Friday, July 17, 2009

101 (2009 #26). Couldn't Keep It To Myself

by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution

Subtitled "Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters,” Wally Lamb listed as main author of this book is misleading. Bestselling author Lamb led a rehabilitative writer’s workshop at this maximum security women’s prison in Connecticut, and the book is a compilation of essays by nine inmates from there that Lamb was able to get published. There are also essays by Lamb, his co-teacher in the workshop, and Lamb’s cousin who served time in a Kentucky prison.

The essays are sad but somewhat predictable – women with abusive fathers, husbands, or other loved ones, who wind up committing a crime. This was the selection for my local book club last month, and I found reading it to be rather depressing.

There’s been some interesting controversy since the book was published in 2003. Apparently the state of Connecticut has a law that “allows the state to recover room and board from any inmate who comes into money while he or she is in prison -- or after they leave it, whether through inheritance, lottery winnings, proceeds from their crimes or financial windfall.” Not a bad law, in my opinion, but some felt it was initially being applied to these women because of criticisms of the prison system in their essays. The required payback would far exceed any royalties they would receive from the book -- and, in the case of one of the women who won the PEN First Amendment Award in 2004, her $25,000 prize. The state was understandably upset when the award was announced as Lamb did not bother to inform them he’d nominated the writer. Naturally all the bad publicity that resulted led to a settlement where each of the prisoners paid $500 out of their $5600 advance to the state, with the money going back into the writing program.

To me the front cover art is the most interesting thing about the book. According to Lamb’s “Notes to the Reader” (page xi), it “is an assemblage made by York School students who participated in an extension course in art appreciation,” which probably explains the Mona Lisa-like image. What’s not so clear is why Lamb’s name is the most prominent thing on the cover. It makes me wonder how well the book would have sold without it – and in my case, turns me off enough not to read any of Lamb’s other work.

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