On a hazy mid-April weekend, 15 men gathered in an old prison yard bungalow at San Quentin to think about why they killed—why they robbed—why they ended up here.
Most of them are serving life sentences, locked up for decades. They came to this writing workshop, called The Rabbit Hole, to explain who they were and what they became.
Doing criminal violence often comes from feeling like you’re in a world that’s gone insane, according to the organizer, Emile DeWeaver. He said he named his workshop after the rabbit’s entryway in Alice in Wonderland. In this case, he said, the new world wasn’t fantasy, but a place of confusion and pain, where they did the worst acts of their lives.
Knowing you were there “is not an excuse for violence,” said DeWeaver, who was convicted of a 1998 murder. “It’s finding out the reasons for violence in a time when your lives were uncertain.”
If a person can explain his past to himself, DeWeaver believes, he can understand what it means to inflict harm on another human being. A person with empathy may help bring peace to the community, but first he has to have empathy for himself.
It happened to him. Some years ago, in an online magazine, DeWeaver published his thoughts about how his alienation from his father created a kind of emptiness and rage in him, culminating in the murder. Writing and thinking about this, he wrote, helped him come to terms with the anger, even extinguish it.
His story was read by a crime victim, who commented that it helped her understand what happened to her. His daughter read it too, and they reconnected. DeWeaver came to believe he had a way to help others, and he started a writing workshop called Accountable Communication.
The Rabbit Hole is part of the program, designed to take others through something like his process of self-understanding, which can be hard, according to DeWeaver. As the men in the workshop began to describe their past conduct, an uneasy laughter covers a palpable embarrassment, as they begin to reveal the things they did as kids.
“The deeper you dig into asking yourself why you did what you did, the more effective you’ll be in connecting with readers,” DeWeaver tells them.
The men hunch over their chairs, heads bowed, pens moving across lined paper. For five minutes they warm up, free-writing about a time in their lives they hurt someone on purpose. What need, DeWeaver asks, were they trying to meet?
Ronald Draper recalls a racist taunt when he was 12. “He called me a nigger,” he says. His foster father had shown him a lot of public television about the civil rights movement. When he was called that name, though, it felt like nothing had changed. In frustration, the only thing to do was punch his tormentor.
“I wanted him to feel the lack of control that I felt,” says Draper. There was no trouble with the law that time, but he had injured the other boy badly.
DeWeaver wants the men to ask themselves a series of “Whys,” seeking their missing need. That personal story is the way to finding our universal needs.
For Jeffrey Pruitt, the journey down the rabbit hole began at 12, with stealing another kid’s bike. He’d been the youngest of 10 children, and poor.
Other men in the group challenged him: the youngest is usually pampered, they say. Not everybody steals—what was it about the bike? Pruitt replies that it was a Schwinn and shiny, just the kind of thing a kid wants. The kind of thing other kids would think was cool. The kind of thing he’d have that they’d want—the envy of every kid. Something he’d never known.
The 30-something Jerome Watts talks about hurting a girl in high school, hoping the other boys would call him a player. He’d been bullied a lot, but after that, it stopped.
“I was just so tired of dudes clowning me,” Watts said.
We all know these kinds of adolescent pains, and they are with all of us for life. But they are hard for anyone to talk about, let alone a convict, according to Watts.
DeWeaver wants him to keep digging. Hurting the girl, he suggests, like stealing the bike, began a habit of seeking acceptance at all costs. And this led to committing violent crimes.
“Look, I know this stuff is embarrassing,” DeWeaver says. “A lot of what you discover about the old you isn’t going to be flattering. But that honesty is what connects you to your reader. More importantly, it will help you realize that you weren’t a bad person. You were a person. And when people lack the tools to recover from trauma, they make bad decisions. It’s called the human condition.”