Every time I picked up this book, I kept putting it down after a bit to reflect. And sometimes cry. Or cringe. Absorb. Pause. Reread. That’s the impact of author, poet, and family therapist Sharon Charde’s book, I Am Not a Juvenile Delinquent: How Poetry Changed a Group of At-Risk Young Women.
Twelve years after the accidental death of her college-student son Geoff, Charde finds herself in a fog of unending sorrow, guilt, and longing for him. She recognized the need to make a change. Of that time, Charde says, “… my world continued to crumble, unredeemed.” So, as a published poet and a women’s writing workshop coordinator, she volunteered to start a poetry writing workshop at Touchstone, a Connecticut treatment center for at-risk juvenile girls.
Their lives had been nothing short of horrific. Sentenced to Touchstone after committing an infraction, it was meant to a place to recondition their mindsets from the negative, violent environments they were raised in, and to confront the choices they had made to cope with abandonment, rape, prostitution, beatings, cuttings, drugs, pregnancy, and/or suicide attempts. These girls were hurting internally just as intensely as Charde herself, with her insidious grief.
These girls had been abandoned by the system, deemed unworthy. Charde’s goal was to get them to write about the truths of their lives through poetry. She wanted them to confront their past, to feel their worth and their humanity, and, through their poetry, experience the releasing power of inner healing—something they and Charde both desperately needed.
The book intimately explores the emotional and freeing power of poetry, and Charde masterfully introduces this power to “her girls,” as she affectionately calls them. The poems the girls produced are astounding, stark, and raw, depicting brutal and graphic experiences hard to absorb; they are breathtaking, cringeworthy, poignant, and shocking, reminding us that these teenage girls had endured the painful events they wrote about so honestly, and are still trying to cope with the dark aftermath.
Although perfectionist Charde most admirably maintained the writing group, she often doubted herself, critical of both her organizational skills and her insatiable desire to right all the wrongs the girls had experienced. Her life had shifted away from grief. Says Charde, “Suddenly I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to do this new thing that might actually shift the focus of my life out from under its leaden coat of mourning … ‘Mother of a dead son’ had become my definition, the pain that weighted my days a connection to my son I was unwilling to surrender.”
But these damaged girls had given her a new focus and purpose. In the process, through ten years at Touchstone and the poetry workshop girls, Charde slowly begins to heal inside, coming to terms with the reality and permanence of Geoff’s death. Through observing how the girls dealt with their past horrific traumas, boldly maturing and carrying on, and how writing through the trauma had affected them, Charde learns to effectively deal with her own trauma. She lets go of her all-consuming grief without feeling guilty. “I’d learn to carry it differently, to let go of its insistent demand to inhabit every moment of my daily life. The girls had taught me…. Yes, it had been all about the girls.… They had been what mattered.”
Charde changed her girls; her girls changed her.
This powerful, inspiring, beautifully written book that reads like poetry itself, is one not to pass on, but to keep on one’s shelf to reread again.