At the beginning of December, I posted about Vali Forrister’s “Act Like a Grrrl” concept and how she’d taken the same model of creative personal essay writing in a community of trust to the Tennessee Prison for Women.
Last fall, I visited Vali’s class at the prison and recorded the inmates’ “This I Believe” essays. I don’t know what I expected, but the breadth of the women’s stories and experience and the articulateness with which they told those stories astonished and fascinated me.
One woman fondly recalled her summers at camp; another told a funny story about coming to terms with her pear-shaped figure and her Latina heritage; an older lady spoke movingly about her love of books and of the father who first read to her. What surprised me most was how ordinary so many of the stories seemed. Not ordinary in the telling – I found each story riveting and well told. I mean ordinary in the lives they portrayed. Summer camp. Reading. Body image problems. I found I could close my eyes and easily forget I was surrounded by women in prison blues, most of them serving life sentences.
It’s taken me almost two months to post about the final TPW performance, put together against incredible odds by Vali and her well-chosen cadre of theatre pros on the first Saturday of December. I rolled into the prison parking lot that night, listening to the second half of the Alabama -Florida game, thinking it sure would be much nicer to be eating popcorn in front of the TV than standing in line to get into prison.
This feeling quickly proved absurd. I arrived about an hour before the performance and quickly found Toné, the inmate I’d agreed to mentor for the class. Funny and upbeat, Toné mentioned a song-poem piece she’d written and laughed about how nervous she was to perform it.
Soon, the lights dimmed and the women took the stage. For a hour-and-a-half, I completely forgot all about SEC football and fell under the spell of the astonishing performance that unfolded before our eyes: the women read, told, and sang their stories, many of them hopeful and funny, others darker. Many of the women told of unspeakable violence and abuse they’d suffered; others wrote letters to family members, expressing anger or seeking forgiveness. A few expressed bitterness at the ugliness of prison life, of their feelings of powerlessness there. And Toné totally, fearlessly, nailed her song-poem. Wearing a Harry Potter Gryffindor tie.
I hardly blinked as the women spoke, an experience shared, I believe, by the small audience in the prison gym. Each story held my gaze with its stark, sometimes brutal honesty; but two pieces in particular lodged in my mind. Both of them seemed to highlight, in different ways, what does separate the women wearing prison blues from those of us lucky–and I do mean lucky–enough to walk out that night in street clothes.
In one piece, a middle-aged woman named Donna calmly told of her childhood with a beloved but schizophrenic mother. Without self-pity, she described finding her mother bleeding after she’d harmed herself in a terrified fit, and spoke of going hungry and eating from dumpsters. Most heartbreaking of all was her appeal to family members who raised her siblings (to paraphrase): “Why did you rescue my (brothers and sisters) and leave me there all alone? Was I not good enough to save?”
In another, a young woman in a jewel-green dress spoke about her hopes: her desire to educate herself and grow and improve, as most or all of us do. But what’s the point? she asked herself, and the audience. She is a thirty-year-old, serving two life sentences,* and won’t be eligible for parole until she is 73 years old. She struggles daily, she said through spilling tears, to overcome the feelings of futility: what use an educated mind if you may not survive long enough to go out into the world and use it there?
The aisle between the “free-world” audience members and the inmates’ section never seemed wider. The blue section looked stricken, but they muffed their tears and sniffles; most likely they’d learned that skill quickly in their lives behind bars.
For several hours after the performance, I had a hard time forming words. But I did place one phone call, to my mom and dad, who were eager to hear how the performance had gone. As clichéd as this may sound, I must admit that I thanked them for the normal childhood they gave me. “We probably screwed you up for life,” my dad joked, as always. “But it’s been lots of fun.” I smiled, but I couldn’t shake the awful feeling that I didn’t deserve that happy childhood any more than Donna had deserved one she didn’t get.
For the past month I’ve thought about Donna and the others, about how so many of their life histories originate in violence and neglect and darkness. Therefore what? Is there a takeaway message? For the life of me, I can’t answer that. I don’t have the kind of mind that can file ideas away into simple categories: “They are victims,” or “They made their choices.” To me, their collective story is not one or the other; it’s not a simple story of free will and the reckoning that follows, nor is it one of bad luck befalling us and utterly predetermining the rest of our lives, despite all our best efforts.
For me, those questions are unanswerable and are by nature so politically charged that I’d rather not address them here. What’s important, for me, is to simply accept these women and their stories without judgement.
Meanwhile, my mind returns to this question of futility vs. effort and hope. Lipscomb’s LIFE program, which offers classes (and will hopefully offer an associate’s degree soon) to TPW inmates is an exercise in…what is the opposite of futility?…in a hopefulness that seems almost ridiculous to the outsider, but not at all ridiculous to anyone who’s seen what happens when you pay attention and listen to and invest time in people the world usually ignores.
What was Vali thinking, when she agreed to apply her Act Like a Grrrl model to women inmates, whose world doesn’t usually permit the luxuries of trust, openness, and vulnerability? It borders on the insane, the impossible, the very definition of futility. And I am here to tell you that SHE PULLED IT OFF.
That day in the classroom last fall, and that Saturday night in the prison gymnasium, I saw it happen: Vali helped those women create a community, a safe room where they could speak freely and candidly about their lives, their fears and their rage, their history, their joys, and their desperate longing. It’s difficult to imagine the kind of courage that took, for I am beyond certainty that the TPW powers-that-be did not like many of the things they heard.
It’s terrifying enough for us free-worlders to share our deepest shames and insecurities and painful memories with other people. But for those women to do so in front of prison guards and officials who have nearly complete power over inmates’ lives–that kind of guts leaves me in awe. I will most likely never know whether the women who spoke that night suffered any kind of repercussions as a result. But I do know that within 30 minutes of their moment of triumph, they were back in their blues and marched back to their cells. There was to be no glory-basking for these ladies.
As for the question of futility for the inmates themselves, so eloquently raised by the woman in the green dress, her very presence there that night, and in the classroom, is her answer. For her and for the others who study and read and learn, who write me letters and ask for more books for the library, to do is better than to wait. Plenty of things have happened to them already, little of it under their control, but in this, at least, they are making something happen. Something positive. And to me, that is an utter triumph.
In the future, I intend to be very, very selective in my use of the phrases, “What is the point?” or “Why bother?” In fact, I think I should probably excise them from my vocabulary altogether.
Thank you Vali, Donna, Toné, young woman in the green dress, and all the women who shared their stories with us. I, for one, was deeply honored to have borne witness.
Performance night photos courtesy of Rick King, RIK Photography.
*Quite a few of the women are serving life sentences for murders at which they were present (during the commission of another felony), but which they did not actually commit themselves. Her case is one of these. For explanation of this code, see the felony murder doctrine.