I was nineteen. Prison seemed sexy and foreign—as did most forbidden things. Maybe I wanted to seem tough. Maybe I needed something to differentiate me from all the other over-achieving, world-traveled students at the university I attended. Maybe I felt I had something to give. Whatever my motivation, I wrote and received a grant to teach creative writing and arts workshops in all wings of the women’s prison, full-time for one summer. I’d already been going into the prison once a week through a project supported by the warden, a progressive artist with a genuine desire to change the system from within.
The group of students who went in weekly during the school year met a few times for training around a big wooden table in a regal, off-white room in the university’s public service center. Handouts informed us that female inmates usually got time for petty, victimless crimes like tax evasion or prostitution. Occasionally, they aided a criminal boyfriend or husband, but mostly they were victims of a larger social problem: poverty.
Going once a week to the prison with the student volunteers, I never really learned what the women were in for. They wrote poems, sure. But mostly we played absurdist games or used lines from published poetry to get them started. Women came and went, leaving little vignettes about love lost, limericks about their apartments. But when I began to spend every day there by myself, the deeper stories emerged.
One of my students, barely out of her teens—white, with wire glasses and dishwater blond hair—looked like she should be sitting on a dorm couch eating chips. When she came to the workshop, she wrote vivid little poems about stabbing a man—a murder she had, in fact, committed. The social worker told me that this inmate derived sexual gratification from violent talk, but the other inmates said she was just hoping to get sent to the mental hospital where the food was better, the rules more relaxed. Another of my students burned a house down that contained her two children. Another woman, with a Pegasus tattooed across her back, ran over someone in a car. The brightest and most charismatic was a young black woman with muscular arms who named herself after a popular item of furniture. She had a powerful speaking voice, a thirst for radical cultural theory, and made the blue government-issue shirt look sexy.
Whoever told me about this young woman’s double homicide (an inmate? I can’t remember), said that she had killed two women of a rival gang with her bare hands.
After I heard this, I returned to the co-op where I lived with fifteen other idealistic, cargo pant-wearing students, and sat on my futon. I looked at my own hands: knobby, strewn with rings. All of us have the capacity for murder. I remember this realization, the way it felt, like sitting in a cold wind.
I went in to meet with the woman who oversaw the project at the university’s public service center. I had been thinking about the killings for days, trying to wrap my head around them. They had changed me, changed the way I saw my job there. I still liked these women. They laughed at stupid sounds. They wrote surprisingly moving poems for apples and pears. But if these women were victims of the system, it was a hell of a lot more complicated than anyone ever admitted.
The women in the writing workshops were the ones with time on their hands: seven years, fourteen years, double life. The ones with three weeks had calls to make, documents to read. I told the project manager that the training should include some case histories. Shouldn’t we be able to do the same work in the face of the truth? Isn’t the whole point of learning to get to the crazy, conflicted heart of a thing? The big picture hadn’t changed: these women were mostly poor or mentally unstable. They were victims in a sense. But they weren’t entirely victims and it was wrong to make it seem that way. The project manager shook her head. She remarked that my negativity would endanger the project. When the fall semester started, I continued my work at the prison, but the project manager didn’t hire me to train volunteers. Nor did she have me discuss my summer of work with the group. Maybe she feared that the truth would affect funding. Maybe she thought it would make the college liable if anything bad ever did happen to us in that place.
I’ve thought about this sporadically over the years. When my mother lay dying after a decade long battle with cancer, people told me that she was no longer suffering, that she would go to a better place, that her spirit would live on. But she had suffered for ten years; she fought to suffer. Suffering meant life and beyond life, no one knew anything. Why was everyone trying to reduce the truth? Why couldn’t they meet me in the heart of the thing—in its total chaos and pain?
Maybe I knew at nineteen, even before I could articulate it, that writing would be a vehicle to say the things the world asks you to keep quiet. Maybe I knew this could be a gift to those women whose lives undoubtedly lacked order and ease. In the refined silence of a page, all the roaring of the world can be felt—the giving mothers who die too young in terrible pain and the girls who strangle other girls in dark buildings at night, then turn around to write stunning elegies to fruit.