Language That Sets You Free

Martin Pistororius was 12 years old when he fell ill.  His parents and his doctors did not know what was wrong with him, but he grew sicker and sicker until he finally fell into a vegetative state.  His doctors recommended that his family put him into a full-time care facility and wait for him to die.

But, they didn’t do that.

And Martin did not die.

For eight years his family cared for him.  Taking him to a care facility during the day and picking him up in the evenings.  Waking up to turn him over every two hours so he wouldn’t develop bed sores.  Feeding him and making him drink.

All of this for a young man who wasn’t aware.  A young man in a vegetative state.  A young man who, as far as they knew, wasn’t there.

Except he was.

About two years after he fell ill, Martin started coming back to himself.  He regained his consciousness.  He regained the ability to notice his surroundings and hear what people were saying around him.  He could understand their conversations and even clue in to their emotional states.

And no one noticed.


“They’d been told long ago that I was severely brain damaged, so when the young man with sticklike limbs, empty eyes and drool running down his chin occasionally lifted his head, that’s what they saw.  And so, I was cared for, fed and watered, wiped and cleaned, but never really noticed.  Again and again I’d ask my unruly limbs to make a sign and show someone I was still there, but they would never do as I asked.

I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life as powerlessly as I lived each present day and eventually I didn’t try to respond or react, but stared at the world with a blank expression.

To other people, I resembled a potted plant—something to be given water and left in the corner.  Everyone was so used to me not being there that they didn’t notice when I began to be present again.  I’d been put into a box long before after all.  Each of us has.  Are you the difficult child or the histrionic lover, the argumentative sibling or the longsuffering spouse? 

Boxes make us easier to understand.  But they also imprison us because people don’t see past them.  We all have fixed ideas of each other, even though the truth can be far removed from what we think we see.

That is why no one asked what it might mean when I started to improve enough to answer simple questions like, “Would you like tea?” with a turn of my head or a smile.”


Jimmy Santiago Baca was also imprisoned in a box.  He was imprisoned in a box of lack of expectations, lack of opportunity, and lack of love.

Jimmy was thirteen years old when he was first locked up.  His parents had abandoned him to an orphanage when he was seven, and after repeated attempts to escape to rejoin his family, the state finally placed him in a detention center.

Jimmy was a young man looking for a home and a place to belong.  He was crying out for love and attention.

And no one noticed.

Six years later, after numerous bouts in and out of jail, he was sentenced to hard time for his part in a drug bust where an FBI agent was killed.  Jimmy entered prison illiterate and youthfully innocent, he left it toughened and a man of words.

Here are some of his words:

“But if prison was the place of my downfall, a place where my humanity was cloaked by the rough fabric of the most primitive manhood, it was also the place of my ascent.  I became a different man, not because prison was good for me, but in spite of its destructive forces.  In prison I learned to believe in myself and to dream for a better life.

You make use of what is available and near at hand, no matter what your circumstances.  I did what I had to do to survive.  But I also determined not to become what in my heart I knew I was not:  I was not going to let them make me into a ward of the state.  I was lucky, too.  For in that place where life and death are waging war every day and the right choice is often the most difficult one, I was able to reach out and find a finger hold on the fragile ledge of hope.  Hope didn’t support me all the time, and wouldn’t have supported others in quite the same way, but it served well enough for me to slowly pull myself up.  Very simply, I learned to read and write.”


I read these two men’s stories at different times while traveling for my job on my way to school sites—and a prison—to help spread the power of reading.

They were two such different men and came from different kinds of families, yet both personified the amazing power of the human spirit and the amazing power of language to uplift and empower.

Martin escaped from his prison of silence and isolation when a care provider noticed his awareness and urged his family to get him tested.  He learned to communicate with a computer and—once given a voice—taught himself to read and fix computers.  With the hope that language gave him, he was able to retrain his body and regain movement that no one thought was possible.  He still cannot walk or speak out loud, but he is married and living a full life.

Jimmy was denied the opportunity to attend school while in prison and endured long months in isolation when he refused to work in protest.  While still under lock and key, he escaped his prison by teaching himself to read and write.

“Language gave me a way to keep the chaos of prison at bay and prevent it from devouring me; it was a resource that allowed me to confront and understand my past, even to wring from it some compelling truths, and it opened the way toward a future that was not based on fear or bitterness or apathy but on compassionate involvement and a belief that I belonged.”

One thing that resonated in both men’s stories is how hard they pushed themselves to learn once they had hope that learning was possible.  Their learning was not casual, easy, or fun.  It was fierce!  They fought for all that learning!  They sweated.  They pushed themselves and went beyond what was comfortable.

Another common note is that both men’s journey toward self-realization began with another human believing in them and expressing that belief. 

Martin might still be locked in silence if not for a woman who noticed that he smiled in response to what was happening to him.  Jimmy might still be locked in a life of crime and punishment if not for a man who sent him a letter and patiently wrote back to his first poorly written replies.

I don’t know that I’ve ever had that kind of impact, but I am determined to see—fully see—all those who come before me in moments of learning.  I am determined to see the beauty of their humanity and the amazing power of their brains to learn and grow.  I am determined to keep sharing the astounding power of words and offering the gift of literacy in any capacity that I can to whomever I am privileged to work with.

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