“What of Art?
-It is a malady.
-The fashionable substitute for Belief.
–You are a sceptic.
-Never! Scepticism is the beginning of Faith.
–What are you?
-To define is to limit.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey
First time I heard this book I was sitting in a room in Jamaica with
no windows and tile floors on a plastic chair with a bunch of other
teenage girls. We had to listen to books on tape for eight hours straight as punishment in “worksheets” room.
When I first arrived, I didn’t get it, thought I’d be getting a tan and working out, going to school, which was refreshing after the youth mental hospital I’d been sent to for a month, locked inside as an AWOL risk, under the guise of being “mentally ill” due to being found on Haight Street street panhandling by an old friend from childhood’s mother. She called my parents, said, “I don’t know if you care but your child is on the street and she looks pretty bad.” My parents called the cops and sent me straight to that mental hospital.
Now, I was in there in the worksheets room, listening to Oscar Wilde and Jane Austin and Nathaniel Hawthorne. How long depended on how many worksheets about these classic books I filled out correctly. We ate our soggy cornmeal pudding or dumpling chicken foot soup with spoons, not allowed to look at another teen.
In that room that day as an American teenage prisoner sent outside U.S jurisdiction to a correctional facility in the middle of nowhere run by Jamaican staff, listening to Oscar Wilde on tape, my only crime was running away from my parents for almost a year.
The worksheets crime room was because I looked at the ocean through the fence. Other crimes were leaving as little as a pubic hair on the toilet, not folding my bed, leaving my water bottle anywhere or talking or writing or looking at the boys in the other building without permission.
I was in a room in the building on the lower left of the top photo.
Looking lovingly and lustfully into the blue blue ocean, my safe place, was a category five, one of the worst punishments. It meant “run plans,” which I didn’t have.
Where was I going to run?
I was in Saint Elizabeth Parish, hours from anywhere I could reach on foot.
Saint Elizabeth is proclaimed to be the patron saint of the falsely accused, beggars and the homeless, a countess who was falsely accused, homeless, a widow, and a young bride. Now canonized with the Catholics as an official Saint. I never knew her, but I can relate.
There are archeological traces of Taíno/Arawak existence in the Saint Elizabeth’s Parish and 17th-century colonial Spanish settlements.
After 1655, when the English settled on the island, they concentrated on developing large sugar cane plantations with enslaved African workers.
Today, buildings with Spanish wall construction (masonry of limestone sand and stone between wooden frames) can still be seen in some areas (Wikipedia).
Jamaica today runs on tourism, and areas outside resorts are impoverished and primarily Jamaican. If I had tried to make it by foot in flip-flops, the only shoes they allowed, I’d have been taken right back by the locals.
I’d tried to get outside in Miami, Florida on the stop over, but my mother had hired a security escort to make sure I transferred at the airport. Besides, I couldn’t breathe in that swamp air when I snuck out briefly for a cigarette.
I gave up the fight to escape, though I was queen of escaping, as soon as I inhaled the unexpected deeper humidity of the Jamaican island air on leaving the plane.
After being told get on the plane, that I’d be back in three months, promise, I learned I’d be there for two years for my crime of running away, for defying my parents. I was a bad girl. No phone calls except one a month, only to my parents, supervised by my captors. All letters were read. Most were not mailed. I had no one to contact, no advocates. No lawyer. No freedom to even look at the beautiful green hills without being interrogated by my peers and staff. I was able by some grace to write in a journal every night for half hour, though the Jamaican staff, connected with the Mormon church I grew up with, making money off my captivity, threatened often to revoke this privilege.
The time I could really write was in the isolation room, when it was discovered I had scabies and they had to segregate me for a week. I also had jaundice, was sick as a dog, but was not allowed to rest, required instead to haul my dirty twin mattress back and forth to our many daily self-help tapes, self-taught schooling through random outdated textbooks, one teacher for all students.
My parents didn’t pay the fees, but they did a work exchange where they bartered for my time at Ms. Dacres School for Wayward Youths by recommending other parents send their children to this program for doing teenager things, gaining month credits towards my time.
My letters describing the conditions of the resort–and you know me, I don’t hold back–were ignored. The staff told the parents to ignore us, we were all liars. Books on brainwashing and torture name this. A communist methodology to induce total loyalty to an authority.
A book was written on the programs later. I was interviewed.
That being said, in that space of listening to Dorian Grey, I fell in love with the classics and Oscar Wilde and Jamaica and some of the staff wove cornrows in my hair, sat and joked with me and loved me where I couldn’t love myself, even questioning some of the rules. And thank Allah that experience has led to my current perspectives on how we make choices.
Why do I share this?
Because, it was so easy to become a little disciplinarian teenager myself after surviving street to street car to car across America in protest of home neglect and emotional abuse. This I had to learn to do in order to get myself out of that program and out of that worksheets room. Calling my peers names. Narcing on them. Attack therapy. Brainwashing. Confessions. Destroying all traces of my “image” or native personality in order to have a remote chance of climbing out of the lowest abuses, in order to go back to California where runaway teens have a right to a phone call.
Jamaica. A long history of slavery. A long history of amazing dance hall music, Horace Andy, Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs. Yellowman. Desmond Dekker. Rude boys. Sister Nancy. Many bands that influenced punk rock later down the line. A place for beggars and homeless youth to be brainwashed. Margaret Sanger wrote a great book on these tactics I read to deprogram myself years later, called Cults in Our Midst.
Some of my own ancestors were Spaniards, hey.
I wasn’t the first to have my right revoked for seeking freedom by any means as a teenager. My punishments weren’t the worst, not even. The island is one I called home after ten months, I surrendered. Then came the time ten months in when my folks realized they’d been duped and suddenly pulled me out and took me back to the strange land I’d grown up in, away from the new peers and tropical breeze I became accustomed to. I was a perfect candidate for their religion now, Mormanism, though I dropped out very quickly and moved to L.A. to live with a musician on Elektra, to try for my dreams.
The path on my way to free myself was to follow the rules until I didn’t have to anymore.
Sometimes the oppressed become the oppressors, even if you are force fed classic literature like the Scarlet Letter on tape, you still don’t see the signs and end up trying to regulate lines you never drew to begin with.
What is your story?