Like a bastard child of Paul Theroux’s travel writing and Joan Didion’s crisp introspective prose, BROTHER ONE CELL is a scary, funny, honest-as-hell account of growing up and paying your dues inside-gulp-a Korean prison. Thomas probes with equal intensity his own life and mistakes, incarceration’s mental and physical toll, the experiences of his fellow inmates, and the humbling road to redemption, achieving a symphonic narrative harmony that makes his story impossible to forget. This is memoir at its highest level.
In 1993 New York native Cullen Thomas had just graduated from college and was eager to satisfy his wanderlust by teaching English in South Korea. Possessed of a romantic view of the world, he set off at twenty-two for adventure in Asia. As foreigners on the fringe of Korean society, Cullen and his friends felt intensely separate, then untouchable. That delusion was quickly shattered. Cullen would spend four years in the country: seven months teaching, then three-and-a-half years in prison for smuggling hashish. Brother One Cell is his memoir of that time—his “strange love song to South Korea,” the powerful story of the transformation he went through in those strange prisons on the other side of the world.
One of few foreign inmates, Cullen shared a cellblock with human traffickers, jewel smugglers, murderers, and thieves. Driven half mad and humbled by the ordeal, he describes his fight to restore his identity and to come to terms with the harsh conditions and rules of Korea’s strict Confucian culture. In this crucible Cullen learned hard and beautiful lessons and achieved a lasting sense of gratitude. With its gritty descriptions of life behind the high walls, unforgettable depictions of Cullen’s fellow inmates, and acute insights into Korean society, Brother One Cell is a blend of cautionary prison tale, inspiring coming-of-age story, and fascinating travelogue about places few of us will ever see.