As we were driving to the state prison for women Thursday evening my daughter, Louise, started to panic.
“What if they think I’m just a spoiled brat?” she said.
I could give her no comfort because I was thinking as much. Yes, Louise has had some battles, but were they things to which these women could relate?
The format for our visit was a twice a month book discussion group that had selected Louise’s book “Louise: Amended,” as their group read.
As it turned out, the women saw a lot of similarities between their situations and my daughter’s, whose memoir relates her comeback from two brain surgeries.
“Any handicap is a prison,” one inmate said.
The women expressed their admiration of Louise’s resilience to gain back a sense of normalcy, physically as well as emotionally, despite remaining deficits.
“My heart went out to your whole situation to see how you transformed yourself in a positive way,” said an inmate who is confined to a wheelchair. Unlike Louise, this young woman’s injury was not the result of some genetic malformation. A bullet shot fractured her spinal cord, leaving her a paraplegic.
The women liked Louise’s honesty about making bad decisions.
“Everybody goes through times of making bad choices,” an inmate said. “But your goal of going back to school gave you a reason to keep on track.”
It was clear Louise’s middle class upbringing afforded her advantages in terms of resources and familial stability.
WE CAME away in awe of these women who are working not only to survive but to thrive against seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
They do so in small ways such as the book club, a valued privilege. The group is limited to eight. The typical waiting list is two to three years.
We were meeting with the “cream of the crop” — women whose good behavior in the medium security unit earned them the privilege. The women were intelligent and conversational. It came as a shock when we later learned several were serving life sentences for murder.
Of the 700 women at the Topeka prison, about 95 percent were victims of either sexual or physical abuse, according to our hosts. Most were coerced by men to commit crimes involving drugs or theft. In the cases of murder, most were in retaliation of abuse.
Which is why the women don’t let the crimes that landed them in prison define who they are. The shot that may have killed an abusive boyfriend was just one of many instances of horror in their lives; their chances for a normal life were shattered the day a should-be role model made sexual advances or abused them in some other way.
Most of the inmates face debilitating low levels of self-esteem.
Their goal now is to not let prison dictate who they are, but to finally have a say for themselves.
“When I interview for jobs the application form asks if I’m disabled and there are three boxes from which to choose,” Louise told the women.
“One is marked ‘yes,’ the other is ‘no,’ and the third is ‘don’t know.’”
“It depends on the day how I mark the box,” she said. “Some days I still feel like that person who is so self-conscious about her appearance. I find myself saying, ‘Oh, I guess I’m not over this. I thought I was.’ It’s like I never left high school. Any new experience takes you back to those days. You’re never as confident as you want to be.
“Life is about adjusting our expectations to reality and making the most of it.”