Synopses & Reviews
Couldn't Keep it to Ourselves Wally Lamb
The toy department at the Durable store sold two blackboards. The modest two-by-three-foot model came with wall brackets and a three-piece starter box of chalk. Its deluxe cousin was framed in wood, had legs and feet, and came "loaded": a pair of erasers, a pointer, a twelve-stick chalk set, and a bonus box of colored chalk. I was a third-grader when I spotted that blackboard. Good-bye to Lincoln Logs and Louisville Sluggers. From the age of eight, I wanted to teach.
My first students were my older sisters. As preteenagers, Gail and Vita were more interested in imitating the dance steps of the American Bandstand "regulars" than in playing school, but a direct order from our mother sent them trudging upstairs to my classroom. I'd prepared for their arrival: work sheets, white shirt and clip-on tie, alarm clock hidden under my bed for the surprise fire drill. If my sisters had to play, then they would playact. Vita cast herself as hip-swiveling Cookie Crane, as smoldering a third-grader as there ever was. Gail was Rippy Van Snoot, the class incorrigible. I was launching into opening exercises when Rippy reached past me, grabbed a blackboard eraser, and bounced it off my forehead. Cookie shrieked with delight and lit an imaginary cigarette. I forget which reprobate flung my flash cards into the air and made the room rain arithmetic.
Fourteen years later I was a high school English teacher with my first actual students. Paula Plunkett and Seth Jinks were the two I remember most vividly from my rookie year. Paula had pretty eyes and graceful penmanship, but she was encased in a fortress of fat. Sad and isolated, she sat at a special table inback because she didn't fit the desks. She never spoke; no one ever spoke to her. In my first-year-teacher naï veté, I sought to draw Paula into the dynamic, thinking group work and class discussion would save her. My plan failed miserably.
Seth Jinks was in the twelfth-grade class I'd been assigned because I had no seniority. "The sweathogs," these kids dubbed themselves. I was twenty-one, and so were three or four of my sweathogs. We honeymooned for a couple of weeks. Then one morning I walked up the aisle and tapped Seth Jinks on the shoulder. I needed to wake him up so I could exchange the paperback he hadn't read for the new one he wasn't going to read. "Seth, get your head off the desk," I said. "Here's the new book." No response. I poked him. He looked up at me with little-boy-lost eyes. "Go fuck yourself," he said. The room went quiet. The sweathogs, Seth, and I held our collective breath and waited for my response. And in that uneasy silence, and the days, and months, and decades that followed, teaching became for me not just a job but a calling. I have found special meaning in working with hard nuts, tough cookies, and hurtin' buckaroos -- those children among us who are the walking wounded.
That said, I did not want to go to York Correctional Institution, Connecticut's maximum-security prison for women, on that warm August afternoon in 1999. I was keeping a promise I'd made to Marge Cohen, the prison school librarian. Marge had called three months earlier, as I was preparing for a twelve-city book tour in support of my second novel, I Know This Much Is True. Several suicides and suicide attempts had triggered an epidemic of despair at the prison, Marge hadexplained; the school staff, groping to find help, was canvasing the community. They thought writing might prove useful to the women as a coping tool. Would I come and speak? Because I'm frequently asked to support good causes and have a hard time saying no, I keep an index card taped to my phone -- a scripted refusal that allows me to preserve family and writing time. That day, though, I couldn't find my card. I told Marge I'd visit when I got back from my book tour.
Rock stars on tour bust up their hotel rooms. They get drunk or high, trash the furniture with their bandmates, party with groupies. But authors on tour are quieter, more solitary souls. Between appointments, we sit by ourselves in our rooms, nibbling like prairie dogs on room service sandwiches, or ironing our clothes for the next reading, or watching Judge Judy. Perhaps the most surreal moment during my book tour that summer occurred in a hotel room in Dayton, Ohio. While channel-surfing, I came upon the quiz show Jeopardy! at the exact moment my name surfaced. "He wrote the novel She's Come Undone," Alex Trebek stated. In the long and torturous pause that followed, the three contestants stood there, lockjawed and mute, itching but unable to press their thumbs to their buzzers. And sitting on the edge of the bed in room 417 of the Westin Hotel, I uttered in a sheepish voice, "Who is Wally Lamb?"
I'm a family man, a fiction writer, a teacher, and a guy who can't say no without the index card. On that nervous first drive to York Correctional Institution, I sought to calm myself with music. I was fumbling with CD cases and radio buttons when suddenly, over the airwaves, a piano pounded and the car shook with the vocal thunder of Newark, New Jersey's Abyssinian Baptist Choir. The unfamiliar song so overpowered me that I pulled to the shoulder to listen. When it ended, I looked up at the highway sign in front of which I'd landed. correctional facility area, it said. do not stop. The inexplicable emotional wallop of that moment fills me with wonder to this day.
To gain access to the women of York prison, you check in with the guard at the main gate, hang your laminated badge onyour shirt pocket, walk through a metal detector, then pass through a series of ten doors, some of which slide open mysteriously after you stand and wait. You don't see who's flipping the switches, so it's an Orwellian entrance. At the prison school, I met my liaison, Dale Griffith, a warm and exuberant English teacher. Dale and I arranged the chairs in a circle, a uniformed corrections officer bellowed orders from the corridor, and thirty inmates entered the room.
Dressed identically in cranberry T-shirts and pocketless jeans, the women came in all colors, shapes, sizes, and degrees of gender identification. Their attitudes ranged from hangdog to Queen of Sheba. Most had shown up not to write but to check out "that guy who was on Oprah." I spoke. We tried some exercises. I asked if anyone had questions about writing. Several hands shot into the air. "You met Oprah?" "What's Oprah like?" "Oprah's cool, you know what I'm sayin'?" Uh, was that a question?
At the end of my talk, one of the women stood, thanked me for coming, and pi
"In his introduction, Lamb calls the workshop 'a journey rich with laughter, tears, [and] heart-stopping leaps of faith.' To the credit of Lamb and his authors, this book, the end product of the workshop, is as well." Publishers Weekly
"One truth this book affirms is the capacity for people to change....It is in this change that hope resides; lying next to and rising out of despair, hope permeates the book. Why, in the end, does Lamb want us to care about 10 women in prison? Perhaps because in noticing the humanity of others, we become more human ourselves." Kathy Boudin, The Los Angeles Times
Couldn't Keep It to Myself
once again shows Wally Lamb's unmatched talent for finding the humanity in the lost and lonely. For the past several years Wally Lamb has devoted himself to a group of incarcerated women at the York Correctional Institution where he taught writing. At first mistrustful of Lamb, each other, and the experience of writing, many of these women soon came to embrace the opportunity to express themselves.
Many of them were imprisoned by their circumstances even before they were sent to York for their crimes. Recounting harrowing tales of chronic abuse and rejection by their families, peers, and society, some of these women turned to brutal violence, while others were caught in no-win situations. Yet, as a testament to their strength and courage, many of these women embrace hope even in the depths of their despair and loneliness.
Wally Lamb's powerful Introduction describes the incredible process by which these women found their true voices, and how they challenged him as a teacher and as a fellow writer. Couldn't Keep It to Myself is a book about the hope and heartache of that process of finding oneself and striving for a better day.
"Couldn't Keep It to Myself" once again shows Lamb's talent for finding the humanity in the lost and lonely--a group of incarcerated women at the York Correctional Institution where he taught writing. Lamb's powerful Introduction describes the incredible process by which these women found their true voices, and how they challenged him as a teacher and as a writer.
What I hope is that people reading this book will bear in mind that we are human beings first, inmates second.
In a stunning new work of insight and hope, New York Times bestselling author Wally Lamb once again reveals his unmatched talent for finding the humanity in the lost and lonely and celebrates the transforming power of the written word.
For the past several years, Lamb has taught writing to a group of women prisoners at York Correctional Institution. At first mistrustful of Lamb, one another, and the writing process, over time these students let down their guard, picked up their pens, and discovered their voices. In this unforgettable collection, the women of York describe in their own words how they were imprisoned by abuse, rejection, and their own self-destructive impulses long before they entered the criminal justice system. Yet these are stories of hope, humor, and triumph in the face of despair. Having used writing as a tool to unlock their creativity and begin the process of healing, these amazing writers have left victimhood behind.
In his powerful introduction, Lamb describes the incredible journey of expression and self-awareness the women took through their writings and shares how they challenged him as a teacher and as a fellow author. In "Hair Chronicles," Tabatha Rowley tells her life history through her past hairstyles -- outer signals to the world each time she reinvented herself and eventually came to prize her own self-worth. Brenda Medina admits in "Hell, and How I got Here" that she continued to rebel in prison until her parents' abiding love made her realize that her misbehavior was hurting them and herself deeply. In "Faith, Power, and Pants," Bonnie Foreshaw describes how faith has carried her through trials in life and in prison and has allowed her to understand her past actions, to look toward the future, and to believe that she will once again taste home cooking. Couldn't Keep It to Myself is a true testament to the process of finding oneself and working toward a better day.
The author recounts his work with the York Correctional Institution and shares the stories of his women inmate students, describing the circumstances that led to their incarcerations and how they found their literary voices.
About the Author
The author of the number one New York Times bestsellers She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, Wally Lamb still contributes time as a volunteer facilitator at the York Correctional Institution. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Christine. His third novel is The Hour I First Believed.
Table of Contents
Notes to the reader --Couldn't keep it to ourselves /Wally Lamb --The true face of earth --Orbiting Izzy /Nancy Whiteley --Thefts /Carolyn Ann Adams --Hair chronicles /Tabatha Rowley --Three steps past the monkeys /Nancy Birkla --Hell, and how I got here /Brenda Medina --Christmas in prison /Robin Cullen --Faith, power, and pants /Bonnie Foreshaw --Puzzle pieces /Barbara Parsons Lane --Motherlove /Michelle Jessamy --Snapshots of my early life /Diane Bartholomew --Bad girls /Dale Griffith.