July 19th, 2024


Letter from the madhouse

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published April 24, 2017

Letter from the madhouse

Have I gone crazy or has the State of Arkansas?

I'm innocent, I keep telling myself, only I don't believe it. For the flashbacks keep coming: the body sprawled on the concrete, the pool of blood spreading all around it, the searchlights and sirens. It's all one indelible image after another, and, like a guilty conscience, none of them will be washed away, hard as I try. Oh, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? I'm a homicidal maniac, my lawyers told the judge, and there's no cure for my condition. Which is why I'm here in this asylum for the criminally insane.

But if I'm a certifiable serial killer and general nutcase, how would you describe the whole team of distinguished officials who put and keep me here? I was accused and convicted of killing only one of my fellow human beings. At last report, the almighty State of Arkansas was lining up one inmate after another to be slaughtered as expeditiously as possible. Yes, yes, I know. None of them is innocent, but how innocent is a state that would do such a thing, or even condone it? The questions just won't stop, and neither will the almighty state's protestations that it, too, is innocent. Only I don't believe it, and it's unlikely the rest of the world will.

The clock keeps ticking. I can hear it in my mind marking off the minutes and seconds till it'll go off like a time bomb. Sometimes it's the only thing I can hear. Can't you hear it, too? The questions just won't go away. There are bound to be protesters out there somewhere, anywhere, even if the protests resound only in their own outraged minds. But they don't seem to hear me.

Alone, abandoned, I prepare to eke out my days and nights wondering if I'm the homicidal maniac or if the State of Arkansas is. You tell me: Is there any difference between us except these bars? The state assures all that these executions will be carried out in a "professional" manner. Just what does that mean? That there won't be anything personal about it? Every profession, it's been said, is a conspiracy against the laity. But this one seems to include a whole state. The mind reels. Have the inmates rebelled and taken over the asylum? And how tell the difference?

So many questions, so few answers -- if any. I'm nice and safe here, the docs assure me as they adjust my straitjacket and tell me to be a good boy. ("Hold still, old buddy, don't take this personally. All we're going to do to these people is kill them.") Who will keep the endless nightmares away? All I want to do is be free of my warders at last, but they won't help me kill myself, they explain, for that would be against regulations.

Here in my cell or maybe just in my forever wandering mind the ticking is so loud it could be a time bomb set to go off any minute, but it's a minute that never comes. If this isn't cruel and unusual punishment, what would be? If I wasn't crazy before I got here, surely I am by now. It's my keepers -- as in "my brother's keeper" -- who are judged sane while I'm consigned to the looney bin. I can't stand it, yet somehow I do. It's hard to stamp out this death impulse. And just as hard to stamp out the impulse to live no matter what. What a paradox, like the rest of my so-called life.

But I digress, which would be a relief if only I knew what I was digressing from. Maybe you can tell me, Gentle Reader. No one else around here seems able to set me straight. Or even interested in making the effort to explain why I'm a criminal for what I've done while the state is blameless for what it wants to do sevenfold. I can't say I blame people for avoiding my questions. For to do so, they'd have to enter this funhouse mirror that passes for my mind.

Sincerely, best regards, God bless, yours truly and whatever closing benediction would be appropriate, including just a plain "I give up." For some things, like the peace of God, surpass all understanding. I would wish you well if only I knew what wellness was under these inexplicable circumstances. I can't think of anything to ask you for, not even a file. For if I did manage to escape, what would I be escaping to? I'd just be exchanging one madhouse for another. Besides, there's no escaping my real prison: myself.

(Signed) Lost

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.