Thomas, Cullen 1971(?)–
Thomas, Cullen 1971(?)–
Born c. 1971. Education: Graduated from college. Hobbies and other interests: The Mughal Empire, Dwyane Wade, coffee, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, cemeteries, and good conversation.
Freelance writer. Taught English in Seoul, South Korea.
(Editor)U.S. National Debate Topic, 2004-2005: The United Nations, H.W. Wilson (Bronx, NY), 2004.
Contributor to various publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Salon.com, Korea Times, Penthouse, trips, Rhythm, Chamber Music, and Current Biography.
Cullen Thomas graduated from college in the early 1990s, and, unsure of his ambitions, drifted briefly until he eventually determined to travel to South Korea, where many young Americans were going to fulfill that country's desperate need for teachers of English. Coming from New York where the job market was tight and opportunities limited for new graduates, Thomas found Seoul to be expansive and open, giving him the sense that he might be able to accomplish something there. The economy was expanding rapidly, and hard-working, enterprising Americans were attempting to take advantage of the growth potential. However, not all opportunities were worth the risk. Thomas took a side trip to the Philippines, where he purchased a kilo of hashish that he then mailed back to himself in South Korea. He was aware of several people who had done so successfully, but he himself was not so lucky. His package was intercepted, Thomas was arrested, and ended up spending the next three and a half years in prison in South Korea. Thomas chronicles his experiences in his book,Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea's Prisons. Of his mistakes, Thomas writes: "Like many of the other foreigners, I fooled myself into thinking that I could operate alongside Korean society and yet not have to answer to it."
The time that Thomas spent in the South Korean prison system was a harsh lesson. He froze in tiny cells, subsisted on sub-par meals, and developed rashes and boils on his skin. But it also gave him time to reflect on what he had done, and to come to an understanding about his own goals and sense of accountability. He continues to love and admire the country of South Korea, despite having been incarcerated there, and the experience only reinforced his interest in having adventures—though legal ones—and writing about them. He credits his time in South Korea with broadening his perspective and his appreciation for other cultures. In an interview with Frank Bures for the World Hum Web site, he remarked: "I grew to understand more of the Korean people's legacy of shared suffering and strength—their motivations, insecurities, passions. Through this, it's easier for me to keep in mind that every race and nationality has this deeper story." He also is grateful that he served his time in South Korea, rather than in an American prison. While the American prison system is known for its violent and often sexually invasive encounters between inmates, the South Korean prison system does not seem to develop the same type of atmosphere. While sex and violence are not unheard of, it is far easier to get by without experiencing such things. In an interview with Joey Rubin for the Nerve Web site, Thomas explains: "They have a stiffening sense of shame in Korea. Even our factory captain, himself a convict, was always talking about ‘chengpay, chengpay, chenpay,’ you know, ‘Don't do anything that shames us, don't do anything that shames the factory, don't do anything that shames the prison.’"
Thomas's book generally met with critical praise, though some reviewers found him somewhat disconnected from the material. A contributor for Publishers Weekly remarked that while he includes "plenty of detail and keeps the story moving forward well enough, he seems little affected by the experience." However, William Grimes, in a review for the New York Times Book Review, called the book an "affecting account," that was "told simply, and with extraordinary good humor." Jerry Eberle, reviewing for Booklist, praised Thomas's ability to overcome the hardships of his prison sentence and come away from the experience with a lesson, commenting: "His account of that journey is gripping."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Thomas, Cullen,Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea's Prisons, Viking (New York, NY), 2007.
Booklist, March 15, 2007, Jerry Eberle, review of Brother One Cell, p. 8.
New York Times Book Review, March 28, 2007, William Grimes, "On the Road to Self-Discovery, Korean Jail Was a Pothole."
Publishers Weekly, December 18, 2006, review of Brother One Cell, p. 54.
Reference & Research Book News, August, 2004, review of U.S. National Debate Topic, 2004-2005: The United Nations, p. 188.
Reference Reviews, September, 2004, Blanche Woolls, review of U.S. National Debate Topic, 2004-2005.
Cullen Thomas Home Page,http://www.cullenthomas.com (December 6, 2007).
Nerve,http://www.nerve.com/ (May 7, 2007), Joey Rubin, "Accidental Tourist."
Outside Online,http://outside.away.com/ (December 6, 2007), Jason Daley, "Innocents Abroad."
Times News Online,http://www.timesonline.com/ (December 6, 2007), Al Zagofsky, review of Brother One Cell.
World Hum,http://www.worldhum.com/ (December 6, 2007), Frank Bures, "Cullen Thomas: Inside ‘Brother One Cell.’"