HALLIE EPHRON: One of the pleasures of my life is getting to work with talented aspiring writers. In the fall, Lucy and Hank and I offer a weekend writing retreat, Seascape Writers, and there's no greater thrill than seeing one of OUR writers go on to enjoy success.
So I was delighted when email came last week from Pinny Bugaeff telling us her writing won first place (!) in the Connecticut Authors Authors and Publishers Association essay contest.
Pinny's essay, "Tell Me A Story," is about reaching female felons through fairy tales. When I read it, it moved me to tears. No wonder she won!
Pinny, can you tell us just a little about the work you did with female felons?
PINNY BUGAEFF: After working for over twenty years as a therapist with delinquent girls, I thought I’d seen and heard everything. Boy, was I wrong.
The biggest challenge of my career was the five years I spent working as a Clinical Social Worker providing therapy for female offenders who were living in a pre-release half way house. Almost all of the women in the house came from abusive backgrounds. And virtually all of them followed the two rules for living on the street and in prison - “Don’t talk, Don’t tell.”
My goal was to help the women heal by sharing their stories of struggle and pain. Talk about frustration.
HALLIE: Whatever inspired you to try reading fairy tales?
PINNY: I’d like to say it was a brilliant gambit drawn from my years of clinical experience, but that wasn’t how it happened.
One hot night in July, just before group was supposed to start, I was standing on the porch, dreading another hour of sitting under glaring lights and waiting for the women to offer up a few dry crumbs from their lives. My clinical skills bank account was overdrawn.
What could I do to help them feel safe enough to break the old rules, rules that were holding them captive in prisons of silence?
I thought about going into my office, closing the door and doing what I’ve done since I was little - hide in a book. Since childhood, books have been to me what Notre Dame was to Quasimodo. I had a new book in my office -- The Ugly Duckling. I’d bought it that day for my four year old granddaughter.
Since storytelling is an age old practice used by all cultures for teaching and healing, I thought maybe a fairy tale could reach the child trapped inside each of those wounded women. I decided I’d read it to them.
HALLIE: What was your first clue that it was working?
PINNY: As soon as I began to read the story- “Once upon A time…” I felt the tension level in the room go down 20 points. Then I heard a collective sigh of relief. When someone’s reading to you, you don’t have to talk or tell, just listen.
As the women settled back, listening to the story of the Ugly Duckling, they grew quiet and I began to feel more peaceful. When the story ended I closed the book and waited.
Sharone broke the silence. She began to talk about the pain she’d felt because her skin was so much darker than her siblings and they’d bullied her for that.
The women began asking me, ”Are you going to read to us tonight?” They became more eager to tell their own stories. That’s when I knew that fairy tales were working.
One week, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs inspired Charlene to share a graphic story about a week-end she’d spent in Las Vegas with two guys who were… dwarf. I learned waaaay more about how to “get busy” in the boudoir than I’d ever imagined. (I know Hallie-TMI) But she had a story to tell and, for once, a chance to belong.Janeese, the toughest woman I’d ever treated, finally met her match when The Velveteen Rabbit quietly hopped through her defenses.
I discovered that most of the women had never been read to as children, never had the chance to hear or learn from the stories that inform the lives of so many of us. My hope was that they’d carry this new tradition back home to their children.
HALLIE: Well, from all of us, Pinny, CONGRATULATIONS!
Which reminds me, next week Hank and I will be at a fundraiser for an organization that has one simple goal: to encourage parents to read to their children. Raising and Reader. They have programs all across the country.
When I was little, I powered through all of the Grimm's Brothers, the grimmer the better. Donkey Skin. The Tinder Box. Thumbelina.
What is it about fairy tales that strike a chord in all of us, and what are your favorites??