Monthly Archives: April 2012

Dine With The Kennedys or Drink With The Drunks

Walking into my weekly prison workshop I never know what might potentially trigger certain reactions in the inmates or what will lead to off-course conversations (always the best ones.)  From my almost 2-years of doing this, I know going in that in the course of 45-minutes, I will walk away with at least one moment that will impact me greatly–something that will stay with me for days, months and others undoubtedly for the rest of my life.

(For example, a few weeks ago a woman shared that her mother shot her up for the FIRST time when she was ten.  How the FUCK does one respond to this???  It was a large group that day and we were all stunned into total silence.  I have a 10-year-old daughter.  I was sick to my stomach and I literally have to shake myself out of the thought when it comes to me.  And yes, this woman, a very bitter one I might add, is an addict.)

In my last class we talked about labels–how we label ourselves and how others label us.  I’ve done this many times before and my ultimate goal is to have the women focus on their strengths and not the negative labels we put on ourselves or that others project onto us.  I go around the class and ask whoever is willing to share these negative labels, the ones affixed by others.  There are many common ones, “junkie,” “bad mother,” “bitch,” “whore,” but in this past class, one woman said “I’m a batterer.  I’m here for beating up my husband.”

“Wow.  I’ve never met a woman who beats up her husband before,” a young woman said.  I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing.

When you are sentenced for a crime with such clearly defined labels–felon, murderer, drug smuggler, pedophile–it makes it easy for our criminal justice system to define people, to put them in these little file folders and slide the drawer shut.  The women I work with are not there for such heinous crimes and I don’t think run the risk of devolving into the categories above.  Many of them however, are repeat offenders, finding themselves back at the beginning like a game piece.

I asked the woman how she thought others saw her on the “outside,” on the other side of the bars.  At that she began to sob, deep and gut-wrenching sobs.  The woman sitting next to her reached out and rubbed her back and the most I was allowed to do was get her some tissues.  We all gave her the space to cry, to release just a pittance of the pain she was feeling.

“You just hit the nail right on the head,” she said.  I wasn’t exactly sure what it was in particular that had touched her so deeply and I asked.

“I have a friend who always tells me I’m the kind of person who can dine with the Kennedys or drink with the drunks.  I’m everything to everybody.  When I have my makeup and nice clothes on, I am that person, and that’s how people see me.  But when I look like this, people judge me as a bum, an addict, a bitch.”

I asked her what her dream was, who she wanted to say she was.

“I want to own my own restaurant.”

“Okay, so, why don’t you figure out the path where you go from ‘I’m a batterer’ to ‘I’m an ex-batterer,’ to ‘I’m a restaurant owner.'”

She considered the way that sounded and smiled.  I shared my own recent label-change, and how great it feels to actually become who you dream of becoming even if just the saying it makes it feel closer to eventually becoming real.  I think I’ve realized, at this advancing age, that we really do have the power to redirect our paths, even if there are many labels to be modified along the way.  Maybe I helped to nudge that woman along her way, or maybe she will forever see herself as a batterer, but I know it made her feel something good, even for just a minute or two, that she might just hold onto.

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Re-Branding Ourselves

Every time I change jobs (which has been quite a lot) I joke with my friend Mark that I’m going to change my entire look.  None of my new co-workers would know that I’ve never worn a headscarf, false eyelashes and a fake tan.  His first question is always “Who do you want to be?”

Somewhere I know I’ve seen Jennifer Lopez with a Pucci silk headscarf and huge gold hoops.  THAT’S who I want to be–the epicenter of “boho-gypsy chic.” She’s got a perfect radiant dewiness to her cheekbones that I’ve attempted to replicate about a million times.  Forget the abs and ass (for now)–I just want to look like her from the neck up, because, well, she wears a cross and that wouldn’t go over very well with my father.

Not only would I never be able to figure out how to put on a headscarf let alone glue on false eyelashes, I wouldn’t have the patience required for spraying or rubbing self-tanner in just the right way. The most I’ve managed is tying gauzy patterned scarves around my neck, so self-conscious that I haven’t done it right in that way that says I didn’t have to even try, that I end up taking them off halfway through the day.  On some days I’ve managed to achieve part of my desired look, but fall short in one detail or another making me look more like a wannabe than a natural.  I envy those people who just pick things out of overflowing accessory drawers and jewelry boxes, slap on some lipstick, all in under a minute and just become “them.”  I want to be one of “them.”

Recently, I’ve re-branded myself in an entirely different way.  I’ve decided that “who I want to be” is a writer while holding down a “day job” working directly with at-risk populations.  I’ve decided that who I DON’T want to be is a fundraiser accountable to an often ungrateful board or boss.  Just because I was good at it for a while, possess the skill set that made me successful at it, I wanted to become “unstuck” from the 18-yr career pigeonhole that I found myself.  At 47, I was really scared about making this definitive choice, mostly for financial reasons but more for the rejection that I thought I would experience by hiring managers who skimmed my resume and couldn’t see the  logic in how my overall professional experience would transfer into work as a counselor or advisor to former gang members, women in prison and everyone in-between.  I put it out there, sold myself in great cover letters, and I have gotten three interviews for jobs that I see as my ultimate dream.  I’ve successfully re-branded myself in the course of about 3 months.  How cool is that?

My husband and I have recently starting watching a show called “Lockup” which gives a pretty thorough look into our nation’s prisons.  Because of my ongoing volunteer work with female inmates, it has become added insight into our country’s really warped justice system.  The shows that are particularly heartbreaking are those that focus on juvenile detention centers.  These are kids who are absolutely on the cusp of going in either direction.  You can just see in their eyes the ones who have completely given up and will undoubtedly spend their lives behind bars.  You can almost see an immediate time-lapse in their faces, project the image of what they will age into and how they will look 20, 30, 50 years from now.

The other night there was a young man who was about to turn 18, the age when you get booted over to the adult prison system.  He had made a couple of stupid choices but was absolutely determined to make it, never see the inside of a cell again.  He was expecting his second child (that’s an entirely different subject) and wanted to be part of his kid’s lives.  He had been in a gang, what I have learned in my work is an alternate family that you NEVER betray.  Kind of like the Mafia where if you snitch, you either up dead or in the Witness Protection Program.

In an act of what I think is total bravery, he had his gang tattoos professionally removed.  He no longer wanted to be identified with that world, no matter what the consequences.  At his hearing, his probation officer and court-appointed attorney held this up as his absolute commitment to changing his life and it’s what convinced the judge to release him.  He re-branded himself.

I really don’t want to be anyone but who I am at the core.  I like myself and have a tremendous amount of self-confidence.  That being said, when a woman in my prison group described me as a “hippie” and another said I was “funky” I knew, at least for that day, that I had done an awesome job of the re-brand.  In that same class when they asked what I did for a living, on a day when my first piece was picked-up by one of the most reputable on-line magazines, I stuttered and stammered as I answered, “I’m a writer.”