“Prisons are hard places to get into and harder to get out of,” writes Robert Ellis Gordon as he takes you on a remarkable eight-year journey into the Washington State corrections system.
As a writing teacher, Gordon had the unique experience of gaining access to the darkest realms of Washington prisons while remaining free to walk away from penitentiary confines at the end of the day. His account is aided by essays and stories contributed by six extraordinary prison students—works that give this book an unforgettable edge. Together, Gordon and his students provide revealing glimpses of this vast secret-laden subculture of incarcerated individuals, which nationwide comprises more than two million U.S. citizens.
Here is a gallery of portraits of prison life, from the female guard who tantalizes male inmates with her sexuality to the terrified young fish trying to stave off other prisoners. These stories are jarring, harsh, compelling. The Funhouse Mirror, which combines extraordinary story material with fine writing, provides us with an inside look at the prison system we often ignore, yet only at society’s peril. This uncommon book is a significant addition to the literature on American penitentiaries. It is destined to help alter the terms of the debate about one of the great national problems of our time.
132 pages (2000)
2001 Washington State Book Award
Spring 2007 Washington Reads Selection, Washington State Library
“A surprising—and frequently searing—examination of the prison experience, seen from both inside and out…He culls a variety of memorable pieces in distinctive voices from the current and former prisoners he’s taught. Their writing surges with edgy awareness and hard-won insights…Gordon’s audaciousness in regarding the condemned as creative citizens is memorable and gripping.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A powerful account of what it was like to be a teacher behind bars… [and] an unvarnished examination of a prison culture.”—Boston Globe
“[Gordon’s] passionate observations and his students’ uncanny stories provide a powerful statement about the horrors of life behind bars.”—Publishers Weekly
“A fascinating, gritty look inside the walls, with powerful essays by some of the inmates plus his own frank reflections.”—Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“In this memoir about teaching writing in prisons, we get a strong whiff of the fear, degradations, and violence that characterize daily life inside these institutions. What sneaks up on us is the character of Robert Gordon. The author’s sustained act of charity, his years’ long act of hope, is as striking as the honesty and bravery behind his report.”—Barry Lopez, National Book Award Winner
“Reviewing books is a peach of a job, with really only one drawback—after hundreds of books, year in and year out, it takes a lot to knock my socks off any more. Robert Ellis Gordon has done it, however, with his new book The Funhouse Mirror. This slender offering is so singular, so passionate, so important and true, that even though the topic is not one to be relished, the book deserves—no, it demands—to be read by a broad audience…This book ought to deepen and dignify the discussion about the function of prisons in our criminal justice system.”—The Bookmonger, Barbara Lloyd McMichael, for The Olympian
“I would give this book two thumbs up, and if I had thumbs on my feet, it would be four thumbs up. It’s a well done and much needed book.”—Richard Shelton, author of Going Back to Bisbee