Woman is the Word:
Memoir-Writing as Arts and Activism in a Maximum-Security Women’s Prison
When I was a graduate student in The College of New Jersey’s MA program in English, my mentor Dr. Michele Lise Tarter invited me to co-teach her prison memoir-writing program, Woman is the Word. Although I was not convinced that I possessed the courage to teach in a prison, when Michele told me how she had helped incarcerated women write their life stories for the past 15 years, I felt intrigued and accepted the opportunity to co-teach with her and another student, Samantha Zimbler. Within our prison classroom, women have handwritten memoirs about trauma and resilience, recited original poetry scarred by images of abuse, constructed art projects that negotiated with identity, discussed memory and imagination, loss and redemption, and crafted Christmas cards to send to their children. Since co-teaching Woman is the Word with her in the spring of 2013, I have participated in a range of educational programs at the prison, including developing and teaching my own college-credit course, leading writing workshops, and participating in college graduation ceremonies inside maximum-security. What have I learned? Although critics believe that education programs inside prisons should focus on vocational training, I have come to believe that teaching memoir-writing, literature, and the arts can help incarcerated women discover what Charlotte Perkins Gilman in The Yellow Wallpaper refers to as “imaginative power,” which leads to healing, empathy, rehabilitation, and opportunity.
On the first day of Woman is the Word, we pulled off Freedom Road into the parking lot of the prison and I glimpsed a palimpsest of pastoral imagery. Originally a farm, the prison grounds might pass for an underfunded college campus. Faded yellow brick buildings, some dating back to the 19th century, squatted atop cracked grey sidewalks and grass the color of overcooked asparagus. High metal fences strung with two strands of barbed wire fenced in certain buildings, including the maximum security compound where we headed to teach. The sky had carelessly thrown a blanket of dirty snow over the yellow lawn of the prison and wide-hipped geese picked their way awkwardly through the pale patchwork. The sight of the geese echoed Emily Dickinson’s words: “Hope is the thing with feathers - / That perches in the soul.” We were not the female personifications of hope, nor did we carry hope in our clear, prison-issued bags. Instead, we would teach our students that hope already perches quietly inside them, and the writing process could set it free. We walked through ten iron gates and two metal detector checkpoints to get into our classroom.
To create a strong sense of community, Dr. Tarter named our 13 incarcerated students “wisewomen” on the first day of class. Wisewoman is a term that elevates their status to women who matter because we, as a society, can learn from their struggles, mistakes, and stories. On that first day, it became clear that the wisewomen hungered for the tools to make meaning out of their incarceration. We provided them with literature, writing prompts, pencils, and notebooks. We learned that the wisewomen saw themselves as butterflies imprisoned in chrysalis-like cells. Echoing their imagery, we suggested that they could also look at themselves as phoenixes, which are the mythological birds reborn from the ashes of their old lives. From the first class to the last, images of rebirth and metamorphosis emerged from Woman is the Word in spring 2013.
By re-claiming the prison classroom in the spirit of Virginia Woolf’s “room of our own” on the first day of class, we promised the wisewomen that we would give them time during class to write, and the in-class writing functioned as a starting point for longer memoirs. Circumstances make it difficult for women prisoners to write. In her introduction to Wall Tappings, Judith Scheffler explains, “In the starkest sense the woman prisoner lacks Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own’ and must contend with a lack of privacy, money, and education and the demoralizing effects of anonymity” (2002, XXIX). Because of their required jobs, they are out of their cells for hours while they work. They are constantly shuffling from place to place during their movements. When they are in their cells, they may share living quarters with up to nine other women.
When we walked down the hallway at the end of the day, a woman behind bars called out, “Professor Tarter?” Her voice overflowed cautiously with hope. I looked at her looking at Michele, hungrily. “Hi, honey,” Michele replied with her characteristic enthusiasm. The woman asked, “You don’t remember my name, do you? I took your class years ago, but I couldn’t get in this time. There were 100 names on the list, and they only chose 13.” Michele smiled and met her gaze. “Violet,” she said with certainty. Violet smiled and her gaze followed our three brightly colored raincoats as we left the hall. There was a shift in the atmosphere. I felt certain that Violet was beginning the game of whisper down the lane and spreading the news: Professor Tarter had returned; magic was coming.
We encouraged these wisewomen, who had suffered from abuse or trauma before and during their incarceration, to write to heal. Michele believes that writing is a healing process and she modeled Woman is the Word on the work of feminist theorists Audre Lorde and bell hooks. In The Cancer Journals, Lorde argues that women should write to break their silence, confessing, “I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength” (1980, 18). Similarly, Woman is the Word teaches incarcerated women to find their own sources of power through writing. Despite living within a prison system designed to silence them, the women can depend upon their imaginations, memories, and life experiences to narrate their own stories. “I speak my freedom into existence constantly,” says Wisewoman L., who graduated from the college program inside the prison in November 2015. For women like Wisewoman L., pages of writing represent fragments of power.
In Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, bell hooks declares that women must not be afraid to tell their truths, even if they are afraid of shame or retribution. She observes, “Faced with the radical possibility of self-transformation that confessional writing can evoke, many females cease to write” (1999, 5). Woman is the Word students recognize that writing can heal and actively seek the self-transformation that hooks describes. Many women compare this self-transformation to giving birth to their new selves. Wisewoman J.’s memoir illustrates the power of writing: “As I reload and explode my ink onto paper./ It is thru my writings that I experience lyrics bliss/ In a world which I birthed into existence.” In her writing, this student uses gun imagery to acknowledge and subvert the expectation that a woman prisoner is defined by a life of violence. Instead, her writing is her weapon. This is a sophisticated writing strategy for a prison-made poet, who used her time served to recognize and develop her talent for creative writing; she plans to continue writing now after her release.
To prepare the wisewomen to write their memoirs, students study a diverse selection of writing by women, including early American women’s diaries, slave narratives, incarcerated women’s memoirs, and contemporary poetry. They draw strength from stories of women’s survival and empowerment. Professor Tarter is a gifted story-teller and the wisewomen loved hearing her tell stories, especially about the freed slave narrator in Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Live of a Slave Girl. The storytelling helped create a sacred circle as we all became spellbound by Michele’s magical retelling of these texts. After reading Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat’s short story “Nineteen Thirty-seven,” we brought in poetry with wing imagery, and in response the wisewomen revealed secret butterflies they had sewed onto their khaki scarves. We galvanized around these symbols, and made meaning from them together.
Throughout the semester, the wisewomen painstakingly wrote their own memoirs, several pages at a time. The common thread connecting each story was a narrative of growing up in poverty, witnessing violence, suffering abuse, and getting entangled in the insidious spiderweb of the criminal justice system. By the end of the course, some memoirs would exceed 100 pages in length. One wisewoman would stay up throughout the nights writing by the hallway light to finish her book and another would confess that her memoir was the first project she had ever completed. Through the process of writing their memoirs, the wisewomen recovered their silenced voices.
Momentum built over the weeks, and finally, the turning point when the women discovered their “imaginative power” arrived halfway through our semester, when we began studying Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. This memoir presented a distinct teaching challenge because most of the prison buildings were yellow, so a captivity narrative about a woman imprisoned within a yellow room felt unsettling to many wisewomen, and others had trouble negotiating the breakdown of Gilman’s language as it mimics madness. Of course, we had no computers, internet, smart boards, or libraries to help us.
To work within these constraints, we designed a visual memoir assignment, which required the wisewomen to make a collage that depicted a woman breaking out of wallpaper using materials we could bring into the prison, such as paper and magazines. We asked, “Who is the woman trapped beneath your wallpaper and how will you rescue her?” Picture six tables smothered in scraps of colorful paper. Paper poured onto the floor and was tossed into the air like confetti; it was a riot of imagination. Wisewomen helped each other find images that resembled themselves: anime warriors, raven-haired queens, divas, fresh-faced mothers.
As the women made their collages, we discussed the themes in the story, including whether writing should be used as a weapon, instances when women were forbidden from writing, and whether the woman behind the wallpaper was a mirror of the narrator. The women opened up while we made art together. Wisewoman K. read some of her writing aloud: “Losing someone to incarceration is almost worse than losing them to death because families never fully get over them being gone and there’s no grieving process for someone that is not dead. Every day is spent with a ghost of the missing.” The writing of Wisewoman K., a young mother with two little children, reflects the experiences of so many families who struggle to live their lives while a loved one is incarcerated for years for non-violent crimes related to drug addiction because of Draconian sentencing laws.
The experience of seeing the women immersed in this art project was a teaching moment I will never forget. As we collaborated to make these humble little art projects together, the crumbling prison buildings outside faded into the distance and ice-covered prison grounds melted into pastel watercolors. From our classroom, we sent out energy deep into the earth like tree roots. As the yellowed fields turned verdant green again, the ground warmed up the feet of the geese outside our window and they extended their wings and alighted as one strong skein of sisters into the dusky radiance.
Toward the end of the class, I asked Wisewoman S. what she thought of The Yellow Wallpaper. She stared into my eyes intensely and I saw how the story had gripped her. She asked, “Was she tearing off her skin? That yellow wallpaper was really her skin, wasn’t it?” My heart stopped for a moment as I realized that her life experiences gave her insights into literature that remain hidden for traditional readers.
“So, you are suggesting that she was cutting? That is a brilliant interpretation,” I responded. “The yellow wallpaper is a symbol, and it could stand for whatever you think—patriarchy, domesticity, social pressure, conformity. But the idea of the yellow wallpaper as skin is brilliant. Please, please, write about that.” Wisewoman S. interpreted the story as a 19th-century representation of cutting, which is the act of slicing open your skin to elicit blood and feel pain. Many women today— inside and outside of prisons—struggle with cutting, but were women in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s time cutting? If so, looking for evidence of cutting could be a powerful way to reexamine American women’s captivity narratives.
As class ended, the projects remained unfinished, so we instructed the students to take their materials with them to finish for homework. There was an outpouring of gratitude from them to us. “You ladies make us feel again,” they said. “Thank you for being here.”
However, as we rushed out of the classroom, the prison went into lockdown and the women were forced to stay behind. In the back of my mind, I wondered if it was because I snuck plastic toy eyes into the prison. Would corrections officers consider plastic toy eyes an “item deemed to be a threat to the orderly running of the institution?” I had reduced Michel Foucault’s “panopticon” to toy eyes. I wanted to help the wisewomen escape temporarily through art; certainly the idea of freeing an imprisoned woman could be subversive, so were we responsible for the lockdown? Fortunately, we found out as we were leaving that the lockdown was unrelated to our class.
At our next class meeting, their projects surpassed: just as the memoirs of women prisoners reveal the power of the human spirit, the collages depicted that human spirit visually. I considered these visual memoir collages to be the “acts of creative resistance” that scholar Marianne Hirsch had referred to in a 2012 lecture I attended at The College of New Jersey. I was floored by their “imaginative power,” to borrow a term from Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The following collages are examples of how the wisewomen used The Yellow Wallpaper as inspiration to create their own visual memoirs.
Several themes emerge from these projects: freedom, anger at the system, and internal dichotomy—the feeling of being torn between two selves. Many of the incarcerated students described themselves as “bad women” (their term) or even “she-devils” (their term) that needed to hit rock bottom in order to transform. There are recurring images of transformation, growth, beauty, and femininity. Ironically, incarceration has revealed gifts in the wisewomen that would have remained hidden if they had not gone to prison.
I would situate the collages as examples of “femmage” arts. Coined by Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer, femmage is a label that seeks to elevate de-valued works of art by women, such as collages and scrapbooks, which have been created throughout history by collecting and arranging scraps in covert patterns to celebrate an event or reveal subversive meanings. As Schapiro and Meyer note, “Collected, saved and combined materials represented for such womenacts of pride, desperation and necessity” (1977-1978, 69). Similarly, the wisewomen identified and resisted institutions of oppression, including the prison complex, racism, classism, domestic violence, child abuse, gangs, sexism, drug addiction, poverty, and lack of education through the collage process.
In November 2015, Michele and I returned to the prison to participate in the college graduation ceremony that honored the devoted group of women who were graduating from NJ-STEP’s college program for incarcerated individuals in New Jersey. After the ceremony, I congratulated Wisewoman L. on earning her Associate’s Degree and graduating cum laude, and wished her luck on beginning her bachelor’s degree classes through Rutgers University. In Woman is the Word, she had written a poem called “Warrior Princess,” which was inspired by Audre Lorde’s writing, for us to read at The New Jim Crow Read Out in Princeton:
I am a warrior princess, positioned on the front line. I was thrown into battle like an illegal dog fight, except I had no training and no weapons. Truth be told, in the belly of this beast I wasn’t expected to thrive, much less survive. I was supposed to end up like so many soldierettes, simply another statistic pushed down in the trenches of the ghetto projects. The enemy knew my demise would be easy. He had my obituary already written, typed up by the court and published as my Judgment of Conviction, which read, “Here lies a Black, female, criminal felon, buried in a lot next to her father, who was also a prison rebel, too.” My feminine tuition kicked in overtime and so did my will to survive. No. I am a warrior princess. What was meant for my detriment will be my development. My pen is mightier than a sword and my mind is my most powerful weapon.
Draped in a shining green graduation gown with a golden tassel, Wisewoman L. had become the embodiment of transformation. She had curled her hair, dusted her eyelids with shining golden eyeshadow, and painted her fingernails green and gold. Instead of diamond earrings, she wore the rhinestone stickers that Michele and I had distributed during a card-making workshop a month earlier.
Although Woman is the Word is a not a college-credit course, the rigorous reading and writing helped prepare our students for success in the college courses they went on to take, and Michele and I both taught related college-credit courses for NJ-STEP. What made the college graduation ceremony meaningful to us was what made it most meaningful to the students’ families—we knew the stories of these women because they had described them in their memoirs. We knew their suffering, their struggles, their anxieties, and their mistakes. Many of the women who earned their associate’s degrees that day began their educational journey 15 years earlier in Woman is the Word. Michele taught before she had university support, funding from private donors, or a collaborative network of colleges across the state. She just had herself, her drive, and the calling to help these women heal through their writing. We encourage anyone who is interested in teaching memoir-writing in a women’s prison to use our syllabus and assignments, which are available for free download on Dr. Michele Lise Tarter’s website: http://michelelisetarter.faculty.tcnj.edu/beta6/Teaching_Portfolio_7.pdf.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. 1998. The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Bedford Books.
Hirsch Marianne. 2012. “Small Acts of Repair.” Lecture presented at The College of New Jersey. Ewing, NJ., March 6.
hooks, bell. 1999. Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. New York: Holt.
Lorde, Audre. 1980. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Schapiro, Miriam and Melissa Meyer. 1977-1978. “Waste Not, Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled—Femmage.” Heresies I.4: 66-69.
Scheffler, Judith A., 2002. Wall Tappings: An International Anthology of Women’s Prison Writings 200 to the Present. Second Edition. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.