The morning began with a funeral – not someone I was close to, but still someone I knew and respected. She did similar work; as a criminal defense lawyer she had a special interest in helping women find alternatives to incarceration. She worked with judges and prosecutors to try and find solutions that would help both the women accused and society as a whole. She wrote a reference letter for me when I applied for the Soros Fellowship. Last week she took her own life, six months after having the child she’d always longed for. Postpartum depression, they said.
The priest gave a moving eulogy, addressed the suicide head on. “The only way we can answer death is with life,” he said. “Jesus answered this question with his body – he gave his body to us in death so that we may live again.” The stories of Christianity move me but the rituals leave me cold. After the funeral I burst into tears because I felt somehow, that even though I didn’t know this woman very well, I still needed to give something more in remembrance of her. We must answer death with life.
When Nathalie Sorrell from Truth Be Told picked me up for our trip to Gatesville, I found myself telling her all of this. The Truth Be Told ladies are glorious creatures unto themselves. From a young age, I’ve been a private person. I don’t spill my guts and I don’t tell personal stories or bring my pains and sorrows to people I don’t know well. Oh, but these ladies! They talk about their deepest fears and sorrows and joys with such equanimity and grace. Their work in the prisons is based on storytelling – on the incarcerated women writing, telling and coming to terms with their stories. Maybe the TBT women were born with this wisdom, but I have to believe that years of hearing and helping women deal with terrible, terrible stories has given them some kind of insight into listening, into being present, into accepting and explaining life with a kind of… of… I don’t know even know the word for it! After listening to everyone stammer and struggle at the funeral for what to say, how to behave (myself included), how wonderful to be have one’s sorrow and pain accepted without awkwardness. I am still wary of personal stories but if all of the Truth Be Told facilitators have Nathalie’s skill, then what comfort that organization must provide.
So Nathalie, Carol and I drove about an hour and a half to the strange prison in Gatesville. All prisons are strange, of course, but yesterday the sky was blue, the breeze was lovely and the prison buildings shone white in the sunlight. It used to be a reform school for boys and the building our class was in, the Education Building, is actually an historic building whose third floor holds an old theatre. We parked and approached the guard tower, where the sentry let down a canvas bag on a rope. We put our I.D.s into the bag and he hoisted it back up before buzzing us through the gate. Walking into the admin building, I noticed how much this place looked like a campus – albeit one surrounded by chain link and razor wire. All of the buildings were stand-alone, with no covered walkways between them.
“It was awful last month,” Nathalie told me. “When it was raining and storming – the women just wait out in the weather. You’ll see where they line up. It doesn’t matter the weather; they always have to line up outside.”
We waited for a guard to come get us. And waited. And waited. About twenty minutes after our class was supposed to begin, a line of women dressed all in white walked by the glass doors of the admin building. We all jumped up and joined them outside. They called to Nathalie and Carol, happy to see them. Sixteen came for our class, another few for the Bible study across the hall.
Once inside the building, I realized how little color these women see. The Travis County jail lacks color as well, but at least they have posters on the walls and the classrooms are brown and white. Gatesville felt almost antiseptic – the white exteriors, the white interiors, the women in white shirts and white pants. A blank canvas, against which the brightly colored folders made barely an impact. I felt like a peacock in my turquoise shirt and glittery beaded bracelet. The classroom was large and my voice bounced off of every blank wall, but the women’s energy was high and I was ready for some laughter.
I’d originally intended a good mix of high energy games and contemplative exercises but as soon as class started, I realized that I needed to change it up. In my masters’ program, one of our facilitators talked about ‘always having your antennae up’, always reading the room and feeling what everyone wanted and needed, and whether to go with the group or push them a little in a different direction. My crumpled little list of games came in and out of my hip pocket as I changed my mind, made split second decisions and felt my way through the class.
There is a kind of high when it goes well. Like surfing, perhaps – riding a wave of energy and emotion, catching the questions, reassuring the hesitations and noticing the details of every interaction. My extreme fatigue, heightened emotional state and placement in a new environment all combined to give me that high. “I can do this!” I thought. “I am good at this!”
We played The Sun Shines On, Two by Three by Bradford and Heartbeat Ball, which yielded a new metaphor. I like the games that go deeper, that can spark discussion. In heartbeat ball, a ball must keep going around the circle in a rhythm – it’s the priority. Once a rhythm is established, you add other items (in this case a scarf) that go the opposite direction in no rhythm. The ball is the priority. If the ball is dropped, the heartbeat dies. I played this a few weeks ago at my new job (No Kidding for YouthLaunch) and was amazed at how fast the group picked it up. Not so at Gatesville – the women clung to the scarf and couldn’t stay on the ball, so to speak.
“The ball is the priority,” I said. “The scarf has to go around too, but the ball is most important.”
“Get rid of the scarf, then,” one woman said. “If it’s not important, why should we have it in the circle?”
“That’s not really how life works, is it?” I replied. “You can’t get rid of everything you have to take care of. You’ve got the priority and then other things that are less important but you still have to deal with them. In this game, the scarf stays.”
In the discussion afterward, another woman compared the scarf to addiction: “The scarf is so pretty and I want it; I want to wear it but it’s a distraction. It keeps me from focusing on my heartbeat. Like my addiction.” Scarf as addiction; a new metaphor is born.
We also did These Hands – originally I was going to take this into an extended exercise but I kept it as two simple go rounds – “these hands have” with a gesture and “these hands will”. One woman discussed how in her outside life, she always had to have a beer in her hands, “washing dishes, watching tv, whatever” so connecting her past and her future to her hands felt powerful to her. Many women spoke of holding children. The women shared more about their lives than I’m used to, until I remembered that this was a Truth Be Told class, where they share and craft their personal narratives.
After the class, I realized how much I wish I could do this full time. Although I’m happy with my new job at YouthLaunch and think that they’re doing fantastic work, my heart belongs to prison work. What a strange thing to write down. The more I work in my field(s), the more I realize what my strengths are and the more I wish they could be fully utilized.
I am not a social worker or a therapist or a counseler. I don’t give the best advice and I’m not always the best listener. What I do is create a space, a space for laughter and joy and contemplation and play. A space to release sorrow, pain and anger, if only for a short time. A space to answer death with life.
dedicated to KC