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On being conned

Anne Dalke's picture

I’ve been waving Rena Fraden's Imagining Medea: Rhodessa Jones and Theater for Incarcerated Women @ y’all for a couple of weeks now, and thought I’d take the time to write out a little of what I find so compelling about the book. It is really making me feel dissatisfied with the sort of writing we are getting, and making me be more thoughtful about ways in which we might help folks dig deeper, be more truthful.

If you don’t know the story of Medea, read about it here—it’s all about betrayal, abandonment, anger, “too much love.”

“Jones finds theatrical ways to interrogate the personal, surrounding the contemporary with the mythical, providing more texts, and thus context, for these women, so that each individual’s story is not isolated but always seen in relation to others…autobiography alone neither guarantees new insights nor changes behavior. As Joan Scott has argued, experience is not transparent but is ‘at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted’ (p. 21).

Reading this is both inspiring me, and making me increasingly impatient with the clichéd stories we are getting, the blatant untruths of (as in this week's writing), "I am a grandmother of two...We do the baking cookies, play games and go to the park when we can. I expect to be there any time my children want and/or need me as they have been for me." We've gotten lots of this kind of stories, written as if the women are on the outside, living with their families. BUT THEY ARE NOT.

“Jones had met a woman in jail who had killed her baby because her husband wanted the baby but not her. But when Jones handed out...Medea…nobody was reading it….And yet she felt certain that the story should mean something to the women. One day one woman who was usually in the workshop was in lock up for disruptive behavior because she had found out that the father of her kids was in jail and the kids were going to be put in foster care....'What’s up y’all? What the fuck’s going on? What is it that makes us leave our children?…What are the ways we kill our children?....You’re not with your kids...Your baby is somewhere right now dying of a broken heart. That’s real, you know. Children miss their mamas….How are you different from Medea? At least she put her children out of their misery….She took ‘em out…And it was an act of love. Something like the slave mother who bashes her children’s brains out so they wouldn’t be sold. There’s something liberating about a woman saying, ‘This I can do’....if she couldn’t be with them, maybe it was better that they were not left alone in the world amongst their enemies….’” (pp. 43-44).

"Jones knew that Medea’s story was relevant…She knew that the ambiguous qualities of the heroine and the choices before her were subjects that these women were uniquely qualified to address. How could a woman kill her children? How could a woman not be with her children?...Medea is full of rage, and so are the women in jail. Like Medea, these women are seen by society as outsiders, barbarians….They are women who are ruled by their passions, who are self-destructive, and who destroy others…And, like Medea, many of the women are master storytellers. Storytelling can be a con game, a trick used against one’s foes. It can also be the beginning of a different drama—a way to imagine, if not live out, a new life" (p. 48).

Are we being conned? Inviting conning? In inviting life writing but not ever interrogating it?
Not questioning or calling out the inconsistencies, the things that don't make sense?

“The pedagogical thrust of the Medea Project is aimed at uncovering the connections between an individual and the system of power. Jones and Reynolds believe that critical literacy—understanding social context, moving with others and not alone--will transform the oppressed and apathetic into people who believe that they can think and thus act for themselves and also for others….the best work is harrowing, but its most important effects are always delayed; one breaks up the ground the best one can and hopes that the crops will grow” (p. 70).

“It isn’t easy to count on anyone. There’s a lot to learn, and high expectations. The women are expected to voice opinions and do things, and most of the women aren’t used to doing either…Women are paying attention to them, focusing interest, having expectations, and many have never had this combination of discipline and mothering” (p. 79).

“It was a real challenge to have a conversation about race in jail…it was like opening up Pandora’s box—all sorts of evil things began to creep out…she started the workshop by asking the women two questions: what was their first memory of race; and, if they could take a pill and change their race, their gender, their entire being, what would they choose to become” (p. 6).

Now there’s a question that might get things hopping!



Sasha De La Cruz's picture

I think the last two

I think the last two questions are so relevant!

Reading this actually inspired me to do more intesnive writing too. Maybe we just need to stop making them write autobiogrpahies, and switch the conversations explicitly to race, gender, etc.. and then the writing could become more ... mmm .. can't think of the word .. theoretical? historical? analytical? without loosing the personal histories. 

I talked about this in the van, and little bit with Jody, I find it so interesting that they do not really think about race and gender as much as I thought they would. I am not really sure how to explain this -- for example, when our group (Hayleys' and mine) came up with teh activity of explaining amster status, and they had to describe me, none of the women really mentioned me being Latina. For some reason I feel like these issues of race and gender are not spoken about too much 1. because they are facing much bigger issues and 2. because maybe they haven't had the space for it. 

I would love to have these conversations about race and gender in an explicit manner (even though I cannot picture it yet .. we'd have to think about engaging ways to do so) it can lead to addressing the systematical/institutional problems with society and maybe getting to these through writing? But how? and would we have them write essays?

sara.gladwin's picture

I get the feeling that essays

I get the feeling that essays might not be the right entry point...

but something your post made me think about was the implicit manners in which these topics come up. I think you even mentioned it at one point when we were talking about the masterstatus instance a while back that the fact that no one mentioned your race might actually be an indicator of something... maybe in this instance it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if you asked the group why no one mentioned race. I feel like we might have been able to spend a whole class talking about assumptions and why we might think what we think about people. And similarly, there are some ways I feel like we are always talking about gender or race or both without ever acknowledging that we are; like the narrative example that Anne gave above describing the relationship between grandmother/grandchild... I think we can easily look at the ways in which some of the narratives we get are particularly gendered. I was thinking about this in regards to the American Prison Writing Archive... I brought up to the presenter that one possibility for why they have gotten less submissions from women could be in the framing of what kinds of narratives they are looking for- a framework which could subtly suggest that the experience of a man in prison is more relevent to the archive. This suggestion actually arose from thinking about the narratives that we read and recognizing that not only are we getting repeative writing but writing that reflects female experience.

I think there is definitely space to interrogate these experiences... the trouble is recognizing in the moment when we may be skirting around a topic and finding the write question to ask to bring race/gender to the forefront...

One question I've been dying to ask at various points but never had the courage to do so is why our students seem at the ready to tear into female characters, especially mother-figures.