Looking for 'God with Skin On'
By Leah Walker
She stood in the doorway. A second-grade education, a horribly abusive childhood, a prisoner. She hadn't attended the last seven meetings of her Talk to Me program. The facilitator had asked her to set a goal of reading aloud before the class, hoping to encourage her growth but instead inadvertently scaring her away. Yet, here she was. She had returned, and was asking to come in.
As a prisoner, this woman is part of an invisible and forgotten population, existing in a sensory-deprived environment of obvious and extreme social isolation and behavioral control. Most prisoners are “hungry for everything,” including the commonplace: color, meaningful activity, interaction with others.... An inspired organization, Truth Be Told, seeks to feed a few of these hungry souls in two correctional facilities in Texas, Hilltop in Gatesville, a state institution, and Lockhart, a privately operated facility.
Truth Be Told offers three different semester-long programs: Talk to Me Speaking, Talk to Me Circle and Talk to Me Movement. They run concurrently, twice per year, serving approximately 75 female participants each semester. In all three programs, participants explore their biographies, in particular, the story of how they came to live behind bars. Talk to Me Speaking takes its shape from Toastmasters and tends to attract extroverts, those who enjoy attention. Talk to Me Circle was designed, in part, to meet the needs of introverts; with a focus on writing, participants work more privately with their inner world of thought and feeling. Finally, Talk to Me Movement was added for the more active, kinesthetic learners.
The first homework assignment is central in value: the lifeline, upon which participants plot experiences and decisions they believe led to incarceration. Eventually, participants focus on three core experiences. It is a powerful exercise for anyone to take a life situation and ask: What three key events led me here? Talk to Me programs culminate in participants “telling their story” through a speech, a written composition read aloud, or a short performance, first, to their classmates and then to a small audience at graduation. Having worked through it inwardly, it is key that participants share their story with others. Talk to Me programs increase self-understanding, develop trust, improve communication skills, and shift participant focus from past wrongs to present strengths and future possibilities. Further steps are possible through Discovery (Talk to Me Level Two) where creative arts, tools for life-renovation, and practices for personal and spiritual growth are taught.
About the Co-creators of Truth Be Told
They were aware of one another long before they spoke. Their sons were in school together. One day, Nathalie invited Carol to join her in a small writing group. As their friendship developed, Carol came to feel she had to tell Nathalie she was a recovering alcoholic. Nathalie acknowledged Carol’s courage in choosing sobriety and speaking her truth. Carol was surprised. She had feared rejection and hadn't for a moment imagined she’d be embraced instead. Not long after, Nathalie asked Carol to tell her story to the women at the Lockhart Unit enrolled in Talk to Me Speaking. With some trepidation, Carol agreed and immediately knew she'd found a calling. Carol’s contribution led to the development of Talk to Me Circle (the writing program). Thirteen years later, impassioned volunteer activity has become a respected, growing non-profit organization.
The ways Nathalie Sorrell and Carol Waid are alike is a short list. They are storytellers to be sure. They share a love for people and a deep commitment to the work of Truth Be Told. They respect and use the twelve-step program. Both are fast talkers with strong and delightful southern accents. But their similarities might just about end there. As is true of many partners, Nathalie and Carol are a study in contrasts, both conflicting and complementary. For example, when approached by a program participant who is struggling, Nathalie might offer the proverbial swift kick in the seat of the pants, saying cheerfully, “Use the tools we're giving you!" Carol, on the other hand, would offer reassurance in a tone and with words that would give a figurative hug.
Nathalie is a talkative extrovert who is unafraid of authority figures, a highly useful characteristic in negotiating prison bureaucracy, guards, and wardens. As a professional public speaker, she has a strong presence and is able to command attention easily. By contrast, it is not Carol's nature to step forward and speak out, and she would never dream of approaching the warden of a prison if it were not for the women she serves. Some affectionately refer to Carol as "a heart on two legs."
Nathalie and Carol have met great challenges in working together and over many years now have made a rare and rewarding effort to understand one another. For this writer, it is clearly evident that their perseverance is essential to the efficacy of Truth Be Told. Carol and Nathalie will not ask more of the prisoners than they ask of themselves. They take their responsibility for self-exploration and open communication seriously. Inspired by the determination they witness in the prisoners, they dig deeper, and their vulnerability makes them good and worthy leaders. I would argue the grit of Truth Be Told exists first in Carol and Nathalie, individually and as co-creators. Said grit includes courage, mettle, backbone, strength of will, steel, resolve, perseverance, guts.
Programs Born Of and About Biography
Nathalie is a self-described “church lady” who for many years applied her natural gifts for leadership within her congregation, Toastmasters, Wishcraft, and other programs of self-development. Following two startling experiences with homeless individuals, something began to gnaw at Nathalie. How many times had she considered Matthew 25? “Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend to the sick and imprisoned... Until you do this to the least of these, you have not done it to me..." "I had always ministered to people like me--upper middle class, white women. And they're not on that list!” she exclaims. One day, Nathalie’s biography changed quietly but earnestly when a maid, obviously sick with the flu, entered her hotel room to clean. While Nathalie journaled on the balcony, her discomfort grew. A deep feeling drove her to reach out, first to this maid with prayer and a small gift of money (all she had at the time) and, within a year, into a new level of service, the work with prisoners.
Carol describes herself as a “bar-fight girl” and wonders at the grace in her life that somehow kept her from seriously injuring someone or landing in jail. Images from Carol’s past are painful for her, and she wishes especially for her children that it had been different--not filled with her drinking and marital violence. Her story was changed dramatically by a car accident and steadily through her commitment to twelve-step work.
By giving away Carol's and Nathalie's nicknames for themselves, I may now have risked the reader's judgement. The novelist and storyteller Chimamanda Adichie warns: If we hear only "the single story" we will invariably misunderstand. "Bar-fight girl” and “church lady” do not begin to describe the many facets of Carol and Nathalie. And the word “prisoner” does not sum up an individual who is incarcerated; nonetheless, the word conjures the single story, one we think we know. The single story is a pigeonhole, a way in which we imprison one another.
It's in the Telling... and the Listening
Without a trace of emotion, a woman tells of how she shot and killed her husband while her baby lay on the bed in the same room. Emotionlessness, or dissociation, is an exquisite coping strategy, where one is guarded from the difficulty of remembering. Others, in telling their stories, feel the impact deeply. Re-traumatization can occur and in such cases creative outlets are provided. But it is also observed that trauma is transformed through the storytelling. From time to time, a participant approaches the podium, shaking with fear, crying perhaps, and then slowly a moment comes when she relaxes, her facial expression changes, and she returns to her chair visibly altered. She may report she "feels like herself again."
The German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote, "Become who you are." For this, oftentimes, something must be exposed or burned away, and it is painful. The question is for any of us: Can I bear to look? Can I bear myself through the difficulty of facing my past? Do I dare speak the truth? The unabashed goal of Truth Be Told is transformation. Talk To Me programs encourage participants to risk the chaos, the emotional trial that deep self-exploration requires.
While finding oneself involves an inner searching that typically occurs in solitude, transformation is not fulfilled alone. It is well understood in the field of human development that we come to know who we are not in isolation, but through interaction with others. It is cliche but true: we need to be heard. Where one is greeted with some measure of acceptance, what was long buried--whether secret trauma or subverted self--may emerge and be transformed. One may find a new beginning. Although there are mundane terms for this, such as "rehabilitation" and "reform," it is not going too far to call it resurrection.
It may be one of the great mysteries of human existence: What happens when people confide in one another? How is it that we enter into a conversation with a deep sense of shame or overwhelming fear and, if we are willing and courageous--and warmly received--emerge peaceful, lighter, less burdened? And why do we risk it so rarely, being open about who we are and what we’ve done? None of us is without error and regret, and yet we are reticent to share. What will happen if I let you know who I am? Will I be rejected or "sent to my room"? And thus, we imprison ourselves.
For centuries, peace with one’s past has been sought through confession. If we are able to free this age-old idea from all negative connotation, then we may perceive in it something of the archetypal human relationship. In sadness, brokenness, confusion, I come seeking a blessing—I hope to be restored by your warmth and forgiveness and encouragement. Talk to Me programs culminate in no less than a moment for each participant where such a possibility exists, where being accepted makes her acceptable.
One biography influences the other. Hearing your story changes the way I see and feel about mine. We "work on" one another, give shape to one another's lives, perhaps even create one another. At any moment, in any given conversation, each of us can be, as Nathalie says, "God with skin on."
The practical benefits of the Talk to Me programs are many. Graduates may return in the role of mentor to a new group, which adds strength to the ongoing program. Mentors have the opportunity to give back and in doing so again realize a change in their self-image, from “one needing help” to “helper"--they may even see a new role for themselves in society, a real step towards potential success beyond bars. In facing their parole board interview—a daunting task—imagine the support prisoners gain in having found self-acceptance and in having developed the ability to speak clearly and present themselves strongly. Truth Be Told graduates are better prepared to advocate on their own behalf.
Stepping Into a New Space
The woman who stood in the doorway had found the courage to read in front of the class after all, had found the strength to risk rejection, and was asking to be allowed to be vulnerable. She explained, "I wrote something myself, and I've been practicing." Carol hesitated knowing program policy prohibits the return of one who leaves, but something urged her to allow the exception. And this wounded yet brave individual stepped over the threshold back into the group and, while the others listened, began to tell her story.
For more about Truth Be Told, please visit: www.truth-be-told.org
Leah Walker lives in Austin, TX, and is a faculty member of the certificate program of the Center for Biography and Social Art. For more on the subject of biography, please visit: biographysocialart.org