When I arrived at York prison, a corrections captain who knew my educational background advised me to apply to join the inmate writing group.
“Oh, thank you, but I don’t think I’ll be here long enough to join.” Those words came out of my mouth in March 2008.
The York Writers Group—a class at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, the state’s only women’s prison— is a biweekly seminar founded by best-selling author Wally Lamb. He encourages women in the calss to explain how personal traumas in their lives shaped their crimes or their responses to the criminal justice system. The group has published two story collections edited by Lamb.
When the handwriting on the barbed-wire walls made it clear that I was not leaving soon, I applied to the group. I wrote in my application that I wanted to learn how Wally comes up with the storylines and descriptions in his novels. I remembered reading how Dolores Price, the heroine in his novel “She’s Come Undone,” lost her virginity in a very untoward way, and flipping back to the cover.
“Wally is a guy, right?” I asked myself. The photo on the back flap answered the question: Yes.
Like many other readers, I was amazed at the man’s ability to describe the physical and mental processes of a young girl’s trauma so accurately.
Then, on a Thursday in September, 2009, I sat at the man’s right hand, and learned: His plots are inspired by trauma, not necessarily his own, but that suffered by people he knows.
In the writers group, we spill the contents of our consciences and pick scabs off our self-esteem through essay-writing. We tell our stories. A description of some trauma invariably invades our compositions, which is why the substance of group discussions is confidential. I can’t say more about the classes’ content, or give examples.
What I can say is that the recidivism rate for members of the York Writers Group is half of 1 percent. Each year for the past 13 years, over two hundred women have attended the class. Only one of them has returned to prison. That’s compared to a country-wide recidivism rate of between 48 and 65 percent of ex-offenders return to prison, according to studies. Inmates don’t re-offend when they resolve their traumas. Women don’t re-offend when they tell their stories.
Policy makers bandy about reasons for law-breaking—poverty, lack of education, addiction—but nothing is more associated with crime and punishment than unresolved trauma history. Trauma fuels the American criminal justice system. Public health studies show that 68 to 95 percent of female offenders have a history of sexual trauma. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, upwards of 76 percent of all male violent offenders are victims of childhood sexual abuse. People suffering the pain of trauma seek numbing in drug use, abusive relationships, and an addiction to self-destructive risk. The activities lead to incarceration—the official exit to the world of the forgotten, even though they can never fully forget.
Most people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) do not have a complete memory of the traumatic event that plagues them. What might initially seem like a godsend—forgetting the painful details of a trauma—actually prevents resolution for the victim.
The mind tries to complete the memory, to make sense of what happened. Even though it’s an incomplete or unintelligible memory, the recollection keeps circling in an open loop in the brain’s circuitry and drives the person crazy. If you have experience trauma, then you know that it is a vicious cycle that never includes relaxation, stability or accurate insight into what you are experiencing. Eventually, someone with PTSD can develop psychiatric symptoms including flashbacks, hypervigilance, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and anxiety.
In the 1920s, Russian psychology student Bluma Zeigarnik sat at a cafe in Vienna, watching the waitstaff—and began to understand how to close the loop of a traumatic memory.
Zeigarnik was surprised to see that the waiters were able to keep long, intricate orders for each table in their minds without writing anything down, at least until the bill appeared. Once a table’s check was paid, the waitstaff could not remember anything anyone at the table ordered.
The Zeigarnik Effect, which became her dissertation topic, explains that tension created by unfinished business serve as the net to keep data—in this case, customers’ orders—in people’s active memories. When we complete transactions, the tension subsides and the net loosens its hold on the data, allowing it to leave for the world of the forgotten.
A PTSD sufferer begins to complete the transaction when she can understand why and how the event fits within her life story. The psychic tension that retained the painful, albeit incomplete, memories loosen, causing those stressful thoughts to recede into the cognitive recesses of the mind, making room for recovery. Psychiatric researchers have found that the typical PTSD sufferer begins to understand the event and fill in details only when she tells her story.
When she tells her story.
For as little as $20 spent on paper and Bic pens, we can truly treat prisoners problems by undoing trauma’s effects on inmates’ lives. We can reduce crime by letting them tell their stories in prison writing classes. This is the real power of the pen: the power to eliminate the toxic effects of trauma on people’s lives.
If writing holds the potential to reduce substance abuse and addiction, to reduce crime inexpensively and to improve offenders’ self-esteem, then prison writing programs should be universally offered, if not mandated as a crime control strategy.
But beyond policy considerations, the Zeigarnik Effect provides hope both for eople who suffer from trauma and the people who know them. When we learn that recovery can be just a few paragraphs away, survivors and their supports understand that no one is “damaged goods” or chained to a life sentence of psychiatric treatment. Even more than that, Zeigarnik taught all of us what to do when we see people suffering: Listen. Let them tell their stories.
Chandra Bozelko is an inmate at York Correctional Institution in Niantic. Readers can write to her at:
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357
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