Book Review – Voices: Memoirs from Herstory, Vol. 2

Vol. 2, Fall 2009.  Voices: Memoirs from Herstory Inside Suffolk County Correctional Facilities. Various Authors, Herstory Writers Workshop, Inc., paperback, 107 pages, $14.95.

The Herstory Writers Workshop’s goal is to provide incarcerated women “opportunities through guided memoir writing that empower women from all walks of life . . . to turn their intimate stories into works of art crafted so that others can hear.”  In this, their second published collection, there are approximately thirty short true stories (many in letter format, addressed to their former abusers, family members, etc.) addressing such topics as addiction, violence against women, and the bond between incarcerated parents and their children.

The founder of Herstory, Erika Duncan, writes a four page introduction in which she implores the reader not to immediately ask “What did that person (the author) do” that lead to her imprisonment.  Instead, we are implored to ask what has happened to these women in their pasts, and what can they teach us.  Perhaps the authors were also told not to write about or focus on such things as their guilt, the crimes they committed, or what lead to their imprisonment, because none of the stories make any mention of victims of the criminal acts of the authors (however, the authors are quick to point out how they are victims) or what crimes the authors committed, with the exception of a few who vaguely talk about being in jail for drug related offenses.   Instead, the reader is treated to some truly horrific stories of past abuse, addiction, and familial betrayals, many of which contain revolting imagery.

The stories in this publication average between two to three pages.  They are prefaced by a short introduction from the editor, and provide a little background on the author of each piece.  Sticking to Herstory’s number one rule of non-judgment, these intros typically list the positive attributes of each writer, and never discuss the crimes committed by the writer.  The stories can be incredibly graphic in the recounting of physical/sexual abuse (particularly unsettling was a story from a former prostitute who graphically described the aftermath of waking up after a night of performing sexual favors in the quest for crack money).  They are not for the squeamish.

There is one particular portion of this publication that stuck out to me when I read it.  In the editor’s short introduction of the author of each piece, she sometimes mentions boyfriends or family members that have physically or sexually abused the author in the past.  None of these introductions give any background of the accused abuser, until the introduction of author Angelita Peete on page eighty-seven.  Ms. Peete, we are told, was “horribly and repeatedly sexually and physically abused by her mother’s career military husband” starting at the time she was eight years old.  I can see no reason why the editor chose to mention the occupation of this one alleged abuser.  Perhaps she feels the military trains soldiers to be better at abuse than other members of the general public.  Whatever her reasoning, I found the inclusion of this man’s occupation to be unnecessary and insulting to the armed forces, and I suspect if a survey of all the alleged abusers in this publication was taken, “social programs recipient” would rank much higher on the list of occupations than “military.”

I can see value in this publication for law libraries and law schools that have strong women’s studies programs, or for the criminal justice field.  At only $14.95, it’s not a huge investment.  Just be prepared for graphic imagery and understand the purpose of the book.

Lance Burke, Reference/Access Services Librarian, Elon School of Law

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