Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters

Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060595371
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/03/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 233,722
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.92(d)

About the Author

Wally Lamb is the author of five New York Times bestselling novels: She’s Come Undone, I Know This Much Is True, The Hour I First Believed, Wishin’ and Hopin’, and We Are Water. His first two works of fiction, She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, were both #1 New York Times bestsellers and
selections of Oprah’s Book Club. Lamb edited Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away, two volumes of essays from students in his writing workshop at York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut, where he has been a volunteer facilitator for seventeen years.


Willimantic, Connecticut

Date of Birth:

October 17, 1950

Place of Birth:

Norwich, Connecticut


B.A. in Education, University of Connecticut, 1972; M.A. in Education, 1977; M.F.A. in Writing, Vermont College, 1984

Read an Excerpt

Couldn't Keep It to Myself
Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters

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 in back because she didn't fit the desks. She never spoke; no one ever spoke to her. In my first-year-teacher naïveté, 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 had explained; 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.

I would never have predicted an author's life for myself, but when I was thirty, while on summer hiatus from teaching, I'd sat down and written a short story on a whim. I liked doing it and wrote another. For my third story, I fused a sarcastic voice to the visual memory of the mute, isolated Paula Plunkett. For years I had worried and wondered about my former student. What had become of her? What had all that weight meant? Who had she been as a child? In the absence of actual knowledge, the life I invented around her remembered image became my first novel, She's Come Undone. It took me nine years to figure out the story of that bruised fictional soul whom I'd fathered and then grown to love and worry over. I loved and stewed over the flawed identical twins of my second novel, too -- one of whom had a generous measure of Seth Jinks's anger. What I did not see coming was that the world would embrace these characters also. "Hello, Wally? Guess what?" The caller on the other end of the phone line was Oprah Winfrey. She called twice, once for each novel. The result: best-seller lists, limo rides, movie deals, and foreign translations. Oprah's Book Club had taken my life by the seat of the pants and sent me on the road.

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 on your 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 pitched me a curveball. "You coming back?" she asked. Thirty pairs of wary eyes were upon me and my index card was back in my office. "Uh, well . . . okay," I said. "Write something and I'll see you in two weeks. Any subject, two pages minimum. Your drafts will be your tickets into the workshop."

At session two, fifteen of the thirty chairs were empty. Stacie wanted praise, not feedback. Manhattan said she'd meant to be vague and nonspecific -- that her business wasn't necessarily the reader's business. Ruth must have thought she was a guest on Oprah; she'd written only a paragraph, but man oh man, did she want to talk. At age fifty-five Diane was the senior member of the group. For ninety minutes she hunched forward, fists clenched on her desktop. Her suspicious eyes followed my every move. Diane had written under the pseudonym Natasha and had exacted a promise before class that her work would never, ever be read aloud. I predicted she'd be gone by session three.

But it was during session three that Diane Bartholomew ("Snapshots of My Early Life") couldn't keep her writing to herself. Her shaky hand went up and she asked if she could share what she'd written. In a barely audible voice, she read a disjointed, two-page summary of her horrific life story: incest, savage abuse, spousal homicide, lawyerly indifference, and, in prison, parallel battles against breast cancer and deep, dark depression. When she stopped, there was silence, a communal intake of breath. Then, applause -- a single pair of hands at first, joined by another pair, and then by everyone. Bartholomew had sledgehammered the dam of distrust, and the women's writing began to flow.

That was three years ago. I stopped counting sessions somewhere around number fifty. Writers have come and gone: the narcotics-addicted nurse who wrote a moving apologia to a deceased aunt whose support had never wavered; the high school athlete who, a month after graduation, brandished her softball bat during a convenience store robbery and wrote to figure out why; the young alcoholic mother who time-traveled, penning a personal letter to one of the prison's original 1917 inmates, also an alcoholic. The workshop sessions have been a journey rich with laughter, tears, heart-stopping leaps of faith, and miraculous personal victories. There have been bumps in the road, too. Addicts are elusive; they tend to begin promising drafts, take them to some interesting midway point, then give up on themselves and stop coming. There have been trust issues. Prison is not a place where trust is given easily, and a writer who shares her work in progress risks exposure. That risk taking must be honored. Only the writer should decide when, and if, her work is ready for the eyes and ears of nongroup members -- ready, in other words, to go public. If another group member breaches that trust, she has to leave. Similarly, a few con artists and drama queens have been handed their walking papers. A functional writing community cannot accommodate the needs of would-be superstars or instigators of the guess-what-she-said-about-you variety. But those have been the exceptions. The brave writers whose work is represented in this volume have acted in good faith, faced their demons, stayed the course, and revised relentlessly. And in taking on the subject of themselves -- making themselves vulnerable to the unseen reader -- they have exchanged powerlessness for the power that comes with self-awareness.

"I started writing because of a terrible feeling of powerlessness," the novelist Anita Brookner has said. The National Book Award winner Alice McDermott noted that the most difficult thing about becoming a writer was convincing herself that she had anything to say that people would want to read. "There's nothing to writing," the columnist Red Smith once commented. "All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

Michelle Jessamy ("Motherlove") was fourteen when she became pregnant by her teenage boyfriend. Despite the challenges, Jessamy's impending motherhood helped her get closer to her own emotionally distant mother. As she drafted her memory piece, that mother-daughter epiphany emerged as the centerpiece. Then, mid-draft, Jessamy hit a snag. She began writing a flashback to an earlier instance of sexual abuse -- a hallway molestation by a friend of the family when she was eleven. The painful incident was integral to the story she needed to tell, but disclosing her long-kept secret made Jessamy feel uncomfortable. She stopped writing. But self-censorship felt uncomfortable, too. Jessamy had worked hard on her essay and wanted to see it through. The solution? A change of genre. On paper, Jessamy became Mo'Shay Shambly, and the pronoun I became she. Mo'Shay had the same hazel eyes as Michelle, the same experiences. But now Jessamy was writing autobiographical fiction. That little bit of distance unblocked her and she finished her piece.

Brenda Medina ("Hell, and How I Got Here") was self-censoring like Michelle Jessamy, but for a very different reason. For months after she joined our group, she labored on the same short essay about the death of her uncle Carlos -- draft after draft after draft. One day I suggested to Medina that, God bless him, I didn't think I had the strength to attend to poor Uncle Carlos's death one more time. "There's something else I want to write about, but I can't," she told me. That "something" was what had landed her in prison ten years earlier at age seventeen: her affiliation with a violent street gang.

York Correctional Institution is vigilant in its efforts to eliminate gang influence within the compound. Incarcerated gang members who choose to uphold their allegiance to "the family" pay a steep price in the form of punitive segregation, loss of privileges, and loss of the "good time" that can shorten their stay on the inside. A self-described punk when she arrived at York, Brenda Medina had traveled a long and difficult road as an inmate, freeing herself from the psychological grip of her "family" and undertaking the rigorous step-by-step process by which an inmate repudiates her gang affiliation and begins rehabilitation in earnest. Even mentioning the name of a gang can cast suspicion that the inmate has reneged on her disaffiliation. Medina's very real fear was that, if she wrote about her past life, her work might be seized, taken out of context, and misconstrued as gang-friendly. If that happened, she could lose much of what she had worked so hard to achieve. My collaborator, Dale Griffith, dealt with the problem directly. She sought and received permission from prison officials for Medina to take up her gang experience as subject matter. With that hurdle cleared, the writer was on her way to a personal essay that, far from glorifying gangs, depicts their insidious hold on young people's lives and the cancerous destruction of their futures.

In her much-loved book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott observes: "We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must." The writer's job, Lamott instructs, is "to turn the unspeakable into words -- not just into any words, but if we can, into rhythm and blues." Bonnie Foreshaw ("Faith, Power, and Pants") is a woman of stately bearing, strong faith, and rhythm-and-blues diction, the latter a reflection of her Jamaican birth and South Florida upbringing. In Foreshaw's vernacular, her cousin is "my old cous' " and her problems are "botherations." She does not converse with friends; she "conversates." One day a while back, Foreshaw entered the workshop looking weary. "How you feeling today, Miss Bonnie?" I asked. "I'm feeling botheration and sufferation inside this place," she replied. Another day I rushed to the prison from a speaking engagement. I'm usually in jeans but that afternoon I was wearing jacket, tie, and dress pants that had fit me better before I'd lost some weight. "How's the writing going, Bonnie?" I asked. Ignoring the question, she gave me a frowning once-over instead. "Those your pants?" she wanted to know.

The problem was this: Foreshaw's speech was colorful and cut-to-the-chase direct, but her writing "voice" was ponderous and deadly dull -- the result, I suspect, of her having tried too hard to please grade school teachers more interested in grammatical correctness than in voice. In an early draft, Foreshaw wrote of a disciplinary measure taken against her: "There I was, already in prison. Yet, I was being persecuted even further into the bowels of hell. However, I was willing and able to endure whatever punishment was going to be inflicted on me because of the grace of God's spiritual influence, guidance, and protection. I would make it through this ordeal."

"Bonnie!" we'd advise her during workshop discussions. "Stop preaching and conversate!" When she did, Foreshaw's writing came alive.

A writer's voice, says the author and teacher Donald Murray, is forged from family background, ethnic heritage, childhood neighborhood, present neighborhood, and the writer's roles in life. "And ironically," Murray says, "the more personal, the more individual you become, the more universally you will be read." The fiction writer Sandra Cisneros says she tries to write in the voice she would use with a friend sitting across her kitchen table while she's wearing her pajamas. Her stories are read the world


Invoking one's natural voice on paper is easier for some writers than for others. Robin Cullen ("Christmas in Prison") is a wry ironist in person and on paper. Nancy Whiteley ("Orbiting Izzy," "The True Face of Earth") deports herself with a world-weary toughness and a little girl's vulnerability. Her writing voice captures those qualities exactly. Conversely, Brenda Medina, who comes from a large Latino family and is bilingual, had to be coaxed into introducing a little Spanish "music" into her prose. Bonnie Foreshaw had to let us know she came from South Florida and had not sprung whole from the pages of the Old Testament. Nancy Birkla ("Three Steps Past the Monkeys") credits her twelve-step recovery with saving her life, but her writing soared when she stopped sounding like the manual. The trick, says Donald Murray, is to avoid imitating some "literary" voice you might admire and to accept your own voice -- flawed and human as you might be. Many of the inmates with whom I work are avid readers of romance novels. Their first autobiographical efforts are apt to be florid accounts in which they star as tragic Victorian heroines. Gently, we coax our fellow writers away from sentimentality and purple prose. Listen to how Carolyn Adams ("Thefts") first wrote about her arrest for embezzlement: "The detective handcuffed me to a metal folding chair like a mental patient and I was crying, crying, crying. Through my tears, I could see the stares of police officers and arrested people as they shuffled past, all of them glancing hatefully at me. When I was led down the hallway to have my picture taken, I responded robotically to the detective's commands due to my ordeal." Now listen to a passage from one of Adams's later drafts. Locked in the holding room on her first day in prison, she is looking out an escape-proof window when, illogically, a goose wanders into her field of vision: "Oblivious to the humans locked inside, it waddled along, doing what geese do: eating, shitting, and looking stupid. I stood there, envying that son-of-a-bitchin' goose as it passed by on its way to greener pastures." In revision, Adams discards the voice of the self-consciously suffering heroine in favor of her own, angrier voice. In doing so, she better communicates the pain and humiliation of her experience.

To imprison a woman is to remove her voice from the world, but many female inmates have been silenced by life long before the transport van carries them from the courthouse to the correctional facility. "If you tell anyone about this, I'll make big trouble for you," the pedophile warns her when she is a frightened little girl. (Because the molester is her father, grandfather, cousin, or stepdad, he's in a good position to deliver on the threat.) "What goes on in this house stays in this house!" her violent parent screams after she's just taken a punch or witnessed a sibling's beating. "Shut your fucking mouth or I'll shut it with my fist!" her abusive husband promises. She knows he means it; the last time, he dislocated her jaw. Because incest and domestic violence cut across the economic divide, women of all means are schooled in silence. Of the eleven contributors to this volume, eight have been battered and nine have been sexually abused, a statistic that reflects the norm for incarcerated women. Their essays, then, are victories against voicelessness -- miracles in print.

For her audition piece, Barbara Lane ("Puzzle Pieces") submitted an idyllic dreamscape: released from prison, she reunites with her children and grandchildren at a country cottage with beautiful gardens. The family is poised on the brink of happily-ever-after. Lane attached a note to her sample, stating that she wanted to write about her life to better understand it. A hardworking middle-class mom with no prior criminal past, Lane alleges that she shot and killed her emotionally abusive husband in a moment of frenzy when he taunted her with the knowledge that he had sexually abused her granddaughter. Disoriented and debilitated by post-traumatic stress disorder, Lane was put on a suicide watch when she entered York prison. Convicted of manslaughter, she had served two years of her twenty-five-year sentence when she learned that her twenty-one-year-old son, a father of two, had been killed in a highway accident. In the company of uniformed corrections officers, she attended his wake alone in shackles after her family had been evacuated from the funeral parlor by order of prison officials.

Not long after joining our group, Lane put aside her pastoral fantasy and got to the tough stuff. She wrote prolifically and was eager for feedback from the group, but she could not read her memoir aloud without breaking down. One of the other writers or I would read it for her, and she would sit there, weeping silently and drawing Kleenex after Kleenex from the box on her lap. Yet if Lane's story was harrowing, her prose was flat and dispassionate. One day I commented that she must do a lot of crying as she wrote. No, Lane said. She relived her memories dry-eyed, recording details and bits of dialogue in an emotionless state. "It's my post-traumatic stress," she explained. "Up to the point when I snapped, that was how I survived -- by detaching. I thought I was all right. I thought I was handling things and keeping everyone safe."

In the two years Barbara Lane has participated in the writers' group, both her writing and her demeanor have changed. More assertive, less debilitated by grief, she now reads her own drafts without breaking down. Concurrently, her writing voice has become less devoid of emotion and far more moving. Lane has hitched her sorrow, fear, despair, and anger to vivid remembered detail and transferred her emotions to the page. She has gone about the difficult work of confronting her chaotic history head-on rather than being confronted, over and over, by it; and the process has empowered her to express emotions that had long been locked away. The operative emotion that drives her later pieces is righteous anger. "My eyes are wide open," she asserted recently in a piece about her daily life in prison. "And I don't like much of what I see around me."

Soon after Diane Bartholomew dropped the pseudonym Natasha, she discovered a writing voice as plainspoken and unvarnished as she. Bartholomew dedicated herself to the purpose of recording her life with a fury the likes of which I had never witnessed. She wrote so much that she began to understand how writing works and, because of that, she became an astute and generous critic of the other writers. She hungered for critical feedback from her peers but deflected praise with a shrug and a breaking of eye contact. "I don't know if it's any good or not," she'd mumble. "But at least it's honest."

Bartholomew's writing transformed her. "I always used to tell people that someday I was going to write my story, but I never really believed it would happen," she told me once. Now that it was happening, she couldn't stop. On alternate Thursdays when I visited, the unassuming Bartholomew would ambush me on my way to class, eager to swap her latest installments for the text I'd taken home and critiqued for her. She began to color-code her printed revisions so that I could focus on what was new in the piece -- what she'd added, cut, switched around, or clarified. She was a ravenous consumer of whatever I could teach her. "I don't want to hog your time, Wally," she'd whisper before class. "But if you could give me a few extra minutes afterward." As soon as class was over, Diane would jump from her seat and fan her work across the long tables, picking my brain about form and narrative flow. "Now, do you think my hunting piece should go before or after the one about our trip to the beach?" she'd ask. "Oh, and Wally, I've been thinking about what you said last time -- how the car seems to be my main symbol. But I don't think it's the car. I think it's the open road." She'd nod at the fourteen or fifteen pieces she'd spread across the table, shoulder to shoulder like a line of Rockettes. "Yup, it's the road, Wally, not the car."

She could be impatient. She couldn't help it. The more her writing came to matter to her, the more unbearable those two-week turnarounds became. With the warden's permission, Dale Griffith began faxing Diane's work to my office. I'd be in one room, writing my novel in progress, one hard-won sentence after the next. The phone would ring in the adjacent room. The fax machine would whir. Fifteen minutes later, I'd have one more measly sentence written and there'd be a new ten-page draft waiting for me from Bartholomew.

"Good God, Diane, Joyce Carol Oates doesn't write this fast," I'd tease her. "What are you doing? Writing a full-length book?"

"Maybe I am," she told me once. "And if so, I'm going to dedicate it to my dead mother. Her whole life, everyone kept telling her how stupid she was, same as they did me. I'll hold up that book and tell her, wherever she is, 'Look, Ma. Look what your daughter did. I guess we weren't so stupid after all.' " Bartholomew's productivity was daunting, her mission to get her life down on paper nearly monomaniacal. I did not understand the timetable under which she was laboring.

Because York C.I. is a maximum-security prison, volunteers are forbidden to give gifts to inmates. Contraband goods entering the facility can become a serious security and safety risk. So on a pre-Christmas 2000 visit to the compound, I arrived empty-handed. Diane Bartholomew, however, had a gift for me -- a simple card. The message she'd written inside said, "So many times, I wanted to throw in the towel and give up, but you, more than anyone, know my character by now. I wasn't a pest all my life for nothing. Wally, we all look forward to Thursday afternoon like little children waiting for a treat. The treat is the opportunity to share our stories and to get the feedback that makes our work worthwhile. To say thanks sounds so hollow, and you always say, 'Show it, don't tell it.' So let me put it this way. You have become the umbilicord for a rebirth of hope in me. Please thank your wife and boys for sharing you with us women here at the prison."

That December day there was far more peace and goodwill inside the prison than outside. When I left the compound, I stopped by the mall to do some holiday shopping and ran into an acquaintance. "It's been a while," she said. "Catch me up." As I described the prison workshops, a distasteful smirk took hold of this woman's face. "Gee, maybe I should go rob a bank or kill someone," she said. "Then I could go down there and join all the fun."

If I have learned anything these past three years, it is that prison is not fun -- not at all the coddling Club Med that some describe. At York C.I., a woman is told when to rise, what to wear, when to shower, when to eat, when to use the phone, and when to go to bed. She may share her eight-by-ten-foot cell with someone who is violent, vindictive, or mentally unstable. That cell may be searched by officers at any time for an unstated reason, the inmate's personal belongings dumped onto the floor or seized. Her mail can be read, censored, or confiscated. An institutional lockdown can abort her classes, her workday, or a planned visit with her children. If the visit goes on as planned, her interactions with her kids are monitored by corrections officers and surveillance cameras. After her visitors leave, she is obliged to submit to a strip search, during which her vaginal and anal cavities are examined for contraband. There are justifiable reasons for all of the above. A maximum-security prison must be safeguarded for the good of inmates, staff, and the general public. But it is not fun to be there, and the person who likens it to a country club is either ignorant or cynical.

"Mr. Wally, look what we made," Tabatha Rowley said one afternoon as the workshop convened. She held up a collage of uncommon beauty, a disjointed patchwork replica of the Mona Lisa. A few weeks earlier, the students explained, their art appreciation teacher, Pedro Valentin, had divided a copy of da Vinci's masterpiece into twenty-four squares. Each of twenty-four women was given a square and invited to make a replica. The assignment called for ingenuity, though; the art class was operating on a shoestring budget and had no paint or supplies. The women had improvised, painting with instant coffee mixed with creamer and composing squares from pine needles, magazine clippings, and eggshells. "Kinda funny that I got Mona Lisa's cleavage," Diane Bartholomew quipped. "Me, with my mastectomies." The assemblage -- simultaneously fractured and united, chaotic and ordered -- struck me immediately as a metaphor for our group. "If we ever turned your stories into a book," I said, "this would be the perfect cover."

"Hey, why don't we make a book?" Dale Griffith asked. The women looked at one another and nodded. And there it was: the genesis of the volume you hold in your hand. My intent was to edit and finance the printing of a modest collection of the women's work. I'd distribute four or five copies to each participant and a batch to the prison library. Back in my office, I put my assistant, Lynn Castelli, to the task of mastering a desktop-publishing program. We priced the job with a local printer and made decisions about paper stock and binding. I decided to spring for the full-color cover of the fractured Mona Lisa.

"What are we going to call our book?" one of the women asked during the next workshop session. None of the suggestions we tossed around seemed right. "Wally, what are you going to call the new novel you're working on?" someone asked. I explained that I'd taken as my working title a line from a gospel song I'd heard on my very first drive to York prison.

"Couldn't Keep It to Myself?" Tabatha exclaimed. "I know that song!"

"Sing it," Carolyn suggested. And Tabbi obliged, treating us to a spontaneous a cappella rendition of "Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody" that lacked none of the joyful thunder of the Abyssinian Baptist Choir.

Said I wasn't gonna tell nobody
But I couldn't keep it to myself
What the Lord has done for me

So I gave my title to the gal Couldn't Keep It to Myself
Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters
. Copyright © by Wally Lamb. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a big fan of Wally Lamb's, and bought this book because his name was attached to it. I was not at all disappointed, and absolutely loved this book! Each story was heart-wrenching, superbly written and truly engaging. I found myself inspired by all of the women whose stories were featured in the book. I admire their strength and the courage it took to put their stories in writing! Often when I'm feeling down and sorry for myself, I think of these women and the pain and anguish they were forced to endure for most of their lives. Believe me, it is a bonafide cure for self pity. This book is truly excellent, and without question, highly recommended to everyone!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I did not know if I would like this book. I'm not going to lie; I bought it only because Wally Lamb's name was on the cover. I knew he didn't write the book himself but I also knew that he wouldn't take part in something he didn't believe in or think was worthy. As you read this book, you can't help but feel so much sympathy for these women. Yes they are in prison and yes they killed and stole but their life before prison is so awful. In my opionion, some of their crimes were justified and they shouldn't even be in prison. This book gives you an inside look on how awful prison is and how so many of the prison employees treat you like an animal. My heart reached out to each and every one of these women, especially Diane who sadly has passed away. Not only is the book insightful, these women are really excellent authors. This isn't a book like She's Come Undone where you can read it in one day. I found myself only being able to read one story every few days because it really made me think about how lucky I was to have the childhood I did and the family I have. These stories are heart breaking but hopefully for these women, by writing their stories, something they kept inside for so long was able to be brought to the surface and they were able to conquer their fears and overcome their past as best they could.
Guest More than 1 year ago
These stories are beautifully written. I got caught up in so many of the stories that I didn't want them end. I truly loved this book because it changed my conception of prisoners in general. It is no wonder why a lot of these women end up incarcerated-they have all led hard lives. I recommend this book to everyone. Spread the word and let's make this book a bestseller!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A noble effort by Wally Lamb to spend time at York helping the inmates in a writing workshop. The stories were incredibly sad but instead of feeling hopeful like some of the reviewers said, I felt like the circle of violence and crime that started in most of the women's lives went on because they wound up in prison. This book should be given to high school girls to show what can happen when you take certain actions. An interesting read but actually pretty depressing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i loved this book i just finished it the other day and was amazed by all the diffrent stories and lifestyles of all these women that all ended up in the same place. However some parts where a little gorey, and it disturbed me how many of the girls were sexually abused, but it was a great book mainly because the women bring you right into thier lives and tell you everything nothing seemed held back, i would encourage all the women to keep writing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. I hope Wally Lamb does this again!
Guest More than 1 year ago
couldn't put it down! We need to see what good talents people have weather being convicted of something, or just trying to find there way.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think this book should be a must read for anyone dealing with people in illustrates how childhoods and teen years full of sexual abuse create abuse of any kind perpetrated on a child sends all of society spinning out of control...this is a very thought provoking read as are all of Wally Lamb's books...can't wait for the next one...
Guest More than 1 year ago
In agreeing to lead a writing workshop for these women in prison, Wally Lamb helped them find and refine their literary voice. Because of his efforts and their bravery, we 'outsiders' now can peer into a slice of reality known only to these women, and to a certain extent we can experience it with them and perhaps divide their sorrows. These ladies are in prison because they committed crimes, but they are also in prison because others committed crimes against them. May we all learn from their experiences and gain compassion and understanding for their position in life, past and present.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I must say, each book that Mr. Lamb writes brings a new degree of thought to me. I was amazed at the stories that at one point or another related to something known and unknown to me. I believe that each of the Women in this book has lived a much more intense life than is protrayed. I felt a part of this intensity in each story. An intensity that made me stop, catch my breath and look away from the pages to focus on what my mind was thinking and my heart was feeling. Then starting back into the words to see if the answer would be on the next page. To me, this is great writing. Mr. Lamb, I can't figure out your true motive for writing this book but I know that I will pass this book around and wait in high anticipation to the conversations that will arise from each person that is touched by this book. If you want to read a book that will make you look at your life and realize, it is worth so much more than all the senseless grief we bring upon our own being. This is the book to read. Read with a warm heart and an open mind and you too will see it, feel it and remember it. As much as I anticipate Mr. Lamb's next creation, his last one holds onto me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I kind of had a head start on the book I read it about a year and a half ago. my mother was one of the woman who contributed to the writing of this book(Carolyn Adams Goodwin). i learned alot about my mother when i read this book, I'm a little more aware of the reason she comitted the crimes she did, and why she always spoiled me so much, I highly recommend this book , not because my mom wrote in it , but to better understand reasons people do things. there are alot of heart breaking, funny ,and joyful stories in this book. well anyways thanks for your time Bryant adams
readingfiend on LibraryThing 3 months ago
After reading "The Hour I First Believed" I wanted to read this book because of his involvement with the Niantic women's prison (as it used to be known). The stories were heartbreaking and many times I thought "There but for the grace of God..."
pictou on LibraryThing 3 months ago
A surprising good read from Wally Lamb. He edits this anthology of life stories from women in prison. I would recommend for anyone who likes autobiographies.
DSlongwhite on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Excellent book. Wally Lamb taught creative writing classes to women who were incarcerated in the prison in Niantic close to my parents. Just as the title says, "He couldn't keep to himself" their stories so he published them. One of the touching things is that at the beginning of each author's story is a picture of herself as a child. I stared at those pictures asking, "How did this cute little thing go so wrong?" The answer to that question more often than not had to do with abuse by a man.
Stefanie2505 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
touching but not too sentimentalThe inmates tell stories from their lives without justifing or apologizing for what they have done. Read it- it will change they way you look at certain things...
NativeRoses on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Couldn't Keep It To Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution is a collection of essays written by female inmates about their lives. The women universally share very rough stories -- poverty, low self-esteem, misplaced 'love', abuse, incest, violence, neglect, etc. Universally, they experienced events during childhood that must have been overwhelming to the child's mind and left them with a lifelong familiarity with people and situations that are too intense. When they grew older most of them continued to experience intensity (violence or thrills) in their lives. None remained settled in the much more mundane existence shared by most of us. My main reaction reading their stories was to empathize with them and think 'there but for the grace of God go i'. But they also did illegal things that were either immoral or horrifyingly violent before winding up in prison. i'm grateful that they are in prison, and am sure that most of them would see me as little more than a mark.
bibliophile26 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
The lives of these women were extremely sad and I felt sorry for almost all of them. A reminder that crime is not always black and white.
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smarterthanilook More than 1 year ago
this would be a great book club choice and a wake -up call for teens. Page after page reflects the consequences of poor choice, lack of education and weak family support. Kept my attention throughout
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modestindecisiv More than 1 year ago
As a Mental Health Professional, a psychology student, a feminist, a health educator and just as a plain ole person, I absolutely loved this book. It creates an insight to a reality that many people are unaware of. Wally Lamb did excellent job working with these miraculous women in prison. Most people in prison, men and women alike are in for nonviolent crimes. In the case of women, many were abused physically, verbally, or sexually sometime before entering the "correctional" system. Their stories are inspiring, sad,and above all they need to be heard. Women in situations like theirs had no way out or knew of no way out. I highly recommend this book to feminists, health educators, psychology students, and those who are just interested in the topic. This book is a collection of works by women in correctional facilities (prison). Great book for older adolescents (16+) and for students. I might even recommend this to a class of students to read (college level). For those who enjoy this book and like the works of Eve Ensler, I recommend a documentary entitled, What I Want My Word To Do to You.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book brings to surface a side of life very few of us are familiar with or had any knowledge it existed. A social problem is exposed that must not be ignored by society and presented in a story like, true to life, informative piece of work. The stories touched me, the autor's innovative approach impressed me. I must say, some social backgrounds would not believe these conditions, feelings, hopes and goal's actually exist. But they do. Wally Lamb brings these to the surface in an almost shocking manner.