Hieroglyphics turn prisoner away from a life of crime

The letter to the editor of a prestigious archaeology magazine came from inmate No. J81961 at Tehachapi State Prison.

Prisoner Timothy Fenstermacher, a high school dropout, wrote to disagree with an article by an archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Archaeologist Orly Goldwasser had based her story on the birth of the alphabet in part on the appearance of the rare "Sinai hieroglyph," which she said was used in the Sinai during Egypt's Middle Kingdom.

Fenstermacher thought otherwise. "I believe the rarity of this hieroglyph has been overstated," he wrote to Biblical Archaeology Review.

Drawing on expertise gleaned from books sent to him in prison, improvised flashcard drills and correspondence with scholars, Fenstermacher gave examples of the hieroglyph's appearance outside the Sinai.

The magazine published the letter, just as it has others from prisoner J81961.

"The extent of this guy's self-taught scholarship is mind-boggling," said the review's editor, Hershel Shanks, adding that his staff had grown "quite fond" of Fenstermacher. "I wonder how a man could come from such difficulty and achieve such heights of scholarship."

Many prisoners pass time building up their bodies, studying law or writing bitter letters. Inspired by a chance reading of the Biblical Archaeology Review in a prison waiting room, Fenstermacher focused on learning. He began studying Egyptian history and language and writing letters to scholars.

His knowledge doesn't approach that of archaeologists who have spent years in formal training, but those he writes to say he's special.

"He is a natural for linguistics, working out on his own the mechanics of grammar, etc.," said retired Egyptologist Joyce Bartels of Lombard, Ill. Bartels has sent Fenstermacher books from her library and printouts from the Web and elsewhere, explaining that "Tim is a very likable person."

Goldwasser also stays in touch. She sends him copies of her recent papers and books on Egyptian grammar and other research topics.

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Few would have predicted two decades ago that Fenstermacher's life would go this way.

He was a wild young man who was running with the wrong group, say people who know him. His escapades got him in trouble twice, then culminated with his stabbing a man during a fight in the San Diego County community of Lakeside.

In 1996, Fenstermacher, then 24, was sentenced to 16 years for felony assault, a period extended by three years after an altercation with a guard in prison.

The prison confrontation landed him in solitary confinement, where he thrived because he could focus on Egyptology. When time came to return to the general prison population, he sought and won permission to remain in solitary.

Using the cartons from his allotment of morning milk, Fenstermacher would make flashcards, each bearing a single hieroglyph — four a day for a decade. He read the cards while he worked out, forcing himself to get five right before switching exercises.

"Fortunately, I've been blessed with a phenomenal memory," he said. He now has what he calls "a small dictionary in my head."

He asked the couple who once had been his legal guardians, Mary and Richard Dinnen of El Cajon, to buy him a subscription to Biblical Archaeology Review. Mary responded that "I was wasting my time," Fenstermacher said. But they still got him the subscription.

Relatives and friends began buying him books: "The History and Geography of Human Genes," Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" and others.

David Sweet, a cousin in Minneapolis, sent him several books. Fenstermacher has no access to a telephone or the Web, so Sweet also prints out and sends scientific articles.

"He has not let the situation defeat him and make him bitter or hopeless or angry," said Sweet, who has traveled to California twice to visit Fenstermacher in prison. "I am very proud of him."

Fenstermacher has also been writing for several years to the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Memphis, where graduate students answer his questions, said department chair Lorelei Corcoran.

The department has heard from other prisoners, "but none for such a length of time, with such consistent inquiries," Corcoran said. She recalls Fenstermacher asking for a copy of the Pyramid Text spells, essentially magic spells, on the west wall of the pyramid of Pepi I's burial chamber.

"He would translate these texts himself and then compare his translations to those of other Egyptologists," she said. "He would then send us his translations. I have to say that they weren't at all bad."

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Fenstermacher's path to prison was similar to that of many inmates, said his sister Julia Simonson, who lives in Seattle. The pair's biological father abandoned the family when both children were very young. Their mother remarried, but their stepfather "was physically abusive to mom and verbally and physically abusive to Tim," she said.

When her brother was 4, their mother developed cancer "and couldn't really protect us," Simonson said. "When we lost her, Tim was lost. He never replaced that love."

The mother had arranged for her cousins, the Dinnens, to become her children's guardians upon her death.

Mary Dinnen recalled how Fenstermacher suffered from attention deficit disorder and struggled in school. If he found something that interested him, however, he could focus.

He once took a strong interest in bugs and other critters. "Every day, he was catching frogs, crawdads, spiders, snakes, lizards and frogs," she said. "He knew every fact about every insect."

On Simonson's 15th birthday, the Dinnens sent the children to live with their biological father, a man they didn't know well.

Mary Dinnen regrets that decision. After six months, their father put them out on the street. Fenstermacher became a ward of the court. He was sent to foster homes and continually ran away.

His grandmother ultimately took him in, but she lived in a poor, high-crime neighborhood and he fell in with the wrong crowd, Simonson said.

Fenstermacher had a couple of minor run-ins with the law. Then in 1995, court records in San Diego show, he went to Lindo Lake Park in Lakeside to retaliate against Latinos for an earlier fight. Fenstermacher, who is white, stabbed a Latino in the back, the records show.

The man survived but the attack was considered a hate crime, which pushed Fenstermacher's sentence higher.

Fenstermacher, now 40, said prison life is what finally set him straight. "I had a potential for life in prison," he said.

His turning point came in 2000.

That's when he started reading extensively about the early history of humans — agriculture, animal husbandry, civilization building. He started writing down hieroglyphics and accumulating transliterations, and asked Richard Dinnen to find more material on the Internet.

"It took a year before I could start to understand two rows of hieroglyphics," he said. "I was recognizing words, but I couldn't put together sentences."

As his knowledge grew, he began to explore writings about the language, such as those of early 20th century Egyptologist Sir Ernest A. Wallis Budge. In a letter to a friend, Fenstermacher wrote that he occasionally questioned the master's work. "At times, I disagree with part of his translation, yet I always find that vein of reason to answer 'why' he chose to infer a certain meaning into a text."

Recently, he sent letters to family and friends containing an elegant translation of the 14th century BC "Hymn to Amen and Aten," written originally by Suty and Hor, "overseers of the works at Thebes in the reign of Amenhotep III." The work included his own rendition of the original hieroglyphics and copious notes about how he translated certain phrases.

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Fenstermacher can now count his remaining prison time in months instead of years. He is scheduled for release in March 2013, two years early because of good behavior.

He has no firm plans for life after prison, he says, other than: "I'm not coming back. This is done."

He's thought about driving a truck after he gets out. He's thought about writing a book, "perhaps about the biological diversity of the Nile, or paintings from tombs.…"

He's even thought about teaching a class in hieroglyphics.

"I would love to go to school," he said. "I would jump on it in a heartbeat."

maugh@orbitalfrog.net

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