Marc Polonsky, a SUN subscriber, wrote to Bo Lozoff following publication in Issue 121 of excerpts from Lozoff’s We’re All Doing Time. Thanks to both of them for permission to print Marc’s letter and Bo’s reply.
Yesterday I received the latest issue of THE SUN and immediately devoured the ten-page excerpt from We’re All Doing Time. I was extremely moved by what I read in the letters to and from you, and especially by the plights of Donny and Maury, as they represent for me the extremes of my deepest fears of what could possibly befall me in this life.
I’m writing because I feel you were seriously in error in some of your advice to Donny. I can’t help but wonder if urging him not to dwell on his “punk” identity was not to some degree prompted by your own gut-level contempt for that image. I agree with you that “the bottom line is, everyone suffers.” But I think you are a few quarts low, to use your own phrase, in your assessment of “this tidal wave of ‘you can’t understand me unless you’re like me’ support groups.” Certainly they define limits and differences between people, and may in some instances perpetuate the kind of alienation you would caution against. But, for God’s sake, Bo, suffering is universal but not generic and people need a context in which to express the precise nature of their own experience. This is the way most of us work through our karma, our suffering, our humiliations. We find a way to own it. We can’t just wave a magic wand, say a few mantras, disconnect from the physical world, and view all our sufferings as so much “stuff.” You are a very compassionate man, Bo, and I admire your work immensely, but I feel you are being a bit of what I call a “transcendentalist” here. And I also suspect that you don’t especially want to hear about what it feels like to be continuously fucked in the ass by stinking and hateful men whom you would like to kill but must mollify in order to survive. I know I don’t want to hear too much about it. But this is what Donny must face every day of his life. Do you think he should try to transcend his circumstances by focusing his attention on his inner Self? Should he be saying his mantras while he’s being raped? Doesn’t that sound a bit false to you? It seems to me that, rather than encouraging him simply to retreat inside himself, you should do everything in your power to encourage and facilitate his idea of starting a network among “prison punks,” giving them a space to express themselves to each other, spreading a bit of light in this way, God help them. And if Donny has attained some light by going inside himself, why shouldn’t his most natural impulse be to spread this light?
Don’t forget that while it’s easy to say suffering is universal, the recognition of another’s suffering usually starts with the sufferer speaking out. I know that my own consciousness has been profoundly changed by the women’s movement, although, as you would probably point out, the women’s movement has given rise to much alienation and prejudice, too. But I think the net result has been a gain in universal understanding. I think this is generally the case whenever a group of people who suffer in common get together and find the strength and courage to express themselves and demystify their situation.
I’m also not altogether sure that Donny’s referring to himself as “Donny the Punk” is as counterproductive as you think. In a way, it seems to me, his taking on that name is a kind of transcendence in itself, a way of saying “so what?”, a shrug, an unattached statement of “Yup, this is what I am right now.” In general, I think your advice to Donny would have been more appropriate were he already out of prison and only dealing with his memories.
The reason I took the time to write this is because as I was reading about Donny I found myself identifying with him, though thank God such awful things have never happened to me. I think I would rather kill myself than live through that. The revulsion I felt for that situation made it difficult for me to sleep, but I could only stand in awe of his indomitable spirit. Awe and wonder, but not understanding. And, as I read his letters and yours, your responses were slightly hurtful to me, and they felt a little less than accepting — condescending, in fact. Much like a priest who visits a prison and urges all the prisoners to take Jesus into their hearts, as a cure-all for their misery. Don’t forget, Bo, that to most of us what lies after death is still an utter mystery, though you may have some certainty as to what lies beyond. So when you talk in terms of karma and the astral plane, you shouldn’t necessarily expect your correspondents to take solace there; it’s a lot like saying, “Your reward is in heaven.” Therefore, keep in mind that on this plane we are separate, we experience our suffering alone, work through it in our individual ways, and there is probably as divine a reason for this as there is for everything else. As you say over and over, most of us are not enlightened saints, and so there’s no shortcut, we simply have to plod through our karma in whatever idiosyncratic way is given to us.
Bless you for your work, and heartfelt thanks for the inspiration you have given me personally.
Thanks for your letter and challenges about my responses to Donny. I’d ask you to bear in mind, before assuming so much about the rights and wrongs of the correspondence, that I knew and exchanged letters with Donny for several years, and what you’re basing your (strong) reactions on is a very small slice of that relationship. Don’t be so quick.
Secondly, to get directly to some of the points you made: 1) I don’t feel any contempt for the punk image; it’s sorrowful for sure, but in no way contemptuous; 2) If you agree that support groups may perpetuate the kind of alienation I caution against, then don’t be so quick to drop that issue. Alienation from each other is always the greatest problem of mankind — the reason for wars, hatred, violence, oppression. That’s not a casual point to me; 3) I agree with you that people need a context in which to express suffering. That’s why we took these bodies in the first place. Our humanity is the context. But we do not need to “find a way to own it.” That’s exactly what I was trying to get at with Donny: the difference between opening from our pain into the one heart of all humanity, or closing around it to identify ourselves as a unique, suffering elite of one sort or another.
Since you admire my work, I’m surprised that you would accuse me of waving a magic wand, saying a few mantras, etc. That’s not me at all, and it never has been. My advice to Donny was never to simply forget about his pain or experiences. How could he do that? But I’m not a psychologist; I’m a spiritual friend and madman for God, and part of my function is to remind people of the larger picture — of the other realms, the illusory appearances, karma, and so forth. Why do you think so many prisoners have written to me? There are good psychologists in nearly every institution!
Believe me, I’m not suggesting my work is infallible by any means. But I feel you’re essentially complaining that I should be someone slightly different from who I am, and there just ain’t anything I can do about that. If you had been Donny’s pen pal, the advice may have been very different, and that’s always going to be true. I don’t automatically encourage or endorse every means of self-expression; in fact, I think that’s one of the weaknesses of our pop, new-age culture. Conflict is OK, including this one between us over Donny. It makes a hell of a lot more interesting world than a pseudo-unconditional acceptance of each other would.
Thanks for your kind words and respect; you have mine as well.
In “Strangers” [Issue 122], in which you describe an encounter with a panhandler, I agree with you when you write, “Perhaps I should ignore what he seems to be asking for and consider, instead, what would serve him best,” but you follow this immediately with doubts about your ability to judge what is best for yourself, your family, or a stranger. Were you feeling particularly low that day? Of course we make mistakes, but does that mean we ignore our best judgement?
When you gave that man a dollar you bought into his lie — not completely, but enough to leave you both feeling cheated. Better to leave him with his dignity and an empty pocket. He was not asking for help; he was asking for money to buy booze. Next time trust your instincts, and save the dollar for UNICEF.
I want, first of all, to thank you. THE SUN is (and no fooling here) the first magazine I’ve read that sounds as if real people are writing it, and real people with all the real emotions. I like that. When I read something in THE SUN, I know that I am going to be stimulated and moved in some way (to tears, laughter, or action). As much as I like, say, Mother Jones, it addresses a different audience, and its tone is drastically different.
There’s also the spiritual question. In the past year, I’ve begun to do spiritual work, and the one thing unsettling about many “spiritual” publications is their attitude of “conversion or bust.” I live in a house across the street from a Seventh-Day Adventist church, and we get much of their junk mail. One of our favorites is the Reverend Etting, who sends “prayer rugs” that you’re supposed to sleep on for two nights, then mail back and the Reverend (allegedly) will sleep on them for three. And then miracles occur. His mailings are more amusing than frightening. It’s the more “serious” religions (Fundamentalism has such an air of vaudeville and Chautauqua about it) that are the most insidious. Especially what I call the “neo-religions.” A “neo-religion” is one where someone posits himself as prophet and collects followers. I mean (what do I mean? makes Christianity-at-the-beginning sound sneaky) someone today, someone alive saying he has a direct line to God. We all do. Some people know how to channel energy better, that’s all. And I confess that I, too, follow neo-religion. But only to the extent that it works for me. And that means looking at everything. That’s what you do. I’d say you were non-partisan. And for a skeptic like me to be impressed. . . .
Let’s put it this way — I’ve never underlined a magazine before.
P.S. You might be amused to know where I discovered you — in a bodega near my new home, the day I moved. They have a magazine rack that is half “new age” (ugh) magazines and half porn. I passed the cello-wrapped Juggs for you.
In a recent US piece on “Little Lies” [Issue 121], Melissa Barnes said she was bothered by THE SUN’s philosophy on advertising. I wrote to her to find out why. This is her reply, and my answer. Other viewpoints are invited.
I can’t find a passage to illustrate my point right now, unfortunately, but I have gotten the impression from various comments you have made that you feel THE SUN would be tainted by actively seeking wider advertising support. You seem to imply that this would be selling out, and you ask your readers to pay abnormally high subscription rates and to contribute additional gifts to keep you from having to do this.
I realize that I am unaware of what you have done behind the scenes in an attempt to increase your advertising base. You may have applied all your powers of persuasion toward interesting potential alternative-style advertisers to buy your space. It may be that your circulation is too small to attract any but local advertisers, that all national concerns have a cut-off point beyond which they will not consider it worth investing. You may have done everything you could to make your magazine support itself and come up against a blank wall.
But if this is so, it is not the impression I get from your little pleas. I get the impression that THE SUN is too pure to stoop to hustling for ads. I don’t believe you would have to alter your content to please the type of advertisers I am thinking of, the health foods and alternative schools, vacations, clothing, etc., that support other alternative magazines. It seems to me that you are either invoking purity to keep from having to do the work necessary to get ads, or you are presenting the issue as if it were a matter of purity rather than a matter of simply having too small a circulation to get these advertisers. This is what I referred to in my statement.
Thanks for your thoughts on advertising and THE SUN. Your letter made me think about the possibly misleading image I’ve created. But it’s such a complex question! In fact, we regularly do what we can (sample copies, letters, phone calls) to interest the type of advertisers you mentioned — within our limited budget, of course — and you’re right in guessing that our circulation isn’t large enough to interest them. Perhaps this will change soon, as we’ve just gotten a generous grant from the N.C. Arts Council to solicit subscriptions through direct mail. But it’s true that I’m ambivalent about advertising, even many of the relatively benign ads placed by “alternative” businesses. Advertising seeks to create a need where it may not exist; looking through New Age and other alternative journals, I’m struck by how little difference there is these days in the marketing techniques for hamburgers and tofu-burgers, upward mobility and consciousness “expansion.” A schedule of workshops is one thing; an ad that subtly suggests you’re lacking in something the workshop will remedy, or that one or another teacher or herbal remedy or cotton garment will make you happy, is something else. Yet, I face the same predicament in advertising THE SUN! How do I interest people in the magazine without “creating” a need for it?