Bestselling author Wally Lamb led me to some crucial insights about self-acceptance, forgiveness and gratitude with his novels She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True. Now, in his role as writing workshop leader at a women’s prison, he’s empowered some forgotten and outcast members of our society to understand how they became who they are, and to make the rest of us recognize our common humanity. Couldn’t Keep It to Myself is the first collection of autobiographical essays by Lamb’s students at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut. The sequel, I’ll Fly Away, was just released.
Emotionally, this book is a hard read because of the numbing similarity of their traumatic pasts. The women’s voices, however, are fresh and individual, even humorous at times. Childhood sexual abuse is virtually universal, and the pattern is often repeated in their adult relationships. Several of the authors finally struck back against men who were abusing them or their children, yet received life sentences despite their status as battered women, due to poor lawyering or prejudiced judges. Small moments of hope and resistance shine out as all the more precious, such as Bonnie Foreshaw’s fight for a religious exemption that would let her wear a skirt instead of pants with her prison uniform.
The authors never deny responsibility for their crimes nor plead victimhood as an excuse to escape punishment. What their stories reveal, however, is that they are real, complex people, not reducible to their worst act (as Sister Helen Prejean would say), who are often enduring far harsher sentences than the facts seem to merit. Given the deprivations of their early lives, talk of “coddling” prisoners with educational programs and other rehabilitation opportunities is ridiculous. They are only being given, for the first time in their lives, opportunities for self-understanding and dignity that most of us take for granted.
Apparently these ideas were too explosive for the State of Connecticut, which was so threatened by Lamb’s project that it filed a six-figure lawsuit against the book’s contributors for the cost of their incarceration. Contributor Barbara Parsons Lane received the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award in 2004 for fighting for inmates’ freedom of speech. Lane was released in 2004 and continues her advocacy for women behind bars.
The media loves to focus on abuses of the system when criminals get an absurd windfall, but ignores the much greater number of cases — not newsworthy because too routine? — where women already beaten down from childhood by poverty, domestic abuse, and neighborhood violence are punished as if no decent person would have broken under the strain. Reading this book will challenge your ideas of “us” and “them”. How much are our free, law-abiding lives creditable to our own self-control, and how much to the fact that when trauma struck our own lives, we had the cushion of a safe home, a good education, or financial security, to keep us from a desperate act?