Resisting, Re-enacting

“We are vulnerable to claims for which there is no adequate preparation”

–Anne’s notes from Judith Butler’s talk

The ghost demands your attention. The present wavers.…a traumatized person or society is stuck in a past that repeats as a present that can never end. I tried to theorize haunting…[as] a demand for a livable future

–Avery Gordon, “Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity”

The enactments in the last section ask participants to exercise porosity as they move into and out of personas. The ritual designed by the Alternatives to Violence Project for entering and exiting roles suggests that consciously choosing to set aside the selves we believe we are can create a semblance of safety. But this process can still engender surprises, call up unexpected responses, invite what been unconscious to leak into consciousness. Anna Deveare Smith, who creates performances evoking multiple participants in a complex situation, describes “the obvious gap between the real person and my attempt to seem like them. I try to close the gap between us but I applaud the gap between us.” In this space, she works with the “uneasiness we have about seeing difference displayed,”1 as a gap of vexation, provocation, learning.

Part of what makes enactments powerful is their unsafety: the dialectical tension between intentionality and the triggering of the unconscious can evoke other times and places, move into re-enactment and out of control. When wounds open and leak into consciousness, the brain can call up traumatic memories, display these as if real. It is critical–and difficult–to create a pause, hold the space between conscious and unconscious, recognize the wounding as not current and open up room for learning in the present moment.

Such questions take on a particularly strong valence when college students and faculty enter a prison to facilitate and participate in a book group with women who are incarcerated. In crossing the boundary between outside and inside, between “students,” “faculty,” and “inmates,” we enact roles other than those of our accustomed selves. In the course of this enactment—less formal, and not signaled as such—a session fragments, falls apart. The experience leaks into re-enactment for various of us in various ways. We try to learn from the cracks that open within and among us.

Fifteen students take linked courses with three professors in a 360° cluster called “Arts of Resistance,”2 which also involves a praxis placement at a women’s correctional facility. At least two of the students describe themselves as having dis/abilities, three as having variant gender identities. At least a quarter use trauma-related language and stories to describe their experiences as members of their racial/ethnic/cultural groups; at least a third identify themselves as having experienced personal trauma.

How much of what happens is about how the intimate structure and intense engagements of the 360° invite more disclosure, more leakage, than is usually “allowed” in classrooms? How might revealing such intimate aspects of our lives inspire us to patch up, crack open, allow our experiences to bleed into each other’s?

To “create fearlessly, boldly embracing the public and private terrors that would silence us, then bravely moving forward even when it feels as though we are being chased by ghosts”?3 In Danticat’s call to find courage in vulnerability is an intimation of a pedagogy of “moving forward” when we might want to turn and run, guiding us to pause, listen, turn and begin to “imagine…what ghosts might want from us.”4

This is a way of being, learning and teaching that values aliveness and presence, and also risks absence and overwhelmingness; teaching here is not about treading lightly but about bringing radical attention and care.

There are two levels of pat-down as we enter the jail. The first, usually by a woman guard, often one who knows us, often relatively light; the second performed after we’ve gone through the two heavy metal doors that have to be electronically opened, passed the backs of our hands under ultraviolet light to verify that we have been stamped, handed over our papers and books. This second pat-down is less predictable, more often performed by a male guard, more insistent, more disruptive for our students.

He felt my boobs, he asked if I was wearing a bra and told me to put one on.

Because it was a guy and it brought everything back. I was upset the whole time we were there and after, I didn’t want to go back.

My breath was coming too fast, and I couldn’t breathe.

The pedagogical decision to take young people into jail is fraught. Places are pedagogy, and this is a place of horror, of assault. Students choose this placement as part of their college experience; and yet, do they know what they’re choosing, really? When the passage itself is so troubling? As Alice Goffman reminds us, in this country the passage into adulthood is burdened, differentially precarious: college for some, prison for others.5

When we make the decision to offer jail as an option for young people in college, we confirm and confound those forked paths.

Students’ earlier experiences of trauma leak into the jail classroom. One recalls: “It was to relinquish bodily autonomy to the hands of someone who I didn’t know, so they could pat me down and deem me and my peers and professors ‘non-threatening.’ It was watching my peers being frisked and feeling helpless to stop it, and knowing that I was next. …getting in was harrowing almost every time.”6 Weeks in, the appearance of a particular male officer in the entry area reminds them of their abuser. Sometimes during class they go numb, disconnect; later, when we are talking in our college classroom about what has gone on there, they realize that they don’t remember. My friend with expertise in trauma talks to me about disassociation. I discuss options with the student: the possibility that they not go in, that they try tracking the class by writing. They try this, and begin to remember.

From our first passage inside, our group confronts the ambiguity of who we are in relation to mass incarceration, and to the women inside. While none of us has been imprisoned, we are also different from each other in our relationship to incarceration. One of us is haunted by a psychic assault from a correctional officer, who tells her not to forget that as a Black woman she too could find herself inside “wearing the blue.” Others struggle with their privilege, including seeing officers as protectors. Some students describe feeling “relaxed,” “freer” during jail sessions than on campus. There’s less expected of them there, away from college demands, and too they may expect less of those inside–a monstrosity we name. “When you are not the ‘monster’ in prison, you can forget that you’re the monster surviving life by stepping over those other lives to get your morning coffee.”7

More than halfway through the semester, one of the professors and many of our students are given a tour of the correctional facility. This makes freshly palpable the atrocity of imprisonment, the separation of “us” from “them”:

The Unknown

Whenever a person wearing an orange jumpsuit, or blue- hospital-looking clothing walked by, the warden stopped, instructed a guard to escort that person around us, seemingly trying to cut-off all natural and desperate communication between the people wearing the jumpsuits and those who had the privilege to study them.8

One afternoon we are up in the Education section of the jail, waiting for the people in the class to be sent from their units. I’ve gone down the hall to check with the CO on duty, and a student follows me out, they’re breathing hard and fast, in the midst of a panic attack, I ask, should we leave the jail? But outside our area, beyond one of four sets of electronically locked doors, they see the male officer who evokes their abuser. A tiny room, the library, empty and open, and we go in. We sit. Talk about him a minute, then about making things with clay and paint, about feeling materials with our hands. Their breathing slows, and we re-enter the classroom, where on this day women arrive in a kind of tumble of chaos, upset, resistant to the representation of prison life in our text. It is the hardest session we’ve had. We open, some of us, like a wound–raw, leaking–while others shut down, pull back. (And yet on this day too, a bond happens between a college student and an incarcerated student, who for the first time stays in the room for the whole session.)

We are discussing Brothers and Keepers, John Wideman’s memoir about the life and imprisonment of his younger brother, Robby. The college student who opens the class uses the word “escape” three times, in as many sentences, to describe the pressure put on both Robby and John to leave Homewood, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where they grew up. My shoulders tighten with associations about which neighborhoods are presumed “bad,” needing “escape.” Although John writes about Robby and about their relationship, and includes Robby’s own words, several object that it’s John’s story. Robby’s gone missing.

We miss too. We can’t get going on a conversation, a single speaker revving up. When the student facilitators break us into two groups, one to talk and one to write, the first is dominated by a woman haunted by her drug usage, telling her story–perhaps in relation to Robby’s—over and over, on a loop. The writing group also splinters, with a woman, usually engaged, first withdrawn today, then talking, weeping to the huddle around her.

Later one of our students describes this woman haunted by the act of “protection” that now separates her from her children; describes too her own effort to connect, her feeling of helplessness, and the intervention of “Christal,” an incarcerated student:


“Liana” came in…and seemed visibly distressed. She took a seat next to me and…said that she was “depressed today” and preferred not to write, instead sitting quietly. I asked her if she wanted to go outside and talk…Her eyes filled with tears as she began describing her children to me…She showed me a photograph of two of them, all milk-teeth innocent smiles and wondering eyes making funny faces for the camera. She whispered so softly that I could barely hear her, about how painful it was to be away from them, to be unable to mother them. “Horrible things happen in the world. Rape happens, people hurt other people… I was only protecting what was mine. I feel like I repented enough. I’m trying to leave everything to Him”–she pointed at the Bible in in her arms–“but it’s so hard.” I tried to think of something, anything substantial to say…but what could possibly alleviate the pain? I settled for just squeezing her hand as tightly as I could. I told her that her feelings mattered, and she was important, that she would always be a mother to her children…

And then Christal joined us…her first reaction was the polar opposite of mine. “I get where you’re coming from, but crying isn’t helping you. Indulging isn’t helping you. When we’re here, we lose a little bit of ourselves every day. We can’t be whole. But giving into that is not the way to go. You have to do what you can to live while you’re here. You can’t give up. Crying won’t do anything for you right now.”

Class ended at that moment. Liana, still brimming with tears, had to get up. I let go of her hand, gave her a long hug.

In this world, on the outside, sometimes we can allow ourselves to fall apart. We do not have the threat of constant surveillance on us, the shame that comes from it.…If the women in prison allowed themselves to succumb to the intensity of their feelings, they would fall apart, and it would happen in shame, without privacy. The most that they can do is pull themselves together, even repress their emotions, carry on. They risk losing even the small pinch of humanity that prison allows them, the last bit of honor that they have left. “Let go,” Christal kept saying, “crying doesn’t help. Nothing helps except moving forward.”9

Our student’s acceptance of Christal’s response as more attuned to Liana’s current experience highlights her sense of not-knowing, of control leaking away. The session ends feeling so chaotic and unhappy that we can’t even debrief as we leave, taking the class into our evenings and weekends.

On Sunday another of our students articulates the experience of “losing control…indulging [our] humanness” and, through this, opening up the space for a “defeat” that is also a “delayed triumph”:

Joie Rose

I’m sitting here in Hot House, as I do every Sunday, attempting, as I do every Sunday, to put into eloquence an incredibly complex experience fraught with intense emotion, unwanted analysis that so often feels nothing less than disingenuous, and so many human lives that have no place in this coffee shop. I’m miles away from the prison, days removed from one of the hardest book groups we’ve had yet, and stratospheres away from the lives and experiences we try to fit into that classroom every week. And here I am, sitting in a coffee shop, as college students do, carrying out an assignment, as college students must, and enjoying a slightly overpriced Hot House breakfast that my multiple jobs allow me to indulge in. This analysis, or reflection, has no place in here. It doesn’t fit into this suddenly impossibly small little shop, filled with people pressing hands, mumbling and murmuring light conversations, sharing laughter and anecdotes and histories and human moments that simply don’t exist in the same way at the prison.

But then, isn’t that what was shared in the prison on Friday? An incredibly human experience, of failure and breakdown of structure, of raw, vibrant human emotion that we (or at least I) have been so wary of in that space? All of a sudden, the humanity that we have been trying to grapple with in class, attempting to impose and perhaps imagine into that classroom space, came crashing through that room in a way it hasn’t before. Clattering against chairs and tables were personal triumphs and failures, stories that needed to be shared and held, and tears shed, and hands grasped and tissues exchanged, and a chaos that was not at all chaos but unfettered human need at the crux of it all.

I too indulged my humanness this past week. Long held back emotions and fears and histories and harms came barreling at me so violently this Friday that there was nothing else for me to do but let it momentarily wash me away. Perhaps in defeat, perhaps in delayed triumph. For whatever reason, this was the week that I lost the control I had held so tightly to for so long. My front lines were obliterated and my defenses shattered and in the chaos and confusion of that moment I was allowed to be held. And the color returned to my whitened knuckles, and the fists I had clenched for so long relaxed and released in utter exhaustion and acceptance at the loss of the control I had clung to like a rope, dangling me over the abyss, hoping beyond hope that rope would hold and keep me from falling. But I did fall, or maybe I just let go. Maybe it was what I had needed all along.

Maybe the perceived chaos of this last class was what we needed to fully acknowledge what it is that we are doing. Not our purpose necessarily but the physical and practical aspects of the fact that we are going into a medium security prison and engaging in conversation on difficult topics with individuals that we would most likely never interact with in our daily lives. And in acknowledging our privilege, and in talking and talking and musing and analyzing and reflecting about the imbalances and injustices and structures and theorists and theories, we constructed a sense of control that we never really had or deserved. I think that illusion was broken this past week. And I think that’s okay.10

I talk with my husband, a therapist, who reads the session similarly: for awhile people struggle to bring their least neurotic, most highly functioning selves into a group, trying to be the self they want to appear as, to be, but in the approach to intimacy, in the search for acceptance of our whole selves: the reveal. I begin to see the session less as a disaster, more as leakage between the conscious and the unconscious, a testament to the intimacy of the group. Especially in such a tightly controlled space where we released some controls. What now? I say, wanting to believe. And glimpsing too how what happens in jail clarifies the pulsing of vulnerability and resistance in our college classrooms.

Even as things “fall apart,” a student’s post reminds our group of connections:


Book group yesterday felt discombobulating, frustrating, and important.…I got into a conversation with one of the women about Brothers and Keepers. It was hard for her to focus on the book, she explained, because it hit so close to home. The narrative and description of the prison in the story led her mind to wander to her own impending release next February, and how she was committing to change her actions so she wouldn’t be returning to the prison for the fourth time. This turned into a conversation about her crime, which transformed surprisingly naturally into a conversation about my life. “Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked. I hadn’t been asked this question in years–and when I explained why, she laughed, insisting that she didn’t want to assume anything but it was “pretty obvious.” Suddenly excited, she hurried out of the room and returned with pictures of her girlfriend–“See, doesn’t she look like a boy, like you??”…Now, outside of class for a day, I’m still grappling with my gut feeling that that conversation was all that really mattered. I know that we came into the prison with educational purposes to some extent, intending to focus on reading and writing. But I can’t help but feel like those are only useful in our case in the gateways they provide into personal and honest conversation and moments of connection.11

Tuesday I open class with excerpts from these posts. As we begin to process all this emotionality and uncertainty, a number of us admit to anxiety about going back inside; we consider leaving Brothers and Keepers behind.

But the next Friday in jail we return to a short, rich discussion of this text, shaped by a woman inside: she focuses our attention on a passage in which the author describes the men inside in terms of their predatory gaze at his adolescent children; she argues that his language reveals that it is he who is the sexual predator. We are none of us all or only what we seem. We write and share poems about “Where I’m From,” putting forth selected aspects of our selves. Anne points out that we are focusing on positive, even nostalgic memories, rather than fuller, harsher versions of our stories. There’s uncomfortable laughter. Are we still performing “best selves”? Several of us begin again.

In the theater of the prison we enact the unlikely possibility of connection: As college professors and students seek to become more than ourselves, to reach for selves that are braver, more expansive in a place that may feel frightening and foreign (even if also, sometimes, paradoxically relaxed and freer); to connect with human beings there. Women who are incarcerated, for the first or many times, headed home or upstate, with more or less support for surviving on the “outside,” and more or less experience with college, also seek to become more than themselves, to reach for selves that are braver, more expansive, to connect with professors and students who enter and stage this space as a college classroom. Although not named in these terms, this too is an enactment, in which we are susceptible to re-enactments arising from our own lives and our readings, writings, talk, and physical presence together. And in the space between enacting and reenacting, between known and unknown selves and others, leakage can startle and unbalance us, spark fear and also deep inquiry in its unforeseen textures and bleed-throughs.


  1. Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror (New York: Anchor, 1993): xxxvii-xxxviii.
  2. Arts of Resistance.” 360° Cluster, Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2015, accessed June 1, 2016.
  3. Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (New York: Vintage, 2010), 148.
  4. Les Back, “Haunted Futures: A Response to Avery Gordon,” Borderlands 10,2 (2011): 3.
  5. Alice Goffman, “How We’re Priming Some Kids for College—and Others for Prison,” TED Talk, March 2015, accessed June 1, 2016.
  6. Joie Waxler, email message to the author, April 16, 2016.
  7. The Pipeline Project, a Work-In-Progress, by Anna Deveare Smith, directed by Anna Deveare Smith, Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, May 5, 2015.
  8. The Unknown, “Locks Don’t Cure; They Strangle–Prison Tour Reflection,” November 14, 2015 (5:39 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016. 
  9. meerajay, “Sunday Post,” November 15, 2015 (5:14 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.
  10. Joie Rose, “Sunday Post,” November 15, 2015 (11:58 a.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.
  11. smalina, “Sunday Post, 11/5 (A little early),” November 14, 2015 (1:49 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.