By Kenneth E. Hartman
Reviewed by Christopher Zoukis
Kenneth Hartman has written the mother of all prison memoirs, thus placing himself in the exalted company of Caryl Chessman and Jimmy Lerner. Hartman calls his memoir Mother California, because he was “state raised, a child of Mother California.”
The very first sentence goes like this: “When I was nineteen, I killed a man in a drunken, drugged up fistfight.” After being tried and convicted, Hartman was sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. He was summarily tossed into the California prison system, where he was supposed to live until he died. And the sooner he died the happier everyone would be.
Hartman had a bad attitude. He didn’t die. Instead, he fought and brawled, attacking other prisoners and guards with equal ferocity. He was an equal opportunity hater. Needless to say, Hartman spent much of his time in “the Hole,” reflecting on nothing in particular other than his burning hate for everyone and everything. Hartman relates his so-called-life in prison in crisp, starched language, devoid of self-pity. No whining. No pathetic pleas for forgiveness. Only the reality of living in some surreal version of The Lord of the Flies, where chaos rules each day.
Then something happened. Another prisoner asked Hartman to relay a message to his attorney. According to Hartman, “It was this event that resulted in the beginning of my awakening as a human being.” The ‘event’ was an “interesting voice” on the phone. The voice belonged to a woman. Her name was Anita.
Something else happened. Hartman took a writing class in prison. He discovered he had a knack for creativity, putting words together to make sentences. The instructor of the class encouraged Hartman to write his autobiography. Hartman chewed on the encouragement. Swallowing it, he started to write Mother California.
Hartman married Anita. They had a child. Which almost sounds like a fairy tale. It’s not. He was still in prison. Only now he had the luxury of another emotional commitment – a daughter.
Actually, Mother California is the story of two individuals. One is Kenneth Hartman. The other is Mother California or the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. As the second story unfolds, it becomes obvious that Mother California is an unfit mother. She is unconcerned with rehabilitation. Her concern is retribution, along with money and political expediency. She is selfish, vain, and opportunistic.
Vast amounts of cash flow into California’s prison-industrial system. Which means lots of people make a good living. Which means the big machine has to be fed. The preferred food is people, people to fill the prisons. A fat prison system allows the politicians to proclaim they are ‘tough on crime.’ This pronouncement garners votes.
And so it goes.
Mother California is the story of one man’s self-redemption and transformation while living in the belly of the beast. Like a worm turning into a butterfly, Hartman metamorphoses into a beautiful human being. It’s also the story of the system’s failure, its need for salvation from itself. And in the end, reading Mother California is akin to reading the Bible. It makes you stop and think about what’s right and what’s wrong and the power of love and forgiveness as compared to hatred and condemnation.
On the Read-O-Meter, which ranges from 1 star (pathetic) to 5 stars (numinous), Mother California nurtures 5 stars.
(First published in Rain Taxi)