Milli (left) and Mary Lou are two of the 20 survivor/participants in Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse, an exhibit showing through December 13 at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center at the University of Maine, Augusta campus. For more information about the exhibit or project, visit findingourvoices.net. (Photos:?Patrisha McLean)
Milli (left) and Mary Lou are two of the 20 survivor/participants in Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse, an exhibit showing through December 13 at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center at the University of Maine, Augusta campus. For more information about the exhibit or project, visit findingourvoices.net. (Photos:?Patrisha McLean)
Surrender my driver’s license and car keys, walk through a scanning machine, wait 20 minutes for a minute-long van ride, get buzzed in through three thick doors: And let the book group begin.

That was the routine on five consecutive Fridays this summer at the Windham prison when I shared with a dozen women the book that had opened my own eyes to the dynamic of domestic abuse, Lundy Bancroft’s “Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.”

Publicity around my project, Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse, had prompted the behavioral-health director at the Maine Correctional and Re-entry centers, Sheri Wheelock, to invite me to bring it to the only prison facilities in Maine that house women.

I know from my friend Stephanie Primm, who runs our local homeless coalition, that domestic abuse is one of the main reasons women are homeless. Sheri confirmed that jail sentences derive from it as well: Boyfriends and husbands manipulate women into doing or selling drugs, and if a woman’s sentence is for abusing her own child, often a man’s manipulation is behind this, too. Sheri said, “I’ve yet to meet someone incarcerated who has not been violated/hurt/traumatized by someone who supposedly loved them.”

Milli, one of the 20 survivor/participants of Finding Our Voices, was one of the first to sign up for the book club and, a natural leader, she brought in most of the others.

I was surprised at how many rules there are for even prison guests. One visit, I was turned away at the reception desk because of my sandals (open-toed shoes being one of about a dozen verboten clothing items for visitors) and it mattered not a whit that I had driven two and a half hours to get there. Frenzied cell-phone calls to everyone in the chain of command approving my book club ended up producing a staff member’s extra pair of clogs that were my golden ticket to enter.

I started every book session by asking for favorite passages from the previous week’s reading. Then we took turns reading aloud. When someone shared something from their own experience of domestic abuse there were nods all around. Often, important points were cited by the women that I had missed in three readings of the book. Three or four of the women were very vocal and revealing of their own abusive relationships. One or two made no comments at all but still came to every session, when doing so was voluntary.

At one point, the subject turned to how Milli went from hellion, when she was first admitted, to taking every possible class in order to turn her life around, and the entire group spontaneously applauded her. I was not the only one moved to tears.

No sooner had the sessions ended than I signed up for another prison session, down the hill and a world away, at the re-entry center. The outside door was unlocked, and stashing my car keys in a locker and signing a registry was all I needed to do to check in. Our meeting room had windows looking out at grass and trees, with not a barbed wire in sight.

I had a moderator partner this time, even though Mary Lou stressed to the women that she was there to learn from the book, just as they were. This survivor/participant of Finding Our Voices spent 42 years locked in an abusive marriage with a University of Southern Maine professor before getting free at 65 years old.

I asked her to join me because of how loving and nurturing she is but realized the bonus of her being a retired teacher when she showed up with five bright yellow folders. The lesson plans inside were for such chapters as “Trying to make sense out of the roller-coaster ride that her relationship has become” and “The Myths and Realities of Abusers.”

Every Wednesday at 2 p.m., I pulled my car next to Mary Lou’s white one with the “No excuse for elder abuse” purple bumper sticker from which she had excised the word “elder.” (“I don’t think abuse is elderly,” she said. “Abuse is abuse.”)

We got only three sign-ups, having been warned that the women are busy with classes and jobs, getting ready for life on the outside. As we took turns reading the book aloud, only one related the book to her own experiences of domestic abuse.

Thank God for this woman, Mary Lou and I told each other as we walked out into the parking lot after the session, because otherwise it would be just she and I trading stories. We wondered if the other two, even though they showed up every time, got anything useful from the discussion.

At the prison I had not been allowed to give Milli even the gift of a copy of the photo of her that is in my Finding Our Voices exhibit. Outside items are allowed at the re-entry center, and about halfway through our last session there, I said, “Okay, time for cake!”

For all special occasions, I look to my friend Megan of Rosalie Joy’s bakery. Her old-fashioned chocolate cake with pink buttercream roses has delighted guests at staff celebrations at the homeless shelter, summer garden parties on my lawn, and opening receptions for Finding Our Voices exhibits.

There were “oohs” and “aahs” for the cupcakes, and even for the paper plates with colorful hollyhocks: One of the women said she was hanging hers on a wall in her room. “You don’t get sweets in here like this,” another of the women said, scraping up chocolate crumbs with her fork.

Both women who had mainly listened during the five sessions of the book group told us that the revelations by the three others produced positive breakthroughs for them personally that would inform their current relationships and plans for the future.

Second cupcakes were handed around, and soon the five of us were talking like friends around the table at Zoot Coffee in Camden. With one story about a persnickety woman they all lived with, we laughed so hard we cried.

Fifteen minutes past the official ending time, we stacked up the empty cider cups and gathered our folders and books. In a testament to how domestic violence cuts across all demographics and the power of sisterhood (and the magic of Megan’s cake), we traded information on how to stay in touch, and hugged goodbye.