A cautionary tale for would-be smugglersListen up, kids: Don’t do drugs. And if you do drugs, don’t do heroin. And if you do heroin, don’t sell it. And if you sell it, don’t do business in Thailand.
Warren Fellows’s economical 1997 prison memoir “The Damage Done” is a brisk piece of negative reinforcement for anyone considering work as a drug mule. Busted in Bangkok in 1978, this naive young Aussie went on to spend the 1980s in horrific Thai prisons, the longest stretch in a place called Bang Kwang, asserted to be “quite simply the most feared prison in the world.”
The main pleasure to be had from a prison tale is the shivery appreciation of the fact that you’re not in one. Knowing this, the author of “The Damage Done” ― it’s one of those books written “with” someone, in this case a writer named Jack Marx ― puts his best horror story in the prologue, to lure casual browsers. Late one night, a French prisoner in the cell next to Fellows’s wakes everyone around him with his screaming ― “a scream of pain, but of madness too.” When a guard lets Fellows and another inmate into the cell, they find a lump below his ear that seems to be moving. Someone lances it, and out spill “hundreds of tiny, worm-like creatures, wriggling and oozing out like spaghetti... According to the hospital staff who examined him later, a cockroach had crawled into his ear, burrowed through to his neck and laid its eggs.”
After that opener, it’s not so bad to read about prisoners eating rats and mashed roaches (vermin, not surprisingly, are a sort of collective recurring character), or random beating deaths, or the reek of untreated gangrene, or an inmate locked for months in a cage hung from a ceiling with a cloth draped over it. Well, actually, yes, it is that bad. It’s certainly what you’d call a page-turner. I finished it in a morning.
The writing is deft, rather insightful and less sensationalistic than you might expect. The most illuminating chapter is the last one, after his release, when Fellows comes to realize that what Bang Kwang has done to him is permanent. He is wary of all good feelings; seeing his mother for the first time in 12 years, he snaps at her and makes her cry. Reading this tale of loss and pointless misery, it’s slightly heartbreaking to flip to the back cover once in a while and see the photo of foolish young Fellows in chains, on what looks to be the day of his arrest. Somehow, the saddest detail is the Adidas T-shirt.
The Damage Done:
Twelve Years of Hell
in a Bangkok Prison
by Warren Fellows with Jack Marx
211 pages; $12.69
by David Moll