Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Conveying Trauma: Articulating Histories of Violence of York Institution Inmates

Conveying Trauma:
Articulating Histories of Violence of York Institution Inmates
By Julie DiMauro

EDITOR'S NOTE: 2006 University of Connecticut graduate Julie DiMauro wrote this paper for Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta’s English 386: “Women in Literature” course at the University of Connecticut. DiMauro graduated in May with a B.A. in English and a minor in Women’s Studies. She hopes eventually be able to lobby on behalf of such organizations as the Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services to promote legislation that improves the safety, personal and political freedom, and general quality of life for women.
DiMauro read "Couldn’t Keep It to Myself" at a time when she was beginning to focus her passion for gender studies into a drive to understand and destroy gender-based violence. The stories of the women imprisoned at York Correctional Institute not only helped to bring the reality of gender violence and abuse very literally close to home for her, but also encouraged her to think about the ways in which women marginalized through race, class, and physical and sexual abuse are further disempowered by a legal system more concerned with punishing law-breakers than rehabilitating human beings.
"Writing the paper was a meaningful experience for me," DiMauro said, "and it is even more so to be able to share that experience with others."

"Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters," provides for students of gender violence a series of personal histories. Of the ten inmates whose writing was selected to be a part of this collection, only Robin Cullen does not report experiencing physical, psychological, or sexual abuse at some point in her life. The other nine women have recorded their survival of physical violation at the hands of parents, lovers, and family friends.

As often happens in feminist studies, the personal becomes the political, and the value of examining personal accounts of violence against women lies in being able to apply individual instances of violence to a complex social system that devalues girls and women and condones violence as a tool for controlling them.

An analysis of a prisoner writing session not unlike the one Wally Lamb helped to run at York Correctional Institution helps to illustrate the importance of looking at the personal histories of violence within the lives of inmates. During a mental health nursing study performed at an unspecified U.S. women's prison, interviewer M. Katherine Maeve, informally discussing poetry with her participants, actually amended her research proposal to focus on the rehabilitating effects of reading and writing poetry on inmates with histories of abuse (482). The resultant poems she received from participants deal largely with hardship in personal life experience, very much in the same vein as the collection of memoirs Lamb received from his inmate students. Maeve argues that the ways in which we understand the experiences of violence women inmate communicate through their literature reflects heavily on the ways in which we in turn view their criminal motivations:

To understand women's offending, and subsequent health issues, it is helpful to understand their own victimization. In this participative action research, women used poetry as both a process and a product to confront the truths of their lives in terms of what was done to them and what they have done to others and themselves (473).

By gathering information about how personal histories of abuse directly affect women's development of motivators to criminal behavior, correctional institutions can start to treat female inmates with the psychiatric and behavioral therapy they need in order to overcome such motivators and become rehabilitated members of society. Further, the gathering of such information also provides clues on how abuse within the home and male violence against women perpetuates a cycle of female criminal behavior, and we can begin to think about how to eliminate violence and fear of violence from the lives of women. It is worthwhile, then, to examine the ways in which female inmates write about their experiences of violence and about their abusers.

A point of contention over the collection's value as a study of violence against women has been uncertainty whether the authors are accurate representations of a greater population of imprisoned women. It has been suggested that the women who signed up for Lamb's writing program were, perhaps, the ones who felt they had something to confess, some trauma to relieve. However, according to Maeve:

Estimates of how many incarcerated women suffered physical and sexual violence as children range from 40-80% (Heney & Kristiansen, 1998; Maeve, 1999; Pollock, 1998; Young, 1998). Similar estimates are cited for the number of women who also suffered these kinds of violence as adults (475).

Given this broad and significant range, I would postulate that the reason for the high ratio of abused women in the writing program is not very inconsistent with the ratio of abused women within the general inmate population of the York Correctional Institute.

Additionally, I would argue that many of the women who did not return to Lamb's writing workshop, rather than not having stories to tell, were in fact simply not yet equipped with the tools for coping emotionally in order to feel comfortable sharing their stories with others. For example, an inmate known as Manhattan said, "she'd meant to be vague and non-specific-that her business wasn't necessarily the reader's business" (Lamb, 4).

For these reasons, we can accept the collection of stories relayed here as an acceptable sample of personal accounts to analyze. In examining the women's experiences of abuse, in addition to the writing techniques which they each employ to articulate their experiences, we can proceed to draw connections among commonalities and make statements about the ways violence against women is perpetuated in society at large by misogynist social institutions. In the interest of avoiding redundancy, I have chosen a few specific histories with differing views and reactions to personal violence.

In "The True Face of Earth," Nancy Whiteley describes a complex history of abuse and coercion which would later go on to affect her behavior as an adult. Abandoned by her father following her parents' divorce, Whiteley describes her growing fear of abandonment by the men in her life.

At the age of fifteen, she decides, somewhat half-heartedly, to give up her virginity to avoid loneliness: "I knew boys only gave their dates a few chances to put out before they moved on… I glanced over at Jason, applied another coat of watermelon lip gloss, and smiled. I would not be getting dumped tonight" (21). She consents to an unfulfilling sex life, suffering the stigma of being called a "slut" and a "whore" by her female classmates, and being thought of as "easy" by the males. She continues a pattern of submitting to men's insistence to ensure her own importance with them in later relationships, most notably in her relationship with Shane, a man ten years her senior and considerably well versed in coercing his lovers to act for his benefit, perhaps at the sacrifice of their own. He uses promises of love and commitment to influence Whiteley, even to the point of being able to coerce her into aborting against her wishes. He manipulates her with thinly veiled threats of abandonment, telling her that he broke up with a past girlfriend who had kept their baby: "And besides, sweetie," he tells her, "the baby thing ruined our relationship. We hate each other now. You don't want that to happen to us, do you?" Shane uses Whiteley's emotional weakness against her, asserting the importance of his own wishes over that of her freedom to determine her own reproductive choices. Whiteley, therefore, has experienced a past of male manipulation and abandonment, and has learned that her own desires are unimportant if she wishes to ensure continued male presence in her life.

In addition to the psychological abuse of male coercion, Whiteley also experiences physical violence at the hands of her mother. Emotionally unbalanced by the strained divorce, Whiteley's mother takes out her frustrations on her young daughters through her fists and such household weapons as wooden spoons. Whiteley quickly learns to protect herself against violence, as she explains,

"Pissed off at the injustice of my mother's irrational firestorms, I fought back-shielding myself from her blows, answering with insults of my own" (36). However, she also learns that threatening retaliatory violence against her mother is an effective method of getting her way. She learns to defy authority, and becomes desensitized to worrying about others' emotions. With these learned behaviors of defiance and apathy, coupled with her need to fill an emptiness in her life, it comes as no great surprise that Whiteley would later become addicted to living a materialistic life off of other people's stolen credit.

Nancy Birkla recounts her experiences of living with constant fear from her early childhood well into her adulthood, and her eventual discovery of the source of her torment in a resurfaced memory of sexual molestation at the age of six by a neighbor. Early on, she represses her horrifying memories into vague nightmares and a generalized fear of an unidentifiable something during her waking life.

Maeve describes Birkla's pervasive terror, or "chronic hyperarousal," is a conditioned reaction learned by individuals who have suffered from childhood traumas such as physical and sexual abuse.

She explains, "Living in a state of chronic hyperarousal undoubtedly feels awful. Predictably, humans engage in activities that mitigate those uncomfortable feelings. The use of drugs and alcohol are easily understood, if not forgiven" (476-477). Sure enough, Birkla was arrested on charges of drug trafficking.

Her addictions to drugs and to food are compounded by an unstable marriage. She develops with her husband Bobby an unhealthy symbiosis: he takes out his anger and frustration on her, and she in turn is allowed to take on a self-pitying martyr role. She explains
Resentful of Bobby's control over me, I began to think of myself as 'martial victim,' a role I remained unwilling to relinquish for many years. In my diseased perception, being my husband's whipping girl justified my self-destructive impulses. It was Bobby who caused my problems, I reasoned; if only he treated me better, I wouldn't feel so depressed all the time-wouldn't need to numb my pain with alcohol, drugs, and food" (120).

Birkla writes in a voice that reflects back on her former thinking of the time, and in doing so she recognizes and rejects the identity she once held. She had begun to cling to a way of thinking about herself that absolved her of any blame for the difficulties in her life, and of any need to worry about the consequences of her actions. Terrorized by a fear that went unexplained to her for most of her life, Birkla's methods of coping with the horror inflicted by her childhood abuse sought to keep her in a psychological place where she could view the rest of the world as responsible for her pain. She embraced her childhood feelings of helplessness, learning to believe the idea that there was nothing she could do to resolve her fear, so she might as well just accept that bad things would happen to her.

Bonnie Foreshaw's "Faith, Power, and Pants" tells a story of extensive abuse and violence at the hands of numerous male individuals throughout her life. Her parents divorce by the time Bonnie is four years old, but she still remembers the drunken beatings her father gave her mother when they still lived together.

With this early image of male-on-female violence burned into the young Foreshaw's mind, later instances of gender abuse against her own person would contribute to a growing distrust of aggressive, invasive male sexuality. Foreshaw tells that was molested by two different male cousins: "Both had warned me they'd cause trouble if I told. I don't know which one gave me his venereal disease" (197). She is groped and nearly molested by her mother's boyfriend Mr. Fred, and she is forced to leave her mother's home when she is blamed for attempting to break up their family.

She later marries an abusive man who would then proceed to threaten and stalk her following their divorce. The cause of Foreshaw's crime was a direct response to the fear of male aggression that her many negative experiences created in her life. In a footnote to her story, we are told that Foreshaw, socialized into a constant vigil against male violence, and immediately aware of the potential for violence by her lurking ex-husband, began carrying a handgun for protection (191). A life of unrelenting gender abuse had finally drive Foreshaw to using retaliatory violence in order to defend herself against male threats, and her accidental use of that violence against a bystander has earned her the stigma of being a criminal.

Her story also adds the element of race into her experiences of abuse. Racialized discrimination within the prison's staff delegitimizes her Rastafarian faith in a process we may think of as systematic psychological abuse. She explains that she was the "first Rastafarian ever incarcerated at Niantic," and made "the object of many preconceptions among inmates and staff" (193). Not only does the institution prevent her from following religious tenets that do not perfectly coincide with prison policy, but the prison administration actively punishes her through isolation, the threat of losing "good days," and systematic shaming by correctional officers. Foreshaw recalls one such incidence of repudiation meant to break her spirit during her time in segregation:
…while I was staring out through the slit of glass in my cell door, I spotted a staff member I recognized. "Ms. Ray! Ms. Ray, it's me! Bonnie!" She stopped and looked in at me. Ms. Ray and I had known each other a long time. We respected each other… "I didn't do anything wrong, Ms. Ray!" I shouted out. She started back like I was a creature at the Bronx Zoo. Then she walked away (205-206).

Given the prison and judicial systems' discriminatory treatment of minority women, placing an extreme emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation, it is no wonder that "many women do return to prison, often within months of their release. Recidivism is high at York and in other prisons, about 70 percent" (Griffith, 346-347). While Foreshaw is currently still imprisoned due to her unreasonable conviction of first degree homicide, her experiences of maltreatment by the judicial system are not uncommon, and these experiences of systemic abuse only reinforce criminality, rather than reduce it.

Lacking healthy resources for coping with childhood trauma, these women have resorted to developing self-destructive coping mechanisms. These mechanisms, such as desensitization to feelings of empathy, reliance on addictions, taking on a "victim" identity to avoid dealing with consequences, and the adoption of retaliatory violence, affect them so strongly that even the fear of engaging in criminal behavior is not enough to deter these women from doing what they perceive they must in order to protect themselves and soothing their own emotional wounds. At this point, I offer a reminder that my intent here is not to justify the use of criminal behaviors by abused women. Maeve explains it well:

…recent feminist critiques point to the danger of an exclusive focus on women's victimization, thereby denying women individual agency and implying that women, by the very fact of their gender, should not be held accountable for their actions (Allen, 1998; Snider, 1998). Still, I am suggesting that an awareness of the long-term consequences for women who were abused as children includes an acknowledgment of the larger society's failure to protect children… (474).

The goal here is to recognize that criminality is never random or "senseless," and that in order to reduce criminal behavior in our society, we must look at the ways in which convicted individuals have been socialized.

From a relatively psychologically-based discussion of how the Couldn't Keep It to Myself women have experienced abuse, and how that abuse helped to construct criminal motivations, we can move to a feminist sociological viewpoint and begin to connect these individual women's experiences of abuse to a larger societal framework. In American society, there is a general devaluing of women and girls, of femininity, and of female contributions to society. Boys and men are socialized into viewing themselves as entitled to physical, sexual, economic and social control over female bodies and behaviors. Violence, both physical and psychological, becomes an acceptable tool for ensuring that control and maintaining female subordination.

In a patriarchal, classist, and racist society, criminals are created not only through an individual's decisions to engage in illegal behavior, but also through a systematic oppression which denies many such individuals alternate paths for coping with fear, abuse, and need. Resources for healing and self-improvement are very limited within the populations of individuals who run the highest risk of becoming incarcerated. It is true that many disenfranchised individuals never commit criminal acts. However, it is undeniable that American society is structured in such ways that it patriarchal systems first encourage the devaluing of women and women's bodies, and then deny rehabilitative resources to women who have suffered extreme abuse. In order to begin addressing the problem of criminal behavior among women, we must look at how our society as a whole functions to perpetuate conditions that encourage criminality.

Works Cited

Birkla, Nancy. "Three Steps Past the Monkeys." Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters. Ed. Wally Lamb. New York: ReganBooks, 2003. 113-141.

Griffith, Dale. "Bad Girls." Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters. Ed. Wally Lamb. New York: ReganBooks, 2003. 336-350.

Foreshaw, Bonnie. "Faith, Power, and Pants." Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters. Ed. Wally Lamb. New York: ReganBooks, 2003. 185-209.

Lamb, Wally. "Couldn't Keep It to Ourselves." Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters. Ed. Wally Lamb. New York: ReganBooks, 2003. 1-17.

Maeve, M. Katherine. "Speaking Unavoidable Truths: Understanding Early Childhood
Sexual and Physical Violence among Women in Prison." Issues in Mental Health Nursing. 21 (2000): 473-498.

Whiteley, Nancy. "The True Face of Earth," Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters. Ed. Wally Lamb. New York: ReganBooks, 2003. 19-51.

Background on Foreshaw case

Cool Justice
Bonnie Foreshaw Must Go Free

Law Tribune Newspapers
December 5, 2005

EDITOR'S NOTE: Hartford Attorney John Andreini expects to file papers in September 2006 requesting a hearing for Bonnie Foreshaw.

Dear Gov. Rell:

This is not a request or a demand. As a citizen with a righteous and just cause, I am getting down on my knees to beg you: Please search your heart and your conscience and perform your due diligence in the case of Bonnie Foreshaw. Your review of this case could give it a shot at justice. I know justice matters to you. As a citizen who respects you, I trust you and your fine staff will do the right thing.

Sometime next year, the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles is expected to act on a request by Bonnie Foreshaw for sentence modification. I do believe there are good people serving on this board. I understand they are entirely capable of doing their job without your help. Still, this extraordinary case has repercussions far beyond parole, extending to several state agencies and even to international human rights monitors. If any case merits your attention, certainly it is the case of Bonnie Foreshaw.

Foreshaw gave birth to her first child at age 12. Already, she was a victim of violent and sexual abuse. “It was like I was nobody – no good,” Foreshaw said. That violent and sexual abuse would continue through three marriages. She was beaten with a baseball bat and stabbed with an apple pick. Despite all that, Foreshaw worked to buy a house in Bloomfield and support her family. She developed the insight that learned behavior can be changed.

By 1986, Foreshaw had worked as a machinist for Wiremold Company in Hartford for 10 years. She served as union shop steward.

Her third husband continued to stalk her after a divorce. She began carrying a handgun for self protection. On a cold March night that year, Foreshaw stopped after work at the Jamaican Progressive League in Hartford. Hector Freeman offered her a drink. She declined. Freeman pursued her and would not leave her alone. He followed her to her car. As Freeman came toward her, he reached into his pocket and she feared he was going to pull a knife or a gun. As Foreshaw tried to fire a warning shot in the air, Freeman admittedly pulled a pregnant woman – Joyce Amos – in front of him as a human shield.

Amos died. Hartford State’s Attorney James Thomas grossly overcharged Foreshaw with premeditated murder for killing a woman she had never met. At sham trial, little evidence was presented of Foreshaw’s battered background. No evidence was presented of Freeman’s background. Foreshaw is serving the longest sentence of any woman in Connecticut history – 45 years. Had she been charged properly or received a fair trial, she would have been a free woman years ago.

I have come to know Bonnie Foreshaw as a loving, caring, disciplined and deeply thoughtful person. I met her three years ago during a writing workshop run by the novelist Wally Lamb at the Niantic jail. We have kept in touch through various correspondence.

Foreshaw has genuine remorse for her wrongdoing. Indeed, she has been courageous as peaceful leader at a jail rife with abuse and a shocking lack of accountability for corrupt and incompetent staff. She has completed many rehabilitative programs. She is a very safe risk for sentence modification and she would do very well in any community. I am honored to know her and support her.

Nothing breeds more disrespect for the law than injustice. Here, we have an injustice that you and your appointees can heal. The righting of this wrong is long, long overdue.


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