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The Writers at Touchstone

by Sharon Charde

For as long as I can remember I have always wanted to work with incarcerated women. I'm not really sure why; maybe it's because I've always been attracted to 'bad girls' — probably the bad girl in me needed some freedom that I wasn't giving her. And for much of my life, I'd felt imprisoned myself, certainly as a Catholic girl growing up in the forties and fifties when there were prescriptions for all of our behavior, rules for everything. In the sixties I taught English for a year in an inner city high school in Philadelphia, where I lived with my young husband, who was in medical school at the time, and though the demands of the job far exceeded my capacity to respond to them, I fell in love with the girls I taught, so unlike anyone I had ever met in my sheltered life in a small town in Connecticut. Two young children and a move took me away from them, but I never forgot.

So I became a family therapist years later, and then created writing workshops and retreats for the middle-class white women I was surrounded by. Writing, for me, had always been a love and a release. As a teenager I had written a great deal and had won awards for my writing. In college I was an English major with a special focus in creative writing. As my children grew I nurtured their considerable talents in writing. I wrote articles for the local newspaper, kept journals. And, when my youngest son died at the age of 20, I turned to writing for survival. I went to New Mexico and studied 'writing practice' with Natalie Goldberg, a form of writing that accesses the unconscious storehouse we all keep in a unique and powerful way. It also is about freedom, in fact it demands what Goldberg calls 'first thoughts' and 'going for the jugular' to be at its most effective. It needs to be uncensored. I went to Block Island, to the barn our family and friends had helped us rebuild into a home, and lived for a winter, writing, and walking the beaches, trying to heal the devastating loss of my child.

But it wasn't enough. Perhaps I had to heal enough to know that. I had closed my therapy office to spend the winter on the island, and out of a conviction that psychotherapy had real limitations in helping people to change. My husband earned enough money for us to live on, and I wanted to go back to the volunteer work I had done as a young mother. I wasn't sure what the work should be. I knew I didn't want to just sit on a board. I wanted to do something, something that would engage me deeply.

The idea of working with incarcerated women had never left me, but I lived in a rural area. Where were any prisons? Through a chance encounter, I heard about Touchstone, a residential treatment facility for teenaged girls on parole, in a town about 40 minutes from me. I had just finished reading Ophelia Speaks, Sara Shandler's collection of powerful pieces written by girls all over the country about the difficulties of being a teenager in our culture. I called Touchstone and asked if I could meet with the director to discuss starting a writing group at the facility.

She had no objections, so I arrived the following week with a copy of Ophelia Speaks, and plans to address the whole group of 20 girls, explain writing practice to them, see if they wanted to be part of such a group. Ten girls signed up. That was a year and a half ago. Since then I have fallen in love. And felt enormous frustration. Been introduced to what Buddhists call 'impermanence' on a weekly basis, as if I didn't have enough of it in my life already.

The girls stay at Touchstone for approximately nine months, some more, some less, so the composition of the group is always changing. They are part of Connecticut's juvenile justice system, and The North American Family Institute, a private enterprise, owns and operates this and other similar facilities with money the state contributes. The girls, most of who have been arrested for using or selling drugs, assault, being on the run, prostitution and other petty crimes, serve out their time here learning to make responsible choices in a community using the normative model, which involves peer confrontation and constant group processing, among other treatment modalities.

When I arrived I knew none of this, didn't know that the girls weren't allowed to use 'bad' language, that they weren't supposed to lie down or put their feet on the furniture. I encouraged them to get comfortable, to write whatever came to them from my prompts in their own language. They took to this easily, but I had to get permission from the staff to allow this diversion from the daily norms. I was encouraging them to be free in a place where they were locked up, to write from the heart when their hearts were beaten and broken. The cognitive dissonance' was yet another challenge.

Most of the girls are Hispanic and African-American, and I quickly found that almost none of the literature I owned and had used in my women's groups for prompts would work. I called Jennifer Wallace at Sarah Lawrence College, who works as a trainer for a group of students who go into Westchester County Correctional Facility and do a Right-to-Write program. She gave me valuable resources; among them, Sapphire's Push, and an article in DoubleTake Magazine on women in prison.

I collected books and tapes of black and Hispanic women writers. I sent for Voices From The Hood, a manual for a low-income housing teenage writing group put out by Amherst Writers and Artists Press.

I met every obstacle you can think of, dealt with chaos and confusion among the staff and the girls. They thought I would probably leave like so many others in their lives did, including the Touchstone staff, but I didn't . I think the thing that impressed them most was my volunteer status. They found it amazing and supportive that I would come to be with them on my free time. They were also impressed by my clothes. "For an old lady, you've got a lot of style," was one of the first comments I heard. I hadn't thought of myself as an old lady, but course I was the age of most of their grandmothers.

In many ways the distance between us was profound--I lived behind a white picket fence in a neat little New England town, they were from the projects and tenements of Connecticut's cities. But, I realized as the weeks went by, we were also very similar. Suffering was accepted as part of their lives--they were used to it. So was I. They wore no masks, had little left to lose by revealing themselves. I had worked towards this state for much of my adult life.

We wrote together, and affirmed each other's stories.They didn't pretend they were doing well to help me. Girls came and went from the group, and I found this very difficult, as I was attached to all of them. Another lesson. I petitioned for the regular attendance of an assigned staff member, who has become part of the group and writes with us, drives us to our outside readings, and runs interference with the larger community. I learned to tolerate mystery and a lack of order.

I was asked last April to speak on 'Poetry as Outreach' and I decided to bring the girls with me to read their work, with some trepidation. Rape, incest, abuse and drug use were all prominently featured in their writing. The response was powerful, and I immediately determined that they needed a larger audience, planning a public reading in Torrington,CT in June. There was an overflow crowd, and it was an evening none of us will ever forget.

I have taken the girls out to read on many other occasions, and, although sometimes I wonder how we will ever get it together to arrive at our destination, we always do. This fall, I was asked by the 'Empowering Young Women Project' to gather with a group of local high school girls for a reading, and out of that has grown a monthly writing workshop with both groups of girls.

It is truly empowering, as two cultures meet and share their stories, and the perspectives of both sides are enriched and deepened. After each session, the girls give me their torn-out notebook pages and I type them up, laying the pieces out on the page in free verse style. One of the girls said to me last week, "Sharon, I am so surprised to see what I have written! I don't even know I have written this." And I said, "Tarray, that's because your whole being, heart, soul, body and mind, were totally involved in the creative process...you weren't thinking." Here is what she wrote:

Smooth Pain

My pain you can't touch
it's untouchable
even I cant touch it
I can only feel it
it's a smooth feeling
smoother than a baby's ass
smoother than teddy prendergast
yes, but pain
pain when I walk
pain when i move
just smooth pain
sometimes people say
pain will heal
mine hasn't yet
it feels like the pain
my ancestors went through
it feels like the pain of a starving child
in the middle of the street
the pain of an old man robbed
of everything even his socks
the pain of the world
more pain
less pain
smooth pain

Tarray 1/4/01

And so we keep going, keep writing, keep speaking the truth. We bear the unbearable together. For me, life has shifted into a place of new growth and openness. I pull words from a deeper place, feelings from behind doors I didn't know were closed. I face fears and change, look into mirrors side by side with the girls in my writing group at Touchstone, and at age 58, touch my adolescent years with new compassion, open to my aging with less resistance. The space left by my dead son is quietly filling in with the voices of these locked-up, gutsy, openhearted young women. Slowly, we heal together.

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