Mother California by Kenneth E. Hartman

() Hartman chronicles his transformation from from a savage, unruly young man to an educated, sober adult with a family and goals – all while serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The change is so drastic that it’s hard to believe this is a true story. However, it is clear through Hartman’s writing that his intelligence was one of the key factors guiding him towards such an extreme metamorphisis.

The book starts off examining his old mindset – the thought processes that brought him to be the antisocial, substance-abusing, cold-blooded killer he was. It tells of the methamphetamine induced rage that brought him to murder a homeless man in a public park. This act is what lead to his prison sentence. In prison, he continued to beat and kill others without remorse.

The main factors that seemed to contribute to his beginning to make slow changes seemed to be the new love he was receiving from a good woman, as well as an AIDs scare he suffered at the hands of the prison system. The AIDs scare put him in a position to see from the perspective of the shunned, the underdogs. This was a shock to him. Further, he had never received such pure love from anyone before, even his family abandoned him. This made him rethink his value system.

Eventually, he becomes a politically active prisoner with a record of good behavior. He especially advocates policies such as a prison honor yard in order to allow for a space of peace inside the war zone of the institution. He marries Anita and has a baby girl, Alia. It isn’t a happily-ever-after ending, but it’s satisfying to the reader.

“The truth was, I felt safer behind bars than out in the streets; freedom was more terrifying than confinement.” (pg. 21)
“All my life I have felt caught in reaction to forces out of my control. The truth is, these forces are out of my control, but I am in control of myself. For a prisoner, this is a realization of immense proportions. It’s too easy to slip into the raging chasm of reaction,  dark place I’ve spent too much time in myself.” (pg. 102)
“I’m in love, and being in love has radically changed me. It has made me willing to take the chances I’ve taken. The small chances, like really participating in therapy, in all those irritating twelve-step meetings. I wouldn’t have cracked the covers of law books and textbooks if I had continued to get stoned. None of these things could ever have happened if I had remained locked in the loveless grasp Mother California. […] The biggest chance I took because of love was to look into myself. For my whole life I had fought to free myself of sentiment, to steel myself against emotion. This effort left me thrashing about and sore, always ready to lash out, surrender to any negative emotion. ‘We are not thinking beings who feel, we are feeling beings who think.'” (pg. 136)
“In prison, so much of what happens is part of a show – a mad, violent circus in which we are the dancing bears, the trapeze artists, the clowns. Under the big tent of this brutally unnatural environment, few of us ever take the frightening step of analyzing our deeper motives. As a younger man, I aspired to be one of the legends of the prison world. To be talked about in hushed tones, with fearful reverence, this was my goal. The trouble was I had only one way to achieve this, a destructive and self-immolating one. Now, I have another foundation on which to build a worthwhile life” the role of reformer, of healer, takes clearer shape.” (pg. 147)
“The revelation finally comes to me: What is happening around me is wrong. The way the staff is allowing the violence and disorder, the way some of them encourage it, is wrong. The way my fellow prisoners have been hypnotized by racial politics, by the mad pursuit of drugs, by their allegiance to this code of conduct that demands violence, and by our complete failure to stand up and take back our dignity – it is all wrong.” (pg. 168)


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