Solitary Confinement Is Torture

May 14, 2015

I met Ernest Shepard III at a demonstration calling for an end to solitary confinement in California prisons. He was carrying a sign from NRCAT, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

web size Ernest Shepard III

We started talking and I learned he’d spent more than 45 years inside California prisons, including three years on Death Row (where, incidentally, he was interviewed by Truman Capote who gave him a carton of cigarettes and a case of Coca-Cola).

We met a few more times so I could hear his story because as many of you know, I’ve been posting stories of torture survivors from around the world at the Second Chances LA website. But torture doesn’t happen only “over there”. And when Americans torture, it’s not just at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. I couldn’t continue with the website without including a look inside US prisons.

Ernest Shepard III now works for the Fair Chance Project, a movement led by liberated lifers (formerly incarcerated men and women), prisoners and loved ones organized around the demand for just sentencing laws and fair parole practices. Additionally, the group integrates formerly incarcerated men and women back into society enabling them to “give back and to help build strong, self-sustaining communities.”

You can find his narrative at the Second Chances LA website or go directly to his page here.

fair Chance project

LitReactor review of Confessions of a Carnivore

April 27, 2015

Bookshots: ‘Confessions of a Carnivore’ by Diane Lefer



Bookshots: ‘Confessions of a Carnivore’ by Diane Lefer

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review

Title: Confessions of a Carnivore

Who wrote it?

Diane Lefer, a playwright, activist and author of ‘Nobody Wakes Up Pretty’ and ‘California Transit’ (awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize, Sarabande Books, 2007).

Plot in a Box:

In the lead up to the second Iraq war, retired high school teacher Rae, now a volunteer at the LA Zoo, spends hours observing baboons, chimpanzees, gibbons and various other primates, but spends her free time driving around with her best friend Jennie, drinking margaritas from a flask. Feeling she’s closest to her cat, Molly, Rae drifts, not feeling anything. After a near miss on the freeway, she and Jennie join a theatrical activist group protesting the treatment of animals. In the paranoia of the period after 9/11, a pregnant Jennie disappears, presumably taken by the authorities for possible terrorist activity. Meanwhile the only person who can possibly clear Jennie has become involved in a religious cult fixated on clean colons.

The only person who can clear her friend has become involved in a religious cult fixated on clean colons.

Invent a new title for this book: I would call it: The Mating Rituals of Drill Baboons Humans [Fetzer has a strikethrough over Drill Baboons. I couldn’t make that come out in this post]

Read this if you liked:

I had trouble deciding on one book. It’s sort of The World According to Garp crossed with Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus.

Meet the book’s lead: Rae is a 50 year old retired teacher with suppressed feelings toward anything but her cat. Like many at a mid-life point, she seems to be drifting, falling into situations and wondering how she got there — and always looking for some focus, be it a lover, purpose, or job. Her ex-husband’s an alcoholic and in jail, her best friend has disappeared and she’s not sure how to find her again.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by: Kristen Wiig

Setting: would you want to live there? LA in the heat and smog — not my idea of a good time.

What was your favorite sentence? I was arrested once, in 1968. I waited for Des the first time he went to jail. But now? Getting busted was, to use Devon’s turn of phrase, so over.

The Verdict: To start with, I wasn’t sure how this was going to pan out: the narrative feels like a series of snapshots and reminiscences told in no particular order and was confusing at first. That said, I soon had a handle on the characters and there is a thread tying the various vignettes together, mainly through the person of Rae, a retired teacher now observing the sexual behavior of primates at the zoo.

It soon becomes apparent after she joins Gorilla Theater with her best friend Jennie that the observations of primate sex parallels the relationships of the humans she comes into contact with. Through the theater group, she and Jennie meet new people and Rae meets the father of Devon from the group; David works at a lab with primates, but not observing, doing experiments on them to better understand how they relate to us. Between protest performances, marches, visits to a cult called the “Neo-proctologists” and a local Native American reservation, the book covers a lot of ground, both physically and metaphorically, and spends a lot of time talking about George W. Bush and the actions of the US — and within the US — in the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers.

This book walks a fine line between preaching/informing the reader about how scary things are in the US for average citizens and telling a story; but it must have worked for me, as I wanted to know what happens at the end. The adventures of Rae and the descriptions of how the various primates behave made for a compelling read and I will be looking for her back catalog.

Animal Rites, an essay review from Talented Reader

April 23, 2015

Wow! George Ovitt of my favorite litblog, Talented Reader, reviews Confessions of a Carnivore along with The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim al-Koni. Really an essay review in which he has a lot to stay about animal consciousness and our relations with animals–while citing Kant, Hume, Montesquieu and more. The New York Review of Books should hire him. Now.

The blog usually covers literature in translation that I wouldn’t know about at all if not for Ovitt and fellow blogger Peter Adam Nash. So click and read about my book, and then subscribe if you care about literature.

If you’re as tired of looking at my cover as I am, here, instead, is a photo of Ibrahim al-Koni.


First review of Confessions of a Carnivore

April 20, 2015

When you admire someone’s fiction and his politics, it can be nerve-wracking to know he’s going to review your novel. So I can only breathe a sigh of grateful relief and say thank you to JJ Amaworo Wilson.

Confessions of a Carnivore – by Diane Lefer

Posted on April 16, 2015 by JJ Wilson


Wow. Diane Lefer’s new novel is one wild ride. With all the animals involved, I mean that literally. She somehow mixes activism, alcoholism, protest theater, cat-love, animal observation in L.A. Zoo, and race politics in one story and comes out the other end smelling of roses.

This novel is about all of those things and about none of them. It’s all about the voice. The narrator talks directly to us and it soon becomes clear she’s not all there. She’s half-dead with grief, reeling from the fallout of a failed marriage to an alcoholic and now unable to love anything or anyone beyond her cat. She gets mixed up in a protest theater group (based on Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed) and then involved in a series of increasingly bizarre incidents.

The novel is by turns hilarious and tragic. A lobotomized woman lives, barely, among hundreds of cats; the theater group lurches from daft stunt to even dafter stunt; and the ‘baddie’, it turns out, is just a naive fool on the wrong side of the political tracks.

To try to summarize the plot would be a fool’s errand, but I found this book terrifically entertaining in an absurd, where’s-she-going-to-take-us-next? kind of way. And just when we’re waiting for the next laugh, the novel surprises us by becoming something altogether more moving.

As a follow-up to the shimmering, award-winning California Transit, Confessions of a Carnivore doesn’t disappoint. It’s full of wild ideas and crazy conceits, and still manages to warm the heart.

* * *

More info and to order.

Survivors of Torture, Rebuilding Lives in Los Angeles

February 28, 2015

It’s been an overwhelming experience to be working again with Hector Aristizábal and Julian Scharmacher, collecting oral histories from survivors and from their families.

We’ve been very interested not only in the experiences of the asylum-seekers themselves but also in what happens to the second generation, the people who are also affected by exile and trauma but who are too often overlooked.

We’ve met some extraordinary people but fears for safety–their own and their families’–has meant that many of these stories can’t be told.

A small brave group will open up onstage on March 23 and 24, and I am just beginning to post the narratives that have been approved.

You can find information about the free performances and read survivor stories as they go up at our website.

Mad Street Scene by Jose Ramirez

Mad Street Scene by Jose Ramirez

March 23, 2015 at Mercado La Paloma, Community Room, 3655 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90007 at 6:30 PM

Facility is ADA-complaint; Food available for purchase; Parking is free in the evening in the Mercado’s lot, on the street, and around the corner at DMV lot on Hope between W. 37th and Exposition.

March 24, 2015 at Cafe Club Fais Do-Do, 5257 West Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90016

Reception and Cash Bar at 6:30; Performance at 7:00 PM

Restrooms at this venue up a flight of stairs. Street parking.

More to come over the next year so please keep checking in.

We are grateful to all the participants, to the Program for Torture Victims for their help. For the support that makes this project possible, our gratitude to the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and to CalHumanities, a partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


December 28, 2014

The Millions March LA this afternoon was everything I’ve been hoping to see for a long time and I almost didn’t go. Certainly I wanted to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, with the call for justice and an end to violence, but I hesitate when I don’t know who’s involved. On the invitation I didn’t see any of the usual names or any of the usual progressive organizations. That turned out to be perhaps the best part of the day.

How many more

After decades of protests starting in the Sixties, I have to say I’ve become sick and tired of showing up. (Except for the extraordinary outpouring in 2006 when half a million people marched peacefully for immigrant rights in downtown Los Angeles.) Usually? It’s the same (old) faces, the interminable speeches, the long adulatory introductions as though no one would actually bother to work for social justice without incessant ego-strokes, the tired and predictable rhetoric, the rival organizations with their varied but usual agendas.

Considering how I feel, I wonder what made me attend the pre-march conversation. I am still exhilarated. What I found at noon in the amphitheater at Pan Pacific Park was an entirely youth-led movement. “A social movement led by the young, guided by elders,” said one speaker. Of the 500 or so people assembled, the vast majority were under the age of 35. A significant number had never before been part of a protest.

I can't Breathe

There were to be no outside organizations leafletting or selling materials. The message was not to be muddied or diluted. Instead of rhetoric, political speech came in the form of spoken word and poetry, including a poem by a nine-year-old girl, with the repeated line We want equality. She got a standing ovation.

We practiced chants and were reminded all chants should be peaceful. If we were to hear anyone being aggressive, we should gently encourage them to chant one of our chants instead.

The organizers had the proper permits and had communicated the peaceful nature of the protest march to the LAPD. A small number of police officers on bicycle rode alongside the march. There was no sign of riot gear, not a hint of aggressive attitude.

I can’t say more without saluting those police officers who do their best to serve with fairness, honor, and compassion within a flawed criminal justice system they did not create. My belief is that change would benefit them as well as the community they serve. I’ve known some great cops and this is entirely sincere that I grieve with the NYPD and all who are horrified by the premeditated and coldblooded killing of Officers Ramos and Wenjian Liu by a deranged individual. I can only hope that the experience of grief, shared in common, will bring people together rather than cause more polarization. I believe we can’t find a way forward–an end to violence–alone.

At the park, we heard the day had three goals:

1. Raise awareness and issue a call to action so that here in LA we can join in solidarity with the Movement across the nation. The march was only Phase One. Organizing for effective action comes next.

2. Bring unity among people who’ve already been involved with people just getting involved in seeking change.

3. Promote healing, peace, and love in order to process pain and anger and turn it into effective action.

By the time the march began, the crowd had doubled in size and more people kept joining along the route.

leaving the park

How did the organizers do it? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. There was some outreach. A woman I walked with for a while was visiting LA from North Carolina and heard about the march that morning when she went to church. The word primarily reached the youthful Black community, but throughout the crowd were signs of solidarity.

ASian americansMuslims in solidarityChicanao solidarity

So often, marches in LA on weekends take place in neighborhoods where everything is shut down and there’s no one to see the action. For a change, we had a route that passed through a park, past outdoor cafes and museums. How did the organizers get to be so smart? They did say their names, but I never quite got any of them. I am in awe of this Movement which is about justice, not personalities. WE, not I.

There was a moment when we stopped short. High above the street, a billboard for Selma.


Hands up! Don’t shoot! we chanted.

Don't shoot

I did feel some regret that the written page with chants showed NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE transitioning to KNOW JUSTICE, KNOW PEACE. Of course said aloud, the message I wholeheartedly endorse is lost.

I used to imagine people marching in silence. Something very different from the usual bullhorns and shouting. Yes, we want to raise our voices and be heard. But I always thought if you could get a mob of people to stay silent, that would be an extraordinary show of discipline and power. That would send a message of serious, unwavering intent. I never thought I’d see it.

During the march, we stopped and observed 4-1/2 minutes of silence to mark the 4-1/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. At the end of the almost 3-hour march, we stood together, no chants, no shouts, no drums, no bullhorns, no words. We stood together sharing a powerful silence.

The Black youth of America have started something and with or without allies they will see it through.

rest in power

A Family at Christmas!

December 15, 2014

I am so happy! The website I created after the workshop I facilitated for men in transitional housing included their work, their names, their photos. Today I heard from the daughter of one of the men who’d made the deepest impression on me. She had been searching for her father for decades. They are now in touch, stunned, thrilled. I’d say that’s some of the best work I’ve ever done.

Children with Incarcerated Parents: Just Collateral Damage?

December 6, 2014

On Tuesday I attended a remarkable summit meeting in Long Beach: Children with Incarcerated Parents: Trauma, Toxic Stress & Protection. This article just published in LA Progressive offers only a taste of the powerful presentations and discussions.

Feasting or Fasting?

November 27, 2014

I don’t like this holiday but later today I will of course go up the hill for dinner with family.

What are we celebrating? Indians fed us. Then we killed them.

Instead of stuffing ourselves we should be fasting.

The last Thursday of November should be a national day of atonement.

Chant Down the Walls!

November 20, 2014

On Monday, as the sky darkened over LA, I stood across the street from the Metropolitan Detention Center with my friends Tania and Valeska Cañas, a couple dozen musicians, and a couple dozen more activists and supporters and media and decent human beings there to serenade with solidarity the immigrants detained inside the building and facing deportation.

Image by NDLON

Image by NDLON

It’s a weekly event — CHANT DOWN THE WALLS — through which NDLON, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Latino musicians in LA County show up on Monday evenings with music and dance and solidarity. An angry or earnest protest can make a point, but the men locked up inside the building at Alameda and Aliso know very little joy. And so, NDLON brings music, like the brass and woodwinds of Banda la Arrazadora and the norteño sound of Dueto las Voces del Rancho.

Voces del Rancho backed by Banda la Arrazadora; photo by Valeska Cañas

Voces del Rancho backed by Banda la Arrazadora; photo by Valeska Cañas

From the narrow slits that serve as windows, the detained men wave and signal down to the street with flashlights.

It felt right to be there with Tania and Valeska. They were born in El Salvador. As children, during their country’s civil war, they along with their parents were granted refugee status and resettled in Australia. Today, Tania, theater artist and Ph.D. candidate, also works for RISE, the first refugee and asylum seeker organization in Australia to be run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees themselves. That means viewing “those who seek assistance as members and participants, not ‘clients’.” They proclaim: Nothing about us without us. How perfect to see the same slogan on posters outside the LA detention facility along with the words NUESTRA LUCHA/NUESTRA VOZ. (OUR STRUGGLE/OUR VOICE)

Tania and me; photo by Valeska Cañas

Tania and me; photo by Valeska Cañas

and how perfect that we listened and danced to the sound of Los Jornaleros del Norte, musicians who do indeed work as day laborers.

It isn’t Monday tonight, but NDLON will be back at the Metropolitan Detention Center to watch the President’s speech and chant down the walls once more.

For years under Clinton, eight dark years under Bush, and six unforgivable Obama years I’ve watched millions of decent people deported from this country, families torn apart, US-citizen children traumatized and thrown into poverty. President Obama has talked and talked about taking executive action to bring about a more humane immigration policy in the face of Republican refusal to move on legislation. But as he talked, he had more people arrested, detained, abused–I have been inside detention centers and “abuse” is no exaggeration–and then deported than any other president. Did he really believe this tough-guy act would inspire Republicans to cooperate with him? He had to know better. This rampage through our communities accomplished nothing but the cruel destruction of so many lives.

Giving temporary status to at least some of the so-called DREAMers who were brought here as children was one small step. (The requirements were complicated enough to exclude many young people, as was the pricetag on processing the papers.)

Now as we wait to hear if President Obama is finally going to allow more hardworking, contributing members of our society to come out from the shadows, I have to repeat in translation and in paraphrase the words of NDLON Director Pablo Alvarado:

President Obama is about to announce an executive action on immigration. We want him to use his authority under the Constitution and under the law to bring about a fair policy. So far, it’s all rumors and we don’t know who will be included and who will be excluded by what he decides. But even as we celebrate for those who will be included, let us commit ourselves to the others, that we will continue using our voices and our influence until all the hardworking immigrants have rights.


So, the President’s speech:

Some immigrant activists are happy but I’m not impressed. So, enforcement will prioritize deporting “felons, not families”–which is what he’s been saying for years even while ordinary law-abiding parents continued to be detained and deported–except when activists rushed to support people in specific cases. Undocumented immigrants who’ve lived here at least five years and have children who are either US citizens or legal residents can register with the government, pay fines and taxes, and be temporarily protected from deportation. (Of course, undocumented people have been paying taxes all along.) Childless people who’ve contributed to this country get no relief. LGBT immigrants will rarely be able to benefit. Even the parents of DREAMers won’t be eligible under this program, if it ever gets off the ground. And what happens with a new administration? People will have identified themselves to a government that may well turn hostile. In the meantime, though, they can get work permits which, among other things, means less exploitation. This really isn’t much of a gift to the immigrant community, but that isn’t stopping the violent, almost obscene response from some Republican mouthpieces. (check out angry loudmouth Jonathan Wilcox, who used to write speeches for anti-immigrant former CA governor Pete Wilson)

And more money — lots more money– for border patrol and security….Don’t we have more important matters to address with our limited resources?

The struggle continues.


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