The story we make

Posted: December 22, 2008 in cancer, prison, general, story, teaching
Tags: , , , , , ,

Stereotypes are used by a speaker to position others within a particular storyline. — Perry R. Hinton, Stereotypes, Cognition and Culture

Nine months ago prisoners, prison and teaching on the inside were not a part of my personal story. My particular story line up until March, 2007 included many things — being a doctor’s daughter, a graduate student, a female, a writer and a cancer survivor. It was already a full life. Then I went and made it more complicated by taking something that I could keep simple if I chose — namely my ideas about who was good and who was bad — and making those ideas more ambiguous, making them something I had to reconsider, reflect on and incorporate into a new personal narrative.

In Hinton’s book she writes about how one of the only ways to change a stereotype is to bring two different groups together and have them interact. The basic premise, I think, is once you’ve looked someone in the eye it’s harder to look away again. And once you’ve heard his story, even if it includes terrible and/or criminal things there’s no turning back from the fact that they’ve become human, less a stereotype and more an individual.

This is a good thing, right? Most days.

Somedays, however, I think it might have been easier if I had chose to keep my story more simple.

But then I think of the cancer. Some experiences we choose to add to our story and some we do not. Regardless, we change. You survive cancer, but you don’t go back to life before cancer. I may someday not work with prisoners, but there’s no going back to not knowing who they are, not being able to imagine a man in a cell alone with his transgressions and the pain that can cause for some. For enough of them.

When people find out I have had cancer they think they know certain things about me. They assume they know a part of my story. But they don’t. Not until they sit with me and listen. Then, I’m not a cancer survivor, I am me, with my experience of cancer, which is different than any other’s cancer story. These men in prisoner, they are not a “they”. They are individual men with individual stories. The stories aren’t the easiest to hear or the easiest with which to make peace, but then what good stories, what good life, gets to claim it was easy?

  1. Joanna Garrett says:

    Are you going to publish a book? I am so impressed with your insight and ability. You are writing a beautiful story, a soul journey and it’s remarkable in its simplicity, depth and Truth.

    Thank you for sharing. Are you at liberty to share your student’s work?

    • islandwriter says:

      Hi Joanna,
      Thanks for being in touch and for spending time reading this blog. I appreciate the compliment on what I write here. I must confess that I still very much feel like a novice in this field of prison writing, prisons as an American industrial institution and the role of art and advocacy to change matters. Certainly, someday, I hope to add something via my writing to the still all too small cannon of work dealing with prisoner writing and the arts within prisons. I consider the entries here on this blog to be the beginnings of that work, but alas, only the beginnings. My primary goal here is to explore my own expanding and deepening understanding of working with prisoners, and also to expand my readers understanding of the same issue. If this blog can serve to make the walls between the free and the imprisoned somehow thinner, so that both sides can see and understand the other better, then I will have accomplished my aim. If, in the future, a book on the subject seems as if it will further my goal of connecting the “outside” with the “inside” then I will certainly undertake that endeavor as well.

      In the meantime, I’m also absorbed in finishing my first short story collection, and a woman can only take on so many brain and heart absorbing tasks at one time.

      Thanks again for your interest, Joanna. I would like to ask what your interest in prisoner writing and prisons might be?

      And yes, I have permission to post a few of the guys’ work. I simply need to get to it. Your question will prompt me to move that task up on the list of to-dos.

      All the best,

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