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Journey to Self

by Peggy Lamb, Exploring Creativity Coordinator for Truth Be Told

Rca, Krystal, Brandi, Kathy, Linda, and Nancy: six women in the white garb of inmates and I sit in a circle in the spacious chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, TX. They are in the Female Sex Offender Treatment Program. We are here to do a deep dive into creativity – to collaboratively create Journey to Self, a dance/theater piece they will perform in Truth Be Told’s Miracles in Human Form show for their fellow inmates.

I look at their nervous and expectant faces. These six women have been chosen to participate in this project by their therapists because they have demonstrated a commitment to their recovery.

I reassure them that my intention is to create a divinely inspired, perfectly-imperfect piece. I see their breathing deepen and faces relax a bit but still they are nervous and insecure. They are not professional dancers and have never performed. Who wouldn’t be nervous?

It’s time to move, to quiet the monkey-mind, and to feel our feet! We start with saying our name and doing a movement, then Whoosh-Bang-Pow (a movement game that gets even the most uptight person laughing.) After Whoosh-Bang-Pow I lead them in Flocking, an exercise that culminates in the group walking together at the same tempo (which is harder than it sounds.). We’ll use this in the final section of our performance when the women-in-white form a procession and walk slowly downstage to Alison Krause’s Down to the River to Pray.

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We gather again in a circle — now we are a much more relaxed and embodied group of women. We read a couple of poems I’ve selected: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (tell me about despair, yours and I will tell you mine), The Healing Time by Pesha Gertler (the old wounds, the old misdirections, and I lift them one by one close to my heart and I say holy holy), and that powerful quote by Maya Angelou, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”

I ask the group if they are familiar with Maya Angelou. Most of them are through her Phenomenal Woman poem. Brandi, a white thirty-something mother of six says, “I named my daughter after her.”

Through writing prompts such as “Write a ten-word memoir,” we create the written material that serves as a springboard for dance material. I ask the women to create three movements that symbolize the parts of their lives they chose to write about. This is the hardest part for most of them. They want to do pantomime. Eventually their robotic, pantomimic movements slowly become imbued with the core of their being, as much as these deeply scarred and wounded women can deliver at this time.

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I call this section of the piece “I could tell you a story” and it is the heart of Journey to Self. The body, in its cellular wisdom, can express that which we do not have words for.

One woman’s movement is simply opening her mouth and arms wide. She has been in prison for over 20 years for molesting her children. Another woman’s movement is simple side-to-side sways — a beautiful movement. For her it meant how she was influenced by other people and did not have her own sense of self.

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The warden has allowed us two three-hour slots of rehearsal time — a miracle in the world of TDCJ. By the end of our second rehearsal, these women and I have created a beautiful heart-felt dance. I am stunned and awed by their courage, their willingness to step outside their comfort zones, their vulnerability and discipline.

As one woman said during our debrief, “In the free world I dressed in wigs, make-up, heels and sexy clothes. I didn’t know how to be just me. In this piece I was more naked and vulnerable than I’ve ever been. And yet, I feel more peaceful than I’ve ever felt.”

As for me, this deep dive into the holy water of dancing with incarcerated women leaves my body heart and spirit vibrating with gratitude. I shake my head in wonder and awe at how I stumbled into this divinely choreographed and divinely designed volunteer work.

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Creativity an essential tool in the development of Truth Be Told

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.