Friday, April 24, 2009

Sites of Trauma

Last night I watched the 1973 Walking Tall film in preparation for the two days of fieldwork we'll have out at the Buford Pusser Home & Museum next week. I've been out there several times, love the story, and love the people. And I've been giving a lot of thought to how to address that story accurately and appropriately, and that's brought me to a larger reflection on how to deal with sites of trauma. Things are still tense in McNairy County nearly 40 years after Buford broke up the moonshine and prostitution ring in that part of the state.

In some ways, though, the Buford Pusser story has an easy out because that story has a hero and fits nicely into the American mystique of independent lawmen (Wyatt Earp, Eliot Ness) and of an American community coming together to throw off oppression. But what do you do with stories where there isn't a nice way out?

At the end of February we went out to Brushy Mountain State Prison, supposedly to do the fieldwork for a historic structures report and compile a list of adaptive reuse recommendations. When we got there, we were informed that the prison wasn't empty (it's officially closing in July), we weren't allowed to take in our equipment to document the site, and they had a team of consultants there that they were looking into hiring to do the work that the county had originally asked us to do.

Brushy Mountain Prison (from the TN Dept. of Corrections)

So we ended up going on an extended tour of the prison, including walking around the yard with the prisoners, and analyzing what we could without being able to document what we were seeing with photographs or measurements. In all, it was bizarre, surreal, and horrifying. The prison guards treated us to demonstrations of their various types of equipment (particularly the ones that emitted electricity) and regaled us with horror stories of a century of prisoner mistreatment and hazing of other guards (particularly how hard of a time female prison guards had it). The consultants that came on the tour with us kept making rather loud disparaging and juvenile comments about the prisoners who were surrounding us. Actually, the prisoners ended up seeming to be the most polite and human of all the people we interacted with there. And considering what you have to do to get sent to Brushy, that's more than a little horrifying.

The end of the tour was on the prison museum, which mostly consisted of confiscated weapons, a recreation of the ladder James Earl Ray used to escape, and then the types of tools that they have used over the years to "discipline" the prisoners. The highlight was the heavy leather strap that they used for most of the twentieth century to whip inmates. We were told of that several times before we ever got to the museum to see it.

Wall of confiscated weapons at the museum (from the TN Dept. of Corrections)

We were glad to get out of there and all really shaken by what we had experienced and what we had heard. The setting for the prison is gorgeous and if a resort were in the place of the prison, it would be a spectacular setting. The architecture of the New Deal era prison buildings is majestic. But the legacy of the prison juxtaposed with the beauty of the setting almost makes it more disturbing. After hearing numerous stories from the guards about the workings of the convict labor system for the coal mining operations (involving "mining accidents" for prisoners who didn't behave), I can't help but wonder how many bodies are holed away in that closed mine that the prisoners used to operate.

New Deal era gymnasium at Brushy (from the TN Dept. of Corrections)

And that brings in the whole issue of race. Historic photographs show white guards with nearly all black convict labor crews. Makes the significance of the whipping take on a whole new light. In Morgan County, where the prison is the largest employer and the residents are 96% white, their introduction to race relations is often at the prison. It is hard for me to wrap my head around a community where almost all African Americans are prisoners and white residents learn that people of dark complexion are criminals to be managed and treated with brutal force.

But the criminals are not the heroes or the purely victimized here, so that's not the easy solution for how to come to peace with this landscape of trauma. The inmates have done terrible things to get sent to Brushy (Byron "Low Tax" Looper is incarcerated there) and they often continue brutal and deviant behavior upon their arrival (including killing prison guards). They twist one another and twist the prison guards who work in that environment. Within the prison, it is almost like a psychological arms race where everyone keeps stepping up the game as a combination of offense and defense. The prison guards end up with some noticeable psychological impact (it was shocking what they thought was acceptable conversation or social interaction), and they take that out on the prisoners and take it home with them, where the social environment of the prison then twists the community. Everyone comes out sullied by trying to deal with a gruesome situation.

Historically, there are so many points of significance for Brushy Mountain State Prison. It is an important resource to talk about the Coal Creek War of 1891, a discussion of the convict labor system in Tennessee, New Deal prison architecture, the Martin Luther King assassination and the incarceration of James Earl Ray at Brushy, and in the present the site can be used to discuss the social impact of a prison on a community (race relations, race education, domestic violence, economic impact, etc.). But because the prison is so isolated and would require such a significant amount of investment for maintenance and adaptive reuse, it seems unlikely that much will be done with the site. The current community plans consist mostly of trying to run the prison as a b&b where they process visitors like prisoners and the hosts are retired prison guards (brings to mind the Stanford Prison experiment, among a whole host of other problems with this plan). This site also has the potential of becoming a mecca for white supremacists who would come to celebrate James Earl Ray (how his memory is currently treated at that site is already rather bizarre).

All of the stories associated with the prison are traumatic. It is overwhelming to try and figure out how to tell a complete and balanced history while also including the full weight of what occurred there. It brings to mind what a colleague of mine said while doing research for the multiple property submission we completed for testing sites of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. She had finally had enough of reading account after account of the ongoing brutality of the experiment, threw down the book she was reading and said, "Why can't I do research on something happy, like something involving rainbows and puppies?" The mind can only handle so much horror and then it is just too much.

I don't know what will become of Brushy when it closes in July, but there are no easy answers.

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