This Beautiful Place

People have always fought to be free

Emily Withnall
Jun 25, 2019 · 8 min read
Image: Getty Images

TThe light has been returning for two months, but inside their cells the women can’t tell that the sun has just set. There are no windows. The yellow-orange of fluorescents light the halls. Kristin and I meet with the women twice a month, buzz into the detention center from the sidewalk, and wait for the guard to come. We pass through the metal detectors, turn in our driver’s licenses, and pause at three different bolted doors as the guard buzzes each of them open.

The light from the lengthening days makes it feel like anything is possible — for me, for the women in the jail, for the world. It is March and still bitter cold, but even that feels impermanent. Poetry is our balm; poetry is the way we can find our bearings. Today, Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” is at the center of our lesson plan — a poem I’d read over and over before I began volunteering in the jail. Her words made me feel less alone as I considered the ways the world was terrible, because I felt we were considering it together, as mothers. The poem offered me a way to understand how to raise children in a world of extreme weather, rampant disease, gun violence, and so many other human-caused disasters. “The world is at least fifty percent terrible,” Smith writes. “And that’s a conservative / estimate though I keep this from my children.”

II talk to my kids about a lot of things, but not everything. I’ve been uncertain of how much they can hold and still feel hope. Despite my uneasy relationship with hope and its companion, disappointment, I feel that hope is important in keeping a person going. But was I setting my kids up for inevitable heartbreak? I am uncertain of the correct balance between truth-telling, aimed at keeping my kids safe, and truth-withholding, out of a fear that too much truth would crush them. “Good Bones” reassured me, told me it was OK to not say everything, that it was desirable to extend hope.

When the first pod of women arrives in the detention center classroom, Kristin and I hand out copies of “Good Bones,” along with yellow legal pad paper and pencils with the erasers removed. Our volunteer training, a year prior, had consisted of six hours of “Lock Up USA” videos, filmed in the ’90s and rife with dehumanizing and sexist messages. They warned us that the inmates could take us hostage and even the metal on a pencil could be used as a weapon. They told us we couldn’t return if we broke the rules.

Most of the women in attendance tonight are returning students. Despite the detention center’s high turnover rate, Montana’s prisons were overflowing, so women who were convicted of felonies could be held in the detention center for up to a year. And despite the fact that only 6.5 percent of Montana’s population identifies as Native, most of the women who attend our classes are Native. Once, when I’d questioned an officer about this, he denied that police engaged in racial profiling. I pushed the question. He said he didn’t know why there were so many Native people in jail. The women, I noticed, mostly blamed themselves. “This is a wakeup call,” they’d say. “I’m going to do better when I get out.” A few said, “I’m safer in here.”

Tonight, we take turns reminding each other of our names and answer the ice breaker question: “What’s one thing children should be told, true or not?” The responses come clearly at first and then falter through trembling voices and tears. The main answer I hear over and over: “I would tell them they are loved.”

I read “Good Bones” once out loud and then we all read it again together, each person in the room reading a few lines. Some women read with strong clear voices, and others mumble, stumbling over words. When it is my turn, I read, “for every kind / stranger, there is one who would break you, / though I keep this from my children. I am trying / to sell them the world.” I know fragments of the women’s stories, the children they’ve lost, the children waiting for them, the children who have died. Their losses reverberate through me, reminding me of my own losses, my own brokenness. A woman with fair skin, Celia, shares that she’d been arrested for kidnapping her daughter because she was fleeing her abusive husband. I understood how little separated me from the women in the jail. I too had been in an abusive marriage. What if I’d fled with my children? One decision, made in a split second and out of a fierce desire to survive, and I could also be inside these cinderblock walls under the orange flickering lights.

KKristin asks the women what they think of the poem. A quiet Salish woman, Tammy, who has been a regular in our classes, speaks up. “When was the poem written?” she asks. “What world is she living in?” Tammy’s tone is matter-of-fact, genuinely curious.

I ponder how to respond as she continues, “My kids know how the world is.”

She is saying that her kids know how terrible the world is not because she has shared every detail, but because they live it every day. And how could they not? Their mother is in jail. Even so, she’s one of the relatively lucky ones. She’s alive. Women and girls are still disappearing from her reservation, centuries after white colonizers pushed them out of the Bitterroot Valley. For Tammy, there is no internal debate about how much or how little truth to reveal to her kids. The terribleness isn’t “out there” somewhere. It’s a part of daily life.

My cheeks burn. Despite all the unpacking I’ve committed to when it comes to understanding my privilege as a white person, I hadn’t considered Tammy’s reading of the poem — a reading I’ll never be able to un-see. I recalled all the articles I’ve read about “The Talk” that Black parents have with their kids about what to do when they come face-to-face with the police. It was like I’d walked into the jail saying, “Look, some people get to hide from all the brutal realities.” No, worse. It was like I’d said, “Look, I get to hide from all the brutal realities.”

I wonder at my instinct to keep certain things from my kids. Yes, whiteness protects them. Whiteness implicates them, too. But hiding the truth of my life and the legacy I come from — mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and poverty — doesn’t mean I’m offering them hope. I’m participating in my own version of rewriting history. I may not be responsible for what my ancestors did when they claimed land that wasn’t theirs, or for my great grandfather’s alcoholism and abandonment of my great grandmother, but I can’t help my kids escape a structure they’re embedded in by hiding some of the structure. And clearly, I am still discovering parts of the structure for the first time.

I thank Tammy for her question. “You’re right,” I say. “She is living in a different world. She’s white and maybe she’s financially secure and she probably has the ability to keep some of the terrible things from her children.”

“Must be nice,” Tammy responds, and her cellmates murmur in agreement.

The women begin to share some of their stories. They have no access to counseling, so our time together is a blend of group therapy, communal grieving, and storytelling. Though Kristin and I have been instructed not to give identifying details about ourselves, we too share our personal grief. We are more space holders than teachers. Storytelling advocates.

One woman, Nicole, got pregnant at twelve and her parents disowned her. She couldn’t get a job, and the work her fourteen-year-old boyfriend found was not enough to support a family. He robbed a gas station to get diapers and went to jail. That was over a decade ago. Nicole had been to jail before too but does not say how she ended up in jail this time. We all hold her words and her silences. She is more than one story.

WeWe talk about the things kids see and what is and isn’t possible to keep from them, especially when you live in poverty and addiction. We talk about how the world is probably more than fifty percent terrible, but that it’s no good giving up hope. We all have to hope, the women agree on that. They all hope their kids will have better lives than they do.

The final line of the poem reads, “You could make this place beautiful.”

Alison asks, “Can I write about how I could make this place beautiful?”

“This place?” Tammy says, gesturing to walls around us.

The women laugh big belly laughs. I consider her question seriously. Some of the women’s art hangs on the whitewashed cinderblock. In one, a drop of blood falls from a thorny red rose. A pencil drawing features an elaborate dream catcher with a bear paw print beside it.

“No, the world,” Alison clarifies.

“Oh,” says Tammy. She pauses for comedic effect. “‘Cause, I mean, we have to wear orange.” The laughs peal out again in waves.

As we begin to write my brain scrambles to connect with something. Anything. The women usually insist that Kristin and I read our work aloud too, and I want to have something to offer. I remember a children’s book called Miss Rumphius. As a young girl, the main character wanted to make the world a more beautiful place but she didn’t know how. In the end, she does this by planting lupines wherever she walks. The final pages are filled with rich watercolor illustrations of pink and lavender lupines lining dirt roads and crowding around countryside cottages.

As I write about Miss Rumphius, I am struck by the futility and hope in these images. Sitting in the detention center with women who are here largely due to addiction, discrimination, or because they fought back against abusers, makes lupines — and writing — feel useless. In my version of a beautiful world, people would have access to resources that would help them, not punish them. Dismantling the criminal justice system feels beyond reach. Perhaps it isn’t the truth I need to keep from my kids, but this sense of powerlessness. To present truth as horror alone would rob them of agency and responsibility. My kids must also know the ways people have always fought to be free.

TThe women’s heads are bent as they continue to write their visions for a beautiful world. Without erasers on their pencils, they commit to the weight of their words. I study the drawings on the walls. A Winston Churchill quote stenciled onto poster board reads, “When you are going through hell, keep going.” The “H” at the end of “through” hangs beneath the other letters as if to prove the point. In an ink drawing, mountain peaks dwarf a human figure. Music notes rise like birds from her mouth. We offer the women more paper. The lights above us flicker and buzz.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Emily Withnall

Written by

I teach and write in Missoula, Montana. I am working on a book about domestic violence and hydraulic fracturing. Find more of my writing at emilywithnall.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Emily Withnall

Written by

I teach and write in Missoula, Montana. I am working on a book about domestic violence and hydraulic fracturing. Find more of my writing at emilywithnall.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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