by Wayne St. Pierre
Those of us who change lives with literature operate on the premise that reading and sharing stories can open the gateways of self-reflection and healing. As a participant in Changing Lives Through Literature for 17 years and a facilitator of a spinoff program for the past 18 months, I have dozens of stories of my own. I will offer two and invite others to grace us with their stories about telling stories.
About 18 months ago I used this notion to create a musical version of Changing Lives Through Literature, called Inspiring Stories. I go into drug/alcohol rehabilitation facilities and the local prison with my program, armed with my guitar and harmonica and copies of lyrics to my songs. After performing a song, we have a discussion, much like we do with a short story in CLTL. Music is just a hook.
In CLTL sessions, I participate alongside one or two probation officers, judges, attorneys, guests, a professor. In my Inspiring Stories program, I am alone with the class. Further, while the CLTL groups I attend have 8 to 12 students, my Inspiring Stories groups usually range from 25 to 40 people. Another difference is that I am on their turf. Usually, at the University, it is the participants who are off balance. The first time I was in a room alone with 40 inmates at the prison, however, I recognized how they felt. Teachers and performers both know an audience smells and reacts to fear.
On that first night at the prison, I had passed out lyrics about a young man, who had been raised in dysfunction. He had used commercial fishing to get away from the noise of his life on land. While passing out copies of the lyric, I asked if there were any commercial fishermen in the room. Several nodded or raised their hands to acknowledge spending time at sea.
During the discussion part, I asked a man who had raised his hand, but had not yet spoken, if he could relate to the geographic cure being talked about. He said, “Look, I was late from fishing and you were the PO who violated me on my probation. I am now serving a two-year jail sentence, because I was late from fishing and didn’t report to you. I don’t want to talk about fishing.” The room was silent for about three seconds and then erupted in a thunder of deep belly laughs. The date was December 20, 2007, just five days before Christmas. With all those men who were to spend the holidays in jail, I couldn’t bring myself to darken the moment. Though the man was two years late and I had had a warrant for his arrest the whole time, I let the group laugh and took the brunt, as it were, myself. It was magical to see all those men, dressed in their prison issued “tans,” having a good laugh right before the holidays
A less funny story took place at the House of Correction. We were talking about a character from a song who was a Vietnam Vet plagued by memories of the war (today we call it PTSD). One of the men started sharing how his best friend died in his arms, choking on his own blood as it bubbled up inside his throat. He had been shot, on the street outside of a club they had been to. Another told how he found his best friend who had overdosed four days earlier. He described how he still wakes up at night, smelling that smell. Long story short, just about all of them had their own story.
I began getting nervous. I considered that some of these guys hadn’t thought of these issues in some time, having stuffed it way down inside years ago. I realized it may not be good to let them go back to their cells bleeding from the wounds off of which we had just picked the scabs. I tried to do damage control, and used men who had successfully dealt with PTSD by talking to friends, family, and counselors as inspirational examples. I encouraged anyone who was upset to tell someone.
I still feel it may have been a long night for some of those who returned to their cells, haunted by past experiences, and worry if I misused the power of songs and storytelling. I learned something that night: A story can sometimes hit like a gun and we need to be carful when wielding that power.
In little rooms all over the world, people are examining the lives of the characters in literature and songs through the lenses of their own experience. I submit a great deal of living occurs in these little rooms. Much laughter and many tears have been expended over the years in classrooms and courtrooms around the country. I invite you to share one or more of your stories about telling stories. As the holiday and flu season approaches, we could all use a bit of “Chicken Soup for the CLTL Soul.”
Wayne St. Pierre has been a Probation Officer at the New Bedford District Court since 1986. In 1991, he collaborated with Dr. Waxler and Judge Kane to help create and implement the first Changing Lives Through Literature Program. In his other life, he is a singer/song writer playing the local folk circuit. In May of 2007 Wayne created a spin off of CLTL, which he calls Inspiring Stories. He plays songs he has written followed by a discussion of the lyrics–much like a short story is done in CLTL.