My Time in the Big House

I suppose it was religion that prompted me to propose a writing course for the inmates at the county jail. Not that I was religious: I was what I considered a mythologically free Yankee forced by the exigencies of fate, or karma, or a complete lack of cogent thought to live in rural southern Tennessee.

I’d moved there for the most embarrassing of reasons. After my divorce from my writing partner, with whom I’d collaborated on a number of popular and moneymaking airport reads, I was without a husband, home, or career. Even worse, my son—our only child—was going away to college at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. My solution to this existential dilemma was to move with him in order to share his undergraduate experience and provide him with the social life—meaning talking to me—for which I felt he would surely be yearning.

I was warned. As I sold and packed up the house in Pennsylvania that I’d just bought, my friends tried to tell me that 18-year-old males didn’t usually want their moms to go to college with them, but I waved them away. “It’s not like that,” I explained breezily. “He’ll be in a dorm. I’ll just be nearby. For brunch and things.”

Brunch never happened. With the exception of having to pick him up outside the dean’s office after a brief suspension for participating in a melée during a drunken fraternity party, I was not included in my son’s inner circle. Nor did his new girlfriend welcome me with open arms. I was lost.

Since I had stopped writing, having decided that micro-managing my son’s life took precedence over any literary ambitions I might entertain, I had nothing to occupy my time in this alien part of the country where the principal pastime seemed to be attending church.

There are all sorts of Christian churches in the Deep South. In addition to the standard ones I was familiar with, there were what I called “showtime” churches, with smiling musicians accompanying ceiling projections of Jesus flying through the cosmos, His arms outstretched like Superman’s; the hellfire-and-brimstone churches that guaranteed that the only people with any hope of entering heaven were the 72 members of its congregation; churches whose cornerstone was an abiding hatred of homosexuals; and churches that, for reasons that elude me even now, encourage its faithful to get bitten by poisonous snakes during the 11 AM service. I know these things because that was how I planned to make friends and build a new life for myself—by going to church. However, being unaccustomed to churchly life, I determined that I should try out a number of churches. I threw myself wholeheartedly into the social circles of several, including one that was on a rotation to hold a service at the Sequatchie County Jail.

There, amid the testimonials and Amens, the rousing hymns and arm waving, my writerly self at last began to wake up. Who are these women? I asked myself. They all looked pretty homogenous—white, for the most part, and mainly young, with longish hair devoid of product, no makeup, and wearing the kind of overshirt/pajama uniform worn by surgical nurses. But I knew they had all done fairly extraordinary things to end up behind bars, and became seized with the desire to know them.So I spoke with the man in charge of inmate activities—the chaplain, as it turned out, which may have explained the plethora of visiting churches. In fact, aside from GED classes provided by the state and weekly AA meetings, church gatherings seemed to be the only approved program on the roster. (Apparently, once there had been a diet group for women whose primary rule was that whenever a member of the group felt like noshing on a Ho Ho, she had to confer with another member and together they would pray for weight loss, but it had been disbanded before I arrived.) Although I was experienced—I’d taught a college class in Advanced Novel Writing a couple of years before—I didn’t hold out much hope that my proposal to start a creative writing group would be approved. To my surprise, though, it was.

Attendance at my class was spectacular, undoubtedly because of the mind-numbing sameness of jail life. Prison, it was explained to me, is more fun because there’s more to do, but given a choice, an inmate will probably choose jail because it’s closer to home, even though amusements were limited to stealing one another’s pillows and attending church.My first assignments were short and uncontroversial: Describe the color red. Which musical instrument would you be? What is your favorite memory? I asked them to read their essays out loud, and stipulated that they were required to applaud at the end of each reading. I’d expected some objection to the applause decree, but my students accepted it without question, often blushing with pride when the applause was for them.

Their writing was always surprising. A 30-year-old Mensa member who was serving time for driving the getaway car in an armed robbery wrote a pastoral essay about the mollifying effects of smoking crack outdoors. Another wrote about cooking meth with her mom. Some of the stories were heartbreaking, such as one woman’s oddly cheerful account describing how she was prostituted by her parents; some were simply horrifying. Most were badly spelled, incorrectly punctuated, and lacking in structural variety, which made me realize how unimportant these conventions are. Writing is about telling the truth. Period. Without that, nothing else matters.

In the college class I taught, the students complained constantly, either about the outrageous length (five pages) of my assignments, or the grades I gave them for what any serious writer would consider minimal effort. But here in jail, no one shirked the assignments, ever. Pens weren’t allowed (they can be made into weapons), so my students wrote in pencil, dozens of pages every week, laying out their stories as if the horrors they’d experienced—motel rooms filled with guns, overdosing on drugs, standing by in handcuffs while their children were taken from them by force—were, in some unforgiving, terrifying universe, commonplace occurrences.

In time, we moved onto autobiographies, along with brief lessons on things like unreliable narrators in fiction, and the hallmarks of existentialist thought. I never had to lecture on the importance of writing with integrity, though, or of making real connections with their emotions. Every sentence these women wrote came from the deepest core of their souls.
Before I left to move back north (with my son’s blessing and an audible sigh of relief) I gave each of my students a journal as a parting gift. They were disappointed that I didn’t have certificates for them, evidence of accomplishment, with their names written in Black Forest Bold. I wish I’d thought of it.

At our last class, they applauded me. I think that may have been the closest I ever came to understanding religion. I can still hear it.

Comments are closed.