What follows is a letter to Parker J. Palmer from an inmate student about how she has extended the lessons of his book A Hidden Wholeness from the classroom into her own life as she works through the reasons behind her incarceration. But first, we put this prison program into context. (Posted November 14, 2012)
A note from the Professor
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (www.insideoutcenter.org) is a partnership between universities or colleges and correctional facilities that allows professors to teach semester-long courses inside prisons. The students are both university (“outside”) students and incarcerated (“inside”) students. In bringing these two groups of students together in person, the Inside-Out program seeks to break down the barriers (both literally and figuratively) that separate us.
Although classes are not exactly ‘circles of trust’, they do all take place in a circle format and have an explicit focus on open dialogue and sharing of diverse perspectives. For 12 weeks, a group of university students make their way to the federal women’s prison and join their incarcerated classmates. Together -- as peer learners -- they examine the insidious and complicated ways our society excludes and marginalizes. They work together to challenge these exclusions through our class engagement and by exploring concrete solutions to social inequalities.
In preparing the course materials for this innovative and exciting class, I chose one chapter from A Hidden Wholeness (“Deep Meets Deep”) for students to read very early on in the semester. I chose this chapter because the course content deals with issues of power, difference and social inequities –- issues that folks often find troubling and difficult to navigate honestly together. Since one of the premises of an Inside-Out class is authentic dialogue across difference and since students in my class are living quite different types of social circumstances, I wanted to set the stage for an open learning and listening environment from the very beginning of the class. “Deep Meet Deep” calls for each member of the circle to take responsibility for how they speak, how they hear, and how they respond.
During the class discussions, it was quite apparent how affected both groups of students were by the ideas in “Deep Meets Deep”. What was less apparent, however, was how each individual student privately responded to this piece or how they applied it to their personal lives. Here is one glimpse…
Shoshana Pollack, MSW, PhD
Professor, Faculty of Social Work
Assistant Co-ordinator, Inside-Out Canada
Wilfrid Laurier University, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
Dear Mr. Palmer,
We were into our third class of “ Diversity, Marginalization and Oppression," a class being offered as part of the lnside-Out Prison Exchange Program -- when Professor Shoshana Pollack presented the class with a chapter from a Hidden Wholeness called "Deep Meets Deep", as an assigned reading.
Not two minutes into the article, it became apparent to me that this was no ordinary read.
Incarcerated for fraud offenses against senior women, I recognized this article, specifically the line "the more we know about another's story, the harder it is to hate or harm that person" (p. 123), for the virtuous token it was; another powerful tool to use in confronting my demons. This line stayed with me daily, and became somewhat of a mantra.
Based on this premise, I was encouraged to explore the murky waters of this hostility I felt towards my mother, and to emerge with answers, or with at least some understanding. Through this, it became clear that my hatred of my mother led me to carry out crimes against women, without feelings of guilt, pity or shame. ln all honesty, each time I stole their personal information, I felt nothing but complete revenge. But revenge against whom ... and for what?
The answer that eluded me for many years comes so easily to me now -- revenge against my mother, for not believing and protecting me when I told her that her brother, my uncle, had touched me inappropriately. I walked away from my mother reeling from the shock of her disbelief and her anger with me. What did I do wrong?
I have since read A Hidden Wholeness in its entirety, and have used this book as a guide to handle everyday situations. For instance, it was only after reading "The Third Way", which talks about communicating in a nonviolent way, was I able to approach my mother with the intent to "know" her "story". As she talked, I listened, controlling my urges to "fix, solve, advise or set her straight" (p. 114). Gradually, my dislike towards my mom slowly evaporated as I began to understand that she parented me, with what she knew about being a parent to the best of her ability.
I have also taken the time to reach out to the women I had victimized, through ihe Restorative Justice Program. Not fully convinced that they were willing to "hear" my "story", and that the severity of my crime has not harmed them to the point where trusting strangers comes easily to them again, I have proactively changed my studies from a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology to Women's Studies -- determined to "know" their "stories" from a broader perspective. Although governmental cutbacks to prison educational funding has halted my studies, l will persist in seeking alternative funding.
A Hidden Wholeness is not for the faint-hearted. For some of us, it is the difference between deciding to do something and really having to do it, and for some of us that can be a fairly large leap. Reading the book is easy enough, but to truly absorb its wisdom and apply it to one's daily life, it is crucial to allow it room. Allowing its formation can be the safest way to approach it without feeling overwhelmed by the life-altering messages it sends us. Usually night-time is when I create that safe, encouraging space to explore and apply what you've taught me to the context of my life.
When Professor Pollack introduced us to your work, I doubt very much that it was her intent to change lives. But whether intentional or not, change lives it did. l I once read somewhere that there is positivity in all of us. Sometimes we just need a little something to bring it out. You, Mr. Palmer, are that "little something" for me and for that I am truly, and will be, eternally grateful.