Gail Mooney is a Professor of Humanities at Middlesex Community College. She formerly facilitated the Concord-Woburn Women’s CLTL Program. Professor Mooney has a background in literature and earned her MFA in Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.
The first time I led a Changing Lives Through Literature group, I found that the learning experience was my own. At the beginning, I had trouble dropping the role of the didact, my teacherly inclination to organize and present my gems of wisdom to them was a hard thing to let go. I realized right away, with the help of the first probation officer, Randy Ryan, that this was not that type of experience.
I found that, with few exceptions, once drawn out, almost all of the women were willing and eager to talk, and that their insights (based not on a referential framework, not academic) were cogent and perceptive. They loved to talk! They had life experiences, which allowed them to relate to the material, and they were most often the wiser for them. In short, they were a lot like all of the women I know.
In addition to that initial delight and surprise at how insightful the women were, facilitating a women’s group has caused me to take a better look at the forces shaping women today. I sort of presumed that most of the probationer-students had gotten into various kinds of trouble because of their bad choices in men. I’m not sure why I assumed that a woman would only get into drug dealing, for example, if there were a man involved or that it had to be a bad relationship that caused the drinking or the fighting. In fact, for most of the women, it seemed to me that the cause of many of their troubles had more to do with lousy childhoods, the presence of learning disabilities, and the product of both: low self-esteem.
They don’t see themselves as victims, though; over and over they say, “It was my own fault.” They even take responsibility for the forces in their lives over which they have little control: “I did lousy in school, even in elementary school. I didn’t try,” or, “I wasn’t interested in school. I was too busy partying.”
I’ve often heard both comments, and I always think, silently, that first, doing poorly in grammar school is rarely the result of poor effort: it usually indicates a learning or emotional problem resulting from the child’s home life. This gets me to that next oft-repeated statement about partying too much: where were the parents? Not there, not available, had their own problems, etc. These were girls generally left on their own with no real sense of community or support.
As a matter of fact, by far the two most popular novels I’ve read with all my groups have been Plainsong by Kent Haruf and White Oleander by Janet Fitch. The first is about the importance of community; the second is about self-reliance and about which forces help us to survive or surpass. Almost without exception, all the women in the groups I’ve had related to these two books the most strongly.
The main character in White Oleander has the gift of artistic talent as a means to express herself and an avenue to pursue, and we’ve often discussed how very important having an outlet would have been for all of us in our youth and even now. When a woman in the group says, as one or two invariably do, “Yeah, but I have no talents,” always, another member will be quick with a response: “You said you’re a great cook!” or “You said you like to sew/act/sing/garden/write!”
The small group becomes a small community, and by the end, we are all sad…we’ve come to like each other. We know who’s married, the names and ages of children, and all the anecdotal stuff, which is the essence of friendship. The women are often disappointed when the group is done; they’ve come to look forward to it because it serves a little as a group-therapy class, but much more than that, because they get to use their brains, to read and reflect, to feel a part of something larger…a community, a class.
I think the most important element of the CLTL program is this offering of an intellectual community. It’s enabling and powerful because it’s not a group for victims but for winners. If we can see ourselves in literature, then we are all, truly, in this together. We are all made of the same stuff, the same needs. This small realization is gigantic to someone who’s feeling alone or out of tune with the rest of the world.
It’s powerful to be in a group engagement, to pull the symbols out of art and to make them real…community, sustenance, self-reliance, the need for beauty…. these are all the abstractions for which we often have no voice other than that found in literature, but it is exactly these things that ennoble us and that, by their pursuit, make the women in my CLTL groups feel good about themselves. And feeling good is always the very first step toward positive, vital action.