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Out of the Abyss: Resistance and the Hope for Change

The first person to escape from the Chelmno death camp, Abraham Roy, would live to teach his granddaughter the importance of resistance. Saifullah Parucha, recently released from Guantánamo Bay, may have that chance to pass on a life lesson. Aimeé Ledwell hastens to an appointment with an Indigenous language instructor. Helen Scales popularizes the potential of anticancer chemical compounds extracted from chemosynthetic mussels from hydrothermal vents on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Rescued from malignant normality, Robert J. Lifton, assures us our extraordinary adaptive skills can avoid the twin apocalyptic threats to humanity and that a new dimension of reality awaits our grasp.

58 percent agree with the statement, 'I am afraid we are headed toward nuclear war with Russia, according to a Reuters/IPSOS poll taken October 4, 2022," This, the day after another direct threat to use nuclear weapons by Putin. The article introducing this poll aims at the rear guard of the professional class. "For adults of a certain age, we have some exposure to this, we can contextualize it on the basis of our experience," Amir Afkhami, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University said. "We have a new generation that has never experienced that potential for Armageddon."

Max Hastings writes of the so-called lesson of experience in Abyss: Nuclear Crisis, Cuba 1962: "Dean Rusk said: ‘Those who experienced the Missile Crisis came out of it a little different people from what they were before they went into it.’ He intended to suggest, of course, that they had explored the furthest reaches of global peril, diplomacy and statesmanship. Yet it is hard to accept that, beyond the president himself, those tested in the fire of Excom membership thus achieved a great accession of wisdom, since those same men would march the United States into Vietnam, and keep it there for the best part of the decade.”

The unapproachable crime. Call it Eco-cide. Call it Omnicide. ICRC confirmed, 84 percent of Millennials believe a nuclear weapon should never be used. Hell, the P-5 statement in January 2022 re-iterated the Gorbachev-Reagan wording "A nuclear war can never be won, and should never be fought." On the greater matter of the will to eliminate nuclear weapons, three in five millennials believe countries that possess them should eliminate their arsenals.


Over the 525 plus miles I've walked for nuclear disarmament since mid April, one of the most powerful examples of a witness I've treasured is set into the symbolic by the following words of a fellow pilgrim who listened to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and who would later receive the indigenous survivors of residential schools. Pope Francis's address at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, given November 24, 2019 "From the abyss of silence, we continue even today to hear the cries of those who are no longer. ...May the abyss of pain endured here remind us of boundaries that must never be crossed." taught "into the abyss of the mystery" enter the mystery of Jesus" by looking to the Crucifix and thus "letting yourself go" into the "abyss" of his mercy. Following this practice of the Via Crucis, and this ambiguity, much of the lengthy reflection that follows will exploit the existential drama suggested by the word abyss.


The social scientists, psychiatrists, physicians, participating in government panels seeking to help American people cope with the fear of nuclear annihilation. Robert J. Lifton calls this socialization to evil, or malignant normality, just as the Nazi doctors he encountered conformed to Auschwitz normality, so American professionals "were part of a larger process of pathologizing those who questioned the nuclear arms race, while encouraging the desired psychological behavior for coping with nuclear attack," play dead.

54 percent of millennials believe it is more likely than not that a nuclear attack will occur in the next decade, according to a 2020 survey of 16,000 millennials in 16 countries conducted by The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). What bothers me especially is that even more feel they can do nothing about it. That was indicated by Véronique Christory, Senior Arms Control Advisor to the ICRC, speaking at the NonProliferation Treaty 10th Rev. Conference held at the United Nations in New York. She told me she devotedly mourned the passing of Sr. Megan Rice and was friends with Helen Young, documentary filmmaker of The Nuns, The Priests, and the Bomb.


A young white Jewish girl, Annie Schnitzer, traveled to Poland to visit the concentration camps, Chelmno and Auschwitz, where most of her family perished. She wrote Elie Wiesel after reading Night: "Dear Mr. Wiesel, I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. My grandfather Abraham Roy was the first person to escape from the Chelmno death camp. My grandmother Taube and grandaunt Frania both endured at Auschwitz. Growing up, they explained the importance of resistance. For my grandmother, resistance meant maintaining her humanity even during times of horror and complete desperation." She recounts what she was most struck by from her visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau: "The walls in the barracks contained colorful murals of children going to shul (school). Here in the midst of all this pain, there was still creation."


Certainty did not exist when the Indigenous uprising confronted the first settlers of New England. "Sometimes the resistance to 'improvement' was overt, such as dismantling built structures or assaulting livestock." Lisa Brooks continues in her introduction saying "it was a matter of discerning the evidence ...Often, statements made in court years later demonstrated that although English people claimed title, Indigenous people continued to inhabit, cultivate, and know land as their own, retaining their ancestral rights and responsibilities." For example, My Wampanoag friend Aimee Ledwell from Maynard Anti-Racist Task Force was on her way to take a language course. We were continuing a lesson she offered about rights and responsibilities as she facilitated the Turtle Island Project, a collaborative mural my girls joined in painting on Indigenous Peoples Day. She told me there was pildowi ôjmowôgan, "a new history" and if I was looking into indigenous place names, I would appreciate Our Beloved Kin. Lisa Brooks concludes her project of historicizing the Indigenous resistance of the King Philip’s War within the established practice of diplomacy, strategic adaptations and resourceful alliance-building. “[R]esistance fostered a space for collaboration, even across previous geographical and political chasms.” I can't help but thank the conveners of Indigenous People's Day for drawing many of us from the sidelines each year into organizing IPD in our respective towns and renewing our efforts for the indigenous legislative agenda. Such our pniesesok, in Wôpanâak, and kinôbak, in Abenaki, both mean more precisely, those who have the courage to pursue difficult courses, similar to descriptive words of steep terrain.


…Like a man who is climbing, or perhaps descending, a mountainside, he was rising or ascending in place; at best, at each turning the same abyss would open below him, sometimes on the right, sometimes at his left. The gain in actual ascent was measurable only as the air became more rarified, and as new peaks appeared behind those which had seemed to bar the horizon.--Margerite Yourcenar, The Abyss


No matter that his age “at the edge of the abyss” he says, my friend William Goldsby would tell me he is still dancing, that he has the glimmer of sight again after a surgery, that for years it felt like he was a tumbleweed, and that one day he dove in the bushes as the KKK cleared the pool hall and chased passed. In Reconstructing Rage, his role as the independent agent responsible for creating and facilitating a thorough investigation as a follow-up to the Holmesburg Prison rebellion in late October 1989. It prompted a Philadelphia law firm to take up an inmate-initiated lawsuit of unprovoked violence from guards, and the inmates won their suit. Goldsby elicited support for an Afrocentric reentry program with a curriculum "Resisting the imposition of any ideology outside the historical and cultural experiences of Black people."


One Friday, on my ritual walk, I approached three swans behind the Quaker school near the Arlington Meadows. I saw the air beat from the Mute Swan’s wings as it reared out of the mote, bugling territorial. Ducks deferred, clearing the area. Then it settled and a merganser paddled near.


The individual who seeks to be a murky, anonymous silhouette behind the confessional grille of history, a non-responsibility for neighbor, the human, the encompassing communal nature, is said to be a monster (at least in most of Western thought), immature, inhumane, characterized by infantile regression or pathological neuroses. He was elected anyway.


On cross-country trips, my sister and I would be in dispute, restive as we approached a new city. “Be quiet!” He would trumpet, “I’m concentrating.” My father had shoulders well developed from canoeing Minnesota Boundary Waters, crew and rugby in college and before that, high school football. The middle child of two sisters he met wits end with a home-stay brother. Uncharacteristically he put them to use in retaliation of his pranks, incessant one day, hanging him by his ankles out the upstairs porch. Something like the initiation rituals of a sect of mountain-dwelling monks which Rebecca Solnit described in Wanderlust: “one stage involved dangling initiates over an abyss while they confessed their sins.” The way he tells it, whatever in the way of power my father felt, it all evaporated when the boy’s parents, his hosts, came home to find their son dangling from the second story. The boy hollered like the speaker of Francis Thompson’s “The hound of Heaven,” “in vain my tears were wet on heaven’s cheek.” There he was when the parents shrieked. They were home. My father’s jaws salt fire died.


The experience of John Masefield’s hounds of hell when “their jaws salt fire died,” only God knows. And yet, the boy and he had something of a never-again moment, a trial or settlement, at least a new conviction not to go that far ever again. The poet János Pilinszky, in “Apocrypha” writes “Do you know the caked troughs, the tortures/ of the abyss?” What could be hoped for, an understanding about the way nonviolent resistance often exposes brute force? That view only comes through conversion.


The abysm has inspired, or induced “confession,” a theological interpretation. “An abyss revives the dead into the form of its soul”—from the Netflix show “Abyss.” Christian Wiman, a poet whose essay on facing death became famous, writes in My Bright Abyss: "The mind, tottering at the abyss of despair or death, shudders back toward any simplicity, any coherency it can grasp, and the man calls out to God. Never mind that the God that comes at such moments may not be simple at all, arises out of and includes the very abyss the man would flee." 


Abyss is a depth of feeling and a topological description of the unknowable, a metaphor and a reality of the uninhabitable. A fanatic kind of place, hostile to human comfort, a quality of limitlessness that lends itself to moral imagination. A crushing uncontainable loss, a void collapsing all hope.


To reach for what life has to offer even as it retreats was a poetic depiction of the afterlife in the realm of Hades, Greek God of the underworld; a bough of ripe grapes dipping, and a pool of water receding out of reach, was given Tantalus in eternity.

A nine-day walk for No New Women’s Prisons had left MCI Framingham still open with Massachusetts Governor Baker still waving $50 million for a replacement. "The very nature of prisons" says Sarah Nawab of Prison Legal Services "re-traumatize and compound harm to people disproportionately survivors of sexual and domestic violence."


There are psalms of David about his plight in darkness at the bottom of a pit (Psalm 69). A kind of cistern was used by Joseph’s brothers to contain him before selling him into slavery, and as a counterpoint to his rise in prominence in an Egyptian commander’s household, under false accusation by Potiphar’s wife, he was cast in a dungeon. The prophet Jeremiah was detained in a pit. On house arrest, St. Paul was the beneficiary of a prominent Christian who loaned him a slave, and while observed by Roman guard, it was nothing like today’s ankle monitors. 


A bottomless pit connotes a measure of infinity. Rather than thinking of timelessness, my subtitle, "Resistance and the Hope for Change," reflects on the limit and the overcoming. I have referred to the abyss as metaphor, but change occurs in the finite. Helen Scales writes in The Brilliant Abyss "A strong of trenches running from Russia to New Zealand are all more than 32, 000 feet deep: the Kurile-Kamchatka, Philippine, Tonga, and Kermadec Trenches, plus the deepest of all, the Mariana Trench, which spikes below 36,000 feet." She continues:

"Seismologists make sure to listen very carefully to trenches. Located at subduction zones, where tectonic plates push and shove each other, the steep trench walls regularly heave and shake with the world's most powerful earthquakes. An array of sensors strung through the Japan Trench is posed to detect rumbles that could foretell the next mega-earthquake, like the one that caused the devastating 2011 tsunami, which killed eighteen thousand people and flooded the Fukushima Daiichi power station, causing the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. In April 2020, a panel of advisers to the Japanese government warned that a massive earthquake and tsunami could strike the northern region, around Hokkaido, at any time."

The scientific community that studies the abyss is around 500 individuals strong, most of whom have authorized use of submersibles and straddle ethical abyss with deep-sea mining operations. The exploration has shown "great potential as the basis for live saving drugs of the future. A sponge called Xestospongia, taken from a deep seamount off the Pacific island of New Caledonia, contains compounds effective against malaria-causing parasites, including the most dangerous form, Plasmodium falciparum. ...At the bottom of the South China Sea, mud-dwelling fungi produce a substance that inhibits a key enzyme of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Deepest of all, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, 35,755 feet down, a new strain of bacteria was discovered, Dermacoccus abyssi, which contains a variety of compounds that kill cancerous cells."


“English 558, you have a message: Male child born on June 28. Mother and baby well.” Born Moazzam Begg, in England, attended a Jewish elementary school in Birmingham in the 1970s and eventually opened an Islamic bookshop. He was taken into custody during a visit to Pakistan when his wife Zaynab was three months pregnant. Guantánamo Bay Naval Base was the chosen destination for a secret, off-shore detention center that evolved as an interrogation prison during the Bush administration. Frequently called a legal black hole before Supreme Court decisions such as Rasul v. Bush confirmed the right of habeus corpus in 2004. A Habeus petition for detainees one through 570 was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, not knowing their names. Barbara Olshansky, a lawyer at CCR emailed pentagon officials in December 2004 asking once again for the release of the names of everyone in Guantánamo.

Matt Diaz, a Naval Judge Advocate General Corps Officer and twenty year veteran, clandestinely sent the names using postal service in January 2005. Because the contents arrived inside an unsigned card whose cover had a puppy and a heart love you Olshansky thought it was either a joke or a trap, and others feared the possibility that the offices of CCR were bugged.

The names of inmates remained secret to the public until 2006 when a federal judge ruled on a Freedom of Information Act filed by the Associated Press, the landmark majority opinion Boumediene v. Bush in 2008. Linda Greenhouse wrote for New York Times, “It’s a safe bet that there are not five justices on the court today who would have joined the Boumediene majority. The only member of that majority still serving is Justice Stephen Breyer.”

While human rights activists continue to decry their indefinite detention as ongoing psychological torture, the Biden Administration sent not even a single spokesperson to Congress last December. Meanwhile, six of the forever prisoners await death penalty under the verdict of questionable legal tribunals. Saifulla Paracha, Guantánamo's oldest prisoner, never charged, was released to Pakistan Saturday, October 29. The prison still houses 35 with a budget of $14 million a year.

 --C.R. Spicer


Amir Afkhami cited in "Americans Nuclear Fears Surge to Highest Levels Since Cold War" October 14, 2022 (accessed 10 November 2022).

ICRC. "Majority of Millennials see catastrophic war as real possibility and believe their should be limits." (accessed 10 November 2022). 

ICRC. "Millennials On War"   

Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War. New Haven: Yale, University Press, 2018. 346. 12. See, which features maps of place names.

Pope Francis, address at the Peace Memorial (Hiroshima) November 24, 2019

Pope Francis, Papal Homily, October 24, 2017

Townsand Price-Spratlen and William Goldsby. Reconstructing Rage: Transformative Reentry in the Era of Mass Incarceration. New York: Peter Lang. 2012. 56-57, 58.

Catherine Gourley Ed. Journeys: Young Readers’ Letters to Authors Who Changed Their Lives. Library of Congress Center for the Book. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2017. 206, 207.

Max Hastings, The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis, Cuba 1962. New York, HarperCollins, 2022. 437.

Reuters/Ipsos poll "Russia/Ukraine Crisis" Findings and Methodology. October 6, 2022. TM268Y14_e. "To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?...I am afraid we are headed toward nuclear war with Russia." Total agree 58%, Tend to agree 44%

Robert J. Lifton, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival. New York: The New Press, 2017. 152, 97. 

John Masefield. “Hounds of Hell” (circa 1920) ( accessed 10 November 2022).

Sarah Mirk, Ed. Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World's Most Infamous Prison. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2020.

János Pilinsky, "Apocrypha" (1956) translation by Ted Hughes and János Csokits. See also "Apokrif" translation by Czire Szaboics and Kathleen Jacobson (accessed 13 November).

Carol Rosenberg, "Guantánamo's Oldest Prisoner, Never Charged, Is Released to Pakistan" New York Times. Sunday, October 30, 2022. A27.

Tamar Sarai, "Massachusetts Organizers Call for No New Women's Prisons and an End to Their Construction" Prism Reports. October 14, 2022. (accessed 11 November 2022).

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin, 2000. 145.

Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven” read by Richard Burton (accessed 10 November 2022).

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013.146.

Marguerite Yourcenar, The Abyss. Translated from the French by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1976


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