The Memoir Project: Week two and not one of the three of us have written a word.
Kim can’t come today so it’s just Heidi and me.
“We’ll start with the sentence, “Here’s how it happened to me,” I say. “The idea is we don’t stop writing for five minutes straight.”
We’re sitting in the gym at a plastic table in plastic chairs. It’s the visiting area for the patients in Forensics 3 of the Arizona State Hospital. Heidi, a pretty forty-year-old woman, has been sentenced to ten years in prison and her records say she is criminally insane.
This is our third meeting and I see little difference between us. Probably that should worry me but it doesn’t.
I read mine first.
“Here’s how it happened to me. It was a crispy cold morning in the mountainous town of Kermanshah the day I was nearly arrested. I’d worn my “Muslin Muslim dress” my mother had made for me – a brown caftan that covered me from my toes to my fingers to my neck. Still, the group of teenage boys stalked me, stones in hand.”
Heidi writes, “Here’s how it happened to me. I could not understand the psychiatrist’s questions. No one else in the room seemed to understand him either. I felt sad and alone and angry. The whole thing was ridiculous, a farce.”
I take her notebook from her and write on the top of the page. “Smell. Touch. Hear. Taste. See.”
“This time,” I say, “Describe the room using your senses.”
“His glasses dangled from his lips as he listened,” she reads next. “He would not meet my eyes. Instead, he looked at everyone else, as if he was waiting for their opinions.”
She sighs, and shakes her head.
“What?” I ask. “It’s good.”
“I can’t remember anything else. I’m mixing up all the different sessions I’ve had. I can’t write this.”
“Ok. Start with something smaller. Something small that evokes a big feeling, or a memory.”
“Like, um, the smell of a certain food, or, a door slamming shut, or… Okay, how about this? I’m driving here and this depressed, flat feeling washed over me. It seemed to come out of nowhere, until I noticed a sheet of white clouds over the sun. The light muted all the colors, produced this glare, this, quality that made me think of hot afternoons in Africa where I had to play outside alone while my dad napped each day.”
She gets this. We set the timer and write for another five minutes.
I read, “I knew they would be waiting for me when I emerged from the market. It was what they always did. I knew too they could not throw the stones here, where there were so many people. Instead, they would sidle through the crowd until they were close enough to spit on me, or try to fondle me. I smiled and grasped my heavy bag of potatoes more firmly. I was ready for them today. Me and my five kilos of potatoes were ready to do some serious damage.”
Heidi writes, “They took us to the showers each night, whether we needed to bathe or not. The wood around the green door was soft and rotting and when the guard turned the key in the lock paint would peel off and fall to the floor. Inside, everything smelled like mold and mildew. The small green tiles were slick with it, and I always shuddered at the sight of this dark and damp place.”
I nod. “That’s it!” She nods too, and dips her head down over her writing. This time she doesn’t wait for me to set the timer.
She goes first. “As I laid my towel and shampoo on the only bench for the six of us, I looked up at the single window of the room, long, narrow, and barred. Outside, I could see the rolled concertina wire and I thought the same thing I always thought when we trudged in here – this must have been how the prisoners in the concentration camps felt when they were taken to the showers. To a horrible, scary place like this. Then I looked through the window again and saw the white, billowing clouds through the barbed wire and I felt a spark of hope, a bit of hope, inspired by the beauty of them.”
I smile. “That worked. You know why? Because you took me with you, and I was there, with you, the whole time. I saw what you saw, and I felt what you felt. Bravo.”
I finish reading mine.
“By the time the police came, he was coming to. To my surprise, the crowd sided with me, and argued furiously with the police on my behalf. They seemed impressed, and kept opening my shopping bag and showing the men the potatoes inside. Eventually the police backed off, and when the boy sat up, and saw everyone laughing at him, he jumped up and ran off. After that, that particular group of teenagers kept their distance from me, and stuck to rock throwing.”
The buzzer goes off and the prisoners and their visitors stand up.
“Thank you,” she says. “You’re a good teacher.”
As are you, I think, as I watch them lead her away.
As are you.