How philosophy can liberate minds

A memoir of teaching philosophy behind bars has an appealing candour
March 3, 2022
The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy
Andy West
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It seems unlikely there are many philosophy teachers with the family background of Andy West—his father, uncle and brother have all spent time in prison. West, in contrast, only teaches there (he is philosopher in residence at HMP Pentonville). As he relates in his memoir, The Life Inside, his compulsion to help is not simple do-gooding: he has a desire to fight against inherited guilt.

Some of the passages where he attempts to ignite debate in his classes about subjects as varied as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the black feminist thinker Audre Lorde and Caravaggio are not always easy to follow; but other passages succeed because of his wry humour. The men in one of his classes assume he is gay, and he doesn’t have the heart to tell them otherwise; women in another class argue over who will bring him tea.

Outside the classroom he is struggling with his own issues. He takes pictures of his oven as he leaves for work in the morning so he can reassure himself that he hasn’t left it on and inadvertently burnt his own house down.

He recounts this dysfunctionality, and his occasionally ugly feelings towards the men and women he teaches, with appealing candour. And his relationship with his brother—a former prisoner who worries so much for him—is drawn with great tenderness.

West also recognises heartbreakingly that he and his uncle, a self-styled raconteur, “are stuck in the story of him telling me stories.” This book is an important attempt to break out of that.