By Nathalie Sorrell, Truth Be Told Co-Founder
When Carol Waid and I were creating Truth be Told classes in the first two years of our work behind bars in Lockhart prison, we knew we were offering these incarcerated women our primary tools for maintaining our own sanity and exceeding our various forms of discouragement when life presented us with difficulties. Our main tool was writing and talking, when those to whom we wrote and spoke were respectful listener/readers and authentic truth tellers themselves. Being in 12 Step programs provided us with a belief in a Higher Power that could support our life journey, as well as the example of others who had struggled, now choosing a more authentic lifestyle, and willing to talk and listen at a deeper level. We began thus to share, in the format of a public speaking class, which the warden at the prison had offered me a chance to create.
Soon the women wanted more and were greatly distressed when the Talk to Me class completed after “only” eight weeks of soul-searching honesty and sharing. They had formed a community of support behind bars where they’d never known it – and they wanted more. Carol and I began to add more writing exercises like we had done when we were friends, writing together in the Texspresso coffee shop at the Village shopping center. I had other personal growth exercises I’d used in my Lighthouse Enterprises workshops and when I was leading women’s retreats for various churches in Texas. Some were based on Wishcraft, Barbara Sher’s book about how to discover your heart’s desire and become a success by your own definition. Others were from Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, by Susan Jeffers, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. A primary book for me was Elizabeth O’Conner’s Our Many Selves, which is still a staple of our Discovery Classes. Soon, we had a six-week Discovery class planned for our graduates to attend, using exercises which we and friends and mentors had created or borrowed from workshops we’d attended.
The women in our classes felt rewarded for the intensely difficult work of delving into their past pain and shame-smeared life experiences, speaking them aloud to each other and even to audiences at graduations, when they knew that they were going to then be eligible to attend the creative Discovery classes. We promoted them by saying:
“Now that you’re no longer driven by or hiding from the past, you can begin to create a future for yourself. Now your past becomes the gift you can offer when your truth-telling is needed, to help others caught like you were, to create a safer community for everyone to grow.”
When our second group of women began with the deepest possible truth-telling by a young intense woman speaking the unspeakable trauma of being her father’s sexual plaything when she was a toddler, Carol and I realized we were into facilitation beyond our depth of training or life experience. After meeting with prison officials, and while creating our first prison pray-er team at the suggestion of Margaret Simpson, the idea arose of bringing into this class other facilitators who had creative gifts for dealing with trauma. One week was devoted to the creation of mandalas, which the facilitator had used to get her through the trauma of a miscarriage. Another week was given to a singer song-writer who used her writing to express how the trauma of her divorced father’s neglect played over into her adult love-life of choosing men who were unreliable in spite of their spoken words. And another program came from a woman who did bodywork for many women who’d endured many kinds of trauma. The participants showed a profound resilience emerging from their shared creativity. They then continued the class by staying within guidelines for 5-7 minute speeches for graduation (that didn’t include such intimate detail that they’d traumatize the audience.)
Carol and I saw that we needed to include opportunities for women in prison to experience the power of creativity beyond their commitment to our eight-week Talk to Me classes. Thus were born Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity workshops. Any creative person we met in our daily lives in Austin’s generative community was liable to find Carol and me standing in front of them after they had sung, played, painted, read their writing, danced, or performed in any way that inspired or evoked our attention. We’d be asking them:
“Would you be interested in going into the women’s prison with us and doing a two-hour creative workshop?”
It was amazing and gratifying to see that artists so often are wide open to sharing their talents and gifts with people who can’t afford to pay them. We couldn’t, and didn’t… but again and again, these performers and visual artists experienced the same thing we did: Their own passion and creativity was rewarded deeply as they satisfied the yearning women in prison have. Incarcerated women long for meaning, for role models, and for playful and courageous exploration of new ways of discovering and expressing their true selves.
Suzanne Armistead was invited in to lead an Exploring Creativity workshop, and as a dancer, became our passionate advocate for letting the women release and address their issues through movement as well as talk and writing. She had a lot of work to do with Carol and me as well … because although I’d awakened eight years before to my severe neglect of my own body’s need for my attention and respect – I was still far more comfortable with ignoring my physical desire for expression than giving in to it – especially in the groups or classes I facilitated.
So Truth be Told had three founders with great mutual respect for what the others had to offer and the willingness to go beyond our own comfort zones into innovative and challenging experiences with following each other’s leadership. As we facilitated classes and workshops together, we continued on our own path of personal and spiritual growth and learned many more creative forms of working through the inevitable conflicts and differences that occur in team leadership.
Creativity is an essential tool of the work we have been doing for the past 14 years. A new article in The Texas Tribune just came out expressing this primary truth that we’ve learned through our own experience. It is a joy to read, and I hope you’ll find time to go to this link soon, and see how once again, Truth be Told is doing something simply because it works for us that has great value on a far wider scale than we knew when we began this work in 2000.
What a joy to be part of this journey with so many authentic, growing women and men, beyond and behind bars, within and outside our organization. I will be thanking my Higher Power until the day I die for the fun and the growth I’ve experienced as a co-creator of the Talk to Me classes, Discovery classes, and Exploring Creativity workshops of Truth be Told.