Earlier this summer, I sat down with author and MICA professor Mikita Brottman to discuss her new book, The Maximum Security Book Club (HarperCollins), which chronicles her time volunteering as a teacher/moderator for a book club at Jessup Correctional Institution. The book is moving but honest, interweaving Brottman’s account of the discussions within the club with thoughtful analysis of the texts and her personal musings. Brottman’s dedication to the club and its members is evident—and though there is no tidy Hollywood ending, by the final pages it is clear that her work at the prison is impactful (though she would deny such certainty).
Perhaps this is why it came as such an incredible shock—both for me and, obviously, Brottman—when the book club was unceremoniously axed. (Read the Sun’s account here.) Shortly thereafter, Brottman was notified that her other volunteer club, “Focus on Fiction” at psychiatric institution Clifton T. Perkins Hospital, had also been cancelled. (Again, read Dan Rodricks’ thoughtful take here.)
In an unfortunate homage to Banned Books Week, read my conversation with Brottman—both about the club pre-cancellation and about the unexpected cessation of the programs—below.
When and how did you decide that the material would make for a good book?
About six months into working at the program—but even then, I thought it would be interesting, but I asked my partner and he said “No, people aren’t really interested in felons, convicted felons. That’s probably not going to sell.”
But I thought the combination of the kind of books that I was teaching and [the men’s] responses to them, and the characters themselves…the men were so interesting and so unexpected. I just hadn’t expected them to be so charming and intriguing. I hadn’t expected to get to know their backstories so well. And even though they weren’t always what I expected, they were always interesting, and they brought things out about the books in an oblique way. The way my expectations kept being overturned, I thought it would make a good package.
How did you decide to structure the book?
I never thought of doing it other than chronologically, because I wanted to explain how I got involved and how I progressed, and include the men themselves’ ups and downs of daily life—how I would get really involved and then they’d be in lockdown for a while, or how they’d seem to be loving the book, then I’d find out that the tide had turned.
When you wrote the book, were you expecting to include of much of yourself? Obviously a prison book club is an inherently interesting subject matter, and the presentation of the prisoners’ reactions would be fascinating in and of itself, but your personal experiences and difficulties made it all the more engaging.
I wanted to show how my reading of those books had changed. I didn’t want to write a book that was like, “Literature can save your life,” because it wasn’t like that. I wanted to show that it was frustrating and there were always ups and downs and I was never, ever sure—I’m still not—whether this was making a difference, whether it was doing anything for them.
I just wanted to make it clear that I was always unsure and ambivalent—sometimes it was depressing and sometimes it was uplifting—so that it wasn’t overselling either literature or the guys themselves.
Something else that was interesting to me were some of the more pedagogical, professorial moments in the book—I think they added a lot more to the understanding of what was going on in the club. Was the inclusion of the more academic content and explanatory points something you were deliberate about or did it arise naturally?
That kind of arose naturally because I wanted to write about the books as well as the men, but I didn’t want it to be an academic book. I felt like I had some complicated things to say about the books, and if you hadn’t read them it would be difficult to understand. But having the men there as foils for the reader—as the men hadn’t read them, either—helped me to understand that Heart of Darkness is really boring, or can be really boring if you’re reading it for the first time. And in the way that they understood Lolita even better than I did, I came to see my blind spots as an academic. So it allowed me to write about the books, but also allowed me to undermine them.
Was there anything that was surprising to you when you were putting the book together, either about yourself or the men?
In one of the pictures the photographer took, the men were sitting in this symmetrical pattern, and I realized that there was a real symmetry to the group. They always sat in the same place, and there was the tough guy, the guy who would be sentimental, the guy who would always joke…Everyone had their role, like it is in a group of friends. It was something spontaneous and sort of magical.
I think there’ s a tendency to feel self-satisfied by this type of work, but I didn’t get that sense from you at all. Do you think that’s because of your personality or because of your findings?
I think it’s both. I set about doing it for my own pleasure, really. I wasn’t thinking that these were appropriate books for guys in prison—I wasn’t choosing The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
It was my sabbatical, my pleasure, my favorite books…almost the opposite of being self-satisfied. I was feeling a bit guilty. And never being sure of whether it’s helpful or not, that gets in the way of being self-satisfied. Learning how they’re living, how awful and deprived their lives are and how little difference this makes, there’s not much to feel satisfied about.
Before the club was cancelled, did you receive any negative reactions to the book?
No, not really. There was one tweet, like: “What about the victims of these people?” That’s not addressed in the book.
What do you feel is the real reason that Jessup terminated the program?
After my book had been out for a couple of months, Mary Carole McCauley published a profile of me in The Baltimore Sun. I think someone high up in the Department of Corrections saw the article, decided to take a look at the book, and did not like the fact I had written honestly about my experiences as a prison volunteer.
Were you able to communicate with any of the men in the group via phone/letter to discuss the cessation of the club?
No. We’re not allowed to write or call.
Will you attempt to reinstate the program at another institution?
I’ve been trying to set something up for the women at Patuxent, but I’m afraid I may have been blacklisted. Nobody returns my calls or e-mails.
Would you have published the book if you knew it would result in the termination of these programs?
You articulated your feelings pretty comprehensively in the Sun and LitHub pieces, but is there anything else you want the public to know about the termination of your book clubs?
I would love to have met with the people who ended my book clubs. Even if it did not bring them back, I wish we could have got together like human beings, had coffee, and discussed each other’s point of view. I’d like to understand what was in their minds. At least I would have liked to been given reasons for the decision in person, to have had a face-to-face chat. I don’t see why it all had to be so cold and faceless.