What Ruby Gave Me by Nora Raleigh Baskin
Yesterday morning I went to the Westport Health department to have my Tine test checked. I am happy to report I do not have TB, in part — though not entirely! — because I can now begin volunteering at the Bedford Hills Women’s Correctional facility. That is what Ruby [On the Outside] has done for me: Changed my life. Added to my life. Taken me deeper into myself. And (yes, thank goodness) out of myself.
I have always wanted to volunteer and give back. I’ve done small things here and there; some things fit, others didn’t. Nothing on a regular basis. First my kids were young and needed my time. Then they were older and needed more of my time. I was working. I was writing.
And now, it is just time. Ruby has taken me full circle.
Four years ago I knew next to nothing about mass incarceration in America, but I cavalierly attended a charity function with a girlfriend of mine who was involved in an organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA.) After a tour of the estate, hors d’oeuvres, and polite schmoozing, the event began. One after the other, speakers stood up and told their story.
An ex-convict described what it meant to discover art for the first time in prison.
“Art allows you to think differently, so you can behave differently, so you can get different results…to me, that’s what the definition of rehabilitation means.” Kenyatta Hughs (RTA)
An actress who had volunteered to work with the prisoners spoke about her experience at Sing Sing the men’s prison in Ossining.
And finally the president of RTA, Katherine Vockins, spoke — so eloquently —about this organization she had helped start because, she said, “Through the arts, we’re opening their eyes to self-discipline and self-knowledge, presentation, delayed gratification, and nonviolent conflict-resolution.”
By the end of the afternoon I learned that there are 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States— more than any other country in the world — in greatly disproportion demographic numbers. There are mandatory drug sentencing laws that put fathers and mothers, sometimes both, away for many years regardless of their actual direct involvement in a crime. And it dawned on me, that no matter how one felt about these laws or these crimes, if 2.2 million adults were incarcerated, there were at least as many children without mothers or fathers. *
And that’s when the story hit home.
My mother died when I was three and a half and whether she fully intended to or not, she successfully took her own life. In that moment, her choice, left me motherless forever and created an experience which has effected every single day of the rest of my life.
Can you see the connection?
I saw it. I felt it. I felt I had to write about it.
Katherine Vockins suggested I talk to Emani Davis, who had been one of the young subjects in a non-fiction book entitled, All Alone In the World by Nell Bernstein. A few weeks later, Emani and I spent the afternoon talking, after which I was even more convinced I could write this story. I should write this story.
It wasn’t my story, but it was my story. The shame, the secrecy, the confusion, the profound loneliness. How do you reconcile being the daughter of a mother who was not a good mother? How can you love someone who brought such pain to your life? Can you ever forgive your mother, forgive yourself? That is the journey I’ve had to make and the one Ruby brought to the pages of my book. We traveled together in a way I couldn’t do when I was Ruby’s age. You see, now as a mother, and a flawed human being, I could also enter the character of Ruby’s mother (because she is my mother and she me as a mother). If it weren’t that way I couldn’t have written this book, or any other for that matter.
But although the emotional truth was authentic, I needed to do a lot more research for the external, factual story. Basically, I had to get myself inside a prison — as a visitor, of course— which was made possible thanks to the amazing Sister Tesa and Alessandra Rose at Hour Children, a wonderful organization in Queens, NY that helps children with incarcerated mothers remain connected and assists the mothers when they re-enter society and their home lives. * *
Alessandra contacted DOCCS in Albany and was able to get me permission to visit Bedford Hills so I could accurately portray that specific experience; the black iron bars, the metal detectors and wands, the guards, the twisting barbed wire, the open space visiting room, the numbered tables, the vending machines lined up against the far wall, and the warm and friendly Children’s Center itself.
And now, four years later, I am going back. Not for research. Not as writer. Most decidedly not looking for a story because part of my orientation will be about the strict policy of confidentiality and I am looking forward to this forced constraint. I will know that being inside those walls will be about helping others to find their voice and to heal.
Because that is what writing can do. It is a powerful tool for creating empathy, taking responsibility, and connecting. That is what it has done for me, time and time again. Writing is my path to understanding my life, making sense of what sometimes makes no sense at all, and feeling less alone.
Nora Raleigh Baskin is the author of thirteen novels for young readers and a contributor to two story collections. She has won several awards including the 2010 American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award for Anything But Typical. A 2001 Publishers Weekly Flying Start, Nora has also published short stories and personal narrative essays which have appeared in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine and The Writer Magazine. She has taught creative writing to both children and adults for over fifteen years with such organizations as SCBWI, The Unicorn Writers Conference, the Highlights Foundation and many others. She often speaks at schools and libraries across the country and abroad on the healing power of writing, in any form, based on her own personal experiences. Ruby on the Outside is her latest middle grade novel. Nine/Ten: A 9/11 Story will be published August 2016 by Simon&Schuster. You can see more about Nora’s titles atnorabaskin.com or follow her @noraraleighb
* In fact, there are 2.7 million minor children in the U.S. with parents in jail or prison. Two-thirds of those parents have been involved in nonviolent crimes.
* * Kellie Phelan, program coordinator, and some of the children from Hour Children acted as beta-readers for Ruby and gave me invaluable feedback in early stages of writing. Many of their corrections and suggestions made their way to the final version.