Dr. Jan Willis, professor emerita at Wesleyan University, last week graced the veterans’ writing workshop with her presence. She talked about her memoir Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist — One Woman’s Spiritual Journal, which Wisdom House has issued in a beautiful new edition.


Ever the teacher, she engaged the members of the workshop by asking whether they were afraid when they were in combat. Her context was the stories told by her former brother-in-law, and her impression was that war caused men to experience fear in a way that women don’t. Just to check out the theory, I’ll be reading Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls to see if things have changed.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about when I was most afraid. It wasn’t during the hurricane that ripped the silver maple in our yard in half with part of it landing in our living room. I was too young to know what I was seeing as I watched branches floating past my bedroom window.

Nor was it when I was driving back to my parents’ house from Philadelphia in a driving snow storm and watched as a VW bug raced along in the fast lane of I-95, flipped up on an embankment, and landed at the feet of a state trooper who was investigating an accident and who let loose a string of curses, some of which I’d never heard before. I was too busy worrying about how a car had hit the back of mine, causing me to hit the car in front as we all glided over to the right guard rail, which kept us from all falling into a frozen creek.


No, it was most definitely the day the electronic bars slammed shut and locked behind me at Graterford Prison in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania (yes, the town where the 9/11 plane landed, but this was years before). I was hemmed into a space a little bigger than the stall in a public restroom, with dirty white and rusting bars in front of me and the same behind me. My possessions, including the bracelets I’ve worn since I was 10, remained in the custody of a guard who was watching me after he pushed the lock.

It seemed that hours passed.

The guard at the bars in front pushed a button, and it slid open. I know I was hyperventilating. The only thing that kept me from a meltdown was the knowledge that I was there to do a job. It was to conduct interviews of prisoners for a lawsuit on prison-reform project. Eventually, I got back my bracelets and my briefcase and was ushered into a room with four residents – as I recall, we didn’t call them inmates – to discuss conditions at Graterford. They were uniformly well spoken and polite. I felt comfortable in their presence. Not so with the guards, who stood around the perimeter of the room. All I remember was they all had large guts and kept their hands on their weapons.

The prisoners knew I was there to help them. The last thing they would do was hurt me. It didn’t occur to me till I was back in my office that the guards saw me as a threat because I might be investigating complaints against them. I’d like to think that my fear heightened my empathy for my clients.

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