Kenneth E. Hartman was a street punk when he murdered Mr. Fellowes, and received Life Without Parole. His 2009 memoir, Mother California, leads readers from his crime into the jails and then multiple prisons of California. None of it is pretty, and Mr. Hartman doesn’t try to pretty his story up.
Hartman describes the LA jail with pretty much the details you watch on TV. Grim jungle. Then he moves through the system of Folsom State Prison, several times, and high security prisons, and middle and low security prisons. Except for one brief moment, the guards and officials all ran the prisons as personal fiefdoms of deliberate misery. It’s rather hard for a guy to catch a break, there, right? And he didn’t. First he established himself as the meanest, toughest inmate, ever. That gave him some freedom of movement and time and security. He could have remained in that mindset, the street-punk removed only slightly to new hunting grounds.
But a few things conspired to change Hartman. One was being tired of being tired– tired of using so much dope that reality was a mere haze. Of course drugs are freely available in prisons! Especially when you have the money, which Hartman’s other exploits produced. But it did get old, and he got old. And one day he actually found the bottom of his journey of self-discovery, and joined the 12 Steps. He discovered pain there. All his life, he had hidden from pain, medicated it away, assumed he was tricking pain by drugging his way around it. But in the 12 Steps, he learned that pain is normal, that pain is to be human. Oh…
Hartman’s intelligence finally emerged. He was clever, yes, but unmedicated, he discovered he was smart. He began to read seriously, including the Encyclopedia, and discovered philosophy, the possibility of Meaning, a Lifers’ Group led by a psychiatrist where inmates actually revealed emotion, and a writing teacher who is able to lead, massage, direct, criticize, and encourage both his writing and his new awareness of this thing called Life.
And then he fell in love. This unfolding emotion, the pattern of their lives together but not together, is the stuff Shakespeare wrote about. And Hartman doesn’t shrink from offering up the bliss and the pitfalls of incarcerated love. You must read this book and follow the relationship that saved him.
I read many, many prisoner memoirs. By the time they write, they have all had some sort of Come-to-Jesus moment. But Hartman? He first found life in sobriety. Then in reading. Then in writing. And finally, appropriately, in that most difficult of all chance-taking: loving someone wholly.
If you are interested in the changes that are possible within humans, if you wonder if anyone can ever actually be redeemed, then you owe it to yourself to read this slim little book.