Photo: Gasper Tringale
As a fiction writer, I struggle to tell useful truths by telling the lie that I am someone other than myself. I'm a fat girl trying to survive rape in my first novel, the resentful brother of a mentally ill twin in my second. In my third novel, which I'm close to finishing, I'm the husband of a drug-addicted nurse lost in a maze of her failures and fear. Writing fiction invites me to move beyond the limitations of my own experience and better understand the un-me, the other. I am similarly invited to do so each time I go to jail.
For the past eight years, I have run a writing workshop for inmates at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution, Connecticut's high-security prison for women. Someone asked me recently if I ever felt afraid of my students. Our class, after all, includes individuals who have committed armed robbery, gang-related assault, and homicide. But no, I don't fear these women, because through their autobiographical writing, I come to know them not merely as their convictions but as complex human equations that go far beyond "good versus bad" or "us versus them." Listen to the voice of one of my students. "I am Barbara Parsons, who has been a healthcare worker, a business manager, a homemaker, a gardener, and a killer—and who is consequently a state prison inmate." Molested by her grandfather when she was 4, Parsons shot and killed her abusive husband when he revealed that he had molested her granddaughter. Convicted of "manslaughter due to emotional duress," she challenges readers to think beyond stereotype. "I am sure you have a dark side, too," she writes. "Look at me. Who would ever have thought that I, an average neighbor from rural Connecticut, could be capable of murder?"
Most of my students begin as you might begin: by writing safe pieces—narratives about fun family vacations, loving tributes to favorite relatives. But sooner or later their painful memories call to them and demand to be examined. With pen in hand, an inmate may, for example, begin to explore the connection between the incest she endured as a young girl and her subsequent drug addiction. She may discover a link between her embezzlement conviction and her lifelong inability to please an emotionally distant mother. Along with that growing clarity, she will confront anger, shame, grief, and the need to stop making excuses and take responsibility. Doing so will lessen her heartache and promote her recovery if she stays with it, but she may surrender to the pain before she gets to experience the gain. She may become too busy, too tired, too headachy, too blue to come to class. Before long, her seat will go to the next woman on the waiting list. Addicts are particularly vulnerable to cold feet when truth telling begins to overpower manipulation and self-deception. Yet if the writer reflects honestly and un-self-pityingly on the damage she has both endured and caused—and if she takes the critical next step of sharing her words with the group and receiving feedback—she will begin to defy the gravity of her painful past.