Too Often, Society Equates a Woman’s Mistakes with Her Character
Clare Fisher on Teaching and Writing About Incarcerated Women
It’s September 2011 and I’m sitting at the back of a classroom in a school on the outskirts of inner London, pleading with Abby to write about Of Mice and Men. I’m being paid the minimum wage to assist students like her with their learning—a sum which, given I’ve succeeded only in making her suck her gel pen, I don’t feel I deserve.
I try a different tack: “You’ll have to do it for homework if you don’t do it now.”
She pulls the pen out of her mouth, dripping spit onto the table, and stares at me as if I’m the stupidest person in the world. “I don’t do homework.”
“Why not? We had such a great conversation yesterday.” We did: she was angry that in the book, men got loneliness and friendship and anger and cigarettes and whisky but women just got to be one woman and that woman just got to be a whore. I don’t know what’s happened between then and now. I don’t know whether it has something to do with the gangs she’s tied up in or the strained relationship with what is her seventh or eighth set of foster parents or with the fight she had with Rachel in Maths or with something beyond the narrow horizons of my middle-class imagination. But something has happened or is happening; it pushes her down in her chair, silts up her eyes. Makes her say: “What’s the point? It’s gonna be shit.”
Between these words lurks another, darker, set: I’m shit. People have told me I’m shit so many times that it’s what I feel I am. They lurk inside me, too. I’m beginning to suspect they lurk inside all women. I’m in therapy; I’m aware that these words aren’t quite me, that certain aspects of the past have created them. I’ve read feminist texts, talked about feminism with my friends and my (feminist) Mum, been to countless feminist talks; I’m aware of The Neoliberal Patriarchal Bullshit Complex and the insidious ways it convinces you that its failures are the failures of your self, which needs continuous, expensive improvement. But there is a gap between theory and practice, between thinking and feeling, and as I flail about in it, Tara chucks her pen across the room.
It’s 2016 and it’s Abby I think of when Mia, a young woman in my creative writing class says, “it’s going to be shit.” She has a biro, not a gel pen, but instead of throwing it, she writes with it, cupping her left hand over the page to make sure no one sees it.
The next class, Mia’s writing as soon as I’ve explained the task.
It’s another three classes before she reads aloud to the group. She reads a prosy poem about how she misses browsing the cat food aisle with her nieces, how she thought she’d miss her nieces but not like this, and never did she think she’d miss the supermarket, OK maybe the cereal aisle but never cat food, but then life never turns out like how you think, does it? When she’s finished, she smiles a big hungry smile, and everyone claps and says which bits they particularly liked, and it’s not until one of the women asks for a toilet pass then waits for a guard to unlock and lock the door to the classroom that I remember all this is happening inside a prison.
It’s not always so easy to forget: some weeks, a pall hangs over the class, and it’s only when it’s over that a member of staff tells me there’s been a suicide, or a 24-hour lock-down, or one of the women had her appeal coming up, or another’s son had refused to visit her.
The number of women in UK prisons more than doubled between 1995 and 2010, according to the UK charity . The charity has also found that almost a third of these women were in care of social services as a child, and almost a half experienced abuse as a child while just over half experienced domestic violence and abuse. Helena Kennedy QC’s book Eve Was Shamed: How British Justice is Failing Women, details the persistent systemic failure to prosecute male violence against women, while women are treated with increasing severity, due not only to the huge cuts to women’s refuges and other essential social services over the past 15 years, but also to the sentencing guidelines, which are designed around men and do not take into account gender-specific issues.
This means that while rape convictions decline, more women are being sent to prison for minor offenses, such as missing a probation appointment due to childcare responsibilities. “The personal,” writes Sara Ahmed in Living A Feminist Life, “is structural.” But how, when power structures constantly work to project their failings onto the most vulnerable, can we learn to untangle the two? How might this help us speak back to that bitchy little you‘re shit voice?
It’s 2018, my novel has been published in the UK for several months, #MeToo is new, and a young woman messages me on Facebook to say that the protagonist’s struggle to believe she’s not a bad thing spoke to a part of her experience she has never been able to speak about. I feel so bad about myself, she says. Like I’ve done something terrible and I don’t know what it was. I thought it was just me, but no.
Around the time Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed as Supreme Court judge, I’m working in a bookshop and I pick up a copy of Mary Beard’s Women & Power. I can’t put it down, can’t go back to peeling discount stickers off of books that no one wants to buy: Beard’s words are rattling the structures that make up who I am. Her topic is the silencing of women from public arenas of debate and the complex ways in which the Greek myths label women who speak “unnatural freaks.” An unnatural freak is exactly what having a book out in the world is making me feel like. I thought it was just me, but no, it goes back thousands of years. I feel, for about five minutes, like less of a failure for feeling all of this. Then my boss tells me off: you’re meant to be selling books, not reading them!
Beard argues that in order to make progress, we need to rethink spoken authority, “what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear it where we do.” When I started writing my novel All the Good Things, I didn’t know about Beard’s arguments; all I knew was that the protagonist’s voice—a young woman in prison for doing something so bad, she feels like she’s a bad thing—felt like the key to a door I hadn’t known I needed to unlock. It was a voice whose authority stemmed in part from its failures. It was loud and sulky, it was funny and clever and sad and stupid; it felt too much of all the wrong things. I hope that it speaks to, and through, the space between me and the women and girls I’ve worked with; I hope, but I can’t be sure. The next time a woman asks what my book is about, I’ll just say, it’s about a woman who learns that she is more than her failures and that you can be a woman who fails and still be a person. Then, I’ll wait and listen for her reply.
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