a book”, I decided to seize the gauntlet. I’ll just stretch the contents of the talks, I thought naively.

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Three years on, here I am, feeling blind, battered and bloated from too much sedentary screen time. The task started off resembling a huge mountain sitting diametrically across the path to my future. There was no way round and no way over, only through. First I had to shovel. Shit mostly, my own and Germany’s. Gradually the mountain lowered until it was a hill and I could see glimpses of blue sky and easy, flat terrain beyond. And then I had to tunnel through, descending down a mineshaft-like ladder into the darkness, incrementally moving forward but unable to see if I am going in the right direction while all the time trying to trust I will pop out at some point.

Taking breaks – to travel and deliver my talks, to look after my mum, to be sociable – they all meant scrambling back out, adjusting my eyes to the sunlight and rummaging around in my brain to find conversational threads leading back from the 1940’s to the present day. But I’d always have to climb back down again. I’d dread it. It hurt. I’d procrastinate, faff, tidy or clean something; even ironing a pile of shirts would have been preferable. Eventually the ticking of my mental clock would boom so loudly that I’d practically parachute down the shaft and scrabble back to where I had left off, my eyes readjusting to the darkness, my body resuming its static position and my mind returning to the impossible questions. In some ways it would have been much easier to just stay down there.

Back in December, my first editor told me, “Writing a book is like giving birth.” She knew, she had both written a book and given birth to twins. “And writing a book was more painful,” she admitted. It’s funny because I do feel like a heavily pregnant woman, shuffling through my days with an extra load that will one day be birthed into the world beyond my little office to develop a life if it’s own. I sometimes feel I am months overdue, but this baby has to stay a bit longer in the oven. I know I have more digging and scrabbling around in the dark to do. But that glimpse of light, even though  it was tiny and has vanished again, was there. And I am heading for it.

 

If you would like intermittant updates on the progress of my book, please “follow” this monthly blog.

 

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What purpose does Holocaust Memorial Day serve for those generations who can’t “remember”?

On Monday I was invited to give my talk about Germany’s memorial culture of apology and atonement (read more) at Brighton College as part of their Holocaust Studies Week. One student asked a question being debated by current historians: “When can we let WW2 recede into the past like other episodes of history do?”

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Today, 27th January, is International Holocaust Memorial Day, the date that marks the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945. It is the day on which we are asked to remember the 11 million victims killed in the Holocaust – 6 million Jews and 5 million Soviet POWs, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, mentally or physically disabled, Roman Catholics, political dissidents, ethnic Poles, Slavs and Ukrainians. All had become victims of the Nazi hatred that deemed them to be “Untermenschen”, literally ‘beneath’ or ‘below’ human; sub-humans. They were killed because they were seen to be a threat to the ideal world image that Hitler and his followers were striving to manifest.

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From where we are standing now Nazism looks more like the fantastical and elaborate plan of a Bond villain. And the fact that the Holocaust played out in as cultured and civilized a country as Germany is still baffling. Of course we now all sign online petitions and march in the streets in protest of the tiniest things, and here in Britain we are at very low risk of becoming victims of genocide anyway. So why do we have Remembrance Days like today?

I always find the word “Remembrance” problematic in these situations. We can’t possibly “remember” people we didn’t know in the first place. We can only remember the fact that millions did die in worse than horrendous ways. But is that enough? Maybe it’s being half-German and therefore having a more complex relationship to what happened, but I’ve come to see Holocaust Memorial Day as being more about trying to imagine and empathise with the millions of families that have to live with the huge, gaping voids left behind by those who were killed. For, like open wounds, they will be felt by generations to come.

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 I also think today is about learning – all of us really learning – the lessons of the past. And part of that learning is the recognition that prior to the extremes of genocide, there are many stages; it does not happen on its own, played out by others, somewhere else. It is a subtle, steady process, which can start with the disgruntled murmurs of discrimination or calls for exclusion that we can already hear in the face of the current, impossibly difficult refugee crisis. How easy it is to see people who are different to “us” as “other”, even as less deserving of a place within our image of how our world should be. And how easy it is to think that because we are not actively doing anything we are not perpetrators of any such discrimination and exclusion.

Germany’s counter memorials are daily reminders that “It must never happen again”. They ask everyday Germans to remain vigilant. Here in Britain we are more distanced from the Holocaust, and yet ultimately, under pressure and in certain situations where we feel threatened, none of us are immune to becoming complicit, even if it is simply by looking away. Maybe that is why WW2 can’t be allowed to recede into the past quite yet and maybe that is one of the purposes of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

 

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Daring to look your family’s past in the face

Last week a Chinese schoolboy approached me after my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family. Slightly trembling and in broken English he asked me if I had been frightened looking into my family’s past. In my talk I describe the journey I started 10 years ago, of peering deep into the darkest episode of modern history to discover what role my family, above all my German grandfather, a decorated Wehrmacht General, had played, or may have played. I knew the boy was asking this question for a personal reason, the shadows of his own family demons were almost visible, passing like clouds over his terrified face.

My grasp of Chinese history is woefully thin. I wracked my brains for atrocities or events that this boy’s family member(s) could have been involved in. Tiananmen Square in 1989 sprang to mind along with the general sense of horrors perpetrated by Chairman Mao’s regime. But actually it didn’t matter whether I knew the precise what, when, where and who of his story. What mattered was the impact it was having on his life.

It has happened before that my story has resonated with people of different nationalities. I have had a number of young German pupils as well as elderly men or women come up to me after my talks to shake my hand, and thank me. Sometimes the older people are in tears. It seems that in my story they recognize a story that is also theirs but which they themselves have not been able to tell. Recently I had a young Russian sixth former offer me an apology on behalf of her grandfather in return for the apology I had offered for mine. Hers had fought in the notoriously fierce battle for Berlin right at the end of WW2 in which the brutal rape of German girls and women from 8-80 years old had not only been commonplace but also positively encouraged. The girl who approached me knew her great grandfather had been part of this and, though she was born 50+ years later, she wanted to say sorry to me.Allemagne, Berlin. 2 mai 1945. Le drapeau rouge flotte sur les to”ts du Reichstag

I was born 20 years after the end of the war and, similarly, my grandfather had been part of Hitler’s massive invasion that swept through her grandparent’s land killing tens of millions of Russians. I too had needed to say sorry for that. So here we all are, the third and fourth post-war generations all with something in common: a shared sense of guilt and shame and a need or desire to apologise… for something we didn’t do.

main_1200It’s so strange, that people who have genuinely committed horrendous deeds can often feel no guilt or shame, but rather justification, as so many Nazis did. And people who have done nothing wrong – rape victims, survivors, children – can feel guilt and shame for their mere association with bad deeds, even if they happened long before they were born. For the latter, once identified, the sense of guilt can generally be more easily dispelled with facts. As Brené Brown brilliantly defines in her inspiring Ted Talk Listening to Shame https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0 the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is for something you have done. Shame, however, is for who you are. And that’s what makes it a lot harder to shift. Shame is a widespread and international epidemic. It can be a debilitating state of low self-esteem, isolation, disconnection, violence or self-harm, depression, fear of being vulnerable and showing yourself, of excelling or even of feeling worthy of love, joy and the good things in life. But there are ways through it.

And so I found myself reassuring the frightened Chinese boy at my side, that whatever his family member had done, he himself was not guilty. He had not done it. What he might feel, however, is shame. And of course fear. I certainly had felt fear of what I might discover but I now know that the very first step towards shedding the shame is to overcome that fear and to look the deeds of the relatives and forefathers in the face.

“Tell your story… until your past stops tearing you apart”

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Tell your story.
Let it nourish you, sustain you and claim you.
Tell your story.
Let it feed you, heal you and release you.
Tell your story.
Let it twist and re-mix your shadowed heart.
Tell your story,
Until your past stops tearing your present apart.

I heard the above words recently on Radio 4’s Spoken Word programme “Writing a new South Africa”. You can hear it here at 14.38 minutes: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b053bsfm
Spoken aloud, with all the power of someone who knows the potency of the words, it struck me that this is precisely what I have been doing in the past years.

I know I bang on about Germany; about WW2; about Remembrance and Commemoration. And over the next months, particularly from 8th May, the 70th Anniversary of the official ending of WW2, until 11th November, the UK’s Remembrance Day, I will be talking even more than ever about these things. Why? Because they are all part of my story. And I will be telling it through a series of talks and lectures, blogs, discussions, conversations and an exhibition all under the loose title: The Other Side.

The story I will be telling is based on my family’s story, but I am just one voice of millions who have similar stories that haven’t been told. All of them are intrinsically linked to the huge events of 1930’s and 40’s Germany, the main facts of which are largely known. But not all the facts are acknowledged in the UK, for they could interrupt the smoother narrative we prefer to pass on to our children and threaten the clean cut position we cherish as the benevolent victors over evil.

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It took a long time to excavate the story of my German roots from beneath the collective silence under which it, and so many other German or European stories like it, have been buried. Now brought into the light of day I can see clearly how stories that remain unearthed, untold, “tear your present apart”.

If you want to hear the story I have to tell, follow this blog or follow me on Facebook and Twitter @angelas_talks or keep an eye on my website http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com for news of talks near you.

Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January 2015

 

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Today was Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the advancing Soviet army seventy years ago. Today Jews and non-Jews alike were reminded to remember what so many of us have no personal recollection of. Reminded how important it is to remember so that it will never happen again.

Today was also the launch of my talk on German Memorials and Counter Memorials, the second in my trilogy of talks “The other side” about World War II from a German point of view. It was a happy coincidence that King William’s College on the Isle of Man invited me to give this particular talk on this particular day, for it encouraged me and my audience not only to think about the victims of the Nazi policies of annihilation but also about the perpetrators and Germany’s ongoing and thorough process of apology on behalf of them.

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One would hope that remembering the victims and the horrors would be enough to prevent such atrocities being repeated; that humanity as a whole would have learned the lessons. Alas, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Sudan, Cambodia and all that is going on now prove the truth in Primo Levi’s warning: “What happened can happen again.”

The last survivors of Auschwitz are still alive amongst us, offering us glimpses into a time and world that, even to them, must now be almost unimaginable. Their stories travel to our schools and enter our lives through our televisions, radios, and Internet. And yet even seventy years on, we still can’t fully grasp how, or even that it could have happened. For those of us who are non-Jewish and do not experience the visceral pain of having lost whole generations of our families, the stories and images still have the ability to shock, filling us with incomprehension at the extremes to which humanity, or rather inhumanity, can go. In Britain we have been spared the fate of becoming victims, fleeing persecution and war, losing everything we had to live in freezing, filthy, disease-ridden conditions. It is easy to feel complacent and confident that that won’t happen to us here. And maybe it won’t. But what I often wonder is how quickly any of us could become perpetrators. The jihadists have brought massacres of innocent people into our societies and the recent Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris has galvanized people into action and protest. It would be easy to point our fingers and blame the people we feel threatened by, just like ordinary Germans did in the 1930s (albeit largely due to the anti-Semitic propaganda). And I imagine that just like ordinary Germans  became capable of actions, or non-actions, that no one would have ever imagined, so could any of us. Give us a shortage of water, a shortage of food or fuel or wood or even just cut off the Internet or phone lines for a wee while! It wouldn’t take long…

I know it is important to remember but sometimes I ask myself why it is so important to “remember” something that was before our time. What are we remembering? On what level? And to what end? These are questions I am going to be asking throughout this year in monthly blogs and a programme of talks, art exhibitions, collaborations, writings and discussions. 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2 and 10 years since I started my research into my German roots. And to mark the occasion I want to see what can help us truly learn the lessons of history, what can we ourselves do, to ensure that “Never again” really is never again.

 

Image 1: Gleis 17 / Platform 17, Grunewald Station, Berlin (1998)

Image 2: Memorial for the deported Jews of Berlin (1991) by Karol Broniatowski

What relationship do we expect young Germans today to have to their country’s past?

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I was very interested in two of the questions I was asked in a recent talk to the sixth formers of a London boy’s school. Both were similar and in response to some statistics I showed about German students’ relationships to their country’s past. And both touched on one of my on-going questions in relation to young Germans today: Do we expect them to feel guilt and shame for what their great grandparents were caught up or directly involved in, or can they now be proud of their country and say with genuine conviction “It has nothing to do with me”?

The statistics from a Zeit Magazine survey of 14-19 year olds revealed, among other things, that:

80% believe remembrance of the Nazi times is important

67% believe it is their generation’s duty to make sure that Nazi Germany and the Holocaust aren’t forgotten

60% said they were ashamed of what Germans did in Nazi times

The questions I was then asked were about the other 20%, 33% and 40%. Why don’t they too feel shame, or responsibility? I was not surprised by these questions for I too had found myself asking what the remainder felt when I saw those statistics. But they confirm what I suspected. Not far from the surface of many / most (all?) people is an ongoing sense of incomprehension at what went on. How easy it is to think it couldn’t have happened here. And in precisely that efficient, methodical and organized form it probably couldn’t have. But that’s not the point here. I think what’s more revealing is an evident need or desire to see Germans continuing to feel a sense of shame in connection with their country’s and grandparents’ pasts, as if they are their own.

My own experiences both of being half-German and having years of experience working as an artist with the “guilty” in our prisons have given me a deeper understanding of the psychological effects of punitive attitudes with little emphasis on forgiveness or redemption. But there is a difference between guilt and shame. You are guilty for something you have done. You feel shame for something that you are.

So my question is: when does or can shame stop? And in the years ahead of focused World War I and II commemoration, remembrance and celebration, are we as a nation going to help the younger generations of German’s in a process of liberation from their heritage or are we going to make sure they are bound to it?

My answer to the boys was a question: what do they feel about the episodes in Britain’s past that their (great) grandparents were part of? Do they feel personally responsible and ashamed for what went on in Ireland? Or in colonial times? Are we erecting monuments to the victims of our war in Iraq? Do we personally feel shame and responsibility for any of the dark episodes of our country’s past that our grandparents were involved in? And, as adults, would we want our children to feel shame for things that collectively we have been part of?

I know what I feel, but I think the next few years are going to be fascinating.

What are we “remembering” on Remembrance Day?

I found it symbolically pleasing to be planting bulbs as yesterday’s two-minute silence hummed over the radio waves across the UK. Sitting in the quiet sunshine, I started to “remember”, only to immediately bump into the questions: what and who am I remembering? And to what end? After all I have no personal “memories” of the First and Second World Wars, nor even of Iraq or Afghanistan. Relatives yes, but in the World Wars they were on opposite sides.

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Bomber Harris Memorial, (1992) London

I thought back to the fascinating debate on Radio 4’s Moral Maze on Wednesday discussing this very topic in relation to the role of the poppy and what we are doing when we wear one… or don’t wear one? And immediately after, Four Thought on “How to remember”. They were asking whether we are remembering British victory? The horrors and gore of war? The “fallen heroes” and the sacrifices they made…? Is it even right to sanitise the often-horrendous way they died with the word “fallen” or would it be a more effective deterrent to future wars to think in terms of faces and limbs being blown off? And if deterrent to future wars is the aim of remembrance, can it be considered to be working if the government showed itself so ready to rush into another one earlier this year? So I’m wondering if memorials honoured with poppy wreaths provide today’s generations with a meaningful relationship to war, or are they, as certainly in my case, raising more unsettling questions than the silent remembrance they are possibly designed for?

The seconds are ticking and in my increasing panic to use the remainder of the two minutes well, my German half pipes up – possibly unhelpfully in this instance. I thought how not a single memorial was built to the German soldiers after the Second World War. Understandably perhaps, and yet looking back, weren’t most of them like professional soldiers the world over – duty-bound to fight and sacrifice their lives for their country? Instead of remembering their own, Germany was faced with huge questions of how to remember, and apologise to, the millions of victims of their Nazi regime. The resulting difference between British and German forms of commemoration is naturally huge. And fascinating.

ondisplayatstationaHorst Hoheisel: Denk-Stein-Sammlung / Thought Stones Collection (1988-95) Kassel Station                        in remembrance of Kassel’s vanished Jews.

Germany’s extensive memorial and counter memorial culture became less about remembering a nation’s brave armed forces by presenting them in bronze on raised plinths to be looked up to, and more about looking unflinchingly at the dark horrors of war and remembering all the victims, soldiers and widespread fallout that reaches far across the boundaries of national identities and “sides”. Their memorials are specifically designed to touch each individual deeply in their core as human beings, going beyond the difference-enhancing concept of nationality or the polarising perception of winners and losers. They are integrated into the cities and everyday lives of Germans as bleak, humbling and thought provoking triggers, reminding people, with or without personal memories, of the horrors of war while quietly affirming the very real commitment to it never happening again.

The two minutes are up, I continue planting bulbs accidentally digging up some of the ones I have just planted while  I still try to work out who and how to remember on this important day.

Is there a point in still talking about Second World War Germany ?

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I found it almost impossible to write over the summer or to organise my thoughts into some sort of coherent flow while the sun shone outside producing the intrepid army of courgettes that now lies liquidized in my freezer. Instead I hung out in Nazi Germany, trying to organise 9 years of research into a 40 minute talk for schools and as yet unknown audiences. It was a process of willing black and white photographs to come to life to reveal what has been lurking in the corners of Germany’s post-war national silence for 50 years. But I also found myself wondering (with regular twangs of self-doubt) what the point is of still talking about this subject? And is it still relevant and important for today’s younger generations of English and Germans to engage with Hitler and the Holocaust, or have Bin Laden & other contemporary despots taken his place as ‘Dr Evil’?

Many of todays under 50-year-old Germans express having “die Schnauze voll” (a full snout, or being sick to the back teeth) of the themes of Nazi Germany and national guilt. Does that impart the message: “What Grandpa did has nothing to do with me. I don’t have to bear his guilt”? Or are they expressing the desire for release from the incessant discourses and policies of atonement and apology that infuse German political, social and cultural life?

With the benefit of only being half-German I have enough distance to still find the subject infinitely fascinating without being fully identified with it. But it’s an on-going and at times difficult process trying to unravel how the inevitable impact on my mother of such a huge historic episode ended up having such a defined, albeit less tangible, impact on me.

Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, many Germans of the grandchild generation do bear the burdensome, yet often denied, guilt of their grandparents. According to Harald Welzer’s research “Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi”, two thirds either see their grandparents as heroes, resistors or victims of National Socialism. It’s natural to defend your family but as far as I am concerned, that is enough reason to keep talking about it. For me it has only been possible to understand my grandparent’s position in this period by looking at their potential, albeit unwitting, culpability in the face. In her memoirs my grandmother conveys the fear of living under a dictatorship and challenges her critics by asking what they would have done? I ask myself the same question. And in my talks I ask my audiences the same. Plus: What do they do in the face of discrimination, racism, injustice today? We wouldn’t all be the heroes or resistors of our daydreams or online personas, nor mere victims. So at what point do we, even in our inaction, become ‘guilty’?

After a couple of rehearsals of my talk, I learnt from the comments made that there were various points to it. But above all it was the personal stories of my grandfather, my mother and me that were relevant in bringing to life the challenges, decisions and actions of an ordinary German family in and after the Second World War. Maybe it is important to remember that as humans we all have choices. But we also have fears and weaknesses.

For more information on my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family please go to http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com

Having to tell people you are good… the joys of being self-employed

The week ahead is a dauntingly big ‘Admin Week’ for me. Daunting because, for the self-employed, “admin” basically involves telling people that you are good; that they want you and need you. This doesn’t come naturally to the artist in me, precisely because I see my paintings as a way of saying what I want to say without having to say it. And the other parts of me don’t like it either, because they just don’t.

Sure, I have been known to get on my soapbox and spout off about things I believe in, that’s no problem: the huge defects of our prison system; the benefits of the arts to offenders; the potential power of apology within Restorative Justice, the un-funnyness of out of date anti-German jokes; recycling; growing potatoes; the music of The Cat Empire… I clearly spout off about a lot of things. But I find it harder to tell people how good my paintings are and why they should buy one, or how well my talks have been received by schools and why they should book one, or  how great my forthcoming art course on the Greek Island of Skyros will be and that they really should enrol. And yet that is precisely what this admin week requires me to do.

Let’s see if I can make it less painful for myself.

According to the schools and the general public, my talk Crime, Prisons and Offenders – the role the Arts can play is: “brilliant”, “fascinating”, “inspirational”, “thought-provoking”, “intelligent”, “informative” and for many, “the best lecture I have heard”. If you book my lecture you will get to know why.

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I am also offering a new talk which I am very excited about: The other side – Germany, looking forward through the shadows of the past. Years of research into my own anglo-german dual nationality give a picture of an ordinary family in World war II Germany. I also reveal many interesting things that the English don’t seem to know about Germany’s post-war burden of guilt and how they are dealing with it. You can read more about it or book it here

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My mother and her siblings, Berlin 1945

As always my paintings are  available to view, buy or commission here.

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37˚ and rising 76x76cm (mixed media with oil)

And my forthcoming art course on the Island of Skyros from 6-19 July will be truly wonderful for anybody who would still like to book. It is a unique opportunity to learn some of my techniques (Read about them in the article in July’s edition of The Artist magazine) and to spend delightful days bathed in sunshine, warmth, laughter and tzatziki.

Oh roll on Admin Week and get me out there.

low res DSCF0041Greece…

“How do you tame the prisoners in your art class?”

low res 009 prisonPortraits by prisoners in my art class, Cologne Prison’96

I was asked a very interesting question in one of my talks to sixth formers last week. I had just delivered my lecture on ‘Crime, prisons and offenders – the role the arts can play’ describing why prisons aren’t working and what art projects with inmates can contribute towards their rehabilitation. As usual the questions were all interesting, but one in particular struck me. A young man asked me what I did in my initial classes to “tame” the prisoners with whom I was locked in a room. A brilliant question in that it seemed to highlight precisely the misconception so many people have about who prisoners are and what they are like.

I suddenly saw the kinds of characters that most people perceive offenders to be. Muscle-bound, tattooed thugs with shaven heads and thick necks ready to strike out and stab, rape or kill whoever crossed their path. I guess that’s why people found me so “brave” being amongst them with no beeper, no key, no guard. Of course there are a few pretty scary men wandering around the wings and corridors like time bombs ready to explode in your face. But actually when you work in a prison you learn very quickly how far that perception is from reality.

I tried to describe to this young man and the audience that prisoners have their ‘reasons’ for committing their crimes, albeit warped reasons to most people. A man who stabs his girlfriend is no more likely to stab me than I am him. He has a story that led to the stabbing – usually an on-going dispute or a dysfunctional / destructive dynamic that culminates in his lashing out. That’s of course no justification. But the feeling of wanting to is often understandable. I have heard men on countless occasions describing the context, the series of events and the emotions leading up to their crimes. I have no doubt most people feel similar things from time to time, but what makes ‘us’ different from ‘them’ is that we haven’t acted on them.

I have met some truly incredible people who have landed in prison, for very minor or very major crimes. I feel honoured to have heard their stories and to have gained the insights I have into what actually amounts to human nature in all its extremes. There are some really, really nasty people in our prisons, but the majority don’t need “taming” at all. They need attention, understanding, encouragement, education, guidance and dare I say, love.

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