The Fun House Mirror: Reflections on Prison

By Hirsch, Mike | Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Fun House Mirror: Reflections on Prison


Hirsch, Mike, Sociological Viewpoints


Book Review - Robert Ellis Gordon and Inmates of the Washington Corrections System. The Fun House Mirror: Reflections on Prison. Pullman WA: Washington State University Press, 2000, 110 pages, (ISBN 0-87422-1986). Reviewed by Mike Hirsch, Professor of Sociology, Huston-Tillotson University, Austin, Texas, USA.

Elliot is a lifer who killed his wife and then botched a suicide attempt. TJ, a fellow prisoner, describes him in a letter. Elliot is "A real Picasso nightmare. There's an ugly puncture the size of a quarter at the base of his throat.... His jaw is hinged all wrong, exaggerated and twisted a half turn too far. His mouth only opens on one side...Five or six teeth are all he has left; the rest were blasted away...his (eye) never stops watering... The same is true of his nose. You can hear him blowing out a continuous flow of mucus at all hours of the day or night" (p. 1). Thus begins our sojourn into the Washington Corrections System.

Robert Ellis Gordon taught fiction writing in Washington State prisons for nine years (1989 - 1998). The Fun House Mirror is a collection of personal reflections wrapped around stories written by inmates. Gordon calls prisons "...the fun house mirror of the American soul" (p. xii). In prisons, all of humanity is represented, though the cruelness of the place and the nature of its residents create the distortion of the funhouse mirror. Gordon believes that recognizing prisoners as human will help society mature (p. xix).

Prison is a place of pain that emanates from several sources. Many in prison carry internalized pain from their pasts. Scotty, whose mother's drunken boyfriend had a habit of mistaking his bedroom for the bathroom and urinating on his floor, writes about being forced to drown his dog's puppies when he was a young boy (pp. 48-49). Victor Orlock, a pedophile, relates memories of his own molestation beginning at age two (p. 76) in a story prepared for class. Lesley Smith carries the memory of having his father force his hands onto the burner of an electric stove as punishment for playing in a quarry (p. 90).

Some of the pain of prison comes from the grimness of the place and the madness within it. Attempted suicides (p. 71), self-mutilation (p. 14), and prisoner on prisoner violence (pp. 9, 61) contribute to the pain for all within the walls. Sometimes prison programs (pp. 31 - 37), the lack of programs (p. …

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