Washtenaw Jail Diary: Reader’s Update

In other news, I have continued to follow the Washtenaw Jail saga in the Ann Arbor Chronicle (I wrote a brief post about it a couple months ago). In fact, the series concluded at the end of December. The anonymous author had a compelling story to tell, and he told it exceedingly well. If you’re curious what it might be like to be plucked from what you consider your safe, normal life and tossed into the detention system we’ve set up for our fellow citizens, it’s a must-read.

One thing still gnaws at me, though. The author avoided ever mentioning the offense, or offenses, that prompted a court to jail him for five months. Whenever he mentioned the case, he suggested he may not have really been guilty of whatever-it-was — or not as guilty as the record makes him look.

I’ve been thinking about why it might be an issue that he doesn’t say what the case was about. I’ve read comments on the Ann Arbor Chronicle site from people who suspect the heinousness of the author’s offense would undermine his credibility. I don’t really share that view. The repulsiveness of some crimes aside, I think a child molester could be as persuasive on the subject of jail conditions as a bank robber or a drunk driver.

I don’t believe that the writer is under any absolute obligation to come clean or that readers have some absolute right to know. I think the problem for me is the selective disclosure involved here. He asks readers to trust his account of jail and the courts but refuses to trust them with the most relevant facts about his part in the story. I imagine there could be legal reasons the author can’t go into detail. Maybe he would violate conditions of his probation to go into detail about his case. But his stance in the narrative seems to say something else: “I only look guilty. This whole thing didn’t have to wind up with me in jail. Between my (unspecified) mistakes and a rotten legal system, this is where things went. But you, readers, aren’t going to get to judge one way or the other about the quality of justice I got.”

I recently re-read excerpts from “The Night of the Gun,” New York Times columnist David Carr’s memoir of cocaine addiction and trouble with the law (worth a read if you haven’t seen it). Most of his account’s magnetism comes from its specificity about what had gone wrong in his life and where it led him (yes–I make allowances for self-dramatization and other factors that might make his account less than 100 percent of the truth; but Carr’s work is in itself an investigation of memory and self-dramatization ). Of course, I also note that it took 20 years for Carr to come to grips with his life in print.

So maybe that’s what the Washtenaw author needs most — time to come to grips with all the events that led to his imprisonment. Maybe it’s too soon to do that in print. In the meantime, he has produced something memorable. Good luck to him on whatever he does next.

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