Book Review: Life lines: Re-writing lives from the inside out

Dorothy Van Soest

First Published in Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work August 6, 2019 OnlineFirst  

Life lines: Re-writing lives from the inside out

B. Viñas, S. W. Bartlett, K. Tibbott & M. Reynolds, (Illustrator). (2019). Life lines: Re-writing lives from the inside out. Brattleboro, VT: Green Writers Press. 178 pp. $14.95, ISBN: 978-1-7336534-9-7.

Vermont’s incarcerated women are turning their lives right-side up from the inside out, even while living within the confines of a world turned upside down by an opioid-fueled prison industrial complex. Just thinking about that concept is mind blowing in and of itself. Is it even possible to recover, grow, develop, and be creative when held captive in a degrading and broken system? After reading this amazing collection of writings written by women on the inside, the answer to that question must be a resounding, “YES IT IS!”

Life Lines is like a symphony in five movements that is guaranteed to turn upside down any and all negative preconceived notions about incarcerated women, an opus that inspires us with their courage, even gallantry, as they struggle with addiction and mental illness in a system designed to reduce them to “a chocolate drop so small not even a butterfly can taste it.”

In the first part, Whisper to Voice, the women’s voices are, like the first movement of a symphony, loud and forceful in their honesty and rawness as they expose the truth about living in a system that strips them of self-expression, where they are always wrong, always a criminal, and always without a voice. Yet, at the same time, their melodies are quiet and lyrical as they express their despair about what they have become and what their addictions have cost them. Each piece of writing is a sonata, a visceral experience of their lives inside, from the “smells of rotting carcasses” to “a maze with no way out” to a place where “hope has no goddamned wings.”

The next part, Loss and Longing, is, like the second movement of a symphony, a dirge that mourns what has been lost to heroin or other drugs, the dissolution of self “into the tiniest raindrop,” and a deep longing to overcome and live. In the third movement, Creativity Within, we experience the colors of the women, a chance for their feet to be free again, their ability to laugh even when they can’t smile, and the things they remember. In the fourth movement, we read what it’s like When Patterns are Broken, as the women try to find their way back to themselves, to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, their uniqueness, and their pride.

And then comes the finale, And Still We Hope. The last movement of this powerful symphony of words contains the fast and furious theme of hope expressed by the women over and over again. I am who I want to be. I won’t surrender again. I won’t let you control me. I am a Goddess. I am a hero. I am a poet. I have an unbreakable spine of steel. I am clean and sober. The tides have turned. I am no longer withered by scorn. I am fearless.

And in the end we are swept away. The honesty, strength, and resilience of the women whose words fill the pages of Life Lines literally take our breath away, and we can’t stop clapping for them. If, instead of blaming the addicted, the reckless criminals, drug pushers and dealers, Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, and other major pharmaceutical corporations accepted accountability for the opioid crisis like these women are taking responsibility for falling victim to it, it would go a long way toward turning the world right-side up again.

Dorothy Van Soest

excerpts from Goodreads readers (read more here):

…Their words reveal the depth of creativity that emerges from being immersed in an environment and having to pay attention in order to survive. Nearly all the women convey prison as a place of noise, and smells, and hardness that cannot be softened by wishes or dreams. Despite, or perhaps because of, the conditions, the women have found creative depths. –Ruth

…By reading through these stories, one cannot help but gain a deeper understanding into the diversity of experiences that have led to incarceration…Life Lines is the type of book that you can pick up from time to time just to read a few pages and enrich your understanding of the world in which we live.  –W. Lowrey, author of Chasing the Blue Sky

…This is such an inspirational and motivational book. Thank you to all the women who shared their voices. A MUST read. –L. Savall