Ryan Gattis - The healing power of reading

Ryan Gattis interviewed many formerly incarcerated people while researching his novel The System. What struck him was the power of reading to help people turn their lives around. Here he tells us more. 

The System starts with a drug dealer being shot in downtown LA in the early 90s. Two local gang members are charged for the crime – one guilty, one innocent. What follows is a gripping journey through the American justice system. For his research, Ryan Gattis carried out many interviews with former gang members who had been incarcerated. He found that far from just being a way to pass the time while behind bars, reading allowed them a window onto other worlds which enabled them to realize that other choices awaited. Not only that, but reading helps us to feel less alone, which is something we can all take comfort in. Here, Ryan shares what he learnt from his research.  

The one thing I find most successful former gang members have in common is that they started reading seriously while behind bars.

(By successful, of course, I mean folks who were able to stay out of the life that led them to jail or prison once their debts were paid. They have families and jobs now. They have moved on.)

I counter with empathy – I tell whomever I’m speaking to that I never read deeply and seriously until after I’d had my nose torn out at seventeen, which required two facial reconstructive surgeries and a little over a year to fully recover.

We go back and forth after that. The books that most affected us from those twin periods of isolation in our lives. We connect. I’ve heard everything from The Man in the Iron Mask to Sidney Sheldon’s oeuvre, from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to Roald Dahl’s The Witches and James and the Giant Peach.

(And as for the events of the past year, I think a lot more people can understand the comforting necessity of books during isolation.)

I’ve often wondered, though: why is reading a common thread for folks in this situation?

For one, they had time, and they needed to fill it. However, they also wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, else. And along the way, while witnessing the lives of other humans (even fictive ones), we cannot help but experience their journeys intimately, and consider what we may have done in similar circumstances.

It is this imaginative wondering, I think, this weighing of choice and decision, that leads to growth.

Or, at the very least, leads us to the realization that other lives, other choices await – if we’re brave enough to make them, and are willing to risk the consequences.

And this can be a very powerful realization indeed.

One described reading as his ‘time machine.’ Another? A ‘magic carpet’ that took her to new places and carried her forward long after she finished. Both stuck with me.

In deciding whether or not to write this piece, I was asked: does reading help distance people from past traumatic events?

I wanted the answer to be yes. I dearly did. 

However, I’m afraid it depends on the person, and in my case, it actually did the opposite.

It did not distance me. It brought me closer to others by giving me a wider understanding of human experience. Reading allowed me to have perspective, rather than be trapped in the pain, close-up, unable to see backwards or forwards.

The reason why reading can do this – or, at least, it did for me –  is it carries within itself a breadth of human context (new places, new lives, new eras in history), from which to draw that most immutable and important of life lessons: that bad things do not solely happen to me.

It was a Trojan horse of sorts. I thought I’d been given an entertaining gift to pass the time when I could do nothing else, but something else was at work while I progressed through the pages, and perhaps it confirmed what I already knew, but needed driving home once more: the knowledge that we are not alone in our suffering.

Above all, that is what reading gave to me, and I believe it did the same for the former gang members I spoke to, and still does. 

Because if I’ve learned anything from sitting down and conducting research and background interviews with a dozen formerly incarcerated people in order to gain some insight for The System, it’s that few things are as valuable to one’s health and sanity as feeling less alone, especially when one is confined.

And reading allows us outside of ourselves –  outside of our own pain and recuperative circumstances –  to realize not only do bad things happen everywhere, often, but that the only thing that truly defines our character is how we bounce back from them.

And so it is these windows that reading provides into other times, places, experiences, and even into our more empathetic selves, that makes it such a transformative and connective experience. Reading makes us feel less alone in our pain because we know others are hurting too, and when we feel less alone –  maybe, just maybe – we feel less broken. And when we feel less broken, we can move forward, into new lives.

The System

by Ryan Gattis

Book cover for The System

This intelligent, pacy crime novel is a journey through the American criminal justice system – from the moment before the crime is committed to the aftershocks of the courtroom verdict. When a drug dealer is shot in early ‘90s LA, two local gang members are arrested. One is innocent and one guilty, but the gang tells them both to take the charges. With two of the gang off the streets, newest member Little is given the serious job of discovering if this was a frame-up.

Photo credit: ©Sam Tenney