Today I watched a documentary that broke my heart. It's called What I Want My Words to Do to You, about a writing workshop held inside a high security women's prison. Most of the participants are serving very long terms, some life, and most all the crimes were violent, with many of the women serving their terms for murder or manslaughter.
To a series of prompts, and with breathtaking honesty, the women write about their lives, and about the events and choices that led them to where they are. They share with rare and striking openness about their crimes, taking responsibility for their actions, and coming to anguished terms with what they have done, the pain they have caused victims, victims’ families, their own families, and themselves. Their confusion, regret, guilt, grief, and sorrow were real, palpable, heartbreaking. As was their loving feedback to and support of each other. Walls are penetrated and obstacles shattered, and I watched, amazed and completely moved at their sincerity, their remorse, vulnerability, naked humanity. In the end was a “performance” in the prison, where several well-known actresses read the women’s writings. In the audience among many others, the women themselves, tears streaming down their faces as their own and each other’s words echo through the hall.
I was bowled over with love and compassion for these women. One mistake. One wrong choice. One harrowing turn. Life suddenly going horribly wrong, shattered. Who among us has not made a mistake? Who has not been guilty of a bad choice? Which of us has not lost control or our temper or our way? It’s all degree, is it not? It’s all circumstance. It was agonizingly clear to me that none of these women set out this way, not one of them dreamed of becoming a criminal, or fantasized about taking a life or spending their lives in prison. They didn’t consciously set out to bring such ruin upon themselves and their victims. I’m guessing that in kindergarten or first grade, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up they answered teacher or nurse or doctor or mommy, just like the rest of “us.” That they dreamed of growing up and getting married and having a home, maybe some kids, just like the rest of “us.” That they skipped and ran and sang and cried and loved and played and skinned a knee and had nightmares and hugged their teddy bear and wanted and needed… just like the rest of “us.”
There are so many directions this could take, levels of debate, theories, ideologies, opinions, judgments, dogmas, arrogances. Right now I’m not the least bit interested. I only know how my heart spilled over today seeing their faces, their eyes, hearing their stories, witnessing their pain, watching as something incredible moved and shifted in them. I only know that they are human, as am I. I only know that when life hands out experiences, families, circumstances, sometimes love, sometimes—more often than I like to think about—even basic safety and sustenance, it is anything but fair. I only know, in my heart of hearts, that these are not “bad” women. That they have hearts that have been broken open, too. That through bad luck or bad choice or bad love or bad timing something terrible happened and the price has also been terrible. And I only know that I only have to ask myself once just exactly what I did to be born where I was, who I was, into the family and the circumstance that I was. The answer, of course, is nothing.
Not one thing.
Luck of the draw.
Pretty unsettling, really.