Communication Currents

Narratives Behind Bars: Incarcerated Women, Motherhood, and Meaning Making

February 1, 2015
Theater & Performance

The ability to communicate about our personal experiences has consistently been linked to the capacity to heal from trauma and feel empowered to make positive decisions. For many of society’s most marginalized members, stereotypical images and narratives stand in for the unique experiences that undergird much of what we tend to see as “natural.” For incarcerated women, whose histories are often marked by sexual abuse, domestic violence, poverty, PTSD, a lack of education, housing insecurity, mental illness, and substance addiction, we find significant cultural ignorance about their pathways to incarceration and inadequate structural support for sustained recovery and empowerment.

Since 1970, the number of imprisoned Americans has grown tenfold, with women now constituting the fastest growing prison population in the United States. In a recent issue of Text and Performance Quarterly, we suggest that U.S. culture has much to learn from incarcerated women, starting with listening to their stories. In the summer of 2011, as volunteers who helped design, participate, and fundraise for an organization called Resolana, we solicited life stories from 23 women who were incarcerated in the Dallas County Jail. In Spanish, La Resolana “refers to the sunny side of a building or plaza, a protected place where the warmth absorbed by the adobe walls draws people to gather together and talk.” The advocacy group Resolana highlights the wisdom gained and shared through personal experience and growth, with a mission “to educate and to empower incarcerated women.” Offering workshops covering a range of topics, including communication skills, creative writing, yoga, and empowerment, to survivors of trauma, substance abuse, incest, and sexual abuse, Resolana seeks to strengthen incarcerated women’s capacity to exercise personal agency.

Working alongside a fellow advocate and researcher, Carolyn L. Sandoval, the central question we asked all participants was to tell us their life stories, focusing on whatever “chapters” or “turning points” each woman thought to be influential to her story. We wondered how incarcerated women’s personal narratives might overlap and differ in meaningful ways. More specifically, we hoped to better understand how aspects of identity (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class) function to both limit and enable women to make meaningful choices. One common theme in the stories we heard was the significance of motherhood, both in considering their own mothers’ impacts on their lives and pathways to incarceration and in articulating their investments in making positive mothering choices now and in the future.

Feminist research on and advocacy for the empowerment of incarcerated women reveal a conundrum at the heart of efforts to help imprisoned women develop stronger senses of agency. The problem may seem obvious—within the confines of imprisonment, incarcerated women have little room to exercise personal agency, and beyond the walls of confinement, discourses of “choice” often seem vacant. The stories of Resolana’s participants highlight a distinct intersection between the women’s lived experiences and cultural demands that continue to align with the antiquated (yet still powerful) “Cult of True Womanhood.” Such demands expect women to live up to heightened expectations of purity, submission, and domesticity and are notably based on the historically essentialized experiences of white (proper) womanhood as a metanarrative. While “True Womanhood” is often rightfully critiqued by feminist scholars and activists, we noted that incarcerated women’s stories showed both the detriments of being measured by these restricted benchmarks and the potential cultural resources embedded in this archetype to help some women narrativize futures apart from incarceration. 

In framing her life story, for example, Maria characterized her family and home environment in tumultuous terms that highlighted her own mother’s futile efforts to live up to standards of “true womanhood”: “I was molested by my stepdad, me and my older sister were, and I guess my mom kinda turned a blind eye to it.” Describing the silence that surrounded her early sexual abuse, Maria reflected on her family’s Mexican cultural expectations: “And um, it was kinda like, in our culture, or at least in my family, you know what I’m saying, you just, you don’t make escándalo [a scandal], you just keep everything hush-hush and make everything look perfect like.”

Noting her mother’s desires to provide housing that would not be marked by poverty, Maria explained that her mother had (ironically) married Maria’s abusive stepfather in an attempt to offer the family a “better life.” In telling her story, Maria noted various cultural messages she has struggled with as a Latina, especially paying attention to the intersections of ethnicity, gender, and class. In listening to Maria’s narrative, we found consistency with the stories of other incarcerated women who struggle to negotiate their identities as mothers within the debilitating constraints of poverty, substance addiction, and incarceration.

One important takeaway from our analysis speaks to the many challenges of generating “empowerment” within the confines of incarceration. The women we interviewed reflected on dominant social messages and expectations regarding gender, race, ethnicity, and class, offering important insights into how philanthropic and activist organizations might more productively support incarcerated women. In short, telling one’s own story offers opportunities to reflect on how meaning has crafted one’s decisions and future sense of agency. Part of the key to the paradox of empowerment, we argue, lies in assisting incarcerated women in developing a critical capacity for dealing with the incoherencies that have been imposed upon their lives. In this way, it is telling that for the women we interviewed, one of the ways each began to envision her life outside of jail was in her hopefulness for becoming a successful mother.

 Yet we found that in the case of the women of Resolana, the performances of their stories both reflect dominant norms of “empowerment” and offer more nuanced narratives of self that are compelling—revealing generative stories suggesting that the collective space of Resolanapod might signal a sense of agency less based in fear and more invested in the belief that one can improve ones life as well as others’ lives through performing ones life story. As Rosa noted, “I guess for me to be part of Resolana is saying I want something better for my life.… Even though I’m in a bad situation, I don’t see it as a bad situation. I see it as an opportunity, and you guys are bringing and representing and presenting tools to me that I need and making them readily available, only now it’s my turn to pick them up and use them.”

As Rosa continued, one of the most useful tools she spoke of was her capacity to tell her story and listen to the stories of others: “Basically, Resolana is helping me to help someone else. To pay it forward because somebody somewhere is in the same situation I’m in and needs to hear what I have to say. But then again, I need to listen to what they are trying to say. I’m definitely someone’s help, or someone’s helping me, whether it be a peer, or one of you guys. I’ve very much to offer.”

About the author (s)

Suzanne Enck

University of North Texas

Assistant Professor

Blake McDaniel

University of North Texas