Kim Green is writer, radio-producer, book-lover, gardener, photographer, pilot and advocate of amazing people doing amazing work. She writes a blog about all of these things and, but defines one of her major themes as “badass women doing cool things that improve some corner of the world a bit.” To kick off some joint ventures, Kim and I are sharing blogs today (Here’s my stuff on hers). I was eminently torn on which piece of hers to share with y’all, but this excerpt about a creative writing program in a women’s prison is as good a place to start as any:
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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.
From Kim’s blog (The Greenery)
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.
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Don’t forget, that’s just an excerpt. Read the whole amazing story (and learn more about the program) at Kim’s blog The Greenery. I’m so inspired by her approach to writing, reading, research and interviewing. I particularly love how much she taps into the networks she already has, into her community, to find these kinds of stories. It’s a reminder that people are doing amazing work everywhere everyday if you bother to look up and ask around.
Related Post: Here’s how Kim and I cyber-met.
Related Post: Interview with Chicago social worker about a program that promotes “manliness” through group therapy.