Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: Couldn't Keep it to Myself

Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters), Wally Lamb, editor

Lamb, who wrote one of my favorite books, I Know This Much is True, was asked in 1999 to give a lecture on writing as part of the education program at York Correctional Institute, a maximum security prison in Connecticut. He did so as a favor, but after two hours he was hooked: There were several female inmates who asked him to teach them how to write. Lamb agreed, and he began giving a class every other Thursday—which he continues to do today.

According to the introduction the writing, at first, was terrible—flat, disorganized, and mostly of the pity-party type. But Lamb, a teacher by trade, was patient and skillful. The women came to realize that writing was an outlet for their anger, hurt, and shame, that it was a method whereby the secrets hidden in the dark recesses of their souls might be revealed.

The result of three years of writing is this book. It contains the stories of ten women of all colors and ages, and not a "poor me" is to be read. They write about their families of origin, their children and husbands, addictions, life in prison, gang life and, most of all, their childhoods. One story broke my heart: titled "Thefts", a little girl of twelve was impregnated by her father, sent away for the gestation period and birth, and I can tell you no more because of spoilage.

The purpose of this book is not to debate the nature-vs-nurture question, which probably cannot be answered anyway. But Lamb gives a meaningful statistic, born out by the stories: of the ten contributors, eight had been battered and nine sexually abused.

Obviously, this book is not for the casual reader. Lamb may have over-edited in places, but it did not take away from the horror these women have endured. To say that I liked this book makes me sound like a ghoul, but I have a reason for giving it four-and-a-half stars: see Throwaway Women.


Mary Witzl said...

Well, that has just brought tears to my eyes, so well done. What a great job you did. I know it must have felt like a teaspoon of good in an ocean of misery and injustice, but the fact that you gave those women a way to express themselves safely is an incredible gift. Beautiful post, Charlie, and I love what you wrote.

I'm a big Wally Lamb fan too. I thought he was great even before Oprah told us he was.

Charlie said...

Oprah [Charlie snorts]

Wally's new book, The Hour I First Believed, is based on York and its predecessor, Niantic. It's a good book and v-e-r-y long, but not quite as good as his first two.

Thanks for the kind words, Mary. Coming from you makes them special.

Kim Ayres said...

So powerful, Charlie. So powerful.

Charlie said...

Thanks, Kim. There are so many throwaway women out there . . .

Mary Witzl said...

I came back to read this again, Charlie, because I liked it so much. It was just as great the second time as the first, too.

Smiler said...

You wrote a very moving piece. In fact, I don't know if the fact that it's the middle of the night and I'm tired has anything to do with it, but your piece brought tears to my eyes. How easy it is to forget these women, caught up in our own lives and personal dramas. We forget them because it helps us hold on to our own misery and self-pity, because compared to those throwaway women, the rest of womankind has it pretty easy no matter how difficult things get sometimes.