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Cash Offering of Six-String Therapy:  A Therapeutic Tribute to the late, great Man in Black 
By psychologist Dr. BLT, aka Dr. BLT 

Why I had the guitar with me to begin with is a long story, and I don't want to bore you with unnecessary details. It was a hellishly hot August morning at California State Prison, Solano.  Not wanting to destroy my guitar in my car-turned-sauna, I sheepishly smuggled it past the prison sally port.  Why the officers didn't search my guitar case is beyond me.  They're suppose to be trained not to trust anyone, not even staff psychologists--not even rock-star-sticker-covered guitar cases, every bit as useful for carrying six-shooters as six-strings. 

Since I held the dubious honor of being the rightfully appointed Suicide Prevention Coordinator (after several other shrinks flatly turned down the offer), I was the one asked to give a presentation on the subject of suicide to several hundred inmates that day.  I don't know if it was partly the unseasonably hot climatic conditions, burnout, or both, but I do remember feeling insignificant as a psychologist hired to make a difference.  I was sick of holding therapy sessions in which the tools of my trade seemed so woefully inadequate.  None of that theoretical psycho babble that I absorbed in graduate school seemed to have any application for the prison population.  Unclipping the wings of jailbirds is every bit as difficult as pulling hen's teeth. I remember being at my wit's end trying to offer them hope. 

Although I saw few of these mentally impaired menaces to society as helpless victims, I was keenly aware of the fact that I got to go home after each workday.  Yes, in one sense, they put themselves there, yet there they were--stuck in a place that, at best, was woefully deficient in terms of quality of life, and at the same time, decidedly dangerous. 

Yes!  A welcome no-show!  What could I do if the pathetic soul didn't show up for his appointment with the jail house shrink, have him arrested?  There I sat in my not-so-lazy-boy chair reflecting on my failures.  I slipped a Johnny Cash disc into my CD player to drown out the cacophony coming from the contravening choir the Chaplain had put together.  Then it hit me.  Johnny Cash, son of an Arkansas sharecropper, seemed better at engaging inmates that 100 prison shrinks loaded with the latest psychological measurement tools, treatment plans and clinical techniques.  Our methods fell on deaf ears.  Johnny's method shortened years, dried tears, stilled fears, and shifted psychological gears, even as it incited rowdy cheers. 

I took one look at my guitar and my suicide pep talk preparation was complete.  This time, instead of following Freud, the man in love with his mother, I would follow the Man in Black.  When my I was scheduled to go on, I performed “Heaven Can Wait,” a song about suicide I had previously recorded behind bars with an incarcerated rock star who had his heyday in the 70s.  (He shall remain nameless for confidentiality reasons.)  After putting it all in context with a shortened speech, I pulled out the big guns--the Johnny Cash classics “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”  It was during that two-song set that I began to feel effective as a prison shrink.  Although attendance at my show was mandatory for all new inmates, and my performance fell far short of the master, I looked in the eyes of the inmates, and saw hope.  I heard the rusty cages in their souls begin to rattle.  Their combined sentences must have been at least a few thousand years, but the session seemed to allay fears and dry a few tears.  A number of boys in blues came up to me after the presentation, expressing gratitude and thanks to my inspiration and theirs--the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. 

Rough, and haunted voiced 
Ragged from the years 
Spokesman for the downtrodden 
Born in '32 
Back in Arkansas 
Preferred guitar to pickin' cotton 
And you came to free us 
 From all that won't last 
And you made the word stop When you said,

‘Hello, I'm Johnny Cash!’” 
Extracted from "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash!" 
words and music by Dr. B.L.Thiessen, ©2003

He needed no accompanist.  His sound came out better in the ambiance and acoustics of a prison auditorium than in the finest Hollywood studio.  He endured illness upon illness--sorrow upon sorrow.  He wore it all on his black sleeve.  He sowed some wild oats, but, with redemption to cultivate the hard soil, he harvested a bumper crop of golden grain. Like wine, he got better with age, winning Grammy after Grammy in his final, dying days. 
Much to my chagrin, Johnny Cash did more for prison morale and the mental health of inmates than I could ever do as a psychologist.  As far as traditional methodology goes, I haven't thrown the orally fixated baby out with the bath water. I've since found that there is a time and a place for many of those traditional methods.  I ended up eventually transferring out of prison to work for the parole department.  But bars, or no bars, I now see the need for guitars.  I learned a valuable lesson on that hot August day at California State Prison, Solano.  I learned to free up at least one arm from the burden of pedantic treatise, psychological instruments, and treatment plans, so that I'm able to take with me something Johnny Cash never left behind until the day he died--his six-string psychological six-shooter, my six-string weapon of mass construction.


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