I Know This Much Is True.

“Shiva represents the reproductive power of destruction. The power of renovation. Which is why he’s here in this room, where we dismantle and rebuild.” (226)

Destruction is a key part of Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, the second novel the men at Sterling are reading for Words Beyond Bars’ Summer Binge. Most of the novel’s characters come face to face with some type of destructive force – a person, an event, their own psyche. Some overcome their trials and tribulations, others falter. Still others remain blissfully unaware that destruction has entered their lives.

I imagine that destruction has touched the lives of the men incarcerated at Sterling as well. One need only look to their prison sentences. But what comes after everything has fallen apart? These men have to contend with their personal carnage on a daily basis from the confines of their cells. It’s hard to fathom such an isolated reckoning. Sure, it may be warranted – a crime is a crime and there is a legal system in our country to deal with these crimes (though the myriad injustices and failures of the system are well documented, that is a discussion for another time) – but that doesn’t make the evaluative process any easier.

Thanks to programs like Words Beyond Bars the process of renovation that springs from the ashes of destruction finds its way into the minds of the men. Through introspection and dialogue facilitated by literature the men confront the ignorance, pain, and illusions that destruction has wrought in their own lives, paving the way for beneficial change. With each journal entry, book discussion, reflection paper, the men have opportunities to dismantle and rebuild.

The Hindu belief in destruction not as an arbitrary event but as a constructive force is a valuable and instructive insight into the nature of life. I hope the men recognize the benefits of destruction as illustrated through Wally Lamb’s indelible characters. Of course the story of the Birdsey twins and their extended family is filled with pain and guilt and turmoil but ultimately these are necessary evils on the path toward growth.

It’s easy enough for a third-party outsider to posit the insights this novel should generate. Time will tell what the men take away from the story. But at least the men will have had the opportunity to assess their own relationship with destruction by examining the novel’s relationship with it. At least they will be given the opportunity, in a classroom of a high security prison, to dismantle and rebuild.

Guest post written by Ian Lausa