“The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.”
Couldn’t Keep It to Myself is an inside look at the women behind the bars of a maximum security Connecticut prison, incarcerated for crimes whose breadth spans larceny by embezzlement to homicide in the first degree to manslaughter due to emotional duress. The collection, consisting of eleven personal narratives, illuminates the lives of these women - all of them harsh, abusive, and lonely—prior to conviction. It is an attempt to explain rather than excuse, to balance rather than blame. The book is neither a tabloid tale of the injustices incurred upon female prisoners nor a personal proclamation of innocence. Rather, such vivid and intimate portrayals remind us that these women are human beings first, inmates second.
As each story reveals, the contributors were often sexually, physically, and mentally abused; many came from abject poverty and broken homes; some were faced with unwanted pregnancies while still in their teens. In the face of a harsh environment, low self-esteem, self-destructive habits, obstreperous rage, and poor decision-making they ended up where author Wally Lamb found them—jail. “As an adult, I have stolen and paid the price,” contributor Carolyn Ann Adams writes, “As a child, I was stolen from, by a thief who went free.”
Lamb, well known for his Oprah-endorsed novels She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, apparently receives a multitude of solicitations each year to speak at various events around the country. In want of spending time with his family and his writing, Lamb tends to politely refuse such invitations, aided by a dismissive index card taped to his phone. It just so happened that when York Correctional Institution phoned several years ago, Lamb was stranded without his handy dandy note card. His strategy gone awry, Lamb found himself teaching a creative writing seminar—not to convicts, but rather to women in search of identity, in search of peace.
Lamb’s first visit led to a three-year stint. So moved by the inmates’ words and the stories they crafted, Lamb “couldn’t keep it” to himself; he felt compelled to compile and publish them.
“Long-term incarceration,” Barbara Parsons Lane writes, “is a strange mix of sadness, sameness, and explosiveness.” >From the disparaging cellblocks of York, comes hope and humor. Over time, and over the course of Lamb’s instruction, each woman found her own voice: the words come bitten off, often carrying the salty taste of tears, the metallic tang of blood. There is no melodrama in these stories, no “woe is me.” These are real women and they have real stories to tell.
Nine of the eleven women wrote their pieces while incarcerated. One of those, Diane Bartholomew, perhaps the most poignant of all the women, died of cancer while at York. The remaining two women are a cousin of Lamb’s, Nancy Birkla, and the York Correctional Institution’s writing teacher Dale Griffith.
Birkla, a recidivist cocaine addict, was once again trying to break herself from the cycle when she was convicted for drug trafficking in Kentucky in 1990. Knowing that she would both pee clean and that it was her first offense, she figured she’d be home by Oprah. She wasn’t. A judge decided to make an example out of her, sentencing her to seven years for each of her four trafficking charges. It appears that she is included in the mix because Lamb has taken her on as a “private” writing student and because she is related.
Dale Griffith’s piece “Bad Girls” concludes the personal narratives, exploring, or attempting to explore, the role of teacher and all the peculiarities and eye opening experiences that come upon teaching in a prison. Dale’s closing story, however, though adding an additional perspective to the book feels contrived and gratuitous. Lamb’s presence feels the same.
His observation that prison is “not fun” is not exactly an investigative report. Indeed such a comment is actually quite silly. “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,” Lamb shrewdly observes. “Her mail can be read, censored, or confiscated. An institutional lockdown can abort her classes, her workday, or a planned visit with her children.” Well, duh. Welcome to a blatant statement of the obvious.
In the end, a final question remains: Why does Wally Lamb’s name stick out on the cover? Within the book’s title, why is his name featured in the biggest font? Why is his name featured at all? Lamb edited the book and provided its rather inane preface, but his overly abundant presence in the title seems to detract from his alleged purpose—the women of York. Lamb’s addition to and manipulation of the title comes off as cheap, making the reader wonder if this is just another way to channel more money into his own pockets.