English Literature alumna Mikita Brottman is bringing what she learned at Oxford to the inmates of the Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Maryland. Over two years she has discussed writers from Shakespeare to Nabokov, and developed close bonds with the convicts.
Mikita Brottman (centre) has spent two years reading literature with inmates in a maximum-security prison outside Baltimore
By Olivia Gordon
Four years ago, on sabbatical from teaching literature to art school undergraduates, Mikita Brottman (St. Hilda’s, 1986) started a book club at the Jessup Correctional Institution, just south of Baltimore. Now, every week in term time, she sits in a circle with nine men convicted of crimes including murder, armed robbery, drug dealing and battery, to discuss works by the likes of Shakespeare and Kafka.
As a female volunteer in a men’s prison, Brottman has never felt in any danger, or experienced harassment, despite the repeated warnings from the tense prison guards. Indeed, she has come to view the hardened but ‘smart’ men in her book group as friends – from Vincent, a 50-something with ‘a quiet, casual dignity’, who has been in prison for more than 30 years, where he has attained degrees in political science, sociology and humanities, to Donald, who is serving a life sentence for armed robbery and murder; the judge and jury called him a sociopath. Brottman started her book club with a group of convicts from the Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland
To Brottman, the inmates have always been polite and keen to discuss books. ‘I feel close to them,’ Brottman says. ‘It’s hard not to, because they’re so forthcoming about their experiences. It was difficult to believe they had done those things. It was like finding out your friend had 20 years ago done something terrible.’
Brottman’s aim has been to give these ‘lost causes’ a taste of her Oxford education. The books she has taught the men are almost all works she first encountered as an undergraduate, inspired by the likes of professors Terry Eagleton and Valentine Cunningham.
‘I remember my first Oxford lecture [on Victorian literature, by Bernard Richards] and never wanting it to end - what transmitted to me was someone’s passion,’ Brottman recalls. ‘For someone in prison, that can be life-changing.’
When she told people she was about to start the book group, she remembers, they suggested she ‘should teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or something “appropriate” for black males in Baltimore’, but, she says, ‘I was unfamiliar with those books and I wanted this to be pleasurable for me. I wanted to read and talk about the books I loved best and get a new take on them – and that’s what happened.’
The first book she asked the men to read was Conrad’s notoriously difficult Heart of Darkness, followed by equally challenging works including Herman Melville’s Bartleby, Macbeth, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Nabokov’s Lolita.
And in the inmates’ ‘confrontational though never disrespectful’ responses, Brottman was reminded in some ways of herself as a student.
Having grown up in the north of England with hippie parents she describes as ‘radicalised’ and ‘rebellious’, Brottman’s upbringing was chaotic and her comprehensive school was later noted by authorities as one of the worst in the country. After her mother rented a room in the family home to a paedophile on the run, Mikita hid in her attic bedroom where she escaped into books. When she won a scholarship to read English at Oxford - the first in her family to go to university - her family told her she was betraying her roots.
‘They were very class conscious and thought Oxford was this bastion of elitism,’ Brottman says. But she credits her parents with giving her the ‘outlaw mentality’ which has now allowed her, as a law-abiding academic and psychoanalyst, to approach serious criminals with an exceptionally open mind and see them not as bad people but as unfortunate.Brottman as an undergraduate at St Hilda's, Oxford
At Oxford, Brottman didn’t like Heart of Darkness. ‘It took me a long time to understand it and get into it,’ she says. ‘At the time, I was cynical about some of the things I was being taught; I had inherited some of my parents’ attitudes.’
As an undergraduate she experimented with a punk-goth ‘Sid & Nancy’ look that was ‘seriously out of place in Oxford’s cloisters’ – and yet she felt nurtured (one tutor, handing her a glass of wine at an English faculty get-together, teased her, ‘I’m sorry, my dear, we don’t have any syringes.’) In retrospect, Brottman says her time at Oxford was ‘ecstatic’ and she thinks: ‘Even though I wasn’t really aware of it till a long time afterwards, those years at Oxford changed my life. It was those books I came back to again and again.’
In teaching the prison inmates, Brottman was constantly reminded of her own education. ‘I kept going back to my own experiences in tutorials when it was really frustrating not to find answers in works like Heart of Darkness - it was the first time I grappled with something there was no end to; I wasn’t going away with a feeling of satisfaction, that I’d solved this. I know Heart of Darkness is a complex book, but I was hoping I could be the kind of teacher that my Oxford tutors were for me. Even if [the men] found it very difficult, I hoped I could make them see it was an interesting book; it was just a matter of knowing how to approach it.’
The inmates didn’t take to the novel. Most, if they read, did so for ‘escapism’ – they read fantasy novels, religious tracts, or motorbike magazines. ‘If they had been taught to read, they had been taught to look for some moral or takeaway message, and they hadn’t come across literature that was ambiguous or complicated, where there was no obvious meaning or moral to the tale. At first they were angry and frustrated by this,’ says Brottman. ‘Rather than seeing the books as complex and interesting, if they didn’t understand the narrative, they just saw the books as failures.’
But still, the prisoners, discovering literature for the first time, loved exploring profound ideas and sharing their responses to books during the book group discussions – and they had plenty to teach Brottman. ‘They made me see things I had missed,’ Brottman says. ‘I had to pull myself back and start from the very beginning. When I realised how literally they took everything, it started to make sense to me. For example, with Metamorphosis, they thought about how many of their prison experiences were like being transformed into parasites overnight. They could identify with books in ways more sophisticated readers can’t. When we were reading Macbeth, I had this revelation that all the times I’d taught Macbeth, I’d never taught it with men who’d actually committed murder. They actually knew what it was like and they took a murder scene seriously. It was like I was reading on a metaphorical plane and missing the reality in front of my eyes.’
After leaving Oxford, Brottman ‘just wanted to continue reading’, so becoming an academic herself, in Maryland, with a side practice as a psychoanalyst, has been her dream path – and reading with the prisoners has become a core part of weekly life for all concerned. Brottman recently published a book about the group, The Maximum Security Book Club, and the inmates have given it their blessing.
Images: Oxford University Images, Avalon, BBC