Witness For Women

By , Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor.

`TOO much prison writing is catharsis, filled with rage, no more effective than when someone sits down and just tells you their problems,'' says Patricia McConnel in a telephone interview. She did not want to write that kind of book. In order for ``Sing Soft, Sing Loud,'' to be more than protest, more than a subjective need to ``get pressure off,'' she had to channel a ``tremendous drive'' inside, she says. By mixing personal experiences with a writer's sensibility she was able to distance herself from her prison experience. She could sort out the ``reality of prison life'' as other women experienced it and as society imposed it.

When ``I discovered that the book was becoming a celebration of the strength of the women I knew, I knew the book could work,'' she says. The narrative created a perception that prison life is more than just a psychological experience, she says. This enabled her both to come to terms with her past, she says, and to do something about a lot of other women's futures just as desperate as she was. ``People don't want to believe what happens to someone because they would have to do something about it then, so they'll rationalize it's a psychological problem [of the inmate],'' Ms. McConnel says.

``My writing had to serve as a voice, as a witness to how inhuman and wasteful prison is for women,'' she says. ``There just is very little understanding of how little control someone has over her life when in prison.'' The emotional cost of prison is being ignored, with ``terrible, terrible consequences.''

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``Prison is much more psychological for women,'' she says. Crying, rather than violence as is often the case for men, becomes one of the few expressions of individuality left for women. Singing, crying, and shouting become metaphors for individual identity in her book.

``Since I had felt very little control in my early life, I decided that as a writer I was not going to compromise my control. I had to do the book the way I knew it to be right,'' McConnel says. Laughing, she recalls how one editor told her, ``I didn't know what prison was like and I would have to make the following changes in my manuscript.'' It was time for a new publisher right then, she says, even if it meant ``I would publish it myself.'' Fifteen publishers later, and after turning down a lucrative advance coupled with an extensive tour (unusual for a first time author), she found Atheneum and told her story.

Her passion for control explains why some scenes in the book are so sexually explicit, she says. ``Toni is sexually addicted. She gets a very false kind of high from men. This contributes to her victimization.'' McConnel wanted to deal with this ``because it was an extemely important part of me and what I had to overcome'' to gain control over her own life, to stop the cycle of destructive relationships with men, she says. Writing about sex became a search (or the conscious avoidance of a search for some characters) for self-knowledge. ``Even when it is painful, self-knowledge is to be desired,'' she says. ``I also want people to realize how the problem can exist in all of us.''

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