Seraphic Disclaimer: This post contains some language that is a bit, actually, a lot more graphic than is normally found in Seraphic Secret. So if you are young, under 18, religiously modest, or secularly modest, the following, which deals with life in a women’s prison, might not be appropriate reading matter for you.
Note: Links to previous chapters at the end of this post.
EXT. PRISON YARD – DAY
The Screenwriter and the Corrections Officer are sitting on a bench, chatting. C.O. Cindy is curious about Hollywood prison movies. Robert has promised to compile a list of his favorites. Screenwriter and C.O. share a companionable relationship that is occasionally rattled by Cindy’s insatiable curiosity about her Hollywood visitor’s private life.
“Okay Cindy, you ready?”
“Lay it on me.”
“My Ten Favorite Prison Movies.”
It’s lunch time, and I’ve scheduled an interview with Cindy. I’ve been hired to write a film, Within These Walls, for Lifetime Network about the prison pet program. Cindy has been my guide, my babysitter, my bodyguard, my eyes into this world—hidden from the real world—and the female inmates who inhabit this violent place.
My job is to dig into these people’s lives, but it’s a one-way relationship. I have learned, through years of experience and some awkward stumbles, that I must withdraw a central portion of myself in order to be an effective screenwriter. The true me has to be locked away, for this work must never become about me; who I am must never interfere with the primary task—discovering the truth of these people, the truth of this place. If the people I interview begin to intuit who I am, all will be lost for they will use it against me in the power struggle that exists between interviewer and subject.
And so yours truly, the Orthodox Jew, is gone. Robert, adoring husband to Karen and doting father to three children, is locked away.
It is a disorienting experience.
Casually, and I hope, skillfully, I deflect almost all personal questions, answering in the most evasive manner, hopefully without insulting Cindy.
Let’s take a look at several typical exchanges:
“So, Robert, you married?”
“What do you think?”
“I think you’re wearing a gold band.”
“How long you married?”
“Maybe you’re really a homo?”
Cindy points her index finger at me, pulls an invisible trigger.
I can’t help but chuckle. C.O. Cindy is smart and quick, and unlike so many women—usually the best educated—she understands male nature.
“So: what’s Mrs. Robert do? Is she like pretty or some brainy bow-wow?”
“She’s brainy and gorgeous.”
Cindy just gazes at me with a coolly level gaze. It’s the look she uses when she wants to intimidate “the skanks.”
“You a Jew?”
Whoa. Deep breath.
“Why do you ask?”
“Y’know, Hollywood. Jews.”
I would so love to continue this conversation, explore Cindy’s mind-set, but:
“What do you think?”
“I think… yeah.”
“And if I am Jewish?”
“Robert, are you like this important screenplaywriter?”
“Cindy, you ever hear the story of the Polish actress?”
“Uh, I have the feeling I’m about to.”
“She slept with the screenwriter.”
Cindy hesitates a second, then cracks up. It’s the oldest, dumbest joke in Hollywood, but it spreads through the entire prison like a virus. And before I know, an inmate repeats it to me.
After a while, Cindy gives up trying to know who I am. Sorta.
Instead of personal information, I substitute Hollywood gossip and legend.
Which does the job just fine. For everyone loves Hollywood. Even a tough little corrections officer like Cindy.
“Robert, do you know — ?”
She names a female star.
“What’s she like?”
“She’d absolutely kill to have your complexion.”
And the thing is, it’s the absolute truth.
Okay, I’m hanging loose, giving Cindy my list of ten favorite prison movies. It’s a tactic really, a way of creating the illusion of intimacy without the emotional risks.
It’s not easy for yours truly because I like Cindy. Enormously. Guilt weighs heavily on my conscience for deploying such a cold hearted strategy.
“Understand Cindy, I’m mixing genres.”
“Types of prison films. You’ve got prison dramas, prison action films, you’ve got prison comedies, prison musicals, escape films, riot films, prison war films, and that most durable of all genres: women-in-prison flicks.”
“Women-in-prison movies, coolness.”
“In no particular order, okay?”
“Go on, you’re such a fuss-pot.”
“Number One: The Big House, 1930, with Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, and the lovely Leila Hyams. The big daddy of all prison movies. This was probably the first big studio movie to make the genre respectable and profitable. Inmate falls in love with his cellmate’s sister, gets caught up in an escape plan sure to go bad. Drama ensues. It’s a bit slow for modern audiences, but it’s a keeper.
“Number Two: I am Fugitive From a Chain Gang, 1932, starring the great Paul Muni. This guy suffers for like ten-years in the most brutal southern prison you have ever seen. Unrelenting and grim. Hollywood used to do grim really well.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“Number Three: The Bird Man of Alcatraz, 1962 with Burt Lancaster. This is a movie you should show here. The prisoner, a cold blooded murderer, redeems his soul by taking care of birds.”
Cindy shakes her head as if to say, some things are just too dumb to be believed.
“Number Four: The Great Escape, 1963, with Steve McQueen, a crackerjack World War II escape movie. McQueen has a great scene where he tries to jump barbed wire on a motorcycle.”
“I drive a Harley.”
“Want a ride?”
“Number Five: Cool Hand Luke, 1967 with the young and handsome Paul Newman. This film has the single greatest line of dialogue ever in a prison movie: ‘What we’ve got he-are, is a fa-ail-ure to commu-ni-cate.’”
Cindy’s face brightens:
“I’ve heard that. My Uncle Chris used to say that all the time, a few beers and he’d be like totally hammered, walking around saying it over and over again. I thought he made it up. It’s from a movie?”
“A great movie.”
Cindy heaves a sigh. I’m pretty sure I have just diminished her life by a small but significant degree.
“Number Six: Stalag 17, 1953, another great prison war movie, starring William Holden, directed by the great Billy Wilder. Beautiful structure. Dark humor. A beautiful machine.
“Number Seven: Papillon, 1973, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman are prisoners on a Devil’s Island run by, get this, the French. Horrifying stuff happens. Things get so bad Dustin and McQueen eat cockroaches. This one’s got everything, starvation, escape, capture, torture, leper colonies. Hugely entertaining.”
“It’s in English, trust me, fun film.”
“You ever meet Dustin Hoffman?”
“What’s he really like?”
“You are sooo funny.”
“Number Eight: Oh this is a good one, Chained Heat, 1983.”
“Linda Blair. The broom stick scene. Jesus, we all know that one.”
“A true women in prison classic.”
Cindy smiles hugely. Finally, a film Cindy recognizes.
“Number Nine: Caged, 1950, the spiritual godmother of all sleazy women in prison flicks starring the great and underrated Eleanor Parker. When her head gets shaved as a punishment, you begin to comprehend the meaning of the word humiliation.”
“Listen to you, all Mr. movie professor.”
“Guilty. A beautiful young bride is thrown into prison.”
“Oh, yeah, we got a lot of those, beautiful young brides.”
“And the C.O.’s I gotta tell you, are just sadistic beyond words. Sadistic and like totally lesbo.”
Cindy, all ironic. “Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around.”
“They shave her head, take away her pet pussycat. Great performance by the underrated Eleanor Parker. Unbelievably dark and depressing. She gives birth in prison, her baby is taken away and put up for adoption. She turns into a hardened criminal.”
“Sounds about right.”
“Number Ten: I’ve saved the best for last. Drum roll please: Caged Heat, 1974, the very best women in prison movie evuh. Produced by the great Roger Corman, and directed by none other than Jonathan Demme. I think it was his first film. Probably made for about fifty thousand dollars. Which only goes to show that it’s not money that makes a good film but vision. Great sleazo film with all this socially conscious nonsense on top of the obligatory nudity. Riveting.”
Cindy just stares at me for a long moment.
“So, what else do you want to know, Mr. Screenplaywriter?”
“How come you’re a C.O?”
“For Chrissake, Robert, I’m a f*****g townie.”
“Ever think of doing something else?”
“I was thinking of being a glamorous movie star, but that s**t seemed kinda out of my reach, y’know? How’d you get to be a screenplaywriter?”
I feel that I owe Cindy this truth:
“Worked hard, never gave up, got lucky.”
“Your family rich, Robert?”
“Being with these women day in day out, how does it make you feel?”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
This is killing me. But I’m not going to give in to temptation and tell her that my father is an Orthodox Rabbi, that I’m from Brooklyn where my family lived a modest, middle class life; that a Hollywood career was a mad dream that, against all odds, I have managed to achieve.
“How does it affect you, this work?”
Cindy shrugs. “It’s work. No big deal.”
“Hey, you know, I ain’t all that different than these skanks.”
“How do you mean?”
“I have done time with loser trolls who I felt like killing. I just, y’know, didn’t.”
“There’s a big difference.Thinking is not doing.”
Cindy hooks her index finger into her mouth, yanks back her cheek, displays the inside of her mouth. There’s a black space where a tooth should be.
“My last lover boy.”
“What’d you do?”
“Pow. Right back at him.”
“Hey, Robert, don’t look so f*****g sad. I’m home.”
Home. It’s what the inmates call prison.
C.O. Cindy and I make our way back into the shed. Just as we reach the door I turn to her.
“Remember that book I told you about?”
“The Chinese thing?”
“The Art of War, yeah. Sun Tzu says something else, something that’s always stayed with me.”
“Shoot, my friend.”
“He says that even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.”
Cindy ponders this a long moment.
“You think I’m like this fine sword, Robert?”
“I do, Cindy, I really do.”
Demurely, C.O. Cindy smiles.
Stay tuned for the concluding chapter in which yours truly takes his leave and bids adieu to the charming Cindy and the 10,000 violent but surprisingly well behaved inmates.
Copyright © Robert J. Avrech