The most exclusive book club I have met with since the publication of my novel, THE CRYING TREE, was at the Coffee Creek Correctional Center in Wilsonville, Oregon. There, in the prison’s small library, I sat down with eight inmates who had just read my book and had plenty to say about its topics: murder, the death penalty, hatred, loss and forgiveness.
It was my 50th birthday, and I had been invited to the group by its leader, a seventy-something woman who had been meeting with the inmates twice a month for more than eight years. The list of books they’d read was impressive. Everything from Leo Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA to Dan Brown’s DAVINCI CODE. And the rigor of their questions about plot, content and character surpassed anything I had experienced from even the most literary groups I’d met with so far. But by far, the most interesting part of the evening was when the women spoke about their own very intimate experience with the topics in my novel.
THE CRYING TREE is the story of a mother who loses her son to a brutal murder. It is hard journey, wrenching because of the ferocity of her pain and hate. But in the end, this mother comes to forgive the man who killed her son. The women inmates coveted that notion, that forgiveness can be an eventual outcome of even the most heinous acts. That monsters can be seen as human, and humans accepted despite their sins.
A couple of the women I met with were in prison for drug related crimes. A couple, for burglary. And the remainder, murder. All of them had children on the outside, and all of them were dealing with profound issues of grief, loss, hatred, self-loathing and forgiveness.
For them, the topics in the novel had resonance. Some told of their own struggles to forgive themselves, some told of their struggles to forgive their victims, men who had beat and bullied them for years. One of them sat petting the assistance dog she would soon give up. She had shared her cell with the animal for the last year, training it to help someone on the outside. Another cried while she talked about how her children didn’t want anything to do with her. And all of them talked of how THE CRYING TREE had helped them better understand their victim’s pain, and how difficult it was to sooth that pain.
Before I left, a women who had killed her abusive partner handed me an eleven page essay. It was her journey with THE CRYING TREE, giving details of what different chapters and passages had reminded her of, and what emotions those memories generated. It was an amazing work, and concluded in a way that made all struggles that come with writing, worth it.
“I have a huge oak at home, waiting,” she wrote. “I think I should call it the crying tree. Don’t you? Then by page 345 I was crying too much to keep reading. I had to stop and blow and dry my eyes. So many memories going on and on, keeping me company. Someone died, they said it didn’t hurt. The cop said he’s in a better place than you or me. Now, I’m paying my debt to society. We all have a story. I’m sorry, so sorry, so so sorry.”
If there is a reason to write, it is two fold. First, for what it feeds the writer. There is no choice in it the action. If there is a story to be told, a writer will find a way to tell it. It is like a kink that must be worked out of the muscles. The other reason to write is for that slim hope that one day what we compose will be read, and that those words will reach in and touch another human in way that makes them pause, and think, and feel. The women at Coffee Creek told me that they can not keep the book in their cell. “All the women want to read it,” I was told. “They want to read it, and they want to talk about it.”
I will always remember my 50th birthday for that book group meeting inside the Coffee Creek Correctional Center, and the great gift those women gave me, the trust and honor to read my story and tell me theirs.