This story is by Ben Sutherland and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Shame is a dish to be savored. If you’re cooking for others.
I had an appetite for shaming, if I’m honest.
As an English teacher, it was a singular passion.
That was before prison. Now, it had proven a bitter diet that sat sharply on a since weary soul.
On the outside, I was a man of standing. A dedicated husband and father. A man admired by friends and colleagues for my loyalty to the ideals of the Revolution. A man who taught young people what language and thoughts were permissible. It’s the most important role of a teacher in this new era and I enjoyed my job. It was a feverish torch that blazed as an revolutionary activist in my off hours when locals spoke or thought in ways contrary to its vision. At protest rallies. At neighborhood restaurants. At Walmart, while shopping for cheap whole wheat bread and fresh, sweet basil.
Shame purified us. And maintained the kind of mental discipline necessary for wholesome, forward-looking thought and a loyal civic spirit. It made us whole.
That was my commitment in prison. Being whole with the revolution. Finding redemption with the regime. That was my purpose now.
But it would be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that my purpose had become less resolute as of late.
Shame is an unbearable burden after awhile. I longed for a kind word or friendly gesture. And I had questions about the Revolution even before I arrived in this place. In fact, it’s why I was here.
For years, my dad and I kept close contact.
My father was a large, balding, jolly man of seventy. He was intelligent, charming, had a childlike side when he knew you well. He never knew a stranger. And he was a loyal revolutionary.
A year ago, in an email, I mentioned my concerns about our current situation. The desperate economy, the disappearance of family friends, the war the regime had declared on allied countries.
Our conversation did not sit well with the censors.
I was tried and convicted for reactionary speculation. My mother sobbed as I was indefinitely sentenced to the regime’s Counterrevolutionary Correctional Center.
It was a humiliating experience for someone as committed to the Revolution as myself. Within the week, I was processed for reeducation.
Prison was a lonely experience for a revolutionary. I had no family, no friends, and no one to trust. Prison was not a happy environment for those responsible for the imprisoning.
Its concrete walls were silent and bare. Two meters squared cells reeked of cramped indifference. The food tasted of cold, bland misery. But it was more than that. It’s that all of life’s simple joys had been crushed beneath ever present fear and subjection.
Despite its failure to relieve my desolation, lunchtime did offer one notable consolation. The opportunity to get to know others.
A dissident prisoner, Matthew, a quiet, deliberate, suspicious man who probably was quite outgoing in the outside world, introduced himself as sympathetic to my situation. We talked and ate, with a mutual appreciation for the moment of human contact.
“I’m sorry for what happened,” he whispered. “We’ve been following your situation. It’s standard now, sadly.”
“Who’s we?” I questioned disapprovingly. This was my revolution, after all. Even if I was regarded now as an enemy of the people.
“There’s a resistance organizing. It’s a quiet effort. We’re not just accepting our fate.”
“And what does this have to do with me.”
“Everything. If you want your family to come out of this alive.”
What could that mean? It was unsettling. But believable, at this point.
When we were done, Matthew slipped a contraband copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago over the bleak, plastic table to my resting hand. I promptly tucked it into my uniform top, stood to return my tray, and retired to my cell to marvel at this illicit treasure and hide it in my worn prison mattress.
I caught word from guys at Bullshit Central of men being tortured. That was the name prisoners gave to the television room, given all of the propaganda you encountered there. On the news. During the ball game. In the hot rod magazines. Even the horror movies.
They spoke of men visiting with family, bawling, shrieking, struggling children forcibly removed, and the placement of typewritten confessions in front of defeated parents.
They mentioned interrogators attaching electrodes to prisoners’ buttocks and genitals connected to Xbox controllers that elicited shocks while guards played popular games.
They talked of the crushing of spines with sledgehammers. And then progressive disabling – bowels, castration, lobotomies – until a traitor’s confession could be extracted.
Soon, I could confirm the idle talk.
On a day, a year ago, maybe. Or was it two years. I’ve lost track. I was roughly withdrawn from my cell, led through an isolated section of the prison, and placed in an bleached white room of relentless quiet. Walls, floors, lights, sheets, prison garb. All white. There was no noise. A pin drop would have been shattering. If I needed the restroom, I would slip white paper under the door. Guards wore white cotton slippers so no sound would reach my ears. All sensory experience was removed. For the first week, I was only served uncooked white rice. Each week, I was served half the previous portion and nothing but water.
After a month of that, you begin to lose touch with reality. After six months, I could not recall my wife’s name or my children’s faces. After a year, the guards shared news of the untimely deaths of both of my parents and I believed them, because at that point I would believe anything. The hunger pains were the only reminder that I was alive at all.
One day, the guards released me, weak and emaciated, into a small room with chairs, a table, shot glasses, and a tall bottle of generic rum. Absurdly, they challenged me to a fatigued game of quarters. The winner’s reward was a decadent, hissing, smoky Porterhouse steak wheeled in by an accomplice. It smelled of fire and beef and lonely desperation. They placed the shot glass near me to account for my enfeebled state. We each drank many times. There was no count for my hunger. Delusional and intoxicated, there was no rational explanation for my victory.
Until the chainsaw and the guard spoke in unison. I could have the steak. In exchange for my loyalty to the regime. And my right leg.
I ate. And was returned to my cell. As broken as they had intended.
My father had grown increasingly disillusioned and radicalized by my imprisonment. The news of my condition put him over the edge.
He drank often. He talked openly in bars and at dinner parties of the folly of the Revolution and overturning the regime.
Finally, someone had enough.
He was picked up at his office building, taken to the parking lot where news cameras were present to capture the moment, and stripped naked by revolutionary guards. He was surrounded by spontaneous crowds of citizens and revolutionary activists, just like myself, shouting his disrepute. A disgrace assumed as a matter of accusation. “Shame! Shame! Shame!” poured down on my father like an acidic rainstorm of hostility and humiliation. He was denounced for his vicious transgressions of thought and alcohol abuse. Maliciously, he was accused of lusting after children. And he was swiftly hanged for his crimes.
When word finally arrived, months later, so had my breaking point.
The next day, I announced my desire to give my full confession of my crimes to the regime. I acknowledged my obscene words and thoughts. My apostate questioning of the wisdom of the regime. My wicked bitterness at my imprisonment. My evil unbelieving in the face of the brutality and mistreatment inflicted upon me and those I loved.
“I, Andre Zuckerman, do confess my disobedience to the Revolution. I condemn my own rebellion and the depraved, unforgivable, unspeakable defiance and crimes of my father, Raymond Zuckerman. I revile him. I denounce his life. I rebuke any knowledge of him past, present, or future. He is nothing to me. He is nothing to the Revolution. He is nothing.”
I was a redeemed comrade. Within the week, I was released.
The day of my discharge, it was my mother who picked me up.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for your father,” she wailed, as we sat in the car. “He lost his mind. He never cared for us. He is nothing to me, either. I’m ashamed I ever knew him.”
“Don’t be,” I weakly intoned.
I had found the amends I was looking for. It was not an atonement to my captors. Or redress for my lawlessness. It was deliverance for my conscience.
“Now is not the time for apologies, Mom. He was not who they said he was. He was a good man. He loved us. Now is not the time for shame, Mom. Now is the time to fight.”