A Review of James and Jonathan Humphries’s Windham’s Rembrandt
By Ira Kelson Hatfield
Several years ago, I found myself working weekends as a tech in a local drug rehab center in the Midwest. I was nineteen years old and fresh out of a three-year stint working food service. As far as experience… well, I got in on account of my father knowing one of the therapists. I remember that first day of work, sitting in the cafeteria for about twenty minutes and filling out the necessary paperwork that would make me an actual employee. After that, I was tossed unceremoniously out on the floor, amongst the patients, with little more than a good luck.
Over the next year or so, I became privy to a world whose existence had previously eluded me, and, as far as I can tell, still eludes the vast majority of that part of our society known as supposedly normal. There was a language there amongst the patients. In fact, it went beyond a language. It was a culture—unique and held together by the knowledge that addiction has a set of claws. Claws that did little to differentiate between class, age, or race.
For those fortunate enough not to find themselves working in such a facility, Windham’s Rembrandt, a memoir shadow written by Johnathan Humphries about his father, offers a doorway into the heart of this secret subculture. The book starts out much the same way as my experience, with James Humphries being dropped into the Texas penal system as an art instructor with next to no direction.
Humphries describes his first penitentiary stint as “a bit medieval,” commenting on the experience of putting his identification in a bucket at the front gate to be hoisted up to the guard tower for verification. He details his environment in the sharp detail of an artist, drawing the reader into the steel and wooden world he inhabited. The world he enters is one of distrust and false calm, and we see his artist’s eyes expressly in his description of the first class he teaches at his second institution of employment, referred to ominously as only the Psychiatric Treatment Center: “Steel cables and wheel bearings sang in a hissing exhalation, which ended in the heavy metallic downbeat of numerous doors closing in concert.”
At the Center, Humphries sees boys who grew up down the street from him mixed in with the kind of hard and ruthless looking men he had perhaps more stereotypically expected to see in such a place. He learns to discard his definition of a convict. He discovers an entirely new culture with its own set of norms and rules. It’s a harsh culture, one built upon aggression, fear, and ignorance. In the midst of this primal subculture, he is given a key piece of advice from another teacher named Mary Oliphant, “Never turn your back on your students,” she warns. “What they can get into, they will get into… and then some!Oh, and always be prepared to give positive advice whenever asked.” These words frame the way Humphries approaches his students throughout the remainder of the book.
From the beginning, Humphries lets the reader in on his insecurities, asking himself if he will even be taken seriously. Often times he is not. He points out that while they make no trouble, many of his students only come to class in an effort to get out of working outside. This lack of respect is mirrored in the practical jokes he must deal with. A swastika-laden Mickey Mouse is painted during a busy class and hung in the hall to incite violence. A papier-mâché .38 pistol is stuck in the face of a visiting Texas education agent. A tarantula is snuck into the room and dangled over Humphries’s face. As he draws the reader into the complexities of his world, Humphries details his frustration, and, more importantly, the lessons he learns in dealing effectively with an otherwise ignored subset of society.
From his pioneering experiences at the Ferguson Unit with a population of mostly first-time offenders all the way through his harrowing time at the Psychiatric Treatment Center, Humphries reveals to us increasingly dangerous encounters until the story’s pinnacle, during which he meets a convict named Albert—a mute giant imprisoned for cutting a woman into small pieces, piling up those pieces, and covering them with sugar and flour. Humphries dictates these surreal experiences with the straightforward and brusque diction reflective of his years of military service. During his first interactions with inmates, Humphries describes the similarity in prison staring contests to the unwritten marine code he was accustomed to, “Men are always sizing one another, and when a man cannot look you in the eye he is either hiding something, not talking you seriously or is just plain blind.”
The skepticism with which Humphries is repeatedly confronted reminds me of the first time I met an art therapist. For the first several months of her employment, I too was skeptical. One afternoon I observed a patient as he attempted to draw a picture of a wolf—a representation of his addiction—his whole body shaking from alcohol withdrawal. In my mind, this had no real purpose. Later, I saw one such man pin up the picture he had drawn to represent his own addiction and, with each complement, he began to gain the confidence he so desperately needed to keep going. It was at this point I finally realized my own lack of awareness about the healing benefits of art therapy and started to give credence to the field as a whole. In much the same way, a great deal of respect from his colleagues is gained when, with continued patience and perseverance, Humphries manages to coax two words from Albert—the first words anyone at the facility has ever heard him utter.
When Humphries is questioned by a staff member as to why he’s willing to speak so freely to a former contract killer with a history of violence, Humphries replies, “Well, he feels comfortable in my class. So if a student wants to express themselves to feel better, why not?” Humphries remembers the experience, writing, “Something about what the E&R [Education and Recreation] man said didn’t sit well with me. I knew the men in prison had all done some sort of wrong, but there is more to a man’s nature than his actions.” This sentence is perhaps the best indicator of Humphries’s outlook as he wades through a prison system brimming with unique, complicated stories, each connecting somehow to the others only to, in the end, reveal a greater overarching message of humanization.
A champion for the voiceless prison population of the 1970s, this memoir creates as close an image as can likely be had of Humphries’s time in the Windham prison system. Perhaps the most powerful element of this book, however, is the peculiar mix of empathy and militant seriousness concerning the prison system and those locked away inside of it. The authors successfully create real people in a real place—complex prisoners who are rendered neither as misunderstood victims nor as irredeemable villains. Each man is his own self, a new story with its own title. The way Humphries draws these characters echoes back to the advice he was given from his colleague early in the book: He does not trust the men he works with, but he encourages them every chance he gets.
James and Jonathan Humphries, Windham’s Rembrandt. CreateSpace, 2012: $14.99 (print)/$8.99 (digital).
Ira Kelson Hatfield is a creative writing major at the University of Southern Indiana. His poetry appears in the Apeiron Review, and he is an avid collector of hobbies.