You remember the scene from The Princess Bride. Vizzini has tried to forestall the man in black from catching up with him and his rogues as they escape with their hostage, the winsome Princess Buttercup. First he denies that they are being followed on the sailing ship. Then he disbelieves that the follower could be ascending the cliff on their rope so quickly. They then cut the rope, and like a younger Arnold in T1, he ascends. On the cliff top, he bests the Spaniard in an epic sword fight, ultimately catching them and rescuing the Princess. Vizzini pronounces each of these low-probability events as “Inconceivable”, just prior to their conception and occurrence. And just as memorably, the Spaniard turns to him after a few occurrences of this slapstick and says “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Like many funny and classic memes that you can look up to refresh your memory, this scene is humorous, but its humor belies a sly profundity. So much of the time, we say things and we mean something other than we say. So much of the time, we are misunderstood and words we utter intending a deep meaning are misunderstood.
Sometimes it seems a fool’s errand to even presume that we can understand one another, given the perfectly unique context, bias and perspective that each of us brings to any interaction, any conversation. That true communication occurs at all given the barriers in its contra I consider miraculous and interpret as uncommon gift. What are we talking about when we are talking? To anchor my point, I wanted to tell two brief stories, slightly and intentionally obscured since they sort of happened.
I volunteer at a prison, leading a book club. We read poems, stories, novels, and works of nonfiction. It’s been an amazing experience on many levels, not the least of which is seeing the magic of literature liberate these men from their shackles, if only for an hour a week. I just came across this Neil Gaiman citation that explains it better and perhaps provides the “rest of the story”:
Once in New York, I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons—a huge growth industry in the US. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth. How many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict the answers very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read.
There’s too much to say about that statement and what it means for us, so I will say nothing more for now. But one of the interesting aspects of volunteering in the program was working with the administration to gain approval for the works that we wanted to read with the men 1. The evolved protocol was that we would submit a list of items, more commonly the next work, to a member of the administration—let’s call her Sheila—for approval. Being a curious man, I asked that she share the list of criteria by which she would be judging the works for inclusion. Ok, let’s be real: I was asking the censor for her list of censor factors. Her reply was that the list didn’t exist, and that it was too complicated to explain. In essence (my words), she was relying on her accrued expertise as an administrator within the penal system to judge the appropriateness of books for inclusion in the program. For the books that we would be reading and discussing with these men. These prisoners.
I volunteer at a prison, leading a book club. We read poems, stories, novels, and works of nonfiction. It’s been an amazing experience on many levels, not the least of which is seeing the magic of literature liberate these men from their shackles, if only for an hour a week.
Last year, we wanted to read A Confederacy of Dunces, a classic, Pulitzer-winning American novel with a background story that is pure pathos. My colleague dutifully submitted the book for approval, and in the interest of full disclosure also included a book review from a major source. This book review mentioned, quite in passing, that the book spoke about masturbation. After first approving the book, Sheila disapproved it when she saw the onanistic reference. No words.
It became clear that she had provided no list of topics because there was no such list. She was not a reader, and had a scant basis of reference for the works that we were dutifully submitting for her review and benevolent approval. She did know that these men were here to be punished.
We would submit a clutch of stories for approval in advance, so that we could have them in our back pocket in cases between books or where the books may not have arrived on time from being drop-shipped and x-rayed for security. On another occasion last year, we had submitted two stories for approval. One was by Langston Hughes, an amazing story called “Thank-you Ma’am”, about—no, no I won’t—you can find the full-text version online. Please read it, ideally before continuing.
Here’s what it wasn’t about. After not hearing back for a couple of weeks, I asked Sheila for a verdict on the Hughes story. Much to my surprise (and not ironically), she rejected the story. Her terse message said something like “this is a story about a black kid robbing a woman”. And to add gravitas to her verdict, I believe she repeated “That’s what this story is about”. To you, who have now read the story, two things:
- That’s what this article is about. Sometimes, I fear that true communication is a rare and difficult occurrence, so I celebrate its tentative, evanescent appearance like the promise of a new day
- It’s a shame that we don’t read more Langston Hughes
The second story was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, with which you may be more familiar. When it was published in the fifties, it gained tremendous notoriety for its treatment of a fictional New England town whose ghastly adherence to an ancient ritual was captured by the ditty “Lottery in June, Corn be Heavy Soon”. Cutting to the chase, this story too was rejected, on the grounds that it advocated violence. Again, no words.
Last anecdote. I was once in a college bookstore, and a young black man, a student, entered and approached the desk to ask about a book. I would say this was pre-pervasive terminals to allow customer lookups in bookstores, but we are still crazily in this era so I won’t. I was browsing books, reverently, so not paying much attention as this young man spoke to the kind and affable white lady who had cued up Joni Mitchell on the in-store music system so the vibe was righteous.
Every young black man goes through a period of coming to terms with the intersection of his blackness and his manhood, and someone had pointed him to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—no article in the title—about a man whose blackness renders him invisible.
After a few iterations back and forth, I realized that they seemed to be saying the same things back and forth a few times, albeit in a kind and affable way. I raised my antennae a tick and went into irreverent browse mode while edging closer to see what might be the cause of this failure to communicate. It seemed that he was asking for a book, Invisible Man. And she was smiling because she knew just what he was asking for, the classic 19th century novel The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells. And he wasn’t 100% sure of the author or of what he was looking for, but he was concerned that this wasn’t the book he was looking for.
Like Cassandra, I could see what was going on here. Every young black man goes through a period of coming to terms with the intersection of his blackness and his manhood, and someone had pointed him to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—no article in the title—about a man whose blackness renders him invisible. I was going to say metaphorically invisible, but it really becomes literal in the context of the masterful novel. It’s not that he can’t be seen, it’s that he is willfully not seen. And I would ask you, if you don’t see me or if you can’t see me, is there a practical difference to me the unseen? And the lady behind the counter—not Sheila because she was really trying to help and her problem was context, not ignorance—was just certain that he was looking for the Wells’ novel, about a white man who uncovers the science to render him physically invisible, which turns out to be a curse. There’s plentiful grist there for another article about invisibility and its context in these two novels. I wonder about Ellison’s intent in naming his work thusly. My observation of this conundrum decades later was such a weird and relatively benign outcome of this dichotomy. And this is also what I mean when I say that true communication is not the thing with feathers.
I’ll end here, because this is not one of those handy articles where the theme is “Ten Ways to Communicate Better”, or “How I Learned to be a Better Listener”. This is one of those articles about something we look at every day but may not see. About something we hear every day but may not be listening for. Hope is the thing with feathers, and I am hopeful that a first step to better communication is acknowledging how easy it is to default to its opposite.
↑ 1) I use the word “men” because we work at an all-male prison. I also choose not to use the term inmate or prisoner, because those words refer to a separate facet of their lives.