Mikita Brottman's "Maximum Security Book Club" offers a surprising look at the classics—and prison life

Mikita Brottman, a MICA professor, Oxford scholar, and psychoanalyst, spent four years running a book club for nine prisoners at Jessup Correctional Institution and wrote about her experience, turning her sharp gaze on both the selected literature and the men who read it. The resulting book, "The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison," is a curiously off-beat exploration of both the classics and prison life.

The book is structured into 10 chapters, representing the 10 books or short stories Brottman read with the men, which ranged from older classics such as "Heart of Darkness," "Bartleby, the Scrivener," and "Macbeth" to more contemporary books such as Charles Bukowski's 1982 "Ham on Rye," William S. Burrough's 1953 "Junkie," and Malcolm Braly's 1967 "On The Yard." While the prisoners tend to blend together in the reader's mind—despite the fact that photographs and sketches of them are peppered throughout the book—their text-to-self references in the course of the group's lively discussions reveal a lot about prison life. But the book is also about Brottman's evolving perceptions as a reader.

She is an honest and astute literary critic who parses her own take on the books the group is reading.

"When I first read ['Macbeth'] myself, I remember being fascinated by the images conjured up by the strange words on the page," she writes. "I had the feeling I was somehow reading through the language to the direct emotion beneath. In a way, my lack of understanding served to fire my half-formed imagination, making the words even more evocative than they rightly should have been." She talks about Shakespeare's passing reference to maggot-pies. "When I first read this phrase, I pictured a worm-encrusted pastry in an old-fashioned chafing dish, with a gravy boat full of blood on the side." She later learned it was simply a term for a magpie, a bird. "[T]he 'correct' meaning, when I learned it, was disappointing compared to the one I'd made up in my head."

Because Brottman liked to "stay open to misreadings," she didn't get too worried about the inmates' efforts to accurately untangle the archaic language in complicated texts like "Macbeth." And here, one gets a glimpse of her wisdom as a teacher: "My own misapprehensions often give me what I need at the time. They become a tool, a way for me to get somewhere I need to go. Unconsciously, perhaps, I often misread for my own purposes." She says her own ignorance "stirred [her] dormant consciousness" and explained, "I was hoping some of the same magic that worked on me might also work on the men."

Unlike say, high school English teachers or college professors, she wasn't bound by externally imposed assessments, a rigid syllabus, the confining limits of a semester, or an impulse to steer readers toward a "right" answer or "correct" interpretation of the material. She could take the time for exploratory conversations that let the men sweep out into long tangents during the discussions as they grappled to connect the language, characters, and motivations to moments in their own lives. And these are some of the most revealing moments in the book.

In June 2014, the group reads Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat," a story about a man's perversely murderous impulses where he hangs his beloved black cat from a tree and then is haunted by a second black cat that comes to his house. (This new black cat bears a white patch that the man insists looks like a gallows; he eventually tries to kill this pet with an ax but instead buries the ax in his wife's head. When he goes to entomb his wife's body behind the basement walls, he can't find the cat—and his crime is later discovered by police who hear the live cat meowing from inside the walls.) Brottman talks to the prisoners about the narrator's "spirit of self-injury" and perverse desire to do wrong. She draws on another Poe text, "The Imp of the Perverse," to explore Poe's thinking on the psychology of wrong. "Yet, as I told the men, 'the perverse' in this essay doesn't necessarily mean that which we know to be wrong. After all, confessing you've committed a crime is the right thing to do, morally speaking," she writes. "In 'The Imp of the Perverse,' wrong isn't wrong for moral or ethical reasons but because it is damaging to the personality who initiates the action. In other words, the 'perverse' is whatever goes against the grain of our rational interest and better judgment." She quotes Poe: "It was the unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for wrong's sake only—that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute."

The inmates go on to consider the nature of this impulse, sometimes in the context of their own crimes. One likens it to "when you come out of jail, and you swear you're never going back there again, and then the next thing you know you're standing in front of the judge," and then adds, "that's what happened to me."

They also pick up on surprising elements of the tales, and this is how Brottman simultaneously gives readers new insight into familiar classics and a glimpse into the prisoners' lives behind bars. For example, while providing some context for Poe and Victorian England, Brottman brings in photographs of lunatic asylums and restraints from the period. "One of the slides showed a picture of what looked like a pair of lace-up boxing gloves," she writes. The above inmate, Donald, recognizes them. "Those are mesh mitts," he tells the group. "I've worn them many times. They still use them at the supermax. If you get caught masturbating in front of the female COs, you get a choice: you can wear the mesh mitts for a day or get a citation."

The book group conversation moves fluidly between text and reality, between history and the present. Brottman asks one man who had been absent from the group for a few weeks whether he had a chance to finish the Poe story. "'I sure did,' he said, 'though after twenty-five days in the lockup to be honest with you, I didn't really want to read about somebody being walled up in a basement. I mean, OK, the lady was dead, but the cat was still alive.'" Another adds, "Even if that cat was evil, it didn't deserve to buried alive…But they bury us alive without thinking twice about it."

Brottman, in "The Maximum Security Book Club," asks those of us on the outside to think about that for a bit, just as she asks the men to think about the characters, their motivations, the psychology behind their actions. In essence, of course, reading is all about empathy. How do you walk in someone else's shoes for a few hundred pages, and a lifetime? And in some ways, teaching this kind of deep empathy through literature is her book group's most valuable lesson. But she treads very lightly here. She is unjudgmental and un-hierarchical—two traits that might have landed her in trouble with the prison authorities (see sidebar on how her book club was recently canceled by prison officials)—and she brings that same scrutiny to bear on herself.

When the group reads "Lolita," she is strident in her interpretation, insisting she never viewed Humbert Humbert as a pedophile. "When I imagined reading 'Lolita' with the prisoners—many of whom had committed crimes that might be considered as serious as child rape—I'd thoughtlessly assumed they'd have sympathy for Humbert Humbert as well as for Lolita. I thought they'd see him as a fellow outsider." But the men despised him and were deeply mistrustful of his clever language and fast-talking ways, marking him from the onset as a dissembler and unreliable narrator. She argued with them: "He may be deranged, dodgy, or deluded, but he's still describing what he believes to be true. You could make the case that most of the time Humbert tells the story in such a way as to justify his own behavior, but isn't this how we all tell our stories, consciously or not?"

But while Brottman wants to describe "Lolita" as a love story, the men want to talk about Lolita herself and how Humbert ruined her life. "These men, some of whom were guilty of terrible crimes, had immediately sympathized with twelve-year-old Lolita," she writes. "They recognized at once that she was suffering…And I, with my weakness for a fancy prose style, had fallen into Nabokov's trap and could see Lolita only through Humbert Humbert's eyes, as his invention, his nymphet. I could not make sense of her, as the prisoners did, as a little girl in her own right." Brottman, though she had read the novel many, many times, mulls over this and eventually comes around to their way of thinking, learning from the prisoners as they have learned from her. "I had to face the fact that, to my dismay, the prisoners had got it right."

By the end of "The Maximum Security Book Club," readers also learn from the prisoners, as the prisoners, in turn, learn from the literature they are reading. But this is dangerous territory; literature canalter perspectives and perceptions and one's sense of self. And what happens when inmates who are powerless in a system of dehumanizing rules and regulations begin to read and notice their connection to the larger parade of humanity, to recognize themselves as sentient beings, still, regardless of what they've done and what society says about them? What if they begin to make demands to be treated thus?

In some ways, it is no wonder that the book club was canceled a few short months after Brottman's book was published—reading has always been dangerous.

Mikita Brottman will be reading from "The Maximum Security Book Club" at the Baltimore Book Festival's Inner Harbor stage on Saturday at noon. There will also be readings of works by incarcerated men at Jessup. Later, She will read from her book "The Great Grisby" on the Pets & Paws stage at 4 p.m.

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