May 1, 2018 Susan Olesek

The Men of Namur I

“I’m wondering, what are you doing in an armpit prison like this in the middle of Belgium, and how did we get so lucky?” the man dressed in prison-issued white clothes sitting across from me asked incredulously in French. I knew there were not words enough to answer him and we were out of time. Honestly, I was asking myself the same questions.

Last month twenty mostly Belgian Enneagram teachers who represent CAP Enneagram, a nonprofit on a mission to bring the Enneagram to marginalized populations, gathered at a prison training center in Marneffe, Belgium and put their hearts to the work of learning Enneagram Prison Project’s (EPP’s) approach to teaching the Enneagram to the incarcerated.

After an intensive, deeply connecting training, EPP Belgium’s pilot class of trainees bid one another farewell the day before with the expectation to meet in prison together the following month. My last stop before returning to California was to recruit for our pilot class of students.

Namur prison houses 200 men. It took us some time to enter the facility which was not unlike the institutions in which I am accustomed to working in California with its sally-ports and clanking doors. There were men in cells three tiers up, the metal bars were covered with chipped, white paint and the air smelled of cigarette smoke. Instantly at home, I found myself engaged with the guys despite their broken English and my non-existent French.

There were just five of us: Vibha Gosselin, a long-time supporter of EPP who, with the patience of Mother Teresa, had been my ears and mouth translating my English to French, and interpreting the trainee’s French into English for hours upon days; Dorothée Nichols, who spent the last year translating our text book, the Wisdom of the Enneagram, into French; my long-time friend and EPP Assistant for the week, Lauren Roskoph; and, Jean-Philippe Koopmansch, the current Director of Training for the Belgian correctional administration. This determined man has been teaching the Enneagram to 250 correctional officers annually for the last three years. It has been Jean-Philippe’s hope to bring Enneagram Prison Project to his “detainees” as he affectionately refers to them, and my delight to meet this gentle Type Nine, who–in every way–exemplifies his Mediator/Peacemaker personality.

Countries, like people, have Enneagram types and Belgium is a Type Nine country. Like Jean-Philippe himself, Belgium’s people are laid back, with an affable, sunny way about them. Jean Philippe took time to greet everyone–officers and men-in-white alike–leaving no one out. The correctional officers received him and one another with Belgian kisses and a warmth one would find in our homes during the holidays. It was heartwarming, if not a little confounding, “This is Belgian prison?” I mused to myself, feeling my happy anticipation of what was to come.

We learned that just five men had signed up for our first-time offering based on a flier that was circulated a few weeks prior. Excellent. We seemed to collect these courageous five as we made our way through the prison. The prison director, whom we learned is an Enneagram Type Three, “the Performer” was happily hustling more men to sign up as we went, rallying them: “C’mon, even I did this course, and it was really helpful! We ended up in a sparse, but large, echoing room with just a table and about a dozen chairs. As we sat down for our one-hour presentation Jean-Philippe whispered to me: “You have fifteen minutes.” Apparently it was “frites day” and the detainees were not keen to give up their lunch. After many years teaching in prison we have developed core values and “We are Flexible” is at the top of our list.

I took in the men in for a just a minute. Folks in our prison classes always strike my heart immediately and a virgin class–where no one knows anything about the Enneagram–are precious. These guys were curious and maybe a little awkward, one young man was all jacked up with bulging muscles, another was sitting on the edge of his seat, his leg bouncing, another sat with his arms folded. They were alternately joking and dubious, but grew silent as Jean-Philippe told them about his role as training director and his hope to bring the EPP program to them since first hearing about it several years ago. With the need for translation reducing our 15-minutes in half, I dropped into my reason for visiting them as I sensed they would want to know.

“We are here to let you know about a pilot program that we are offering here next month. It’s a course that will teach you about who you are. We use a psychological tool called ‘the Enneagram,’ which helps us to understand the cognitive, emotional and behavioral patterns that helped us to survive our childhood. We all have ways that we keep thinking the same things, replaying feelings even though they make us sad or angry or scared, and doing things which we don’t even want to do, but cannot seem to stop. Do any of you relate to this?”

Heads nodded, and they grew more focused. I continued, “We’re asking you to do something that may be unusual and that is to trust us even though you’re in prison. I am a mom of three boys and I find the Enneagram to be my best parenting tool. It probably saved my marriage. I was first invited to teach the Enneagram to incarcerated men and women when I was a new teacher eight years ago. When I went to prison to teach, I realized that I believed in everyone but myself.” I took a breath and made a conscious choice to share the part of my past that has been the backdrop to so much of my trouble in life.

“You see,” I continued, “…when I was five years old my mother took her life. It left me feeling like there was something wrong with me for her to do that. Interestingly, my sister thought it was her fault, and my brothers thought that it was because of them. Even my father believed it was his fault. But, who was it 100% about?” The men were quiet. I waited while the translation caught up to me and they answered my question “It was about…her.” they said. I nodded. Lauren saw the jacked up guy swipe at a tear on his face. And I felt just how present we all had become. I felt gratitude for them and an up-welling of compassion. I know it sounds odd, but I loved them in that moment. I continued…

“The men I met in prison taught me about self-acceptance. I learned from them that there was nothing wrong with me. I want you to know that we know there’s nothing wrong with you, either. But you may have forgotten what is right about you, and that’s just what the Enneagram helps us to see. What is so helpful is how this self-development tool helps us to understand not just what we do, but the unconscious reasons why. I have been teaching this system in the U.S. prison system for 8-years with a very positive response from incarcerated men and women there. We believe everyone deserves to know themselves like the Enneagram allows us to do.”

Thinking that we must have exhausted our fifteen minutes, I paused for a moment and looked back and forth between Jean-Philippe, the prison director, and the men. Someone translated a comment from the men for me, “They said, please don’t stop talking. They don’t care about their lunch.” Three more men entered the room and sat down. Jean-Philippe welcomed them and shared about his own insecurities when he learned the Enneagram for the first time. The prison director added that he thought it was crazy when he first heard about it, too. “But,” he added helpfully, it’s been quite powerful for me and I know you will like it. Dorothée added her own experience and found herself with a few tears. The men looked confused by her tears, but didn’t move from their seats. It was quiet again.

One of the men spoke up and someone translated. “I think what you mentioned about trust is already happening, because of what you have shared about yourselves.” Bolstered by their feedback we explained a bit more about how this complex psychological sytem works and asked for whatever questions they might have. One man said: “You know, I look at this diagram and I think I am the one who cannot stop doing things. I never stop, and I’ve always been that way.” Wondering if he could be a Type Three, “The Performer/Doer,” whose addiction is to success and accomplishing things, I took a guess and offered, “Your work is not to do another thing, but to just be. That is enough.” Another man spoke up and said: “I’m always giving to everyone else. Even when I don’t like people I’m giving to them!” His peers erupted into laughter, corroborating this self-disclosure. Wondering if he could relate to an Enneagram Type Two, “The Helper,” I offered to him, “Your work may be to give to yourself for a change.” These simple exchanges seemed to satisfy something among them. And then we were really out of time.

I asked one last man what he was thinking and he answered: “What are you doing in this armpit prison in the middle of Brussels and how did we get so lucky?” We told them we would be back in a month and after a round of two handed handshakes and smiles the five of us reluctantly made our way out of the prison.

Already a month has passed and in that time The Wisdom of the Enneagram has been published in French, our list of interested detainees has increased from five to twenty-six, and all of the men will be given a copy of their text book tomorrow. This week half of EPP Belgium’s apprentices will join us for an intensive Enneagram experience in prison and what I know for certain is that none of us will ever be the same.