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Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write

Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write
edited by Marybeth Christie Redmond and Sarah W. Bartlett
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013
235 pages
Reviewed by Tessa Bielecki

Marybeth Christie Redmond and Sarah Bartlett have spent over three years inside a women’s prison in South Burlington, Vermont, USA, in a weekly writing circle with inmates who long to be seen and heard. “Today I forgot I was an inmate,” wrote one woman, “and was heard by others for the real person behind the rap sheet” (2).

The editors neither minimize the women’s wrongdoing nor ignore the “harm wreaked on their victims. Yet their transgressions represent just a sliver of the multidimensional people they are … composed of both light and shadow as we are” (4). In their “raw and unvarnished” voices, the women discuss the “crisscrossing forces” that led them to crime: rape, incest, domestic violence. Many inmates committed crimes while addicted to drugs or to support their addictions. Many became “unwitting accessories to boyfriends—abusive men well-established in engaging depressed women in criminal activities in return for perceived intimacy” (4).

The editors explain that the correctional system in the United States, a militaristic and punitive institution designed in the nineteenth century, does not meet the needs of incarcerated women today, failing “to address the behavioral and social differences between female and male offenders” (5). The inmates express their feelings: Stacy feels like “a goldfish among sharks” (79). Elaina feels “caged like animals at the zoo, being watched, on display” (111, 134). Tonya calls the women’s cells “Ice Islands” and the prison “Razor Wire Inn” (152). Cara calls it “the wounded bird sanctuary” (199).

Yet these women come to see incarceration as a blessing. Tess is “grateful for where I am at in life and trying to figure out what’s the purpose of this situation and how to move past it” (148). BS opens her heart to “real forgiveness … no longer allowing myself excuses to live in the wrong” (158). Michele says, “Spring cleaning is kind of what I’m doing here.... Getting rid of the old unlawful me to start anew” (184). Jill writes: “Russian roulette with a syringe. Win or lose, there was no end until one day, as in Monopoly, my Chance Card came up—go to jail, directly to jail. I did not pass ‘Go’ and certainly did not collect $200…. And what a ‘marvelous error’ it has been.” (93).

Writing is key to the women’s growth and healing. “With each day I carry possibility in the tip of my pen,” writes Jill (37). “This is my canvas, this is my song. The words are my freedom, there is no right or wrong. Here in this world of words, I feel I belong,” says Norajean (113).

This is a hopeful book. “Can I change the past? No,” confesses Big D. “But I have let courage take over…. Can I change my future? Yes.” (173). Joellen compares herself to an apple: “… how quickly things change when you fall. But hey, there is still room to change, and become an apple pie that everybody loves” (165). Even if you are not in prison ministry, or experiencing deep listening or presence with women—or men—who are incarcerated, this book is relevant, since the goal of all spiritual direction is human freedom. As Billie wrote: “Not the freedom that comes from being let out of jail [but] freedom from the imprisonment of my own mind” (136).

Tessa Bielecki has been a spiritual guide for over forty years, formerly as Mother Abbess of the Spiritual Life Institute and currently as codirector of the Desert Foundation based in Colorado, USA. She is the author of several books and a six-CD program, Wild at Heart: Radical Teachings of the Christian Mystics.

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