by: Diane Lefer

They called the cat Clooney because he was a ladies’ man. Whenever I walked into the room at the animal rescue foundation, he would set his paws on my shoulders, kiss my lips and stick his tongue in my ear. One day, they put a litter of kittens in the room with him. The little boy kitten was fascinated by the adult male, kept trying to get close to him, wanting his attention, but Clooney wasn’t having any. He’d growl and swat Otis away.

Otis started putting his paws on my shoulders, kissing my lips, tonguing my ear.

The big male was indifferent and even abusive. The kitten imitated him anyway.

So I sat in a living room in South LA with a group of men who’d spent decades behind bars and I told them about Clooney. And how after Clooney was adopted—who could resist him?—Otis grew anxious and angry. Another adult male was moved in with him. Otis attacked. And this wasn’t play wrestling. This was aggression but the male didn’t fight back. He didn’t startle. All he did was turn the other cheek—or that’s how I liked to think of it though most likely he was just moving his head to keep the claws from his eyes. I thought the two had to be separated, Otis was going to do some real harm. But by the end of the week, the adult male had won the kitten’s trust and tamed him. The two were curled up together purring.

“Are men like cats?” I asked.

The thing is, I was encouraging the men to express themselves, and to write, and I had begun to feel I was not up to the task and not because they’d just come out of prison.

“It seems odd to me,” I said. “You’re in transitional housing and the person in charge is a nun. Your director of case management is a woman. And now I’m here. All these women telling you what to do. Do we understand a damn thing?” No response. “What’s it like being men listening to women?”

Finally someone said, “Women always want you to open up. They’re always pushing.”

“Well.. ” Was it true what I’d read? That many men don’t have words to put to their feelings?

They didn’t know what I meant.

“If your heart starts beating fast, do you know if it’s excitement, or is it fear? Or both? If your face gets red, are you angry? Or are you embarrassed?”

They didn’t respond. “The thing is, I don’t know. You’re the ones who can teach me.”

I gave the men a short piece to read by Bruce Jackson, about a grown son meeting his father for the first time. This did spark some enthusiasm, especially from one of the men who said how moved he was to read about the father and daughter.

Henry spoke up and told of being sent to a psychologist in prison who was assessing his suitability for parole. “I’d never seen her before in my life. In 50 minutes, I’m supposed to tell her all about me. I’m not going to talk that way to a stranger.” She gave him a negative assessment. That time around, his parole was denied.

Was he sending me a message?

So we sat there quietly for a while and I remembered times I’d been so depressed. Male friends would take me out for a drive or to a ballgame. Women friends were so sympathetic. They want you to talk and then they commiserate: it’s terrible, it’s awful, how do you stand it? until I want to kill myself. Or else they demand, Do something! Why don’t you do something? all that pushing, all the implied criticism, What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you?

It can be so relaxing to be in the company of men.

Weeks later:

Sidney says he’s afraid to open up. If he’s not guarded, he says, he might lash out.

Kenneth writes about the violent crime he committed at age 16: “. .things were scrambled in my head like a two-thousand-piece puzzle, difficult to put together. .I was the same four-year-old, scared, intimidated little boy that didn’t know how to talk about what he was feeling, let alone identify those feelings and emotions. So they were kept bottled up and eventually they exploded.”

J.R. says it changed his life once he was “able to get this empathy stuff.”

I invited the men to invent a magical consumer product that would solve a problem in society. I asked them to draw the advertisement and this is what Aaron gave me: