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Mikita Brottman is a college professor and psychoanalyst teaching in Baltimore. The Maximum Security Book Club tells of her project to read literature with prisoners from Jessup Correctional Institution. The ten books she chose all feature outsiders to society, starting with Heart of Darkness and finishing with Lolita. Her idea is that the men will be able to relate to these characters, and it will be productive to explore these works with the men. Of course, there are major differences between teaching to a group of prisoners in prison, and undergraduates in a college classroom. Brottman has to contend with a difficult atmosphere with guards who are suspicious. The prisoners are enthusiastic to an extent but their background education is thin and they have many preoccupations. Their motivations for attending may not be purely a love of literature, but more the advantages being in such a class will get them when they are trying to seek better conditions, or avoiding other activities that are more unpleasant. But then, a great deal of college teaching has students with similar motivations. Brottman's prison students might have fallen asleep sometimes, but at least they were not texting during class. Then again, the prison students also have committed major crimes, and their rough lives have given them insights that often students lack.
The book starts in January 2013 and goes on for about 18 months. They discuss each book for a few sessions. Most of the men stay for all the books, although there are some interruptions as they deal with medical problems and being sent to different prisons. Brottman comes to get to know the men and learns more about their lives and their ways of thinking through her regular contact with them. The book includes some photos on inmates by Mark Hejnar, which makes the memoir feel a bit more personal even though some of them do not include their faces. This raises a question for the reader: has Brottman fallen into a trap of sympathizing with people who have committed terrible crimes? Some of the most interesting parts of the memoir come from episodes described in the Afterword, where she describes meeting a couple of the prisoners after they have been released. She finds one young man arrogant and unpleasant then, quite different from the interesting person she knew him as in the book club. She realizes that the book club is not making a permanent difference to the men who participate, and she seems disappointed at the end of the project. Yet the author biography on the book jacket says that the reading group still continues, so Brottman must find it valuable for the experience itself rather than from its long term effects on the men.
The accounts of the meetings themselves are interesting mainly because of the interaction between teacher and students, and what we learn about their lives and ways of thinking as they reflect on the stories. It's not surprising that they are not particularly impressed by many of the works. Conrad's Heart of Darkness is by no means an easy read. It would be surprising if the male protagonist of Lolita gained much sympathy from prisoners. So many of Brottman's book choices are surprising, and although it is admirable that she was ready to challenge her students, one wonders whether her choices are likely to bring the most out of the men. Presumably readers who are familiar with the works Brottman discusses may get a little more out of her discussions, but for the most part, it is not at all necessary to have read the books. The chapters explain the main themes and the discussions between Brottman and her students are fairly self-explanatory. Ultimately, the book is most interesting as an unusual insight into prison life and the ways prisoners understand their lives, and the texts they study in the group are just instruments for them to use.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring has spent 24 years as a philosophy professor. He is now considering what to do next.
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