Hard Truth and Deep Trauma Behind Bars
Teaching Memoir Writing to the Women of the Maine Correctional Facility
“We can smell you, you know.”
There I sat at at the head of the class. Polished red nails tapping the plastic table underneath. Hands: lotioned. Lips: freshly glossed. Outfit: cute. In front of me, three Sharpie ultra fine black pens set in militant row alongside my crisp orange Rhodia notebook. You could smell my middle-class musk from a mile away.
“Baby powder deodorant, laundry detergent, perfume,” the woman continued, “smells like candy.” Her name was Tanya, late forties, brown hair slicked into a ponytail so tight it pulled the slack out of her temples. Also, her gray roots were showing, while I was a shiny chestnut brown, my bangs razor straight. I felt overly prim, obnoxious and ashamed. How could I not, considering the juxtaposition so blatantly staring me in the face? One of us had a choice, the other one didn’t. In 90 minutes, one of us could leave; the other could not. In 90 minutes, I would get in my car and head home, maybe stop along the way to run a silly errand, get gasoline or even a milkshake. In 90 minutes, Tanya could not even exit the building. She’d stay there, stuck, and continue to be given a very limited choice of where to go, what to do, what to eat, and when. When to sleep. When to shower. Deodorant was assigned. Soap was assigned. Toothpaste was assigned. The air was stale and variation was difficult to come by.
Last spring, I began teaching memoir writing to the female inmates at the Maine Correctional Center, my state’s only women’s prison. It was a big year: I had just sold my first memoir, Poor Your Soul, and had just found out I was pregnant with my second child. Despite morning sickness, a fast-approaching deadline for my book’s edits, the long commute to and from our home on a small island, despite the fact that the funding for my remuneration was cancelled, despite any excuse I could’ve taken to hoard my precious time, I looked forward to the prison gig each week more than any other workshop I’d ever led. I loved it. It was more than just a gig. And it was more than just my duty as a good literary citizen. It was an enlightenment.
“We could smell ya coming in.” Tanya leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms in front of her blue jumpsuit that she and the ten other women in the room had to wear, and continued. “Honey, we’re in a prison, not a Bath and Body Works. There are only so many options inside this place.”
“Yeah, yeah,” another woman chimed in. “Nothing changes here. We all get the same toothpaste, soap, shampoos. Day after day. It’s so stale.” Alisha. Shy as a doe. About my age. Looked like Alice in Wonderland. “The only time things change is when something comes in from the outside,” Alisha said, and once she realized she was now holding the conch shell, her face turned pink, her voice quieted, and her tone came across like she was asking a question. “So, like, when someone from that something from the outside comes in? It’s like, POW! Sensory overload. It hits us. Like, strong.”
My life has been fairly sweet. I’ve been lucky: lucky not to come from a broken home, lucky not to have the cards stacked against me. I’ve made it to this point in my life relatively unscathed, enough to be able to walk to my vehicle in the prison parking lot, put the keys in the ignition, and go home. To be able to choose what I will eat and what scent I will scent my armpits with.
When I told my family about my new teaching gig, they took temperature of the situation, and with a sense of worry. Are there security guards in the room with you? If not guards, at least cameras? What about the safety of your baby? Can you bring a Taser? Don’t give out your address!
I’ve taught creative writing at luxury schools and summer workshops, private colleges with the most expensive tuition in the country and most precocious students I’ve ever met, kids whom I feared would realize they were smarter than me; these types of teaching scenarios gave me the anxiety. I’d be treated like a product my students bought, and I’d better deliver. They paid good money for me. But in the prison, what I brought was just the opposite. The women wrote like their lives depended on it. They didn’t ask for deadline extensions, they asked for more assignments. More books. More prompts. More paper. More writing utensils. They weren’t maniacs; they weren’t prurient.*
To get to my classroom, my supervisor and I would pass through a labyrinth of bolted doors, gates and checkpoints until we reached the paste-colored classroom where the women would be waiting. Within no time, our workshop’s bonds sprouted; we were less a group of individuals and more of a supportive family around a dinner table, checking in. The class’s weekly agenda was like most other workshops I’d led before: we’d discuss the previous week’s assigned readings, dissect them, share compositions based on last week’s prompts, critique them, and then I would take the liberty of delivering a diagnosis and a prescription of each student’s draft.
But despite it being led like all other memoir workshops and despite us all being equals when we sat down at the table, because of our context—a high security prison—things were different. At least four of my students were in that classroom within the prison for killing someone. When tears were shed, and there is always a point in the workshop at which this happens, I couldn’t offer much comfort. I couldn’t relate to their traumas; it was difficult to empathize. Nor could I give them a pat on the back or a hug—all physical contact in the prison was restricted.
You might be wondering what they wrote about. More specifically, what led them there, and what they had to say about their crimes. I wondered that, too, but as far as teacher etiquette went, I wasn’t sure how to approach this. But, I’d remind myself when lesson planning, writing isn’t supposed to be a walk in the park, right? Memoir writing means confronting the past. It’s carnal. To paraphrase Mary Karr: you don’t sign up to play football then whine when you get hit. Still, I put off asking—really, I was waiting until it felt right. With each class that passed, I began fearing more and more not just the elephant in the room, but also doubting my bravery as their teacher. But what could I have asked of them? What the hell kind of prompt was I to assign? Write the scene of your crime in 2,500 words or less? And how was I supposed to critique it? Less showing and more telling of the “what you did” chapter?
Off-the-cuff one hot day in June, I finally burped it out. We’d just finished a rather regular workshop. The students had cleared out, and I was packing up my backpack. The room was hotter than an armpit and I was more pregnant than ever, more unfiltered, which is probably what led me to ask my supervisor how these women had ended up incarcerated.
“Sure,” my supervisor replied casually. “Who do you want to know about?”
I’d grown particularly fond of Alisha. We were nearly the same age and shared an affinity for the same books, for nature, for hiking. She was incredibly sweet, gentle, and bright. The two of us had just clicked. After class, since physical contact wasn’t permitted, we’d air-hug.
“Tell me, what’s Alisha’s story?” I asked.
I’m glad I asked. Still, on the drive back to the boat from prison that day, I cried so heavily that I had to pull over to the side of the road several times. My vision was blurred, and I could feel my heart under my skin. I didn’t want to crash. I couldn’t stop myself from trying to empathize, and a part of my brain kept allowing itself to project a scene of what it would look like to kill my own two-year-old son. It made me feel sick. Here were the facts: Alisha was serving a 39 year sentence for murder. She had killed her daughter. Fed her enough Benadryl to make her fall asleep, suffocated her with a blanket, and then attempted to commit suicide by swallowing as many pills she could get her hands on. Alisha had walked into a cemetery, lied down next to a gravestone, and tried to die.
Why do we write memoir? It seems that our common refrain or conditioned response is to say that the act of writing memoir has its own therapeutic aspect. That it fosters self-exploration, integration and expression. But does this apply to everyone, all the time? I’m sitting here with Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir on my desk, just in case I get stuck on my declaration, or need to be given a boost by a guru. But I can’t find anything in there that is a set rule. Nothing in there applies to everyone, always. Each composition has its own motive; each life story is to be told in its own time, or maybe never.
I didn’t know that I had post-traumatic stress disorder when I wrote my memoir. I was shaken to the core, needed to exorcise my sorrow, and ended up writing about the events that had occurred to me in the wake of those events. I was 28 years old when the contents of my memoir happened. I had met a man, gotten pregnant, lost a baby, gotten married, and lost my mind. So I locked myself in a room and wrote this out of myself, plucking the story right out of me as if it were an ingrown hair. The events I wrote of happened in 2008. I finished the memoir in 2008. The story was told in real-time, present tense. This allowed no time for perspective or for processing grief. My words were live and raw. This was intentional. I wanted my reader to know what it felt like to be dealt my hand, to make the choices I made in the moment, and to feel the consequences. Staring at my life in front of me on the screen forced me to confront the facts, as messy and unfair as they were. It gave me my truth, made me look it in the eye. But it shook me the fuck up. Is that one of the necessary steps of grief and recovery?
Did my own process apply to my students? I was their boss, their Sherpa. They wanted me to hold them accountable and force them to write. This was a memoir class. So how to deliver to them the elephant-in-the-room writing assignment? Today, class, we’ll be writing about extreme unprocessed trauma. How do I assign this? Truth lies on a spectrum, and in wildness lies the truth of the world. Who is worthy of taming that?
My therapist’s response was “You don’t.” You don’t go there. You don’t have to, and it’s probably better not to. Because, science. Not pushing a patient to re-experience trauma is foundational because the nature of trauma is overwhelming. It creates an intense effect that “floods” or overwhelms our nervous system, our psychological defenses, and thus, our capacity to regulate. When you are stuck in a concrete cell where you’re not even allowed to receive a hug, this is not a good idea.
If the story is to be told, it requires a container or safe space within which to process the feelings and experiences. Therapeutic trauma work involves helping those affected to establish a capacity for self-care, emotional regulation, and relational trust and connection, in order to integrate emotion and sensation with a deadened or overwhelmed self. In traumatic experiences, both perpetrators and victims build up strong defenses as a way to cope. If forced out, a traumatic experience is likely to be shared in a matter-of-fact way, devoid of feeling; this is a sign that the emotional aspect of the traumatic experience has been split off as a way to function. To write our experiences is to connect with the deeper feelings and sensory experiences of our world, as well as our thoughts and observations, and this can be terrifying. Instructing these women to go into a place of profound personal horror would have been ignorant, not to mention cruel. We don’t write memoir to damage ourselves. What my therapist told me I should do, and could do, is to be a human. Have compassion. Love them fiercely.
Eventually, I learned why all my students were incarcerated, but it hardly changed my sense of them. Rather, it made sense, considering what I’d come to learn about their lives, their families, the context of things. In other words, this was empathy. As Leslie Jamison identifies in the The Empathy Exams, “Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.”
As memoirists, how do we get ourselves, and our readers, to that place? Through the back door, or one of the many open windows, or the trap door, or the chimney. One doesn’t have to enter a story through the front door; truth often thrives in the most unassuming places. Tell us about the last time you wore a dress. Compose something in the voice of a child. Describe your first love. Sketch a scene of your high school prom night. Critique this book. Dissect this essay. Through these exercises, I’d gotten to know the women thoroughly. One had worked in a rodeo. One had been a librarian. One was a comedian. Many of them had kids.
The inmates’ rap sheets were less their life story and more an inevitable culmination of all the events that had come before it. My back-door prompts provided the dots to be connected. The last time Cassandra, sentenced for prostitution and drugs, had worn a dress, she was in her young teens and was raped. In her not-to-be-sent letter, Kim confronts her mother about allowing her father to rape her child while she watched on. In descriptions of her childhood kitchen, Pat reveals that her grandmother would beat her when she came home from baseball practice a minute too late. Cameron had hoped to be a rodeo star and nearly became one, until her undiagnosed mental illness led her far off-track. Years before she mothered a child from her abusive boyfriend, long before that violent man threatened to take her daughter away, and far from the time she tried to erase herself in that graveyard, Alisha had been a girl living in Maine who loved to be outside exploring the forest—climbing trees, picking rocks out of the stream, spying for moose—hopeful, fresh, unblemished by life and inhaling the familiar scent of deliverance.
* According to a recent study by the ACLU of Maine, nationally, 84 percent of incarcerated women are imprisoned for non-violent offenses, mostly drug offenses or crimes related to poverty, 73 percent of incarcerated women have some form of mental illness and some 85-90 percent self report a history of physical and sexual abuse.