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Final Prison Reflection

smalina's picture

Unpacking the Educator/Therapist Dichotomy 

In thinking about my time in the prison this semester—whether through reflections like these or when asked about the experience by friends—I constantly return to this memory. I wrote this post on November 14th, in response to what happened in book group that Friday:

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Book group yesterday felt discombobulating, frustrating, and important. I found myself torn between my frustration that we weren't completing the lesson plan as effectively as we had hoped, and my strong desire to give the emotions in the room the space they deserved. 

Leading the activity around stories of ourselves as readers, I got into a conversation with one of the women about Brothers and Keepers. It was hard for her to focus on the book, she explained, because it hit so close to home. The narrative and description of the prison in the story led her mind to wander to her own impending release next February, and how she was committing to change her actions so she wouldn't be returning to the prison for the fourth time. This turned into a conversation about her crime, which transformed surprisingly naturally into a conversation about my life. "Do you have a boyfriend?" she asked. I hadn't been asked this question in years--and when I explained why, she laughed, insisting that she didn't want to assume anything but it was "pretty obvious." Suddenly excited, she hurried out of the room and returned with pictures of her girlfriend--"See, doesn't she look like a boy, like you??" I asked her all about her girlfriend, and we shared stories about the women we were seeing. In that moment, I felt so very proud to be queer. That turning point, that "oh my god, you too?" made that moment of connection so incredibly rich. I wanted to linger in it for hours, trading stories. I wanted to ask her what her queerness meant to her, what it meant to have a partner who had been in and out of the prison system with her, what that love looked like, felt like. When it hit me that we should be moving on, I felt frustrated and anxious. Isn't this connection the very reason we're here? Wondering what we could possibly get out of a free-write that couldn't be gained from a one-on-one conversation, I found myself checked out for the rest of class. I didn't want to be there, in that bigger group, so far from the relationship I had begun to build.  

Now, outside of class for a day, I'm still grappling with my gut feeling that that conversation was all that really mattered. I know that we came into the prison with educational purposes to some extent, intending to focus on reading and writing. But I can't help but feel like those are only useful in our case in the gateways they provide into personal and honest conversation and moments of connection. We aren't teaching reading skills, nor are we training the women in writing structure. So what else are these activities, if not multiple methods for sparking discussion? And if that's all they are, why not see these conversations as exactly why we are here, as the most perfect outcome, even if they seem to "interrupt" the flow of the lesson plan? This week's book group was disjointed and in many ways chaotic, but it is the closest I have ever felt to my purpose in the prison. I am so glad that that space was made, that all of this happened.  

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Although my feelings have shifted since the day I wrote this reflection, emotions and a conflicting sense of responsibility jumbled up inside of myself, I still struggle to make sense of this experience today. I am brought back to a passage from Jody’s chapter, on engaging with the people inside on a personal and emotional level:

“You have dinner with three friends, all social workers, and they take you to task: You’re raising all these trauma-triggering subjects, and then just leaving -- ?! They ask questions about where the women might go during the week when we are not there. You know they’re trying to support you, feel caught nevertheless. 

At your planning session you talk with your colleague and students, share worries about reactivating trauma, consider ways to mitigate: Should you be telling the social worker more? You fear compromising confidentiality. Checking in more explicitly at the beginning and end of sessions? You are not therapists” (Cohen 2015).

So much of our conversation in the later part of the semester has centered less around whether or not to emotionally engage with the people inside (it began to seem inevitable, and even essential, in some sense, as a means of breaking down hierarchical power dynamics that followed us into the room based on privilege), and more around what that engagement might look like. Ok—so we’re definitely some sorts of educators, and we’re definitely not therapists. But how do we make space for personal issues to arise? How do we ensure that people feel free to bring their “whole selves” to the classroom, or at least more than they get to bring to other parts of their lives inside? And how do we stick to the lesson plan, make appropriate adjustments, and have concrete educational goals all at the same time?

A question raised by The Unknown in Jody’s class the other day helped me unravel this question a bit. She explained that although we talk so much about wanting to connect personally with the people inside, we so often seem to ignore personal topics that are brought up and seem to feel to uncomfortable to ask follow up questions or tackle the subject in some other way. I knew what she was talking about—it’s true, we do so often see women sharing personal stories in the space that are surprisingly intimate, and oftentimes these do not turn into larger conversations. But what would it look like for us to continue to engage? We do not know the right follow-up questions to ask, and even if we did, it would be irresponsible both to put that person on the spot by following up in such a public setting, and to force the other book group members into a space where they could be upset or even triggered by these shared feelings and memories.

I don’t want to be a therapist in prison, and I don’t think my analysis of this situation is leading me in that direction. The therapist position carries with it its own power dynamics, the therapist being an “expert” of sorts on emotions and psychological processes—certainly a role I would like to avoid taking on in prison, especially with people who have lived for much longer than me, in conditions I cannot imagine, having lived through experiences I may never experience. But must our emotional engagement render us therapists? This to me seems like a leap. However, I do agree that there are only very specific circumstances under which we can connect responsibly on an emotional level. If we are to welcome emotional engagement in the classroom, we have to be prepared to handle it—and when we are in “educator mode,” we are inherently unprepared.

About a week ago, we spent some time in The Rhetorics of Silence talking about whether Eva’s Man was a useful text to bring into the classroom—whether it made sense to include it on the syllabus. For several people in the class, reading the book was simply not possible, and the request for them to read it was entirely unreasonable. As saturday mentioned, it was inappropriate to bring in a text with so many obvious emotional effects because the classroom (no matter how uniquely emotional in its design it is, like The Rhetorics of Silence), is simply not equipped to deal with the stories, the feelings, the conflicts that would come up by bringing in such a triggering text.

The physicality of sharing a space seems important here. When I spoke to the woman whom I mentioned in my Sunday post, we sat next to each other in the circle, bodies angled towards one another, and away from the rest of the group. Everyone else was similarly paired up, angled away from the group and towards their partner. Though physically sharing a space with the other 15 or so in the classroom, this person and I had also evacuated the space—both through and for the process of personal, emotional connection. That same class, when meerajay sat with another woman in a highly emotional state, the two pushed their chairs to the side to speak while others formed a separate circle, demonstrating our respect for the intimate moment that was happening between the two of them.

Within this separate, intimate space, too, there are ways to listen that do not assume, that do not exploit, that do not assert power. While the therapist role involves prompting with questions or summarizing statements, this feels wrong to me in settings where I don’t want to “save” the person I’m listening to, when I would much rather offer space to hold what they have to share—especially if it is pouring out because of the text we assigned. As meerajay writes:

“I tried to think of something, anything substantial to say...but what could possibly alleviate the pain? I settled for just squeezing her hand as tightly as I could.”

Incarcerated people are so often not listened to, so often not heard. Throughout the weeks we spent in the book group, it became clear that while some of the women felt angry about this injustice, many others were far more focused on repentance and “changing their ways,” to some level accepting blame. As Sweeney writes in Reading is My Window, for many incarcerated people, this sense of personal responsibility is important. As with anyone, claiming one’s mistakes can be an important part of the process of creating distinct, separate selves—meaning that the present, healed, “good” self can be divorced from the past, damaged, “bad” one. And who are we to take this process of growth away? or to name it as wrong, in some way? And still, after reading Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, I think of the ways in which the PIC has managed to legalize continued oppressions and racism—turning the “convict” into someone who deserves to be hated, even by him or herself. How could listening—just simple, even silent, listening—help to change this?

This kind of listening that meerajay touches upon—one that asks no questions and assumes no expertise or authority on the part of the listener, is important and hard because it demands the vulnerability of the listener, too, in abandoning those roles. When I turned my body to listen during that class, and when meerajay pulled aside to do the same, we did not choose “therapist” over “educator”—rather, we abandoned all such roles of authority altogether. We became human beings, and we were only able to do so by physically pulling away from the space in which roles were a necessity.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves for the difficulty of cracking the educator/therapist dichotomy. Perhaps it is simply a matter of fulfilling objectives, rather than embodying a role. When we come to the classroom with a lesson plan, I do believe that it is important that we get through it, or at least make a valiant attempt. So many of the women who enter that space with us want to learn, and want to talk about the books they have spent their time reading. It seems wrong to take away from that with the more personal, perhaps less related stories that sometimes come to the surface in class, even as a result of the text. And that’s where physical separation comes in—letting everyone in the space know (other BMC/HC student included) that there is time to share, to put emotions and stories out there, but that might mean stepping to the side or out of the room with someone else who is equipped to listen (and I would argue that we all are equipped to listen, given the time and space to do so).

This all feels so deeply connected to theories around silence, truth-telling, and breaking the silence that we have read about extensively in Anne’s class—and beyond, in my readings of Ellsworth for other writing. While Rich would argue that it is women’s breaking of their own silences that creates safe and productive spaces, it would seem that my time in the prison this semester has proven an exception at times—while we do learn so very much from each other, and often have our most fruitful discussions when we’re all willing to share more of ourselves out loud together, if the space is not equipped to hold these truths, it is a disservice to both the speaker and the listeners to have it shared in that area of the room, in that exact moment. Helping to run the book group on Fridays has taught me that there is a time and place for certain truths to be shared—at least verbally—but we must also acknowledge that if we bring difficult texts into the space and recognize that it is ill-equipped to hold what might come up, it is our responsibility not even as educators, and not as therapists, but as people, to make a physical gesture of support. It is amazing what an angled body, a shifted chair can do to pull us out of our devised roles and into our humanness.