Lessons from Papillon

More Than Our Crimes
6 min readOct 9, 2020

Why this 1970 memoir is required reading

Charlie Hunnam in the 2017 remake of Papillon (the original starred Steve McQueen)

One of my best friends in prison introduced me to Papillon, the 1970 memoir by Henri Charriere about his 14 years in a French penal colony until finally, after numerous attempts to escape, he succeeded and made it to Venezuela. He recommends the book to everyone — to the extent that when I meet another friend of Donnie’s, I can pretty much bet he’s read it too. And I understand why. Amidst the drama of prison brutality and high-stakes attempts to escape, Charriere shares observations that are as profound today as they were then — and very relevant to the life people like me live every day:

During his first escape attempt, Charriere ends up in Trinidad and is taken in by a “Mr. Bowen,” his wife and daughter. One day, Mr. Bowen goes into town:

“The fact that this man could go away, leaving three escaped convicts in his house was a priceless lesson to us. He seemed to be saying, ‘I consider you perfectly normal men; I have known you only 12 hours, but I have enough confidence in you to leave you in my home alone with my wife and daughter. After talking to you, I cannot believe you are capable of behaving badly in my home, so I am leaving you there just as if you were old friends.’

This demonstration of faith moved us a great deal. I am not a good enough writer to convey the intense emotion I felt over my newfound self-respect. It was rehabilitation, if not yet a new life. This imaginary baptism, the immersion in purity, the elevation of my being above the filth in which I’d been mired and, overnight, this sense of responsibility, made me into a different man. The convict’s complexes that make him hear his chains and suspect he’s being watched even after he’s freed — everything I’d seen, gone through, suffered; everything that made me tarnished, rotten and dangerous, passively obedient on the surface but terribly dangerous in rebellion — all that had disappeared as if by a miracle.”

In other words, Papillon (Charriere’s nickname, due to the butterfly tattoo on his chest) and his fellow convicts wanted to live up to Mr. Bowen’s expectations — so much so…

More Than Our Crimes

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 26 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org