Book Review: I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul
By Ashley Yu
When Kendall Jenner spoke out about her anxiety, the headlines rushed to applaud her “courage.” Demi Lovato’s stint in rehab for depression and addiction became a trending topic on Twitter. Yes, the stigma surrounding mental illness has eased in recent years with increasing awareness. Yet to receive proper therapy and continuous treatment is a privilege. However, in the state of Illinois, a $113 million cut in funding for mental health facilities doomed the highly dependent patients to imprisonment. In Lili Kobielski’s I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul, we turn to Cook County Jail, a place that currently houses at least 8,000 members of Chicago’s mentally ill population. Kobielski aims to give a voice to those often neglected by the powers that be.
The book is framed by testimonies from Cook County Jail inmates in the mental health program. Their narratives, that accompany their portraits, are haunted by the cycle of violence thrusted upon the inmates. Many of their issues are compounded by undiagnosed psychological disorders or the maze of red tape to refill their medication. Though we only encounter the staff members in print, they recognize that they are too understaffed, underpaid, and unqualified.
Despite these fundamental flaws, there is a sliver of hope. Kobielski’s presence in the cells and her willingness to hear the inmates’ progress brings joy to the patients/inmates. A man named Lance finally found peace in the anger management program, stating that at night he will “still be happy … because maybe these people do really care.” Alongside their cavalier confessions of their experience, Kobielski’s portraits instills the prisoners/patients with the unwavering dignity they deserve but have been deprived of throughout their lives.
The artistic choice of portraiture not only gives each inmate our undivided attention to their distinctive narrative, but also provides them a chance for self-expression. Some inmates stand proud with their hands clasped, staring unflinchingly past the camera. Others pull down the stiff collars of their uniform to proudly reveal their tattoos. One particularly striking portrait is that of two young men. The man on the right slings his arm affectionately over his friend’s shoulder. His chin high and defiant. The photo feels like something out of a high school yearbook. Like it should be a much-loved image between best friends. It is this familiar pose in the unfamiliar backdrop of a bleak psych ward that shocks you.
From a 19-year-old teenager with ADHD imprisoned on false evidence, to a single mother of 15 children self-medicating with drugs; I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul is a declaration on the injustices of incarceration and the failure of the American health system to provide services to the marginalized. Pressed between the pages are photocopies of poems handwritten by anonymous inmates/patients. “Excuse me Miss,” says one, “ Chicagoland is where I stand/ If I believe in myself then/anyone can.” And for once, we hear the voices straight from those who have long been locked away by the System.
The book is available for purchase on Amazon.