“There’s no crying in bibliotherapy!” WANNA BET, MR. HANKS?

For years, Dragonheart has been a guilty pleasure. For many reasons, it’s one of my favorite films.

It’s no work of art. In fact, for most, it’s just a fantasy film. But for those queer ducks like Yours Truly who search cinematic moments for their redemptive potential, Dragonheart ranks way, way up there with other fantastic films like Lord of the Rings, It’s a Wonderful Life, Scrooge (the Alistair Sim version), and even Galaxy Quest.

For two years, it’s been a hope of mine to present Dragonheart to one of my book discussion groups, and that hope bore fruit a few weeks ago. Although the novelization of the film is long out of print, I actually found quite a good paper bound copy of Charles Edward Pogue’s story in the children’s section of the Shire Book Shop, the greatest used book store ever devised by the minds of men (Don’t judge a book store by its web presence — their site sux).

I took that book, made ten 4-to-1 copies, and then pow-wowed with my course assistant for the next five weeks on the lesson plan for presenting the plot of this interesting work in the best possible light. We highlighted compelling plot points, interesting and instructive poetry, telling moments that revealed depth of character and, of course (if you know the story at all) the five tenets of valor that Bowen attempts to teach Einon, prince of the realm and son of the worst tyrant in long memory.

We also used the DVD in our preparation. The assistant sat down with our portable Sony 7″ screen, with the captions feature selected (he’s from Côte d’Ivoire, and says his French impedes the way he hears English, or something), scrutinized each scene, and took program notes on a steno pad.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Opening Night of the course — what we ended up with was not a book discussion presentation, as we’d set out to do, but another dad-blamed consequential thinking seminar. Crap.

Oh, well…When life hands you yet another dad-blamed consequential thinking seminar, the least you can do is teach it. So, we did.

Since there wasn’t supposed to be a therapeutic bent to this presentation, I already knew that no earned good conduct credits–what the inmates call ‘good time’–would attach. Students would need to be informed that they would be participating for the love of reading, for lively and incisive discussion, for the pure enjoyment of the story, and for safe, like-minded company.

Half of the students dropped after the 1st night. Well, many inmates don’t take disappointment well. It probably didn’t help that I characterized a few of the whiners as “good-time sluts.”  I was raised to call’em as I see’em.

The five men that remained were aghast that so much work was involved for a non – “good time” course. But they stuck it out and did everything asked of them:

  • Read the book before Opening Night
  • Write five character sketches
  • Participate in class discussions of plot points
  • Memorize the “Old Code”

old code1

But again, a funny thing happened along the way — the inmates fell into the process of transference, where they relate plot points to events in their past that gave them particular troubles. We were flabbergasted. This is the kind of thing that we hope for in the Wednesday night consequential thinking seminar. We never expected it to happen here. But there they were, talking about former criminal lives and behavior, the terrible way their parents treated them, the horrible treatment of women and children at their hands, the daily regret for their selfishness. It was the whole rehabilitative dynamic and, because they themselves were making it happen,  it was truly awe-some to behold.

And I think not in spite of but because of this “extra work” put in by these five special men, the groundwork was laid for the course finale, which was the viewing of the DVD.

Now, if you’re a student in one of my socialization courses, you learn quickly that you are prohibited from calling films “movies.” We do not watch “movies” in my socialization courses. No ma’am — “movies” denotes entertainment, and we have not assembled to be entertained, but socialized. We call them “educational films for therapeutic purposes,” or EFTPs for short. And I am here to tell you that this particular EFTP caught our intrepid book discussion participants completely unawares. From an emotional standpoint, they never saw it coming.

Or — probably more accurately — EYE never saw it coming. What the students had done in the previous 16 hours was permit themselves to be vulnerable to such things as friendship, duty, honesty, loyalty, and love. It was all there, between the pages. And now it was written in their hearts.

At the film’s end, when Draco sacrifices himself by allowing his good friend Bowen to take his life, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. It was more than I had bargained for.

And it was glorious. When the lights came on, we were all of us wiping away tears and laughing at each other, like men must when displaying open naked emotion to fellow men. And these were convicted felons in a medium-security prison. They tell each other not to cry, because real men don’t cry. Real men don’t let themselves feel. “Crying’s for chicks and children.”

Except when, in an inhuman place, grown men are allowed to be human beings, allowed to feel safe, allowed to feel. When you can create a safe environment in the library, then men will allow themselves to open up to their own feelings. Even if their stimulus happens to be a silly fantasy film featuring Double-Oh-7 as the voice of a dragon.

Connery as Draco:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

4 thoughts on ““There’s no crying in bibliotherapy!” WANNA BET, MR. HANKS?

  1. Okay, you’ve convinced me to add the Dragonheart DVD to my Netflix queue and the paperback to my amazon.com cart. (It doesn’t hurt that I think Sean Connery could read the phonebook and make it sound sexy.)

    I must add that I ADORE Galaxy Quest. What a stellar cast, what a funny premise (especially for a sci-fi fan), what heart!

    Looking forward to a good yarn — and as a “chick,” I have carte blanche as far as crying goes.

    • I’m glad you’re gonna see the film. Even from the little I’ve learned about you, I think I can say I know you’ll like it. You’ll say, “Why haven’t I seen this movie before?” Do yourself a favor and watch it twice, before forming an opinion. If you don’t enjoy yourself, I will want you to tell me why.

      Thank you for taking the “chick” reference with good humor. That’s a measure of your character, and I appreciate it.

      You put it best — Galaxy Quest has “heart.” Thank you.

  2. This really made me think of one of the principles you presented us with during the first week of class: “Prion makes you face yourself.” At the end of the day, we are all people with the capacity to have profound emotions drawn out of us at unexpected times.

    It sounds like you calling out the “good-time sluts” ended up being truly beneficial to those actually interested in the material itself. Those in the group had to gain a sense of security and safety knowing that the others attending were less likely to be judgmental.

    -Christina

  3. In reviewing this week’s discussion question, I kept coming back to this post. This experience is just the type of thing I would want to share with a hardened CO who has a hard time believing that socialization efforts can work. It certainly gives me faith that some prisoners definitely do want to change on their own, without any external incentive!

Comments are closed.