This is a guest blog post written by Kate McCoy, Women’s Programme Development Coordinator at Safe Ground.
“Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created” Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature 1993
We are always telling stories about ourselves, consciously and unconsciously. Some of them we have told so many times that they become part of our identity. Sometimes we embellish them for an audience, to make us look good and often the ones that we tell ourselves in the dark make us look very, very bad. Our stories can help us move forward or hold us back in old patterns and narratives.
Research and experience show us that the stories that women in prison have to tell are often not good stories. Abuse, neglect, drug use and trauma all combine to create narratives that in turn create identities of badness and victimhood that we can get stuck in. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find new stories to tell, become the heroes of our own story, creating narratives that would help us move towards a compelling future?
This dream has its basis in theoretical thinking across many disciplines, most relevantly for this project, criminology and the arts. Desistance theory describes the processes that individuals undergo as they move towards ceasing to commit crime. Narrative theory is a strong element of this and describes the changes that people make in the stories that they tell about themselves, to themselves and others in order to begin to think differently and make changes in their lives. Safe Ground’s programme aims to offer women the space, opportunity and tools to facilitate this process.
So how might our programme begin to do this? Perhaps a look at artistic theory and the concept of ‘ostranenie’ as described by the Russian Futurists in 1917, and translated as “making strange”, may help with this. It is the technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar way in order to enhance or alter perception of the familiar. Sometimes a shift in perspective helps us access whole new ways of seeing that may help us think differently.
In 2015 at HM Prisons Styal, Send, Holloway, East Sutton Park and Low Newton, Safe Ground ran a creative workshop as part of the development of the programme ‘Our own stories’ that encouraged women to look at familiar things in different ways. It focussed on childhood aspirations and current dreams and hopes. We worked with a range of women: those on remand, at the end of long sentences, in a Recovery House, with severe mental health diagnoses, deemed unready to participate in education, peer mentors and those currently completing pre-release programmes. What these women had in common was that they were able to identify and share with the group something they had wanted to be as a child.
The session asked the group to each identify something they wanted to be as children in small sub-groups. Each aspiration was written on a separate piece of paper, shuffled and then re-distributed at random. Each sub-group member’s task was to pretend that whatever paper they received was their true aspiration. They told these stories to the main group whose task was to guess which aspiration belonged to who. This was often a noisy and dynamic process with groups fired up by the challenge of getting things right. The next part of the exercise was more reflective, asking group members to reflect on their childhood aspiration and acknowledge that although they may or may not have fulfilled this aspiration, there will be a quality within it that they still want in their lives. The larger group are then invited to guess what that quality might be for the individual.
The reasons behind using childhood as a starting point are several. If we think about the theories mentioned earlier, we can see that a focus on childhood is a way of looking at dreams and aspirations in a different way. Looking directly at things in our lives can sometimes be like staring at the sun: damaging and overwhelming. So if we switch our focus to look at a seemingly small insignificant detail it can free us up and act as a filter, like sunglasses. An immediate thought might be that looking at childhood is dangerous; women in prison have often experienced trauma and looking back at childhood might dredge up dangerous memories. However, this exercise was carefully boundaried. It asked only that the participants recall something that they once wanted to be. Feedback from participants has been that this has been a rare and valuable experience to reflect on their childhood in a positive way, sharing only what they want to share. There is also an equality in this task – the women and facilitators all doing the same thing together. We have met would-be hairdressers, vets, nuns, witches, archaeologists and writers as women began to reveal and share hidden parts of themselves.
It can help to tell unexpected stories about ourselves. Creative exercises can disrupt our narratives and help us create fresh and new ones from unexpected places. During the exercise, participants are asked to reflect on their own story, but also take on someone else’s. People are surprisingly good at telling a story that is not their own. Often it chimes a chord with them and they are able to tell a story with a kernel of truth; they can easily access the part of them that might have wanted to be a singer or a sweetshop assistant. Groups bond through commonalities and the recognition of how perceptions change from childhood to adulthood. They are able to look kindly at the children they once were. This exercise moves away from judgement and into sharing and exploring.
In the final part of the exercise, we move back to direct personal reflection and indirectly ask participants “What do you value?” Participants also get to hear what other people think they might value and there is something powerful about hearing these spoken out loud. So we might guess that, for example, Jenny* wanted to be a boy when she was growing up because she valued ‘being different’ and then discover that as Jenny reflects, she realises that it was all about desiring a sense of freedom.
By telling ourselves a new story about an old dream, we begin to see ourselves differently and possibilities for fresh narratives emerge.”
Abour Safe Ground
Safe Ground has a strong 20 year track record of creating prison based programmes which are dynamic, creative and take a strong relational approach. Historically based in male institutions, these programmes have encouraged men to relate to themselves, their families and the broader community, in more useful ways, and to build futures and identities based on authenticity, accountability and self awareness. “Our own Stories” is a brand new creative personal development programme commissioned by Novus (Formerly The Manchester College) in 2015 for delivery in female prisons, ecouraging women to reflect on and learn from their own personal life experiences and those of others, in order to fulfil more of their potential.
About Kate McCoy
Kate is Safe Ground’s Women’s Programme and has spent 2015 developing the programme in consultation with women with experience of the criminal justice system. She was formerly a founder member of The Men’s Roomin Manchester, worked for TiPP for many years and was Theatre and Arts Co-ordinator at HMP Styal.
For more information about Safe Ground, please click here.
*Not her real name