Rebel Hell!

rebel hell imageIn Rebel Hell: Disabled Vegan Goes to Prison, A Memoir, Jan Smitowicz offers ‘Dear Readers’ a deeply honest, intimate, detailed, first-person portrayal of his two-year prison bit. This is so overarchingly the case, there’s no other way I could have started this ‘review’. I usually don’t get so personal in my book reviews, but Jan’s unchained creativity with literary devices & comic cunning inspires me to explore & expand my writing boundaries. Ya see, much of his philosophies, dreams, and lifeways reminds me of my own ten years back. So as his ‘now voice’ went back to chat with his ‘then voice’, my ‘reader voice’ engaged in a one-way conversation with them both. I’ve never chatted & chortled & cheered with a book this much. Jan’s story, especially the ‘prison plot line’, has a one-of-a-kind specialness to it that stole my heart, and my life for a ‘bit’. I had to clarify which ‘line’ because there are numerous intertwined lines performing a nimble dance. An example, his ‘identity line’: he recaps and reasons a litany of standpoints, writers and past experiences, weaving them through happenings in his forced subculture context. {Here I debated: subculture, culture, subsubculture – finally opting to erase one ‘sub’ considering the enormous number of beings baselessly behind brutalizing bars.} His ‘identity line’ harmonically two-steps with his ‘philosophy line’, enlightening the reader on the analytic grounds justifying the essence of who he chooses to be.

I keep wondering, who is the audience here? It isn’t until after I read the final sentence that I realize – there is no intended audience. The making of this tome was his therapy, his medicine, the crux of his coping while he planned out the book as he lived it, and part of his post-release healing in writing it up. But instead of burying it in a secret spot to protect any vulnerabilities mainstreamers would ploy and pounce upon, Jan’s emotionally strong enough to share it with whomever in hopes that it might ripple into better humans and a better world. This memoir is a sword striking at structures of power affecting him and all. This leads me to ponder his vision, on which the foundation he might be building I rowdily bicker.

Anyone who reads Rebel Hell is no doubt going to bicker with Jan, each on our own preferred topics, which is a great exercise in critical thinking. See Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living. As for my preferred topics, well let me first fess up my lens. I identify as a vegan anarcho-primitivist. Here’s a sampling of how I wrangled with Jan: You’re an anarchist who wants to smash the system and “build” something anew on top of its ashes. Yeah, it’d break too far from your focus, but I long for more on what you want humans to ‘build’? Oh, how I howled to know. For example, do you merely prefer a green lifeway with reduced human population, vegan agriculture, rescuing and loving ‘companion animals’, etc.? Do you believe humans have a rightful dominating place in the world to say, shuffle species (animal, plant, etc.) wherever we prefer, or breed them into what we crave, essentially attaching our affection and/or control at the center of landscaping Earth? Are you anti-agriculture? Is your vision a softer human supremacy (that slows to a gentler creep toward human-caused ecosystem collapse, imo), or a world of wildlife (including humans. human wildlife.) in thriving natural communities and habitats (wild human habitat range limits included)? As early Jensen elucidates on the definition of civilization, the moment a human clan has a lifeway other than self-sustaining, they become an exploiter, a dominator who invades Earth. Are you anti-civ, and how do you define it? Have you explored the depth of your wilderness awareness? Do you have an instinct to rewilding yourself, to manifest your animal self? Forage from plants and mushrooms?

I’m also a restoration ecologist forest steward who sees, deals with and cries over encroachments and impacts of not only humans, but their extensions, dogs and cats, on wild life and wild places. When a dog runs through the forest, do you see the impact of its sound, scent, presence and energy on wild animals and their habitat? Akin to antinatalism, we’re at the point where you’re either pro-pet or pro-wildlife, no squirming out of it. Hard choice for domesticated companion lovers, and hard to sell in a pet-mania culture. On & on my one-way dialogue went with Jan’s written words. No matter your answers to my wild questions, thanks Jan for inspiring me to remember where I came from, to remind me of why I do what I do, and that life fluctuates, be humble, embrace change. I sense Earth calling writers and all to signal a return and giving back to Earth.

The coolest thing about Rebel Hell is the scope of strata via shifts in style. Jan takes you from raw antics in sordid or sexual or asinine prison subsubculture (indeed, subsub), to higher forms of philosophical contemplation. This brings us back to the question of audience. Firstly, this is required reading for anyone involved in the prison-industrial-complex in any way, on every side of the power spectrum, and not just reformists, but abolitionists, and specially prisoners [sic]. Vegans of all stripes, especially those who question or support animal rights activism. People with disabilities, particularly unseen disabilities, will take solace in struggles to cope with operose plights. Anarchists and pre-anarchists (you know who you are – flirting with an identity is fun, but action takes you all the way). Speaking of flirting, all those who are flirting with hazy boundaries of today’s marijuana laws, who too often choose not to look too closely at exactly what you’re risking, heed this lesson from what they did to Jan, at least so you make your choices clearly knowing your risks, to get out while the getting’s good, or to clamp down on vigilance in your protection strategies.

Jan, I’m profoundly moved that you shared your ordeal. How strong-minded and big-hearted to open your life this way. May your good intentions come to fruition, giving humans and all beings a better life. You’re such an avid reader, I’d like to offer you a customized list of entertaining book recommendations: Lee Hall’s On Their Own Terms: Animal Liberation for the 21st Century, Yi-Fu Tuan’s Dominance & Affection: The Making of Pets, Jim Mason’s An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other, John Livingston’s Rogue Primate: An Exploration of Human Domestication, John Zerzan’s Future Primitive, and Douglas W. Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Now I’m adding Rebel Hell to my ‘highly recommend’ book list. Much gratitude for inviting us along on your bodily and cerebral escapade into the depths of hell… I mean civilization’s bureaucratic terrorism. It serves as inspiration to resist, rise & smash!


Novelist Jan Smitowicz was arrested in 2010 after an illegal search and seizure, eventually spending two years in Illinois state prisons. Rebel Hell: Disabled Vegan Goes to Prison is a captivating, profoundly intimate memoir about his descent into the kaleidoscopic “Prison Vortex.” A darkly funny narrative filled with endless bureaucratic absurdity and shocking corruption, like the state’s unbelievable offer to cut Smitowicz’s plea deal nearly in half—if he paid a $25,000 “fine,” encouraging him to literally buy a reduced sentence! Smitowicz maintains a fearless devotion to the unadulterated truth, no matter how brutal or degrading. His pitch-black humor and sociopolitical audacity run roughshod over every scorched target. Ultimately, Rebel Hell coalesces into a disturbing microcosm of contemporary U.S. society—and an unforgettably original story.


The Persistence of Fairy Tales…

Marla Rose: When I was a child, one of my favorite books was a lavishly illustrated collection of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales; the story I liked most of all was The Emperor’s New Clothes and not just because of the image of the pompous central character strutting around in his underwear. The story is about a narcissistic emperor duped by two swindlers posing as weavers who decide to capitalize on his vanity and convince him that they could make him a suit of such exquisite materials that it actually has magical properties: it is such finery that it will be only be visible to those who are worthy of its fine quality. The weavers actually have no cloth but they make a great show for days out of the measuring, cutting, and weaving of this supposedly magnificent material and the emperor sends his officers to check on the progress of the suit they are making. The statesmen, afraid of seeming inferior by admitting that they don’t see anything, each report back to the emperor, gushing about the surpassing grandeur of the suit he has commissioned. Privately, though, they are each deeply troubled, believing that they are the only ones who can’t see or feel a thing as the weavers work on their invisible garment.

When it is time for the emperor to display his magical suit in a procession for the townspeople, the weavers again make a great show of putting the invisible-to-all suit on him, pulling it up his arms and legs, standing back to admire it, while everyone, including the emperor, praises its unparalleled quality, each afraid to admit to themselves and each other that they do not see a thing. When the emperor finally does the procession, the townspeople, all informed of the supposed properties of the suit and afraid of looking stupid or beneath their neighbors, make a great public display of being astonished by its beauty. The charade continues until a child, unaware that everyone else was participating in this unspoken deception, impulsively shouts out the obvious, that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Soon, the townspeople abandon the ruse and the crowd yells that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Even as it dawns upon him that he had been deceived by the weavers, the vain emperor must continue, now humiliated and stripped of self-delusion, parading in front of the villagers in his undergarments while everyone knows that he has been made a fool.

This story appealed to me not only because of the moral about the silliness of vanity and ego but also the concept of clinging to a belief despite all the clear evidence that it is a false one. Like the emperor, when we want to believe a lie about ourselves, we cling to the self-deception even more resolutely, sometimes as if our lives depended on it being true.

For the past 17 years, I have heard otherwise intelligent people tell me fantastical tales with a straight face as a means to justify their omnivorous habits. I have heard time after time that plants feel pain, despite having no central nervous system or this notion having no evolutionary logic. Just a few days ago, someone ventured that mowing a lawn was akin to trimming a dog’s nails. I have heard people who in no other ways emulate indigenous people invoke their “respect for Native Americans” as a way to infuse their meat-eating with an air of quasi-spirituality. (Along those lines, I have heard enough people wax philosophic about the Circle of Life – and their role in the death part of it – to fill the liner notes of every Kansas and Moody Blues album ever pressed.) I’ve heard people claim that they “climbed to the top of the food chain” as if they have fur and blood under their own fingernails. I have heard people insinuate that caring for animals means that you do not care for humans, as if the two cancel each other out, as if we are only allotted a measureable, finite amount of compassion. I’ve had many people express concerns to me about “What would happen to all the animals?” if the world went vegan, as if the process would happen overnight. I have even had someone tell me once that her “totem animal is a tiger and her tiger needs meat.” Yes, she said this with a straight face. Yes, I almost bit through my lower lip to not burst out laughing.

Despite the occasional person with a ravenous, bloodthirsty tiger lurking within, it’s interesting to me how little the excuses have changed over the years. In other words, the same justifications people told me in 1995, they are still repeating. One thing has changed, though. One very damaging narrative has been adopted wholesale by society at large that wasn’t there before. The new conceit is that the animals conscientious people eat are “humanely raised and slaughtered.” [I will cease the quotation marks here and trust that the reader knows that every time I say humane that this is not my view.] The spin is that the images we see of beings suffering in confinement are not telling the whole story: this is just the worst of the worst. That’s not all the animals. There is a verdant, wildflower-filled meadow somewhere out there where the animals gambol and the noble farmer dwells with his family in a farmhouse. This is what all those who are conscientious meat-eaters consume. All of them. It just so happens that despite smaller farms representing a very, very small percentage of the industry – the USDA’s own census shows that more than 99% of animals come from industrial settings – somehow, as if wishful thinking made it true, humanely procured animal products is all that everyone eats. In the house and out of the house. For breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This essay is only tangentially about the great deception of humane animal products. Regardless of where the animals people eat were born, they all face a knife and/or bolt to the brain needlessly in the end and that is all I need to know. They are still exploited from birth to death as if they and their bodies were our birthright. Their babies are still stolen from them for our purposes. It is still enslavement. I don’t want to write about that today, though.

I have written a lot about the exploitation of animals through the lens of compassion but right now the concept of critical thinking is driving me. How is it that we willfully suspend our disbelief when the facts do not line up with something that we want to face despite how glaringly obvious it is? And how did we get to the point where virtually all of society effectively co-signs on this self-deception, holding onto the fabrication more tightly than someone clinging to a log in the Colorado River?

When I ask how the mathematical impossibility of free-range could happen on our limited landmass given consumption habits, I am met with the equivalent of hands over the ears, “La-la-la, I can’t hear you!” antics. When I say that this wouldn’t occur without a drastic, and I mean drastic, reduction in consumption, I get blank stares. When I say that eating any animal products regardless of its label is enormously taxing to our planet and wasteful of resources, eyes glaze over. When I say that if everyone ate the way that the foodie elite does, it’d be disastrous, I get diversionary tactics. When I say that eating animals is unnecessary and it necessarily causes pain and death, far-fetched hypothetical scenarios are repeated to me as if they were accurate representations of reality.

Why have people bought into the lie of humane slaughter so fully that they are willing to sacrifice the integrity of their critical thinking? Because it benefits them to maintain their privileges and to not think that they are jerks in the process.

I don’t think that omnivores are all jerks, I really don’t. That’s silliness. To me, the steadfast clinging to fairy tales tells me something refreshing about the core of humanity – that we want to believe that we are good people because we want to be good people – and it tells me something positive about what we think about eating animals as the status quo. It tells me that people are uncomfortable with the act of eating animals at its root and this kernel holds a lot of hope for me. It also tells me that when animal advocacy organizations spin a narrative of “You can be vegan, you can be an omnivore, or you can pick what’s behind Door #3” and what’s behind that door is the promise of a clear conscience without changing any beloved habits, we are getting into the shameful territory of marching animals to their deaths. The human urge to believe in false narratives when presented with an ugly truth is just too alluring for most to resist. When the rest of society is deeply invested in maintaining the fabrication, critical thinking short-circuits so quickly you can practically hear it happen.

I am a slow study, apparently: I was an omnivore for the first 15 years of my life, a vegetarian for 12 years after that, and, once I couldn’t hide from it anymore, a vegan. Everyone has his or her own process and path and I respect that. Damn, though, I am glad that I didn’t have anyone patting me on the back and spoon-feeding me reassuring stories that would prolong my self-deception when I was transitioning. Now this fairy tale has been inserted into the dialogue and the false notion of a victimless exploitation and killing has been woven over eyes everywhere. Don’t get me wrong: I love fiction. I love it so much I wrote a whole book filled with it. I just don’t like telling fiction that justifies killing others.

Despite being portrayed as society’s dreamers and tree-huggers, pie-in-the-sky idealists and fantasists, those of us who unwaveringly refuse to pretend that using and eating animals is harmless are actually the ones who are facing reality. We are the ones pointing at the products of death and oppression and stating it for what it is. The people who are coming up with far-fetched and illogical excuses are the escapists, valuing their fantasyland more than living honestly. Like the child watching the emperor in the parade, we are pointing out the obvious because we are no longer part of the mass deception.

Just because we wish something were so does not make it so. Killing an innocent unnecessarily is always wrong. We shouldn’t be weaving fairy tales about life-or-death matters and we most certainly shouldn’t be believing them.