March 24, 2016

Sharing a gratifying review of With The Silent Knowledge

My thanks to Arnold Shapiro for the following review he wrote about my novel, copies of which are available at or at Amazon. (Posted with permission.)

Realism, rich dialogue and memorable characters
make novel about the flaws of incarceration read more like a memoir
My hope in writing this review is that readers will want to buy this book. I enthusiastically recommend it for several reasons.
        Most novelists begin a book because they have a good story to tell and/or they have strong, memorable characters around which to craft a compelling story. Ray Elliott has both, but adds a third important motivation: that many non-violent convicts don’t belong in prison and that sending them into incarceration only weakens their chance upon release of staying straight.
        Elliott could have taken his position and evidence and written an exposé book or persuasive magazine article. Instead, he chose to make his point through fiction and some memorable characters. I think Elliott chose the most effective medium by writing this novel, “With the Silent Knowledge.”
        We follow the main character, Michael Callahan, a young man who is an alcoholic and a forger – each condition making the other possible. We see “Chip” Callahan during his one-year bit inside an Illinois maximum-security prison for the third time, and then after his release. But here’s what’s so remarkable about this novel:
        Callahan’s time in prison, and everything he experiences, thinks and feels, is so realistic that I felt like I was reading an actual, engaging memoir, not a novel. Ray Elliott describes prison life so accurately that everything he wrote feels like it must have really happened to some inmate, somewhere.
        I can verify the realism of Ray Elliott’s story and the crazy journey of Chip Callahan. I spent a great deal of time inside a maximum-security prison in the 1970s (the time period of this novel) when I was researching and then producing, directing and writing the Oscar and Emmy Award-winning television documentary, “Scared Straight,” and more recently, as the executive producer of the A&E documentary series, “Beyond Scared Straight,” which took me inside dozens of prisons and jails. In terms of what prisons are really like, there is little fiction in the descriptions and occurrences in this fictional story.
        Part of the harsh reality and believability of the story is due to the rich use of dialogue – more dialogue than the average novel and – interestingly – more erudite than most people speak.
        Michael Callahan is very intelligent, glib and well spoken. There are many words in the dialogue that elevate the conversations such as “oblisk,” “asymptotically” or  “picayunish.” The dialogue is so colorful and often witty because Callahan is so smart, outspoken and unfiltered: 
        To Callahan: “Did you hear that Otto died?” 
        Callahan: “Whatever did he do that for?”
        The person with whom he has countless dialogue sparring matches is a young counselor at the prison, Jim Blaine. In fact, Callahan’s story is being told to us by Blaine nearly 50 years after it happened in the 1970s. We’re actually reading a story within a story – book-ended by Blaine’s commentary about the failures and flaws of incarceration – especially of non-violent, often addicted offenders who could truly be changed and rehabilitated elsewhere, by other means than confining them to a prison filled with far worse negative, violent offenders.
        Your sympathy for or empathy with Callahan will be based on your attitude about and knowledge of alcoholism. Callahan is certainly charismatic and likable, smart and perceptive. But he’s also self-destructive. Don’t try to anticipate what is going to happen next and what will come out of Callahan’s intelligent but uninhibited and smart-ass mouth. I found myself rooting for him to make parole and then to succeed on the outside. I could not stop reading the last 45 pages to find out what happened to Callahan once he was released from prison.
        Our journey with Callahan during his one-year behind bars is enlightening, shocking, tragic, amusing at times, and always unpredictable. And, throughout the book, there is even some poetry!
        This is a powerful book in terms of its story, its characters, and its underlying message for all of us who live in this society where more people are incarcerated than any other country in the world, and with a recidivism rate that is shamefully and dangerously high.
        I hope you will enjoy and benefit from reading “With the Silent Knowledge” as much as I did. Yes, it’s a novel, but to reiterate: It reads like an engaging memoir.

– Arnold Shapiro
Oscar and 16-time Emmy Award-winning television producer

March 19, 2016

An Audience for Mature Films

Note: Here’s the second column about the Scared Straight program that I wrote five days after the first many years ago, during and after class discussions when the suburban Chicago high school where I was teaching wouldn’t allow or approve me to show it in the documentary unit of my journalism class. Most of the students had seen the documentary. It probably still wouldn’t be allowed in today’s politically correct world when the prison population is exploding, and it looks like there is no end in sight for why people are sentenced and sent away from the community. The Scared Straight program has continued, and After Scared Straight was aired on the History Channel this fall. There are pros and cons of the program. Google “Scared Straight” to see them for yourself. Nothing works for everybody, but it seems worth continuing.

There’s something about today’s high school students that we tend to overlook sometimes. Maybe it’s called maturity. Here’s an example of it, anyway:
     A review of sorts about a controversial documentary called Scared Straight appeared in this space last week. The program from which the film came was designed to scare kids away from prisons. It seems to be succeeding.
     The Los Angeles Times said the film is “one of the most powerful and unusual television programs ever broadcast … the medium at its finest.”
     Gary Deeb, television critic for the Chicago Tribune, reported that the reaction to the program in the Chicago area “has been so heavy and favorable that WFDL-Ch 32 has scheduled the documentary for a repeat on May 20 (1979).”
     Many high school students watched the program, too. According to an informal poll conducted at a suburban Chicago high school for this piece of writing, about one-forth of the students in some upper-division classes watched the documentary, mostly with their parents. This 25 percent figure is close to the 3 percent of the 10 p.m. audience Arbitron said the film had.
     And during class discussions over the next few days, the students continued to be interested in the film. They talked about the changes in the kids’ personalities who appeared in the film from the time they were first interviewed to the time they were last interviewed.
     The students had seen the changes the kids had undergone from the time they got to the prison to the time they left. Everyone noted the changes in the juveniles serving the sentences from the moment they entered the prison gates on to where they heard the catcalls and looked around at the unfamiliar walls.
     Some students were shy talking about the film, but the shine in their eyes and the nods from their heads showed agreement. Others talked excitedly and waved their hands wildly. Their comments and observations kept the discussions going.
     “Did you see when that one convict told them to take all their shoes off and put them in the middle of the floor?” one student asked who rarely spoke in class. “He asked them how it felt to be ripped off.”
     Those who hadn’t seen the film looked from speaker to speaker and asked questions when they had a chance. Some of the questions were ones that had been asked by skeptics of the program.
     “You mean a three-hour sentence in a prison is going to change a bunch of juvenile delinquents? From New York?” a girl in another class asked. She always questioned anything she didn’t believe. “Uh-huh.”
     “Oh, yeah,” one of the girls who had seen the program said. “If you’d seen it, you’d know why a three-hour sentence would do it. Those kids were scared to death. I would have been, too. So would you.”
     Several students mentioned the violence or the threat of violence in the film. They talked about the relationship between Scared Straight and Night and Fog, a French documentary the class had seen contrasting the comforting color of the present with the dreary black and white of the past to portray the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.
     They saw the similarities between the degradation and the hopelessness of the convicts and the Jews in the concentration camps. But they also saw the difference. They saw there was no hope in the concentrations camps, and they saw that a few inmates in the prison were able to find some meaning in their lives by helping some kids avoid prison.
     They also saw how the film showed effective use of the medium of television and that of the documentary format by bringing a very real and worthy program to the tube. They expressed appreciation that the media could be used for so much benefit.
     They wanted to see the film in class. It seemed possible. And when they found out it would probably have to be after school, it didn’t matter to most of them. Some did say they had to work.
     Then when they found out they couldn’t see the film after school, they didn’t know what to say. Oh, they were angry. But they didn’t know what to do.
     One quiet boy in the front row asked why they couldn’t see the film. He had seen it and thought it was a good film, worthy of seeing for more reason than one. He was told that the people who made the decision didn’t think the film was appropriate to show students their age.
     He looked back for a minute before he said, “I wonder when it would be appropriate to show it to us? When it’s too late?”
     “It was on television,” another student said.
     “That’s censorship,” still another said.
     And they said a lot of other things about the film and the situation. But not once did they mention the foul language, except to say they had heard it all before. They saw the language as a part of the whole, not as something offensive or to snicker about.
     Nor did they snicker about the varying sexual preferences of the inmates. They didn’t comment about the race of the convicts, either.
     Oh, two kids who hadn’t been coming to class at all did smile crookedly and giggle to themselves about something from time to time. But they’re coming to class now… That’s something for them.