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  • “The Benefit of the Doubt”: Openness and Closure in Brothers and Keepers
  • Michel Feith (bio)

In writing a non-fiction book about his brother Robby’s incarceration, John Edgar Wideman had a practical aim: “to help Robby, to help him legally, to help him spiritually” (Coleman 160). But it was also a reflection on the personal and social implications of having a brother behind bars. The clear-cut dichotomies between inside and outside, good and evil—upon which the very existence of jails is based—no longer hold in the face of overwhelming social and legal injustice, and continuing fraternal empathy. Far from remaining a secluded place of confinement, prison disseminates into a number of claustrophobic spaces, and finally becomes the most apt metaphor for American society at large. The obsessive image for this state of things is that of the mirror: the brothers’ twin destinies show an underlying pattern of sameness under superficial differences; the values associated with their ways of life become inverted. Mirrors give only an illusion of openness; an illusion of the same kind as the closed narrative form originally intended for the book. In order for Robby not to be imprisoned in words as he was in deed, a new form of dual autobiography had to be invented, based on a dialogue of inalienable voices, a different narrative open to difference.

The penal system as we know it is based on a spatial dichotomy, which in turn expresses a moral one. Openness on the outside is opposed to the enclosed inside, as good is opposed to evil. This manichaean division of the world is imposed on the visitor as he enters the prison. As the author says:

In the back of my mind I rely on the other prisoners to verify the mistake committed in your case. Some of these guys are bad, very bad. They must be. That’s why prisons exist. That’s why you shouldn’t be here. You’re not like these others. You’re my brother, you’re like me. Different.1

The many obstacles on the visitor’s way belong to a rite of passage into a different world, enforce a change of status on prisoners and outsiders alike. The general appearance of the prison is threatening: “you can see coils of barbed wire and armed guards atop the ramparts” (43). This modern version of “medieval fear and paranoia” is accessible only through a no-man’s-land-like parking lot. The asphalt walks and staircases to the building represent a gauntlet of gazes to be run (45). The inside is a maze of corridors and stairs leading to the waiting room, past the ironic contraption [End Page 665] of a “floor-to-ceiling guard’s cage” (49). Walls within walls transform the individual into a number “P3468, Robert Wideman” (49). This spatial initiation into sub-humanity is duplicated by a change in time coordinates, visible in the attitude of the prisoner trustees: “A lethargy, a stilted slow-motion heaviness stylizes their gestures. It’s as if they inhabit a different element, as if their bodies are enfolded in a dreamy ether or trapped at the bottom of the sea” (45). The time mutations of “doing time” reinforce spatial confinement with the dehumanization of the zombie.

But the quantum leap between the jail and the “free world” does not result only from the lay-out of the place. It is actively conveyed by intrusive behavior, violations of privacy. Prison resembles Bentham and Foucault’s panopticon, in that it inverts open and closed spaces. Freedom of movement is limited because of seclusion, but the self-enclosure of intimacy is pried open. For the visitor, it all starts with the trustees’ gazes on himself and his children, possibly seen as “sexual objects” (45).

From the vantage point of the blue-uniformed trustees on the ground, the double staircase and the landing above are a stage free-world people must ascend. An auction block, an inspection stand where the prisoners can sample with their hungry eyes the meat moving in and out of prison.


The conflation of images of the “free world” and the stage or auction block, reminders of visual...

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pp. 665-675
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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