Seeing Thestrals

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Recently, I sat down with a friend and recorded him tell stories from his time as a correctional officer at a maximum security facility. He started off composed, though the pen he was flicking betrayed his concentration, the way a cat whips its tail nervously. He had told these stories before, to people who asked to hear them, for shock value, as a performance. I didn’t ask, but they came anyway, over time. He is a petite creature with steely eyes, hard to imagine in a combat situation, who had to prove himself over and over because of his stature. The stories he told were indeed shocking to someone like me (white, privileged, artist), but I was watching him remember just as much as I was listening.

This man grew up so poor that the only choice he felt he had was to enlist. His environs were several types of dysfunctional and abusive, and he spent his adult life in training or combat. As he recalled his experiences in prison, his breathing got shallow and quick, his shoulders lifted and stiffened, and his gaze became razor-sharp.

The stories reflect a side of American life with which most people rarely come into contact. The recent series “When They See Us” bravely takes on life in prison, but it still doesn’t quite illustrate just how incessantly and pervasively life threatening prison is. The comedian Ali Siddiq tells a few stories from his prison time, while the audience predictably laughs, in ignorance of the horrifying, glaring truth behind the stand up.

You may be wondering, is this about prison? What does it all have to do with “Harry Potter”?

Thestrals are skeletal horse-like creatures with wings, as described in “Harry Potter”, that can only be seen by people who’ve witnessed death. I think they are the most skillful complex metaphor I’ve ever encountered.

It is undeniable that people who have experienced extreme prolonged stress share something significant, visible to the naked eye in the form of a look. The steely look in my friend’s eye, the carefully composed calm on Ali Siddiq’s face, is the same curated look you see on women who were raped or adults who have been through hell as children.

I went to grad school on a generous scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. All of the kids they sponsor are high achievers with difficult backgrounds. I met with many of them at the yearly conference, and they all share the same look of half-trust, ready-to-bolt, not sure if someone will come along and tell them they don’t belong there. All of them, of us, had impostor syndrome, afraid that we weren’t worth the trust we were given, trying to make up for our shortcomings in external, scholastic ways. No one really talked about why we were there, apart from touting achievements. Those stories are earned, because they always hurt in the re-telling.

We were all thestrals, seeing each other, acknowledging the pain in respectful, distant ways. We all saw the bones sticking out of our grief and the leathery wings of our trauma in the carefully constructed external appearances that we presented to each other.

Back then I was younger and felt that my own pain was unique. One of my heroes told me (to my ire) that everybody carries trauma, and that mine wasn’t special. I wanted to say she didn’t know my trauma, how could she say that!? As if my thestral was also a unicorn… She was right. We all respond differently to trauma, but it is all dark, and shiny, and blood-thirsty. And I also believe it is a herd animal. We band together because we understand what it’s like to constantly see the specter of death in the corner of our eye, in a way that people who can’t see thestrals don’t understand…

Towards the end, my friend had a deep furrow on his forehead, was talking quickly and cussing often. He saw no way of redressing the industrial-prison complex. It was a thestral warehouse, both guards and inmates alike.

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