It may be a cliché to say that we too frequently take positive aspects of our lives for granted, but there is nothing like having a window into someone else’s life, someone whose life experiences have been different—and not for the better—to get much needed perspective and recognize how lucky you are. Such was my experience in reading Couldn’t Keep It to Myself by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution.
Lamb, is of course, the author of She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True (both Oprah Book Club books, but don’t hold that against them). His work with the women of York, came during an “epidemic of despair” at the prison brought on by two suicides and several suicide attempts. A staff member of the prison contacted him and asked if he’d be willing to come in and give a talk on using writing to cope. At the end of the session, one of the women asked him if he were coming back, put on the spot, he agreed to, but only women who actually wrote something would gain entrance into the workshop.
Lamb returned two weeks later. And at the time of the printing of the book, had been returning every two weeks ever since (I don’t know if he still is running his writing workshop, but I’d be surprised if he weren’t).
Lamb was clear that part of his purpose in getting these women’s stories out is to reach out to people who are under the misimpression that prison is some sort of easy-living experience. These stories remind us that each of these prisoners is a human being. We all have a life story that has gotten us to now and this is an opportunity for women who have been pretty voiceless up until this point, to share theirs. The themes of abuse: physical, emotional, and sexual that run through many of these stories are heartbreaking. Financial stresses, if not straight out poverty, are another common thread. At the same time, none of these women present these experiences as excuses for the crimes that landed them in prison. That being said, it definitely gives you a sense of perspective: You can see how things both within and outside of their control got them to where they are.
When it comes to the purpose of our prison system, I am firmly on the side of rehabilitation versus punishment (especially since the latter too often seems to stem from vengeance). And yes, I recognize that there are probably some people who can’t be rehabilitated, but I don’t think that keeping people in dehumanizing conditions can possibly help them or society. Call me crazy, but I think that part of the purpose of prison is to better prepare these individuals to function on the right side of the law when they get out.
Regardless of your take on the role of incarceration, I encourage you to read Couldn’t Keep It to Myself because these women's stories are compelling and that’s the best reason for choosing a book to read. If you do opt to read this book, I recommend rereading Lamb’s introductory essay after you have finished, because now you know the women, and his insight is especially interesting then.