where the writers are
Good manners and bad behavior
Alcatraz in the sunlight by Loren Rhoads

I was casting around for something to do in 1996, after finishing two nonfiction anthologies for Automatism Press.  Around that time, my partner in the press started a music zine called Ongaku Otaku.  He got all sorts of great Japanese music in the mail for review.  Envious, I thought about the sort of things I would like to have sent to me.

What I liked best about pulling together Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries was receiving true stories from total strangers.  Each submission gave me a window into the lives of people I’d never met.  As shy as I am, I loved becoming acquainted with people solely through the tales they told about themselves.  It was incredibly fun.

With that in mind, I created a zine that would give me an excuse to pry into strangers’ lives annually.  Morbid Curiosity only published personal essays, true stories told from the author’s point of view.  I’ve constantly been surprised by the stuff people have done and amazed by the stuff they will admit to in print.  My favorite part of the publishing process was always opening the mailbox during reading season and finding a brilliant, disturbing, fully described story by a complete stranger.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before the submissions crossed into the territory of too much information…

After Morbid Curiosity was listed in the Zine Guide, I began to get mail from prisoners.  In almost every case, the men were respectful.  Most wanted to order a sample copy.  One man on death row wanted to know if I thought the zine would clear the prison censors.  (I doubted it.)  He thanked me for answering him, since so many of his letters seemed to drop into the void.  Another man wrote from solitary confinement to ask if I’d be interested in his story.  Even though I immediately wrote back and said yes, I never heard from him again.

I published my first prison story in Morbid Curiosity #3.  I’d known Geoff Walker from my days working for Charnel Music, when the label released three CDs by his band Gravitar.  I knew Geoff had been in prison for perjury.  When he offered me a rant written in the joint on the failings of the American penal system, I jumped on it.  Publishing that first essay from a prisoner opened the gate to others.

When C.R. Dendy sent me his story, he was still locked up.  He didn’t quibble about why he was there, but told me straight out when asked.

C.R.’s initial submission was a sermon on why he worshipped Lilith.  He took it pretty well when I explained that I don’t publish proselytizing, no matter the godhead.  He revised the piece radically to reveal how magic led him to drugs, and drugs led him to prison.  Even though I personally credit drugs with saving my life, C.R.’s cautionary tale deserved to be passed on.

There were two prisoners in the lineup of Morbid Curiosity #6.  I didn’t ask what they’d done, because neither of them asked me any personal questions.  I know what they’re convicted of, because I looked them up on the internet.  However, I didn’t check on them until I’d already published their work.  I felt like they -- like all my other contributors -- should be judged solely on the content of their tales, not on their lives.

My high ideals were challenged by another prisoner’s manuscript.  This man wrote several times, offering me the true story of how he’d killed his roommates with a knife.  He really wanted to tell his tale and was convinced it would be perfect for Morbid Curiosity, even though he’d never seen a copy of the magazine.

I have passionate feelings about the responsibility of art and the need for beauty in this world.  Admittedly, my beliefs might be unclear to anyone else, but they are strongly held.  I think there is enough ugliness in the world.  If you want to wallow in it, it’s possible to turn on the television, read a newspaper, loiter downtown on a Friday night.  Ugliness is easy to find.  It serves a purpose as a sort of inoculation.  However, beauty is much more rare and precious.  In my own black heart, Morbid Curiosity was all about beauty, even the stories about assisting a friend’s suicide, surviving a pub bombing in London, and fishing a corpse out of San Francisco Bay.

Despite two letters in which I asked him for something -- anything -- else, the prisoner submitted his story.  When it arrived, my heart thudded so hard that surely everyone in the post office heard it.  Adrenalin made me shaky as I walked home.  I really didn’t want to know anything more about this guy than what he’d already told me in his letters.

To be honest, his envelope sat on my coffee table for a day before I could bring myself to open it.  Even then, I only looked at the last page to where the story stopped.  All I wanted to know was that this stranger felt he’d made a terrible mistake, was agonizingly sorry, and would never do anything like that again.

After I read how his tale ended, I wasn’t comforted.  Before I could work up the nerve to read the whole thing, he sent another letter to make certain I’d received it.

I knew I had to read the whole story.  I couldn’t judge it -- and I certainly couldn’t reject it -- without reading it through.  But the thought of creeping inside the mind of an unrepentant murderer, even for 10 pages, made me ill.  I brewed a cup of peppermint tea to steady my stomach and saw down on the sofa with the manuscript.

In his story, he described lying in wait for his two roommates, then murdering them to impress a girl who might -- or might not -- have been aware of his devotion.  He reported showering after the first murder and watching the blood wash drown the drain.  With amusement, he discussed the sounds the second man made as he died.

My heart lodged in the base of my throat when I put the manuscript down.  I wanted to cry to relieve the pressure inside me.  This guy killed two people who lived with him, trusted him, and now he wanted me to trust him enough to publish his story.

I was fully and completely freaked.  He didn’t know where I lived (my mail goes to a box), but people do know where I am.  He could find me if he tried.

*

I let the story sit on the coffee table for a couple of days, while I tried to decide how I felt about becoming complicit in its publication.  Was it wiser to publish the story -- no matter my personal reaction to it -- to avoid dissing someone capable of murdering me with a knife?  I paid the printer, but did that give me the right to sacrifice my readers’ sensibilities for my own sense of safety?

Conversely, did I have any right to hide the brutal truth if someone insisted on sharing it?  One of my concerns with Morbid Curiosity was that some issues were less shocking than others.  Some of the stories I’ve been most proud of publishing were the ones that upset me:  Leilah Wendell’s necrophilia, Jasmine Sailing’s self-mutilation, Claudius Reich’s battles with heroin, Hugues Leblanc’s breaking into tombs.  This homicide story was inarguably appalling.  It would shake my readers up, make them think.  Unfortunately, it was so emotionally difficult for me to read that I wasn’t sure I could do the work to edit it.

I wrote the author and asked some leading questions, looking for an indication that his story was meant to be educational in some way.  His answers weren’t reassuring.  He said he was taking his medication now.  He regretted the murders because they landed him in jail.

After a lot of soul-searching, I passed on the story.  The last thing I wanted was to set off anyone who’s handy with a knife, but I also didn’t want to feel blackmailed into publishing work I couldn’t stand behind.  I took responsibility for what appeared in my zine; I thought of my loyal readers as friends.  I didn’t want them to be disappointed in me for glorifying violence.

The chief problem with the tale, I guess, was that I couldn’t bring myself to publish an essay about inflicting violence unless there was a lesson to be learned from it.  I might have justified publishing a murderer’s tale if the killer repented, if he understood how he’d altered, destroyed, or erased lives, if he grasped what he’d done to his victims’ families -- and regretted it.  In that case, I could present the story as a cautionary tale like C.R. Dendy’s.  Unfortunately, I could see no way to revise this story without overstepping my place as editor.  I respect people’s own truths too much to force them into a box that consoles me.  I wrote the author and told him his story was too intense for me.

In the end, I’m still not sure I handled this submission in the smartest way.  Did I make the right choice to stand by my ideals? I received a Christmas card from the prisoner apologizing for freaking me out with his story.  I appreciate him making the effort to reassure me.  Still, the experience made me uneasy about opening mail from prisoners.

 

This essay was initially published in Zine World #19 (Summer 2003).

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Good Manners

I think everybody's capable of good manners if they've learned them at one point in their lives.  Even feral children can be taught good manners, if given enough care and nurturing, although for some it might be too late. I haven't read your book but I'm reminded of stories by other authors I've read which stay with me precisely for the deeper insights I gain about the human condition such as the writings by a medical doctor Richard Selzer in The Letters to a Young Doctor or The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. What I liked about your article is the way in which you struggle with decisions on where to draw the line for a good balance between respecting the truth, including subjective truth, and the sensibilities of the readers, raising important questions for your readers to consider.  I like the idea that beauty or attention to beauty is rare in this world. I've never thought of art or the activity of art as having a dimension of responsibility, since "art for art's sake" implies free reign of expression but it's true that a prisoner's confession without an ounce of repentant sentiment might not exactly be what I would consider as something artistic or beautiful. Maybe it has utilitiy as data for social scientists to scrutinize and study the human mind. Of course, there are fictional examples from literature such as  A Good Man is Hard to Find by McCullers or Poe's Telltale Heart that speak of why someone might forgo good manners for motives that come as a suprise to the readers. Perhaps fiction is where such dark material can be plied to its best form so that it can participate in Art in the true sense as an object of contemplation worthy of its readers and capable of raising human consciousness to a higher level.

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Thank you!

Thanks for your thoughts, Kim.  I agree there is plenty of room in fiction for darkness, but as involving as the stories get, I suspect the readers always know they are fictional, even if based on real events.  There's a mental safety in distance, don't you think?

The power of this piece, for me, was that it was true -- and his return address proved it.  I couldn't find any safe distance from it.

I really appreciate you taking the time to comment.

Loren