…the fact that Alcatraz, the world’s first super prison, sits in the middle of the Golden Gate, one of the world’s most famous portals, serves as a reminder that light and darkness are paired opposites; they cannot be extracted from one another.
Welcome to Alcatraz
The summer of 1934, during the 21 year respite between the end of one world war and the beginning of another, the world witnessed another wave of migration to the Bay Area. Though the total number of travelers would hardly fill the seats of a modest sized theatre, and only a handful of the bunch were household names, the group as a whole appeared larger than life. As they traveled exclusively by specialized trains from the Pacific Northwest, the Deep South, and the Great Plains, their anticipated arrival to the region caused the cogs of the press and the imaginations of the public to spin wildly throughout the Bay Area.
Whereas other migrants before had come to the region on the promise of new opportunities and the hope of a better life, the musing of these men were far more sober. Their ignoble acts had already landed them in places such as McNeil Island, Leavenworth, and Atlanta. And once behind bars, their surly, manipulative, unmanageable, and sometimes violent behavior shortlisted them for transfer to a whole new concept in maximum security incarceration.
When the prisoners reached the end of the rail lines, to prevent the possibility of escape on the mainland and to defend against the equally incorrigible reporters hoping to catch a glimpse of America’s most notorious, the train cars were loaded directly onto barges with the inmates shackled inside. As the frightfully top heavy barges headed out from the docks, the inmates swayed from side to side, trying to catch a glimpse of their new home: Alcatraz Island, home of the world’s first “super-prison.”
The shadow and the light of Alcatraz
A mile and a half north of San Francisco, in the middle of both the Central Bay of the San Francisco estuary and the inner mouth of the Golden Gate lies Alcatraz Island. If there is a certain balance to the universe, perhaps it’s only fitting that the entrance to one of the best natural harbors in the world, The Golden Gate of the Golden State, is also home to the world’s most iconic prison. Though Alcatraz in no longer an active penitentiary, the prison serves as a tragic symbol of what’s transpired in the so-called Land of the Free. Today, nearly one in every four prisoners in the world is incarcerated in the United States.
Everything that gathers light, as does the incredible outpouring of creativity and innovation seen in the San Francisco Bay Area, also casts a shadow. The shadow, according to Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, consists of all the those aspects of ourselves that aren’t acceptable to the our cultural norms and society at large.
Furthermore, our collective shadows play themselves out at the level of society, too. In the West, for example, The Cold War set up a shadow dynamic whereby democracy was seen as inarguably good and communism as inarguably bad, with just the opposite relationship appearing in the Eastern Block countries. By not addressing the shadow, individuals, cultures, and nations get to take all the things they don’t like about themselves and project them on to others. In the short term, this is appealing to the ego, because it gets to maintain a welcomed positive self image, one that is overwhelmingly good. In the long run, however, this keeps individuals, cultures, and nations from maturing fully; by not facing our own innate shadow issues, usually around the subjects of money, sex, power, and intoxication, we cut ourselves off from a vital and incredibly creative part of ourselves. Worse, we castigate others, such as the homeless, drug addicts, or the mentally ill saying “I’m glad I’m not like them!”
Embrace your own inner Alcatraz
For the benefit of our mental health, our spiritual health, and for our creativity, it is imperative that we learn to embrace our own shadows, make friends with them, and learn how to express them in some positive way. In the Bay Area, the fact that Alcatraz, the world’s first super prison sits in the middle of The Golden Gate, one of the world’s most famous portals, serves as a reminder that light and darkness are paired opposites; they cannot be extracted from one another.
In my mind, it’s no coincidence that the top tourist destinations in all the Bay Area are 1) The Golden Gate and 2) Alcatraz. Since each and every one of us are born to be creative, it is natural for us to want to explore both the Golden Gate side of creativity — the boundless opportunities a creative life affords — as well as creativity’s shadow — the cold cell blocks of our own, self-imposed limitations, the habitual patterns that keep us one step removed from the vitality of the world in which we live.