Book Review: Couldn't Keep It To Myself: Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters

 By Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution
Regan Books, 2003, 350 pages, $24.95

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After two inmates committed suicide in 1999, the staff at the York Correctional Institution, Connecticut's maximum security prison for women, turned to the community for help. Among those who responded was well-known author Wally Lamb. He agreed to conduct a two-hour workshop on the use of writing as a coping tool. Something clicked during that initial session, and Lamb has been visiting the prison regularly since then—prodding, encouraging, and editing the work of his eager students.

One of the results is Couldn't Keep It to Myself, a collection of poignant essays by 10 inmates serving time for crimes such as homicide, assault, drug trafficking, and embezzlement.

Researchers know that a high percentage of female inmates were sexually or physically abused before they entered prison, a reality that becomes all too clear in these searing descriptions of physical and sexual assaults by husbands, boyfriends, fathers, mothers, and neighbors.

Carolyn Ann Adams recalls the night her violent father climbed into her bed and raped her when she was in seventh grade; nine months later she delivered his baby. Barbara Parsons Lane was raped by her grandfather when she was a girl, after he took her into the back room of a convenience store. Later in life, she learned that Grandpa also had sexually abused his daughter, Lane's mother.

But the cycle does not end there. Lane divorced her first husband and married a much younger man who was mentally ill. He beat and raped her and threatened to kill her if she ever left him. In a chilling scene, he drives her to a remote wooded area, where he uses a rifle for target practice and tells her “how easy it would be to make you disappear.”

There is a novelistic quality to the writing as the women describe raw scenes of abuse, violence, and drugs. Tabatha Rowley was 12 when her older brother showed her how to deal drugs, shoot guns, and rob. Brenda Medina, serving time for homicide, vividly recalls the time she beat a woman with a two-by-four as part of a gang initiation rite. Although readers may be repulsed by such details, they will gain a deeper appreciation for the circumstances that shaped these writer convicts.

Overall, the writing is remarkably polished. Like all good prose, it reflects the hard work of patient rewriting.

Reading these riveting stories, which evoke sadness and anger at once, one appreciates Lamb's gift to women who had thought they had no voice and who are now published writers. Nancy Birkla, a cousin of Lamb's who served time in Kentucky for drug trafficking, writes, “One day I figured out a dying little girl lived inside of me, so I threw her a lifeline in the form of paper and pen.” Bonnie Foreshaw, convicted of homicide, says, “Writing has given me a voice I never had before. It has become an important part of my healing.”

Dale Griffith, a prison teacher who works with Lamb, had been aware of the power of writing. “Students' treasures,” she says, “are buried under piles of emotional and institutional rubble—yet the treasures are there, waiting to be unearthed and discovered.”

When the book was released, some people expressed anger that these women might profit from their crimes by collecting royalties. But that issue should not obscure the important message that society is better off if inmates are given a chance to experience the healing power of writing. After all, most inmates will leave prison one day. If they return home with hope and a sense of self worth, they will be less likely to commit new crimes. Women who entered the writing program feeling rejected, worthless, and abandoned now experience support, acceptance, and pride of authorship.

Couldn't Keep It to Myself is a compelling collection of life stories. It's worth noting, though, that it stops short of discussing important issues involving failed justice for battered women. Too often, husbands and boyfriends have escaped punishment despite years of physically abusing the women in their lives. Police and the courts frequently have seemed blind to the crimes, sometimes even after repeated pleas for help. But these critical issues, which deserve to be fully explored, are beyond the scope of this book.

Wally Lamb has performed a service. One can only imagine the result if writers across the nation followed his example by contacting their nearby prisons and offering to conduct writing workshops.

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