By Tanya Glover
This paper will discuss the character of Brooks Hatlen in the movie Shawshank Redemption. Suicide is the main focus and the writer touches upon the reason for Brooks’s suicide using Durkheim’s model as a guide. Culture is taken into consideration as well as the time the movie was set in. There is also discussion dealing with the institutionalism of inmates and the effects that has on the inmate and society as a whole.
Suicide and Personal Values
The topic of suicide is one that can stir great pain, anger, and controversy. People have various beliefs and values dealing with suicide and these can define who a person is in context to their view on suicide. Many movies have included an important character who commits suicide. This paper will discuss the suicide of Brooks Hatlen in the movie The Shawshank Redemption from a personal view in lieu of a counselors view. This suicide will be examined based on Durkheim's model of Suicide and the writer’s basic assumptions and values will play a role in that examination. The cultural issues surrounding Brooks’s suicide will be explored as well.
Who Was Brooks Hatlen?
Brooks Hatlen was a character in the Shawshank Redemption who was an inmate at Shawshank. He had been in prison for the past 50 years and by the time he is introduced to the main character, Andy Dufrane he was a gentle, quite, elderly man who enjoyed feeding his bird and tended the prison library. Brooks was an example hardcore intuitionalism. In a way, this is what this movie is truly about. “The film explores the effects of long-term incarceration on the prisoners by discussing what it
calls "institutionalization". It shows us how the prison experience can grow on someone until it is the only life one knows.”(Voegele, n.d.) Being the only life he knows, he becomes dependent upon it to define who he is. After spending his entire adult life behind bars, he was suddenly paroled. In an attempt to stay in prison he attacked another prisoner. The issue here was that Brooks, sent to prison at a young age and being released as an old man, did not know what to do with himself in the outside world. He was totally and completely institutionalized. His attempt to stay in prison failed and he was released from prison in the body of a terrified old man who had missed the introduction of many modern marvels and new world ways.
Brooks was given a room at a halfway house which he found to be very frightening. He got a job working as a bag boy at a local grocery store and felt degraded to be treated disrespectfully by his younger boss. He hurt each day after work from the arthritis eating away at his hands. He longed to go back to prison and even considered robbing the store he worked for in an attempt to be sent back. Finally, after considering his options, he settled on taking his own life. He wrote a letter to his friends at Shawshank (his suicide note)
and hung himself from a beam in his room at the halfway house. Before doing so, he carved into the beam above his head “Brooks was here”. This was a sign that though he was unable to make it in the outside world that he wanted someone to know that he had been there; that he had lived and was once a human being. In his suicide note he stated that he had a hard time sleeping and when he did sleep he would have nightmares. Upon waking he would have to reorient himself to understand where he was. His final scrawling stated “I don't like it here. I'm tired of being afraid all the time. I've decided not to stay. I doubt they'll kick up any fuss. Not for an old crook like me.” (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, 2009).
Response From a Personal Perspective
The bottom line for this character, and for many real life inmates, is that after being in prison for so long the survival skills needed to live in the outside world have been bred out of them which make rehabilitation nearly impossible. From this writer’s personal point of view, I can surely empathize with Brooks and understand why he took his own life. The values of this writer guide her in her
thinking that the prison system is a massive failure and that rehabilitation is the best way for both the offender and society as a whole. It does nothing for anyone to make a criminal serve time for the sake of punishment. Without teaching them and equipping them for living as a productive member of society chances of reoffending are very high. Being anti-religious, the wishes of a God and suicide meant nothing to this writer. From her standpoint, if a person chooses to take their life then it is their choice.
While selfish in most cases, (leaving family and loved ones behind to suffer) in the case of Brooks death seemed a kindness and one he could only give to himself. Personally speaking, this writer feels that there was no quality of life for Brooks and no hope for one to form. He lived in a world where nothing was familiar to him and the only other option he saw was to live each day in misery with nothing to look forward to but fear and depression. While this was an extremely sad moment in the movie, it was one that stood out to this writer the most because she really “got it”. While there was no
connection between Brook’s suicide and this writer’s life story, she was able to emphasize with Brooks and forgive him for taking his own life. To not do so, in this writer’s opinion, would be selfish.
Durkheim’s Model of Suicide
According to Durkheim, the three most commonly referred to patterns of suicide are Egotistic, Altruistic, and Anomic. The one who commits Egotistic suicide is basically a loner with no outside support system.” As outsiders, they depend more on themselves than on group goals and rules of conduct to sustain them in their lives. In times of stress, they feel isolated and helpless.” Scientific method and emile durkheim's study of suicide.)The one who commits Altruistic suicide is very committed to the norms of the group they belong to but still sees their own lives an being unimportant thus by committing suicide they see themselves as dying for a cause. Anomic suicide is committed by one who find that their society in some type of crisis or is experiencing rapid changes. This can cause fear and depression and while being suicidal would not be a norm for them, they do it
when they become so downtrodden that they feel that life is hopeless with no chance of improvement.
The category that Brooks falls into is Egotistic suicide. In prison he had somewhat of a support system and people looked up to him. On the outside he was just one of many ex-cons trying to make it. He did indeed feel stressful and helpless and therefore made the decision to take his own life.” While this is not a proof or determination of what causes suicide yet, Durkheim notes that the causes must relate to collective life and must be such that these time factors can be incorporated into an explanation.” (Social Facts and Suicide, 1999). This basic assumption is what drew this writer to this particular model. Rarely does on commit suicide due to individual factors. “Detachment from society results in detachment from life because society gives meaning to life.”(Sociology Index, 2011). Ultimately, social factors guide people in this choice. Durkheim’s model sits well with the writer as it offers good explanation of the “whys” of suicide.
The main cultural issue found in this movie that directly deals with Brooks is the way society viewed (and still does to a large extent) prisoners. A review done on Shawshank tells of an old man being released from prison who is totally unequipped to deal with real life, so it is not really surprising “that being in the prison produced a man incapable and unskilled to live a life outside of the institution and a man with no sense of hope or reason for carrying on then tragically takes his own life.” (Sobol, 1996). This is a sad fact in society. Though the movie does not state what Brooks was in prison for or what his status was before he went to prison, this writer got the feeling from what little bit was told, that Brooks was from a poor family and that the crime he committed was not so bad as to have sentenced him to 50 years in prison. Assuming that this is the case, there was apparent cultural bias against Brooks which was more solidly defined in the year that the movie was set in. It was a time (at least according to the movie) when those in charge of the prisons had free reign and the rights of the prisoners were not respected. On a side note, The Shawshank Redemption “demonstrates an indeterminate sentencing scheme without any clear goals related to the prisoner is nothing more than an abuse of power.” (Sobol, 1996).
This as well, is a cultural consideration of the time represented. To this writer, this movie represented class and class differences. Those who were on the bottom of the rung were a part of what was considered a cultural no man’s land. Take for example, Andy. Andy came in and was treated like everyone else but once it was known that he was intelligent in an area considered to be of higher prestige (an accountant) he was treated much better and with more respect than a man like Brooks got. This angers this writer. Her philosophy is that a person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect no matter how much money they have or don’t have and no matter what their social status is or was. She feels that even someone who was deemed deserving to go to prison deserves a fair shake and a shot at rehabilitation.
When asking a person about how they feel about suicide the answers will be highly varied. With Durkheim’s model it is easier to understand the motivations one who commits suicide has even if it does not make it easier to take on an emotional level. Brooks was an unforgettable character for this writer. Seeing the injustice of the whole situation portrayed in The Shawshank Redemption is hard for her to take in. Rehabilitation
is a must for any person who has been put in prison. There is a reason they are there and counseling can lead to rehabilitation and in the end, releasing an inmate who can then become a productive member of society. In the end, just dessert is not just at all.
Scientific method and emile durkheim's study of suicide. Unpublished raw data, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. Retrieved from http://cuip.uchicago.edu/~ldernbach/msw/xsdurkhm.pdf
Sobol, J.J. (1996). The shawshank redemption: a review. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 4(1), 15-17.
Sociology Index. (2011). Egotistic suicide. Retrieved from http://sociologyindex.com/egoistic_suicide.htm
Social facts and suicide. (1999). Unpublished manuscript, Department of Sociology and Social Studies, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Retrieved from http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/o26f99.htm
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. (2009, March 15). Recidivism, rehabilitation, and shawshank redemption. Retrieved from http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2008/03/recidivism_rehabilitation_shaw.html
Voegele, J. The shawshank redemption: prison usa [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.jvoegele.com/essays/shawshank.html
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