Truth under Attack
Bryan M. Zemanski
Third place, Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility, August, 2019
In modern America, most of us are constantly bombarded with news and information via mass media and technology. Staying informed without following false or misleading information can be challenging, and in this age where information is ubiquitous, facts appear increasingly subjective. As events in the real world are often nuanced and complex, and because bias is a relentless human tendancy, no single perspective or resource ensures absolute objectivity.
However, there exists a growing public sentiment that the mainstream mass media does not even strive for objectivity or honest. With much clamor about “fake news,” we see frequent heated controversy regarding basic facts of current events, historical and scientific information, and the actions and reputations of public figures. Narrowing down truth often requires diversified and critical research. To understand how we’ve gotten into such a conflicted state, we need to look at some of the history and complexities of modern mass media.
In the mid-twentieth century, mass media in America consisted of newspapers, radio, and a few nationally broadcast television networks. In recent decades, the media landscape has broadened to include a vast array of mediums thanks to advances in technology. Today, we enjoy twenty-four hour access to news and information as we’ve developed the infrastructure to equip the majority of people with uninterrupted communication via internet, satellite, cellular devices, and social media.
We can find dozens of raging pundits and sycophants screaming on cable so-called news networks, podcasts to entertain every interest and belief, and opinion-based news often dominates the headlines. The proliferation of misinformation and disinformation has rendered many skeptical, and conspiracy theories abound as some try to make sense out of nonsense. Often, what is portrayed as news at noon is debunked by six in the evening. The truth is on the move.
Realistically, fairness and objectivity are not ideals to which many journalists even aim to aspire. Information is often cherry-picked amongst the facts of real-life scenarios and is tailored into sensational and polarized narratives. The practice is neither new nor unique to our current cultural and political climate. Even in our nation’s earliest days, pamphleteers and tabloids dominated the media landscape with biased rhetoric. But in our modern society where limitless information is available at our fingertips, objective truth is often obscured not only by the slant of the author’s intentions but also by the sheer mass of interpretation available.
Mass media is a big business. With corporate financial stake in the mix and the practice of selling information for ads, ratings, and influence over public policy, we have grown accustomed to a daily prophesy of impending doom. Extremism captures the public’s attention thus that’s what sells the news. We have become desensitized to fear and anger as powerful influences prey on our basest instincts. Crisis, controversy, and terror are ever present, both real and contrived.
When so-called facts are portrayed by media sources, nowadays we can easily access “alternative facts.” To many, this phenomenon of parallel narratives conjures up a disturbing likeness to the dystopian worlds created in the mid-twentieth century novels of George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. These authors wrote prophetically about societal and political interests destroying or manipulating the integrity of information to satisfy specific agendas. Although these authors’ works have long been used as instructional satire in academia, we have seen their popularity surge in recent years as they again top major bestseller lists.
If we base all of our beliefs and assumptions about reality on front page headlines, tickers, tabloids, and talking heads, we are destined to be fooled by spin. Certainly there are legitimate facts conveyed by some popular media sources and pundits, and there lies value in weighing the opinions of learned individuals, but the value of any argument lies in the accuracy of the information being expressed. As agendas and opinions run rampant, we need not be naively shepherded into tribalism or swayed by narratives disguised as news.
Of profound significance is the freedom of speech and freedom of the press afforded us in this great nation under the first amendment to the Constitution. We enjoy liberties and promote a culture of public discourse unparalleled in human history. In these United States, we may express ourselves as we wish without fear of imprisonment, but with these freedoms comes the risk of intellectual peril at the hands of those whose motivations exceed their integrity.
If we strive personally for objectivity and wish to glean truth in the age of information, we must be responsible to educate ourselves. This does not require pursuing a formal degree nor does it need to cost us a penny. A great place to begin is at a public library. Delving into historical documents, archives, public records, biographies, and other time-honored texts at least make us harder prey for purveyors of falsity. If we broadly research the past and present in concert, we can better understand how our current state of affairs fits into the context of history and the world about us. Objective truth exists but finding it may require some research.
The Written Smile
First place, non-fiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility writing contest, August 2019
As I was driving to work on a crisp winter morning, mechanically consuming my usual breakfast of coffee and a protein bar, my mind was filled with a number of distractions. I had recently moved to Virginia from upstate New York for a clinical fellowship and training in Hematology and Oncology at a university hospital in Washington D.C. I was taking my time getting used to the intricacies of daily life in a bigger city. The familiarity of my old life and routine had been replaced with a nervous anxiety of even mundane things such as figuring out the nearest grocery store or the cheapest gas station.
My mind raced randomly between distressing thoughts as I moved at a snail’s pace through bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic. I had multiple valid reasons for consternation: I had left my brother and his family and many of my close friends behind in New York; I was going through a terrible break-up; my cost-of-living had gone up considerably and my earnings had drastically reduced in the new training job; my car needed repairs as did the ventilation system at my apartment; I kept putting off seeking medical attention for the unremitting back pain going down my leg; I was struggling to find time to prepare my talk on HIV associated cancers; I was gaining weight due to my unhealthy eating habits paired with a lack of exercise and was very self-conscious about my appearance; I felt a gnawing sense of underachievement at having reached the third decade of my life and being single and without a family of my own; my rigorous working hours were leaving me drained and spent and I still wasn’t sure if I was making adequate progress in my learning and expertise.
It was the first day of my rotation at the head and neck cancer clinic. As a trainee, my assignment was to study each patient’s file, interview and examine the patient, discuss my thoughts and findings with my attending physician and subsequently go see the patient again with my attending in tow to have an all-encompassing discussion.
“Why don’t you review the chart for the next patient first and then we can go together and see her. She’s been through a lot and we have really run out of options. Her cancer came back recently and I really don’t know what else to offer her. She’s so young and so strong, but her cancer has been very aggressive. Let’s talk to her together once you review her chart.” My attending, Dr. Smith, said with a furrowed brow and concern in her voice, an emotion which is not unusual for an oncologist to express, but I could sense added pain and empathy in her voice.
I nodded and started reviewing the chart. Kelly was a 34 year-old woman who had been diagnosed with cancer of the mouth about a year and half prior. She had developed an ulcer in her mouth initially which upon further investigation proved cancerous. She had gone through four different grueling chemotherapy regimens, each with its own set of challenging side effects ranging the gamut from hair loss to painful numbness and tingling in her arms to loss of fertility; all with short-lived disappearance of disease and recurrence with a vengeance shortly thereafter. She had just finished her last treatment about a month prior and unfortunately had started experiencing difficulty swallowing leading to imaging scans which revealed return of the cancer yet again. A student at a local university, Kelly had been married for about 4 years, and had a 2 year-old son. She was now coming in to discuss her new symptoms and further options.
I registered this and other pertinent information in my brain and quickly looked up key points about cancer of the oral cavity so I could better understand the case and keep up with what Dr. Smith was saying and answer her questions.
“Is there nothing else we can offer this patient Dr. Smith?”
I asked with both concern and curiosity.
“I am going to offer her immunotherapy which has been beneficial in recent studies, but I’m not entirely confident it will make any difference. Her cancer has been relentless from day one and I’m afraid this is turning out to be one of those cases where we are helpless.”
Dr. Smith said.
“But if you think it’s not going to work, why put her through another treatment? She has had so many adverse effects with her prior treatments. She couldn’t even complete some of them because of toxicity.”
“That’s a very valid point. I think we have to make some tough choices. The one thing we don’t want is for our treatment to add to her suffering for no good reason. But this is usually a curable cancer, and keep in mind that her youth and lack of any other medical issues means that she can tolerate much more therapy compared to an older patient. I want to try absolutely everything even if the odds are against her.”
Dr. Smith said, with discernable ache in her words, a glaze setting over her eyes.
“That makes sense.”
“Let’s go and see her now if you are ready.”
Dr. Smith Said.
I knocked on the door and entered the room to see Kelly with Dr. Smith.
There was a young woman sitting in the room with a man by her side who she introduced as her husband, Mark. She was dressed in loose clothing with a surgical mask over her nose and mouth to conceal the devastation cancer had wreaked over her face. Her head was covered by a scarf; an attempt to hide alopecia due to chemotherapy. Part of a long-term use catheter poked out from her shirt. Most of her body was covered by clothing to reduce photosensitivity. Her emaciated frame, wasting temples, pitted nails and prematurely aged skin were testament to the fact that her body had become a battlefield. Her big eyes conveyed anxiety, hope, anticipation, sorrow, and exhaustion…all at the same time.
Dr. Smith introduced me to the couple and then started talking to Kelly, like two best friends having a focused conversation. Kelly couldn’t speak comfortably or coherently because of the destructive anatomic effects of her cancer. Mark answered most of our questions and Kelly added her input through written notes and gestures.
Kelly was dying, and it was slow and agonizing, more like drowning in quicksand instead of a car accident. She had no appetite and was readily losing weight. She was unable to chew and swallowing was painful; mostly pureed food through a straw. Her pain was better with a hefty concoction of painkillers and sedatives but the numbness and tingling in her limbs had worsened to the point where she couldn’t fasten the buttons on her shirt or tie shoelaces. Persistent foul smelling nasal and oral discharge distressed and embarrassed her. Her short term memory and cognition were worse. She was especially sensitive to changes in temperature. Her frailty resulted in a challenging instability at home; she had dropped out of school and mark had reduced his working hours to take care of her and their child.
Kelly and mark looked at Dr. Smith with cautious hope in their eyes, imploring and pleading with their gaze, understanding that our attempts at fighting the cancer had been in vain. Not only had we run out of options but Kelly’s physical, emotional, financial and mental resources were all fading away. They comprehended their choices, or lack thereof, but were not ready to accept them yet. Dr. Smith offered them immunotherapy as a last resort and discussed associated side effects but was realistic about outcomes; she did so in the manner of both an intellectual expert and a commiserative comrade, a skill which takes years of honing and similar heart wrenching encounters.
There was an uncomfortable silence in the room for what felt like a very long time. Kelly reached for her note book and pen and scribbled something. She held the paper up in front of her masked face for us to read as a tear rolled down her cheek.
“I’m smiling.” The note said.
Dr. Smith smiled and embraced Kelly and mark. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. In that moment, with Kelly’s inability to convey emotion through her face and yet show such resilience and strength in front of everything life had flung at her, to continue standing up to cancer with dignity and courage, I forgot all my worries. Everything about my life that I thought was problematic or went wrong fell apart and seemed trivial. I lowered my head in sympathy and vowed to exercise more gratitude for all that I had. We exited the room and I moved on to the next patient, hoping and praying I didn’t have to witness someone else’s pain, suffering and fortitude before realizing my own blessings again.
(The names and any other identifiers of individuals in this essay have been changed in order to protect their privacy)
The Day That Changed My Life
Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Center writing contest, August 2019
I didn’t know it then but at that exact time fifteen hundred miles away at her home in San Francisco, California, my mother would be fighting for her life. The cancer that had invaded her body had spread to her brain and had hijacked her blood cells.
It wasn’t a day but a night. The night that changed my life was the night cancer murdered my mother. It was 3:33 a.m. on Tuesday morning, May 3rd, 2003. I’ve heard it said that’s the devil’s witching hour. I was awakened suddenly from a deep slumber to find my heart pounding like a drum in rhythm against my chest. I awoke sweating profusely feeling like my head wanted to split open. Then I saw her at the foot of my bed, looking at me with the same loving kindness I’d known all my life. I began to cry silently as I looked into her eyes. I understood then and there that she was gone to me forever. Cancer reigned victorious once more.
“My child why do you cry for me?”
I couldn’t answer her. I knew if I opened my mouth I’d lose myself in a storm of tears. And so she continued, “I’ve come here to help you understand, baby girl, that instead of sadness it is joy that you should embrace because I have returned home. My body shall be buried but my spirit is eternal.”
“Please know that it is important for you to accept all experience in this life as part of God’s great plan. I have completed my mission, my purpose in this life and I will see you once more in heaven. Having you was part of my purpose but your life is your own. It is meant for you to learn and to grow in spirit. You need to take all the seemingly negative things/experiences that happen to you and try to overcome their effects. You need to not only forgive your enemies but love them, thereby nullifying any bad influence they may have on you. You must let go of the past, change your heart, forgive yourself and then move onward. You must never give up! If you fall a million times, you must get up a million and one. This is how you grow. This is your purpose, to love and to grow.”
By this time she’d moved closer to me and enveloped me in her embrace, in her light, in her love. Suddenly my body felt as though it had been shocked with a defibrillator: once, twice, then a third time. I opened my eyes and sat rigidly upright on my bed gasping for air. My cell phone was ringing on the night stand next to my bed. I picked it up and answered, “Hello?” It was my father.
“Hi, Lily, honey. I’m sorry to wake you at this time.” I knew before the words slipped from his tongue.
“Your mother passed away.”
Semhar Gerensie Teclay
Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Center writing contest, August 2019
Arlington, Virginia, 1435 North Courthouse Rd., 7 a.m. Shift change shift change stand at your doors full uniforms on with wrist bands shown at your doors, shift change shift change stand at your doors, what you are about to witness is Mass Incarceration.
My mornings start at 4 a.m. with triage with a diabetic glucose check and then medication. At 4:30 a.m. I’m headed to the kitchen to start my day off working as the prep man. It’s a job that keeps my mind off things I can’t control. I get paid six dollars a week which is terrible but I get to eat what I want if you know what I mean. In order to work in the kitchen at the jail, you must be low or medium custody level; any violent crime will eliminate your chance to work. The things I see in the kitchen you wouldn’t believe, for example stealing, sending kites throughout the jail including females, selling onions, green peppers and sugar, everyone has a hustle including me. Around 6 a.m. trays are delivered through the whole jail one hour before shift change. Once the jail is fed the kitchen crew gets to eat. As we sit in the break room inmates pull out all the hidden goodies making sure staff or cameras don’t lead on. All the inmates come together and break bread, whatever I need you might have and whatever I have you might need. In the background all you hear is, yo who got some cheese while another says who got the onions let me get a little bit. Then it’s quiet as we eat together and forget where we are for about 15 minutes then it’s back to work.
At 7 a.m. the whole jail is locked down as the deputies are changing shifts. Inmates are locked in their cells as the deputy makes his or her rounds to check status of the inmates. For those who’ve never been in jail let me explain, stand at your door with your armband showing inmate number 1231417 and if you don’t you suffer the consequences. To me that’s nothing. I’ve been in ten different jails my whole life, give me a radio and some books and I’m out of your way. I feel bad for the guys here for the first time waiting for sentencing not knowing the seriousness of their case, expecting to go home in less than a month. Fear starts to penetrate into their heart to a point where they are desperate asking fellow inmates for legal help and advice, reason is their public defender won’t contact them til the Day of Judgement, can you blame them? I won’t. I’ve been there before.
From 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. it’s recreation time. This is when and how you determine the type of inmate you come across. First you got the inmates that are on the rec yard lifting weights doing their exercise routine, these folks got their time and is what we call Bidd’in. Then you have the folks at the tables with their paperwork laid out preparing their strategies to present in court, either for sentencing or filing a motion for reconsideration. Then you have those people lying all day long about their material possessions on the outside that are worth nothing on the inside, those folks we call crash dummies. Private investors call them investments.
12 p.m. it’s chow time, we gather at tables and eat cold cuts and potato chips. Later on in the day we start our programs to better ourselves. That’s what they tell you; see most of the jails don’t even have programs anymore, they don’t have the funds to keep a program going, it’s all a front. The prison industry to me is the new holocaust without the gas chambers, people of all kinds, I mean good people, screaming for help, waiting for the super power as if it was America saving Germany during WWI.
It’s 4 in the evening dinner time last meal of the day also known as another day gone. Most of us inmates like to watch a movie or write a letter to a friend or lover, or read the paper. A simple phone call to our family with a cup of coffee preventing bad thoughts or feelings to linger in our minds. Playing card or board games with a friend that you’ve done time with. For me reading the Bible seeking new wisdom keeps me calm at night. 11:30 p.m. lockdown, just sitting here preparing this paper to educate people on what goes on in America’s prison systems. Not all of us are bad, I happened to make a mistake and did some jail time, then I was put on probation and I’ve been stuck ever since.
I’ve Weathered Some Ferocious Storms, and Noticed that the Most Extraordinary and Peaceful Sunsets seemed to Follow the Worst Ones
Victor Oben Ebai Jr., Arlington County Detention Facility
I’ve weathered some ferocious storms, and noticed that the most extraordinary and peaceful sunsets seemed to follow the worst ones. Though life can be diabolically treacherous at times in these vitally truculent moments in our lives solidifies and enhances our faith, strength, aptitude to endure pain, builds character, enhances our resiliency to obtain more patience and a reassuring understanding that ultimately God is in control. How can you show somebody the best way if you’ve never been through the worst way. Life has taught me that we don’t necessarily need to be the best, we just have to be good enough and strive for better.
Forty-six chromosomes make up our genetic code which pertain both dominant and recessive alleles. As our genes have to proliferate, mutate, dexterously finding ways to fight diseases, infections and be self-sufficient in rebuilding our immune system. We also must be subsidiary in our lives to find new and innovative ways to survive, evolve, mature gain wisdom and adjust to detrimental occurrences throughout life.
In direct correlation with God’s preeminent purpose to my opening statement that “the most extraordinary and peaceful sunsets seemed to follow the worst ones”. I quote from Proverbs 3 verses 13 through 18. “Happy is a man who finds wisdom and the man who gains understanding”. 14 “For her proceeds are better than profits of silver and her gain than fine gold”. 15 “She is more precious than rubies, and all the things you may desire cannot compare with her”. 16 “Length of days is in her right hand, in her left hand riches and honor”. 17 “Her way are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace”. 18 “She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her and happy are all who retain her”.