The Damage Done, The Memoir Written, The Royalties Made.

by Kenneth Champeon, Feb 10, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

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Review of Warren Fellows' The Damage Done, reprinted as 4000 Days: My Life & Survival in a Bangkok Prison [St. Martin's Griffin, New York, 2000].

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Throughout my few years in Thailand, I have been approached by foreigners eagerly asking whether I have read a book called The Damage Done by Warren Fellows. These foreigners are of a type. They are innocent, credulous, light on book-learning, and they also secretly hold the view that though there are nice things about living in Thailand - a favorable rate of exchange, adventure galore - Thailand itself is best kept at a safe distance. The Damage Done is convenient confirmation of all their worst and primal fears, and they recommend it to acquaintances as if it were some talisman meant to protect their moral purity when confronted by the native horde.

In 1978, Australian Warren Fellows was convicted of heroin trafficking in Thailand. He was, as he freely admits, guilty as charged. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but Thailand's King Bhumibol granted him a pardon in 1989, as the King is wont to do. Hence the book's subtitle: "Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison."

Fellows is well aware that some of his readers may not be sympathetic to a man that knowingly broke the laws of a foreign nation notorious for its penal conditions. Or that he did so out of greed and not - as is often the case with Thai drug traffickers - out of poverty. Or that he helped to create or support countless junkies. He only asks whether his punishment was just. As this punishment included physical torture that would cause Dante to quail, as well as canings, solitary confinement, malnutrition, and near continuous restriction to shackles, a Western reader - this author among them -- will likely answer no: his punishment was not just. (Forget for the moment that Americans recently voiced their resounding, terrifying support for torture of suspected terrorists.) If, says Fellows, after reading this book you answer yes, then "you, too, are a criminal." One's reaction to Fellows' story will depend upon one's stance vis-a-vis the so-called War on Drugs. Proponents of the war will likely see his as a valuable cautionary tale, saving innumerable innocents from involvement in drug use or trade. Opponents will see his ordeal as a completely unnecessary and tragic consequence of unrealistic drug policy, saving no one, because new traffickers can always be found given suitable demand. Fellows seems unlikely to traffic in drugs again, but he also seems unlikely to live anything approaching a normal life. While in prison, he became - perhaps through blunt karma - a heroin addict himself. He compares being high to falling in love with someone who loves you - "a sublime feeling of relief and deep satisfaction." His memories of imprisonment, he suggests, form a prison without parole, save death.

Some words about the book itself. It is far from being difficult to read: its 192 pages of grammar school vocabulary can be read in a few hours. At times the writing is clumsy ("the guard who [sic] he had struck") or contains words ("toffee" as an adjective, "skerrick") or acronyms (SP, TAB) apparently peculiar to Australia. The narrative is tightly controlled at first, but falls apart as Fellows inserts random and emotionally inert entries from his prison diary. An acknowledgment at the beginning of the work suggests that it may have been ghostwritten, as does its breezy, conversational style. But often this style makes for superior emotional impact: "I don't have any bad dreams. I don't need them." "Most people who went to the darkrooms died. He liked that" ("he" being the prison governor.)

Of Thailand outside of prison, Fellows appears to know very little, having frequented only its most dodgy quarters to cut his deals: Bangkok's flesh market Patpong, for example, is a favorite setting. This ignorance is doubly tragic. First, it prevents the author from having any sympathy toward Thailand's desperate and losing battle against drugs: a Thai statesman recently said that drugs and corruption alone could spell Thailand's end. And it prevents him from depicting Thais as anything but subhuman, as anything but recipients or sources of violence.

In a fit of quasi-colonial contempt, poor sportsmanship, and ahistorical fancy, Fellows attributes Thailand's escape from colonization to the "fact" that "the country is such a shambles in every way, only a nation of complete idiots would want to inherit it." Evidently that nation of complete idiots would be France, which tried to "inherit" Thailand but was put to rout. France also happened to build the Maha Chai prison in which Fellows serves some time. (They liked prisons, those colonizers.) Or perhaps Fellows is thinking of Japan, which - contrary to his assertion that "Thailand has never successfully been invaded" - invaded Thailand during World War II. Or perhaps he is thinking of.... Well, you see my point. Fellows sums up: "I wouldn't travel to Thailand again for anything in this life." Understandable, given what he went through. But if he had traveled to Thailand with some other design than to reap drug profits and booze it up in Patpong, his attitude might have been different.

Readers hoping to pick up a few Thai words and phrases that may prove useful for their own incarcerations are likely to be disappointed. Fellows accurately highlights the importance Thais attach to keeping your cool, but he inaccurately renders "keep your cool" as "chai yeng yeng," when "jai yen yen" is standard. Solitary confinement he calls "khan deo", not "khang deo". The n/ng distinction may be trifling, but so too apparently is Fellows' interest in the finer points of Thai language.

Fellows does however develop a respect for the resilience of his fellow Asian prisoners - Thais, Chinese, a Cambodian. He repeats the now standard stereotype, which goes back at least to early French explorers' appraisals of the Khmer. Asians, goes the stereotype, are patient to a degree incomprehensible to a Westerner, but when their patience runs out its opposite erupts suddenly, unpredictably, and can result in equally incomprehensible acts of cruelty.

I have always thought it curious that a nation as placid and as wholly Buddhist as Thailand should nevertheless be home to so many instances of sordid and gory violence, including the placement of drug traffickers before firing ranges. Perhaps a general peace can be preserved only by the swift and unabashed elimination of threats toward it. Something like this philosophy exudes from Fellows' Thai captors. But Fellows doesn't get it, possibly because he doesn't understand how highly Thais place peace in their scheme of values, i.e. near the very top. Peace is arguably higher than freedom (a mental, not a physical state) or truth (commonly confused with expediency) or justice (a.k.a. karma.)

Sinners "are worthless and to be destroyed": this is "a Thai philosophy," bellows Fellows from his lectern. This is moot, but in any case Fellows ignores the religious context: in Buddhism, what is destroyed is born again. Thais justify the death penalty by "de-penalizing" it: it is not viewed as punishment, but as an opportunity to start a new life. Reincarnation is no more absurd than the afterlife, or the God with which missionaries infect Fellows while he is in jail. Every religious fiction has its consequences (bad, good, indifferent) in civic life. That sinners are to be destroyed, in other words, is a philosophy hardly unique to the Thais (its most recent and notable expression led to the execution of Timothy McVeigh.)

The Damage Done should be read not as an indictment of a penal system but as an unquestionably nasty and prolonged bout of culture shock. Fellows stumbled stupidly into the culture, flouted its laws, and suffered the consequences. Like Graham Greene's quiet American, "he was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved." If getting rich quick through any means were not so important a part of Fellows' culture, the damage might have gone undone.

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