Chris Benjamin Reviews Carole Langille Glasser’s Doing Time
Carole Glasser Langille’s Doing Time is a memoir like no other, about the author’s year of doing workshops for inmates at various Nova Scotia jails, women’s and men’s. The workshops were, on the surface, about poetry. Most participants were interested in writing, in self-expression. Some were reluctant to put pen to paper. Others were shy to share. But Langille encouraged and coaxed them along, and most of them did write and share.
And they talked. From the outset, Langille felt that writing could be used by the inmates the same way many others use it, to work through problems, organize thoughts and feelings to better make better sense of the world. That process, be it through poetic verse or raw prose, is often seen as a form of self-therapy. Langille discusses the lack of formalized therapeutic options for these inmates, most of whom have suffered trauma before ending up in jail (many of them on remand, meaning awaiting trial and not yet convicted of any crime).
She comes across as a very empathetic, compassionate teacher, if not always patient. She is uniquely honest, almost confessional, about her own shortcomings. The workshops are as much a learning process for her as for her students. She is guiding them in reading poems, finding whatever meaning they offer the individual, and offering philosophical messages of forgiveness and letting go. One student asks if she is a Buddhist.
They, in turn, are guiding her in understanding their lives, their situations and the institution they inhabit, and at the same time, that our outside-world assumptions don’t necessarily apply to those in jail. She struggles to reconcile the real people in her workshops and the violence of their actions on the television news. She tries to tune that out, no longer wants to know what they are accused of doing. At the same time, she reminds herself that our worst act doesn’t define us on its own.
I’m struck most, again, by the paucity of resources available to the inmates. They are eager to learn, to grow, to talk to someone. They lean on one another, offer one another immense compassion. But the jails themselves have nothing to offer but rules and walls and metal bars. And a volunteer poet.
As readers, we benefit from the same insights Langille offers the inmates through poetry. In the main body of the book she quotes many poems to them and they use them as springboards to their discussions and writings, which are often heartbreaking tales of poverty, neglect and abuse.
Somehow though, they remain intact, resilient souls determined to do better. We can’t know whether they will succeed. We know their odds are long, with many barriers to overcome. But here we get to know them well enough to cheer for them. Doing Time helps us do as Thich Nhat Hanh implores in one of the works Langille cites, “Call Me By My True Names”:
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.