Lisa O'Neill

I shriek'd; and the sharp anguish of my shriek
Stung my own ears I strove hard to escape
The numbness...

—John Keats, "The Fall of Hyperion"

Disemboweled lizards on a barbed wire fence. Birds with breasts pecked open discarded on thorny bushes. These are the calling cards of shrikes. Also known as "butcher birds," shrikes spend most of their day resting on or near objects with sharp and pointy edges: barbed wire, branches with sharp ends, chicken wire. Once they have their prey, they impale the creature while they chew off bite-sized chunks. So, ostensibly, they trap the creature and eat it while it is still alive and writhing in pain.

The place looks like a library from the outside, except for the fifteen-foot tall chain link fence surrounding part of the building, except for the barbed wire that lines the top of the fence. Inside, we sign in and leave our licenses to get volunteer passes. We walk through metal detectors, and on our left, we pass computers where visitors are able to pay virtual visits through glass screens to their family members in jail.

Accessorized with hooked beaks, plumage in gray, black and white, and long tails, shrikes are named for their shrill cry. Their name comes from the same root as the word shriek.

I started teaching writing workshops with incarcerated men last spring. We met in a room with concrete walls painted white. We sat around gray plastic tables. Their uniforms were orange and their faces were mostly shades of brown. The graphite in their short yellow pencils was black. As per jail rules, after class was over, I had to count the number of pencils to make sure they were all there. They were always all there.

Shrikes are often mistaken for mockingbirds because of their size and coloring. Shrikes are known to sometimes prey on other songbirds. Even if a shrike has already eaten, it will continue to kill and will save the prey it has gathered for future meals. Sometimes, shrikes leave their killed prey whole to mark their territory.

The Shrike is the name of an assault rifle, i.e. the Shrike 5.56—a patented "drop-on" belt-feed upper receiver assembly that fits all MIL-SPEC AR15/M16/M4 type lower receivers. The Shrike can also be sold as a complete weapon.

Butcher birds are typically monogamous and since they are territorial, they tend to defend their area in pairs. When the male is courting the female shrike, he enacts a dance that resembles the way he eats. His movements mimic how he impales creatures and then he offers his potential mate a piece of the invisible food.

The Shrike 5.56 is manufactured by a company called ARES Incorporated. A figure from Greek mythology, Ares is the son of Zeus and Hera. Hera did not want to marry Zeus. For one, he was her brother. Beyond that, she didn't see him as marriage material. He had swallowed his first wife and had a history of sleeping around. She refused him for three hundred years until he visited her window one day in the shape of a disheveled cuckoo bird. Hera felt compassion for the bird and Zeus sensed this. In a moment, he transformed back into his usual shape and convinced her to marry him.

Shrikes let out a cry that sounds like a prolonged car alarm beep. The distressed call they make is repeated over and over and becomes louder and more insistent with each sound.

Either I, or my colleague, both of us women, were required to carry a device called a "screamer." It was a black rectangular object with a red button on the top that could be affixed to a belt or pant loop. We could press the button to get assistance from the jail staff, in case of an emergency.

Greeks used their gods to understand and explain the behavior they saw in themselves and to reiterate what was to be applauded and punished. Born out of Hera and Zeus's unwilling and incestuous union came Ares. He is referred to as the god of warfare, of bloodlust, or as "slaughter personified." He is also considered a coward.

One version of the Shrike 5.56 can fire up to a hundred rounds per minute. ARES explains: the weapon "is designed for hard use" and "provides the modern operator with the adaptive firepower necessary to prevail on today's battlefield."

is a verb meaning "to utter a sharp, shrill sound."

I'm in here for domestic violence
. For hitting a woman. I'm not proud of that. I wouldn't have thought I could do it. I have daughters. When I think of anyone trying to hurt them—

Shriek is also an enemy of Spiderman, a villainess with the ability to manipulate sound. Born Frances Louise Barrison but using Sandra Deel as her alias, Shriek was abused by her mother as a child for being overweight. This abuse drove her to use drugs and caused in her a strong desire to become a mother herself. As an adult, she became a drug dealer, and through this experience was exposed to numerous events that affected her sanity. She was shot in the head by a police officer. She was put in a "dark dimension" by the villain Cloak. No one knows where she received her powers to manipulate sound.

When I was fourteen and at a gas station, a man came up and shot my best friend. I just stood there and watched him bleed to death. And I wondered, how could anyone do that to someone else?

Ares was half-brother to Athena, who was also known for her association with war. However, the Hellenes knew that Athena believed in strategic warfare as opposed to Ares' unpredictable, irrational, chaotic violence. Ares loved blood for blood's sake, loved war for war's sake. Thus, the two siblings were enemies.

I served in the first Gulf War. I saw things over there that no one should ever have to see. I did things no one should ever have to do.

Shriek debuted as a character in Spiderman when she was freed by fellow villain Carnage from the Ravencroft Mental Institution. The two then departed on a killing spree. With other supervillains, they formed a family. Carnage and Shriek became the surrogate parents of Demogoblin, Doppelganger and Carrion. Shriek used her powers to cause New Yorkers to turn violently on one another. Spiderman and other heroes came to the rescue before civilians did anything too desperate, like killing their children.

I am from New York. My cousin was in one of the Twin Towers. I signed up for the army because I had to do something.

I'm here for the kids in juvenile detention so they won't make the same mistakes I made.

I feel free, like I can be myself, here. Things are different in the cell pod.

I haven't talked to my daughter for over a year. I've tried calling but she never returns my messages. I've tried writing her letters but she won't respond. I understand, and I just hope some day we can have a relationship again.

One thing I'm proud of is that animals and kids love me. I don't know why. It has just always been that way.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics published a 2002 report, "Profile of Jail Inmates." In the self-reported study, 18.2 percent of all jail inmates reported having been physically or sexually abused. Among these, 13.4 percent of male inmates and 55.3 percent of female inmates reported abuse. Over 90 percent of those reporting knew their abusers, and in 47.9 percent of cases, the abuser was a parent or guardian. Almost 20 percent of inmates said a parent or guardian abused alcohol when they were growing up. Over 46 percent of jail inmates had a close relative who had also been in jail.

According to legend, Ares was the first to be tried for murder. He killed Halirrhothius, son of Poseidon, who had attempted to rape his daughter Alcippe until Ares intervened. The god of war was tried for his crime in front of the twelve gods in the Court of Areopagos and was acquitted.

One day, I taught a lesson focused on writing about place. One writer described the smell of creosote. Another wrote about kissing his girlfriend in Mississippi under a large oak tree.

One reason the shrike impales its food is because, as opposed to other birds, it has no talons. Shrikes' feet are not strong enough to hold prey, and it must use its beak to feed. Using thorns and wire to hold its kill still aids the birds in tearing and eating their food, and thus, in being sustained.

Shriek's powers include: shooting sonic blasts from her hands, creating chaotic sound and using it to disorient and create anxiety in her enemies, shielding herself with a sonic buffer field, hypersonically boring into people's minds to reach their inner darkness, harnessing this energy to bring out their deepest fears and anger to make them act violently, and flight.

My colleague read from a book about the nature of being open, of being opened up, of having an open mind and heart. She asked us to clench our hands into tight fists, as tight as we could hold them. She told us to open them up. Some of the men shared about their feeling of relief from the tension. Then, she asked all of us at the table to hold our hands face up, palms open on the table. She asked us to close our eyes. I felt myself resisting the temptation to curl up my fingers, to protect my hands. It is hard to be that open.

Spiderman returned Shriek to the mental institution, where she later attempted to escape twice. The latest news of her in the Spider-Man Encyclopedia says that she is "beginning to respond to psychotherapy."

The National Audubon Society categorizes the Loggerhead Shrike as a "bird in decline." Their numbers have fallen 70 percent in 41 years. The main threat to the decline of the Loggerhead Shrike is the disappearance and repurposing of their habitat. Much grassland and farmland in the Northeastern United States is abandoned, either transforming into forest or being developed for suburbs.

Next, she gave each man a piece of looseleaf and a pencil and asked them to trace their hand. On the outside, she said, I want you to write the details of your life, your life story, how you came to be where you are. On the inside, she continued, I want you to write the things that make you you, the qualities you are proud of, the things others can learn from you, the things that have remained the same about you at your core.

Some of the questions the men came up with as writing prompts:
— What advice do you have for fathers who are incarcerated to keep connected with their children?
— If you were walking down a road and someone offered you a ride, would you take it?
— Why go on living when in pain?
— What makes God smile?

My colleague told the men it was my birthday. One of our students, a talented artist, drew a card for me on a piece of sky blue printer paper. Using his pencil he had drawn and shaded a design of intertwined barbed wire forming a necklace that led into a cross with a heart at the center. Inside, he had written: "From the willing to learn, to the willing to teach, Thanks for your time and 2¢. Happy Birthday Lisa." Some of the men signed their names on the inside, some on the outs.

Some synonyms for butcher: meat killer, meat-market person, meat person, processor, seller boner, skinner, slaughterer, slayer.

One student couldn't write so I put his words on paper for him.
—I saw my dad's back and chest blown out in front of me.
—How old were you?
—I was five.

Some synonyms for prey: target of attack, casualty, chased, dupe, game, kill, loot, mark, martyr, mug, pillage, quarry, quest, raven, spoil, sufferer, underdog, victim.






Nature sometimes provides us with entry points to understand complicated human behavior.

This essay resulted from the intersection of ideas from two projects:

Project 1: For my blog, "The Dictionary Project," I pick one word at random each week. The only guidelines for that week's post is that the word selected must be used as the prompt. One of the first words I landed on was "shrike." Until I closed my eyes, flipped through the dictionary, and placed my finger on the word, I had never heard of the "butcher bird."

Project 2: I have been teaching creative writing in jail for over a year. Being in jail presents whole new perspectives into habitats and who dwells in them. I am consistently amazed at the sensitivity and artfulness of the students and by all they have had to endure in their lives. For another take on creative outlets while incarcerated, I recommend the This American Life episode "Hamlet V" [link], where inmates in a federal prison recreate the Shakespearean play.