Judith Hannan is the author of Motherhood Exaggerated (CavanKerry Press, 2012), her memoir of discovery and transformation during her daughter’s cancer treatment and her transition into survival. Her most recent book is The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live With and Beyond Illness. Click here for more information about Judith and her work.
It’s Friday afternoon and I am on my way to Brooklyn where, every other week, I will meet social worker and Prison Writes founder Jessica Hall. Together, we facilitate a group consisting of young women in a gender based support program for women who have been criminal justice involved. Traveling with me are my insecurities. Is what I am doing, trying to draw stories from women who face so many challenges making any difference in their lives? It is not just the legal system, it is the educational system, the healthcare system, the housing system, as well as family systems.
Today is the first session after a summer break. The women enter with smiles; four familiar faces and one new one. Jessica gives them new folders for their work, which they decorate. Conversation is casual as Jessica guides us all towards re-connection. I want to learn about their lives over the past two months. What were they able to accomplish? What was disappointing. I ask them to write about an achievement.
The women are slow to the page. Why is it always so hard for any of us to recognize our successes?
“I didn’t do anything. I just went to work every day.”
“Going to work every day is a major accomplishment,” I say. “Write about it. What kept you going day after day? Show a scene with an angry customer. What did you do with your paycheck?”
I poke and prod, searching like a phlebotomist for the vein that will release their story.
“I drove a car for the first time.”
“What did that feel like? Where were you? Who were you with? Make me feel as if I am you, experiencing what you are. Use a metaphor or simile; driving a car is like …”
The stories emerge. One woman found a place to live. Another is on her way to getting her daughter back and ready to leave the program. Another got her first summer youth job where she worked in a soup kitchen and experienced a feeling of gratitude for what she had and the satisfaction of helping others.
They read their stories to each other. Everyone listens. Many find “me too” connections in what they hear. I want them to take pride in their words, for their bodies and voices to be tall and strong. I want so much for them to recognize their value. Sometimes I feel that what I offer is so small; when they need to grasp onto a strong limb I am only offering a twig.
We run out of time before I have a chance to give the second half of the writing prompt, which is to write about what didn’t go as planned over the summer and to explore why. Maybe it’s just as well. Better to re-enter their world telling themselves their stories of self-affirmation.
The women, and I, and Jessica will return to this room again and again. In worn office chairs around the black conference table, words, sentences, and paragraphs will pile on one another. Like a virtual 3-D printer, forms of who they are, what they dream of, who they love, how they see the world and their place in it, will emerge. In their stories, they become real to themselves and each other. This is enough.