Often, after I’ve visited a book group, I like to post a picture. But there are no pictures of my most recent book group visit, because I wasn’t allowed to bring a camera. In fact, I was instructed to leave my entire bag in the car, and only bring my driver’s license in with me to the prison where I met last week with a gathering of female inmates. I had been asked to visit by a wonderful bookseller who has been involved in a longtime project of bringing literature (and, occasionally, the writers themselves) to this particular prison. Apparently, one of the inmates had heard me on The Faith Middleton Show, talking about Black & White. She registered that I live in Connecticut, and thought that maybe I’d be willing to join them.
I had never been inside a prison before. Before I went, I asked Michael if he had ever been in a prison, and he said: “Not in this country.” I was pretty sure that this was the place that Jean Harris had been incarcerated. It was Federal, minimum security. How disturbing could it be? Well, let me tell you: it was plenty disturbing. After going through security involving metal detectors, a body scan and a stamp on my hand, we were escorted into the prison proper by a guard. Once those doors clanged shut behind us, we entered an outdoor quadrangle with old, gnarled fruit trees, their branches bare and twisted like a Maurice Sendak illustration. The quadrangle was filled with women in gray sweat suits, and the lights overhead were bright. I looked up at the sky and wondered what it would be like to be incarcerated. To have the view straight up be one’s only view of the world out there.
The women in the book group were amazing readers. They had time to read, and the desire to read, and were starved for stories. They asked some of the best questions I’ve ever been asked by an audience. They had really thought about my books–some of them had read two or three of them–and were intensely curious and engaged. The whole time I was with them, I kept wondering about their own stories. Why were there here? What had happened? What had gone wrong–and when, and how? There were women of every age, shape, color, socioeconomic background in that room. I wanted to hear their stories, but knew I shouldn’t ask.
At the end of the visit, a bell rang–loud, like an alarm–startling the hell out of me. I stopped mid-sentence. I was a little jumpy to begin with, after the metal detector, the clanging doors. The women laughed. “It isn’t that bad,” one of them said. “You can finish your sentence.”