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What I’ve learned from running a book club at a woman’s prison

“Is Jennifer Weiner an ex-drug addict? Because I bet she is. No one else could understand in such detail what it’s like to be addicted. She’s definitely an ex-drug addict, right?”

These were the first words shouted at book club that night, and me, being the one in charge, leaned toward the negative: “No, I don’t think so.” After all, I had interviewed Jennifer about the book in question, All Fall Down, and there’s nothing in her CV that says “ex-drug addict.”

This is book club in prison.

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No, I’m not an inmate; I’m a volunteer at a prison outside Phoenix, Arizona. Desert sunsets are marred by razor wire. Inmates wear ugly shades of orange. We meet in the cafeteria, where the tables and chairs are too heavy to lift and use as weapons.

Nonprofit organization Gina’s Team sends me to prison once a month, and it only took a year of hounding by cofounder Sue Ellen Allen to get me there. Why a year?

Let’s be honest: Nobody wants to go to prison. We’ve spent too much time watching Orange Is the New Black. When we think of prison, we picture angry lesbians with knives made of toothbrushes. We picture vengeance and bitterness and a possible obituary with our names on it.

I finally gave in after many months of prodding, and yes, I was terrified my first time at book club, what with all the gates and locks and metal detectors. There was no escape, not even for volunteers. Then I met the women in orange, and all my stereotypes crumbled.

The women I work with at prison are not monsters. They’re not the dregs of society. They are wives and mothers and grandmothers who made one wrong turn, one bad mistake. They serve their time with grace, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Prison saved me. If I hadn’t ended up here, I would have ended up dead.”

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I’ve been stalwart in my monthly book club attendance at prison for three years now. I’m currently in charge of the program. I’m a member of the Gina’s Team board. I’ve forced my girlfriends to “go to prison,” and they always come back for more.

What is it about books that bridge boundaries? What was it about Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl that made us argue (colorfully) over which character deserved immediate execution? What made us collectively sob at the end of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief?

I’m at our Phoenix prison every month and even do a big, fancy annual trip on Christmas Day. (I wear my reddest red lipstick and my highest heels, because the girls don’t see fancy things behind the razor wire.) People often tell me, “Wow. What a good thing you’re doing.” They don’t get it.

I do very little. I deliver the books and arrange the discussion questions, but mostly I sit and listen as the women in orange make their own personal connections to the fictional characters. The ghosts of their pasts are stirred. They feel inclined to share the horrible things that happened to them and the regret they feel. The women at book club teach me patience, compassion and the beauty of female friendship. I never feel like the mentor at prison; I am the naive mentee.

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Sometimes I feel heavy when I leave, under the weight of all the ugly things that human beings do to each other. My husband has found me before, curled in a little ball on the couch. We’ve decided it’s not the anger or sadness that weighs on me; it’s the helplessness.

I can’t help that one of my girls had a child due to incestuous rape at the age of 12. I can’t help that another girl’s ex-husband used to play Russian roulette with their children until she finished the dishes. We can’t fix everything, no matter how much we’d like.

So I do something small and show up for book club every month, where we argue over the treatment of women in The Great Gatsby or look for the silver lining in Silver Linings Playbook.

I guess we look, together, for the silver linings in life too, even behind bars, where the world can be a drab, depressing, scary place. We find that silver lining in one another.

More reading

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