Tales From the New Asylum: Machiavelli Part 1


He had returned to a familiar place, and his peers welcomed him back. The word "recidivist" comes from the French word "recidiver," meaning to "fall back." This was not the first time he had fallen back. He would surely tell you that his return was not by choice, but sometimes such things are hard to determine.

. . . whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to united them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince1

He had returned to a familiar place, and his peers welcomed him back. The word "recidivist" comes from the French word "recidiver," meaning to "fall back." This was not the first time he had fallen back. He would surely tell you that his return was not by choice, but sometimes such things are hard to determine.

Having fallen back one too many times, he knew that this time his stay would be a long one. Society determined that he had earned his just dessert, yet this did not make his new 25-year sentence more palatable. He presented as not only depressed, but also significantly more irritable and intense than his previous stays.

I first saw him striding across the courtyard as though he had an appointment with the monarchy. A copy of The Prince was clutched in his left hand, and the muscles of his left forearm stood out in bold relief. Thus, I shall respectfully refer to him as the Prince. From then on, I rarely saw him without this treatise in his hands. He studied its contents as though it contained an important code of conduct-perhaps some wisdom that would prevent him from falling back again. . . .

Years in prison had imprinted their seal upon the Prince. Rough grayish-black lines covered his arms and most of his torso. Adornments that were the opposite of the soft, colorful works of art worn by the young men in free society. The Prince's ink was not a work of art. It was purely a message. Straight from his inner self. His ink broadcast the following communications:

I've lived a hard life-and it has toughened me
I have less fear than most-show some respect
I may be callous-do you want to take that chance?

The lines of the Prince's ink weren't neat and symmetrical-the hand that created them likely did so in secrecy and under an unpredictable time constraint. The artist had probably used parts of an old walkman to fashion a crude tattoo gun while another inmate stood lookout for patrolling correctional officers (COs).

The Prince carried with him such a burden of anger that when it was not causing others to feel fearful, it was causing him great inner turmoil. He came to the treatment team meeting and sat across the conference table from me, two COs slightly behind and on either side of his large shoulders. His countenance was solemn, imposing and with a slight suggestion that he suspected I was there to irritate him. As he looked straight into my eyes, I felt a rush of projections and defenses streaming towards me, and had the brief thought that no matter what I said, the Prince would most likely be irritated.

. . . when every one may tell you the truth, respect for you abates. . . . because men will always prove untrue to you unless they are kept honest by constraint.1

At such times, it may be best to simply forge ahead, realizing that the outcome will not be to one's advantage. It is said that the "banzai" battle cry was a gesture of courage to follow through, as well as wishing for something or someone to persevere.2 Here, my goal was to summon courage for both myself and the Prince. I had to persevere in my attempt to help him. He, in his attempt to navigate out of his depression, self-defeating behavior, and persecutory mindset. My optimism was tempered with realism. However, my own willingness to take a chance had been imprinted upon me, as the Prince's ink upon him.

I began listening to him with genuine sincerity-most Princes can immediately detect when this is not the case, and all respect may be lost. He spoke of his anger, his disdain for "the system," and how he should have been given another chance in free society. Why? I didn't need to ask this question, as the answer was quickly supplied for me: He was no "child molester," or murderer. He had been engaged in a business-one that, to him, seemed to be a service to his fief.

Supplying recreational drugs to those in need did not seem like true wrongdoing to the Prince. After all, the Prince had determined that his subjects required these diversions from their oppressive life problems. The Prince made clear that his designs on building an empire were firmly intact. He would pursue his conquest in or outside of prison. But this time, he would be far more shrewd and skillful, having learned from his mistakes.

I saw my opening and said a silent, internal banzai. I told the Prince that I noticed he had been reading The Prince. I asked him about his interest in it, and what it had taught him. He saw this for the ignoble therapeutic effort that it was, and gave me a terse, unengaged answer. I persisted: "So . . . what do you think? Is it better to be loved than feared, or feared than loved?"

I had hoped that this would point us towards the core. Or at least a verbal sparring match. Neither was the case. The look on the Prince's face suggested annoyed disdain. I had most certainly hit an off key note. It wasn't the first time, and it wouldn't be the last. The Prince bestowed upon me a reprimanding lecture about how the uninformed, mafia movie watching masses fixate on this passage while losing its true meaning, as well as the other truths contained within the book.

I sensed clearly that to press forward on this topic would bring us to naught. I returned to plain, simple, pure sincerity. I related to the Prince my concerns about the self-defeating behavior pattern he had demonstrated. I told him I believed it was painful to walk around with so much anger. I let him know that there was a potential way out. This time, he seemed to listen to me, but revealed nothing about his own thoughts or feelings. Fair enough, I thought to myself-at least I had made the attempt to be an emissary of mental health to the Prince.


1. Machiavelli N. The Prince. Skinner Q, Price R, eds. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. 1988. Also online at: http://www.constitution.org/mac/prince00.htm. Accessed October 12, 2010.
2. Toland J. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945. New York: Random House; 1970: 513.

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