RSS Feed

Tag Archives: storytelling

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.

together-235128_1920

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.

chalkboard-620316_1920

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.

woman-558378_1920

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.

Donna learns to tell her story

“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we will ever do.” ~ Brené Brown

Thank you for being a part of our Truth Be Told family! Your commitment to our work enables us to change the lives of incarcerated women, their families and their communities. We thank you for your generous contribution and encourage you to read the powerful statement of one of our graduates, so you can feel first-hand how your support impacts these women.

by Donna Norman

Almost five years ago, I was lost and broken. I was facing my freedom, and it was coming fast. I was so hurt and so angry with everyone and everything, but most of all myself. The choices I made cost me my freedom and the loss of everything that meant anything to me – including and most importantly, my children. I wasn’t ready for my freedom or to face the memories I had to go home to, memories I ran from for seven years. What if I made the same mistakes? What was my purpose going to be now? What did I really have to live for anymore?

donnanorman

Then I saw the posters for the Truth Be Told class. I even knew some of the people who had taken the previous class. Everyone loved it and talked about how it made them feel. I didn’t want to open up to strangers, but I was still facing going home with no answers and a broken heart. I thought that this might be my last chance, so I signed up.

I was touched by how loving the women of Truth Be Told were; I just wasn’t ready to let them in. I was in Ms. Nathalie’s class, so I had to give a speech on my story. I was dreading it and even thought about dropping out, but that would leave me with my broken heart.

I asked myself, “What did I really have to lose by telling my story?” So I started working on it, piece by piece. Surprisingly, I started understanding myself by looking in from a third party perspective.

Then the day came for my speech. Ms Nathalie brought some Toastmasters in to critique our speeches, and one of them happened to be her husband [Jim Walsh]. I wasn’t comfortable with a man being there while I was so vulnerable, but I had already come this far. I stood up and started telling my story, although it took every piece of strength I had.

Ms. Nathalie’s husband then had the honor of judging my speech, but I feared he was really judging me. I could feel the defiance boiling up inside me, not wanting to hear a man tell me I’m not good enough after hearing me talk about all the other men who have hurt me in every way possible.

But to my utter disbelief, he stood up in front of me, looked me dead in my eyes, and apologized for everything those other men had done.

Hearing that touched me deep down in my soul. The wall I built so strong to keep everyone else out shattered and the tears wouldn’t stop. I wasn’t being judged… I was being heard.

donnaquiltThat was when the healing began. Truth Be Told gave me my life back. They helped me understand why I made the decisions I made, not blaming others but understanding them. They helped me change my thinking and be a better, stronger person.

I have been home for four years now. I use the tools I learned from Truth Be Told in my everyday life. Although things are hard at times, I haven’t failed or given up, because of what the women of Truth Be Told have given me…my truth. We are a true community of women. In my times of weakness I reach out to them, and they never let me down. I keep my three-year quilt close. Anytime that I need to feel supported I wrap it around me and I see all their smiling faces.

The world needs more selfless people like the facilitators with Truth Be Told. They are my angels.

~~~

Thank you so much, Donna, for sharing your beautiful story, and thank you, Jim Walsh, for being the kind and loving man that you are.

Readers, we thought you might want to see a poster that Truth Be Told used to invite women in prison to learn about and sign up for Talk To Me classes.

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 8.27.15 AM

Learning What You Can Take Into Prison and What You Can Take Out

by Jardine Libaire

jardine libaire_gold shirtLast week, I was so lucky and happy to be a witness at the Truth Be Told Talk to Me graduation at the MTC Lockhart Correctional Center. This was my introduction to Truth Be Told (TBT)—looking at Katie Ford’s website one day, I read about the TBT program and wanted to know more. The potential of a writing workshop in prison has always seemed massive to me—incarcerated people (and subsequently society) are better served if they’re offered tools for reformation and introspection even while they experience the punishment of being imprisoned. Living in prison might also be a person’s first chance to slow down and take stock, especially if they’re coming from a chaotic and rough life.

The writing process (which of course begins as a thinking and considering and remembering process) has been the backbone to any spiritual, moral, and emotional growth I’ve made in my own life. I’d be lost without a pen and paper. Stranded. A phenomenal teacher taught me when I was ten to write—not to echo ideas I’d heard, or create tales I thought people would like to read—but to start with the building blocks of my own visions and memories and my sensory life and my dreams and my observations of my immediate world, and to think, and to make something out of all that, to treat it like valuable material. To head into the process without guarantees, to explore, and to see what I could discover. I’m forever grateful to him, and to the teachers who followed.

I’d never been inside a prison, and TBT co-founder Carol Waid kindly sent me guidelines for volunteers coming into the facility. We could not bring cell phones, or tobacco products, or handguns (of course). We couldn’t wear all white, or revealing clothes, or short skirts, or sweat suits. No facial jewelry. Our shoes had to be closed toe, with a back. We shouldn’t mail letters for an inmate, or hug them, or ask when they’re getting out. We couldn’t have more than $25 on us, or a bottle of prescribed pills. I kept rereading this list, worried I would mess something up.

Our group of guests, volunteers, and workshop facilitators signed in that afternoon and met the women who were graduating in a big room with fluorescent lights, plastic chairs, and a scuffed floor. The women sat with us, fidgeting with the sleeves of their jumpsuits, grinning nervously, and we all introduced ourselves to each other.

The graduation wasn’t just a ceremony of passage, but a reading. The women had worked all session to discover their own stories, to write them out, and then to deliver them to an audience, which is what they did that day.

And I was just floored, jaw hanging, eyes wide, eyes wet, heart beating. I know this could sound melodramatic, but these ladies crushed it. Their stories were radioactive with honesty, dark humor, bravado, tenderness, bloody pain, maternal pride, rage, old-fashioned gratitude, and that very delicate and intricate thing—hope.

They hadn’t pasteurized their memories; they used raw material to create real portrayals. Their details were vicious, vivid, unexpected—and hard-won, because all good writing is hard-won. The women had ventured past safe and comfortable tropes and clichés and bush-wacked their own paths to their own true story. No one is ever the same after doing that kind of expedition. You better understand yourself, the way you function, the world you came from, how it affects you; knowing this personal territory, you have leverage in future situations. At least that’s been my experience, and I heard the premonition of it in these women’s stories, too.

But these stories weren’t just illuminating to their own authors. They filled in abstract reports we all hear on poverty, crime rates, domestic violence, disability. These women used details like a ferris wheel seen in a dream, smelling faint perfume on a sister’s letter, stolen makeup, and basketball courts to make their lives real to everyone listening.

Statistics often seem simple, but it’s harder to reconcile (and impossible to forget) the personal account of someone who as an 11-year-old sold crack to her mother; or a girl who knows love mainly from being sexually abused by her father; or a mother dealing drugs to give her kids a childhood free of the violence and hunger she lived through, but getting busted and losing her family entirely.

I looked at the facilitators with great respect since writing like that just doesn’t come out of typical workshops!

There was a dearth of self-pity or blame. Ambition and self-knowledge took up more space. I only fear that the outside world, when a woman is released, will threaten her sense of self and her goals, but, as Katie said in a closing moment, the best thing anyone can do is believe in these women. Fear isn’t useful.

And so we left the prison, exiting into the parking lot, past the razor-wire fencing. We didn’t take anything concrete with us, but I definitely left richer, laden with new knowledge and insight, carrying stories into the world beyond. It made me think for the first time in a firsthand way about oral storytelling traditions and how they’ve saved and protected cultures and individual souls from extinction in the collective consciousness. Stories don’t trigger metal detectors either, and they can go wherever there is life.

Now I Become My Self: A new facilitator shares her many selves

by Hannah Miller

During the spring semester of 2014, I became a volunteer facilitator in training for Truth Be Told. I joined Carol Waid’s Talk to Me Circle class at Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, Texas. In one of our classes, we explored the reality that each of us has many different identifies, roles, and faces we wear. Some of these faces have hurt ourselves and others. Some of these faces are healing faces of wholeness.

Through creative writing and storytelling, we shared with one another the faces that we hide and the faces we celebrate. In speaking our truth, we began to let go of our shame and embrace the wisdom that comes from knowing all of our many selves. The following piece was my entry in The Book of Wisdom, which includes writing from each of the women in the class. At graduation, each woman receives two copies of the publication.

Now I Become My Self

by Facilitator in Training Hannah Miller

HannahMillerI am a woman of many faces—a woman of many selves. You may try to call these faces my masks, but I know them each to be equally as true, each an essential part of me. Just because these selves at times contradict one another doesn’t make me a hypocrite. It makes me a tapestry. These selves, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes acrimoniously, coexist and intermingle inside of me.

If you know me, you may only know one of these selves. If so, you have only seen a sliver of the real me.

  • Maybe you first met me as the Adventurer—paddling among glaciers in Alaska, sleeping in a hammock on the border of Guatemala, or climbing the steps of a Hindu temple in Indonesia.
  • Or perhaps you know me as the Achiever. The disciplined one, always in competition with myself, whether running a cross-country race, studying for a biology exam, or learning to play the piano.
  • At a certain time, you would have encountered me as the Warrior. Fighting for the lives of the invisible and the powerless, those awaiting the gurney or the death chamber.
  • If I am your daughter, you see me as stubborn, outspoken, capable, responsible, sensitive, and loyal.
  • If you are my child, you know me as strong but affectionate, grounded yet playful, loving and present.
  • As a friend, you call me Truth-Teller, Justice-Seeker, Spirit-Keeper, Old Soul. You know I am openhearted, quick to cry, and ever eager for intimacy.
  • At work, I am the Peacemaker, Reconciler, Calm One. An attorney paid to argue and advocate but at core made to mediate, to see the gray, to find a middle way.
  • And then there are the faces of me I hope you never see. The selves I would prefer to keep hidden. The Critic. The Challenger. The Ferocious One. Explosive, sharp-tongued, demanding, relentless, unforgiving.

But if I had my way, I would rather tell this story. It is a story about the parts of me that remain unseen. Not because they do not exist but because they have not yet been fully realized. Some of these unborn faces have been present from my very beginning but were forgotten and must be recovered. Others do not come to me naturally and must be learned. All of them, however, are present, latent, and waiting to be born. These are the parts of me I claim today. It is only through them that I begin to fully become my self.

Courageous, free, trusting, fearless, slow to anger. Risk-Taker, Woman of Gentleness, Woman of Compassion, Kind and Merciful One. If you meet her along the way, tell her I believe in her. I can already see glimpses of her beauty and wisdom.