Toby Dorr
Episode 29

Episode 29

Toby Dorr: Hi, everyone, and welcome to Fierce Conversations with Toby, the show where we discover the silver lining in life’s most difficult stories. I’m your host, Toby Dorr.

Toby Dorr: Hi, Jean. I’m so delighted to have you today on my podcast. You have such an interesting history, and I can’t wait to dig into some of the work

Jean Trounstine: I’m really happy to be here.

Toby Dorr: Yeah, I think it’s going to be so much fun. Um, before we start, can you tell me what your favorite color is and why?

Jean Trounstine: color is black. Um, well only on certain, I mean, I love black because it kind of, it, it neutralizes everything and it sort of, it’s kind of like a great equalizer. Um, I also would say that red, I like red. And you can see I have red glasses, you know, so So

Toby Dorr: Yes, you do. You do. Yeah. Red definitely makes a statement. That’s for sure. So I came across you on your LinkedIn profile and I don’t know how it got shown to me, but it was perfect that it did. Uh, I see that you do a lot of work with people in prison and that you’re an activist and you’ve written quite a few books, uh, which I have two of your books here.

Toby Dorr: And I understand you have a new book coming out, uh, in March of 2024. So we’ll talk about that too. Can you tell me what’s the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make?

Jean Trounstine: think it was a very hard decision, uh, not having children.

Toby Dorr: Oh,

Jean Trounstine: but it was a decision based on, at the time, I really felt that I couldn’t do the work that I do and have kids. I think many women do that and many, I mean, women should be able to do that, obviously, but I didn’t feel I could. And, um, I don’t feel a loss because I have fabulous nieces and nephews and I also have their

Toby Dorr: hmm. Mm

Jean Trounstine: but it was a hard decision for my husband and I.

Toby Dorr: Oh, yes. I could see that. And, and tell us a little bit about the work that you do do.

Jean Trounstine: Well, my, my work is really working with people who, I began working with people in prison and, um, in, I guess it was 1987 when I first taught in prison and I, it changed me, it turned me into a prison activist and, and it turned me into a writer and I wouldn’t have been writing much as I’ve been writing, if I didn’t have something to write about and in that sense, I’m very lucky because there’s so much.

Jean Trounstine: I mean, unfortunately, there’s so much injustice with my top. I do have a lot to write about and that I began with actually working in a prison and now I work with people on probation. I do a lot of work. about people on parole. And most of my work is writing books and articles as opposed to actually being on the front lines, which I did for 10 years inside.

Jean Trounstine: And then I also work with people on probations, and that’s on the front lines, too. But I still do that.

Toby Dorr: Mm hmm. What, what did you do when you worked in

Jean Trounstine: I first taught college classes at Framingham Women’s Prison in Massachusetts, and then I also directed plays. I directed Eight plays and you were mentioning you have one of my books and that is about the directing of, of, of plays

Toby Dorr: Yes. So I do have that book here. It’s called Shakespeare

Jean Trounstine: scare people.

Toby Dorr: I was

Jean Trounstine: scare people, Toby, because it’s not really about Shakespeare.

Toby Dorr: so I wrote some, I’d made some notes of some quotes from the book when I started reading it. Um, and you said that you believe that if my students tackled Shakespeare, a writer they thought beyond reach, they would also be learning to take on what was most difficult in life. That is so profound and so insightful.

Toby Dorr: And you know, I served 27 months in prison myself. There truly is nothing to do in there. There’s nothing to do. And women are just yearning. And you actually said this, that the women yearned for change and growth. And you do, you look for some purpose in your day. And if I could see you coming in and doing a class on putting plays on behind bars or reading Shakespeare, women would be all over that because it gives them a purpose.

Toby Dorr: It gives them something to do. And I love that you could see that beyond just reading Shakespeare, they would learn

Jean Trounstine: Well, we actually did put on, we actually put on, um, eight productions. And we put them on for the prison. And part of what was engaging for the women, well, first of all, reading, As you said, reading the text, interpreting the text, and that was not easy, uh, but interpreting the text and then staging the text.

Jean Trounstine: And that was yet another amazing part of the process because, uh, one of the things I also realized about the women I worked with is they were incredibly inventive and all the skills that they had on the street that in some ways, some of the skills that had gotten them in trouble, their risk taking, um, Skills, skills, the risk taking, once you take risks with theater, you’re taking risks, or education too, you’re taking risks in a different way than you are when you’re taking risks with, in, on the street, and that is, I think, what I learned about the women is that, you know, they could, They could, they could improvise, they could make up things, and that worked on stage.

Jean Trounstine: But it might not work on the street, because it might get them in trouble. But it worked on stage, and it worked.

Toby Dorr: So it gave them an outlet for that

Jean Trounstine: And that, and, and also that part of them that, that was kind of, you know, what somebody would have said, you’re a real con, well that, that’s an advantage on the stage. You want to make somebody believe

Toby Dorr: yes, that’s true because you are trying to make them think that you’re someone you’re not. Yeah, I love that and I imagine, I can just, you know, picture being a woman who had an opportunity to perform in a play while I was in prison and that would it. Give me freedom, you know, uh, that to be somewhere else besides just being in prison when you get to take on that role and, and portray a life and you kind of feel free while you’re doing that.

Toby Dorr: So I think that’s really powerful. A couple of the other quotes that I read from your book was that, you know, eventually the program took on a philosophy that art has the power to redeem lives. And that is so powerful. And there are so few opportunities inside prisons. really for art to happen. So, um, I could see the value in that.

Toby Dorr: You also said that you came to realize that most women in prison are not dangerous. What characterizes them more than anything else is their heartache. Instead of frightening me, they seemed lost with tragic lives. And, you know, I formed the deepest friendships I’ve ever had in my life with the women I was in prison with.

Toby Dorr: And I think it’s because We’re at our lowest point and, and we all need support. And so we lean on each other and that really binds you tightly together. I think I found, you know, being in prison was not fun. I don’t want to do it again, but in some ways it was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had because

Jean Trounstine: You know, you’re not alone in saying that, Toby, um, the person who I wrote the second book about, we’ll get to him in a little bit, but, but his name is Carter Reed, and he told me the same thing, that the closest friendships he ever had were people he met behind bars. The deepest conversations he ever had were with people he met behind bars.

Toby Dorr: Yes, they are because, you know, everything’s out on the table there and. People are vulnerable. And so they aren’t afraid, you know, there’s times there are stories of times in prison when if you’re too vulnerable, you’ll get taken advantage of, but I, especially in the women’s prison, I didn’t see

Jean Trounstine: Yeah, I think it’s different women and men and that’s, you know, there was an article. Um, I read and I, I can’t remember who wrote this. A woman in prison is not a dangerous man. And, um, I don’t think a dangerous man in prison is a dangerous man, but I mean, I, I think that most men are many men, um, are not dangerous too.

Jean Trounstine: And I think we, we mislabel. The people who go to prison by men and women for the most part,

Toby Dorr: Yeah, I think so too. And I was just reading in your second book, boy with a knife, which I have here too. I was reading in the epilogue, Carter had gone to college and. Had graduated with a 4. 0 and was invited to be in the honor roll, the national honor roll. And he had to fill out the paperwork, but it said if you’d been convicted of a felony, or were on parole within the last two years, you couldn’t be

Jean Trounstine: right? And you know what? I protested that and they’ve, I think they’ve changed. Yeah, they’ve changed policy. Yeah,

Toby Dorr: Oh, that’s good.

Jean Trounstine: with the, um, with. Uh, that, that you couldn’t get into National Honor Society, but you can now, I think. Um, but that was horrible, horrible. And the other thing that happened to Carter is he couldn’t, they wouldn’t let him tutor.

Jean Trounstine: He went to a community college. He got, as you said, 4. 0, I mean, and you can’t do better than a 4. 0. But then, uh, somebody asked him if he wanted to. Uh, teach, not teach, but tutor and he wanted to and he would be paid for it and they wouldn’t let him do it at that college, which is horrible, really, because,

Toby Dorr: That is. Yeah. You know, I feel like when we go to court, society tells us what they want from us for the crime we committed. And when we give them that when they release us from prison because they say you’ve completed whatever we wanted from you, your debt should be paid. You shouldn’t have to drag it around with you for the rest of your life. But it does happen. And you know, like I’ve come into there’s Like Canada won’t let you come into the country if you’ve been arrested. And it’s like, I’m not a danger, I’m truly not a danger to Canada, but it just seems silly that you’re excluded from going to visit my friend who lives in Nova Scotia because

Jean Trounstine: is that true in other countries to

Toby Dorr: Yes, there are, there’s a list of countries. Um, England is one. I had a, a news show that wanted to fly me to England and have me on their morning show. But I couldn’t go because England won’t let you in if you’ve been, have a felony conviction. So it’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?

Jean Trounstine: right. And that’s what Michelle Alexander said in her. I’m sure you must have read that book. The new Jim Crow. Um, it’s a very important book. The new Jim Crow color blindness in the incarceration in the age of color blindness. Mass incarceration. subtitle, but it’s called the new Jim Crow and it’s really an important book.

Jean Trounstine: And she does say that. People who have been incarcerated are like. People who went through the new Jim Crow in the South, they supposedly have their rights, but a lot is still taken away. You can’t vote,

Toby Dorr: That’s

Jean Trounstine: for a lot, many states, you can’t things you can’t do, like, you just mentioned in terms of travel. You some people with housing, they won’t let you get housing and all sorts of things like that.

Toby Dorr: I have lived in two or three states since I’ve been out of prison. I’ve been out of prison. Well, my crime was 17 and a half years ago. It’s been a while. I’ve been out since May of 2009. No, May of 2008. So, really, it’s a long time ago. And I have voted in every election until two years ago, we moved to Virginia with my stepson and his family.

Toby Dorr: He came here for a government job. And we moved with him and we share a house, which works great for the grandkids. And I didn’t know it till I went to register to vote, but Virginia is one of three states in the country that bans felons from voting for life.

Toby Dorr: I, I could vote two years ago in Missouri. I’m the same person that cast my vote then. So how can I not cast my vote now? I mean, it’s just crazy. Some of the things on the books. Yeah. Yeah. So I’d like to be able to make a difference with that at some point here, too. Uh, you said a couple of things. I made some, uh, notes of some quotes from the Boy with a Knife book, which, if you want to give us a little bit of a background of that story, why don’t you go ahead?

Jean Trounstine: um, was teaching at a community college in Massachusetts. Uh, I, I taught, I, I am now AER emerita, but I taught there for, uh, 26 years. And when I was teaching there, um, I. One day, you know, I’d written Shakespeare behind bars. I got a letter

Toby Dorr: Mm hmm.

Jean Trounstine: a young man named Carter Reed. Well, he wasn’t that young at the time, but to me, he was young.

Jean Trounstine: He was, I guess, 30, 31, something like 32 and he was. asking for some help about parole for a friend of his who was in prison and he had found my book, Shakespeare Behind Bars, in the prison library. And he wrote me this letter and very inventive and he said, I don’t, I know you might think this is terrible.

Jean Trounstine: I don’t like Shakespeare. And he went on and he told me more about himself and what he was looking for. Anyway, of course I Googled him and you know, typical of what happens when you Google someone, up comes the most horrible things. About Carter, you know, he killed someone when he was 16 stormed into a classroom, you know, monster, you know, all these terrible things about this.

Jean Trounstine: This person in when he was 16, you know, calling all of this and I thought, wow, the person on the page here is writing me a letter does not sound like this quote monster that they’re describing. So I was curious. And so I, I didn’t know what to do. If I should write him back or not, um, and I went to my class that I had at the time called Voices Behind Bars, the Literature of Prison, a class I had created at the college, and I read the letter to my students and I said, what do you think I should do?

Jean Trounstine: And they said, you have to write him back. We want to know more about him. So, thus began

Toby Dorr: Mm hmm.

Jean Trounstine: with Carter, and I ended up writing to him for six years. And I was not an intentional thing, but Carter is incredibly articulate and he needed to write to people and I became someone who he could talk to and write to and we talked about incarceration and I, I used him in in my class.

Jean Trounstine: I let him be like a lecturer in the sense that I read his letters to my class and, um, you I went to visit him and I decided I would write a book about him because I was appalled that somebody 16 could go to an adult prison and that’s what I began researching how we incarcerate children and why we send people like Carter now Carter. The prosecutor at the time, I mean, Carter’s crime was horrible. I’m not going to, I’m not going to, it was a horrible crime. He went into a classroom with two friends. Carter thought he was going to be a hero. We had a knife with him. There was, they were trying to settle a fight and they went into a classroom and they ended up attacking a boy who was not the, I mean, he was a part of the group, but not the main person they were looking for.

Jean Trounstine: Carter stabbed him in a classroom. Now, I’m a teacher, so this is pretty, it was appalling. And anyway, with one stab wound, the boy died, Jason Robinson. It was a terrible tragedy. And Carter,

Toby Dorr: Mm hmm.

Jean Trounstine: tried to paint him as someone who had done this with malice. Deliberately, they asked for first degree murder, which would have been Life without parole, he did not get life without parole.

Jean Trounstine: He got life with parole eligibility to see parole in 15 years, but he was sent. When he was, he first was in, you know, by the time you can’t go to an adult prison till you’re 18, so he was in another place until he turned 18, and then they sent him to an adult prison and served, you

Toby Dorr: That.

Jean Trounstine: well, 20, almost 20 years before he got out,

Toby Dorr: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Yeah, so there’s a quote from that book. You write, These boys and girls, barely having earned their driver’s license, too young to vote, too young to legally buy alcohol or cigarettes, are locked away with adult men and women. This, in spite of the fact. That 90 percent of juveniles, even those convicted of murder, grow out of criminal behavior as they age.

Toby Dorr: I mean, there’s no justification for it. And, you know, I feel criminal justice systems should be about rehabilitation.

Jean Trounstine: many states.

Toby Dorr: really.

Jean Trounstine: Are are trying to do. I mean, we have a lot of laws now that won’t let kids go to prison for life, but there are states that still, um, send kids to adult prisons. There are states that, um, I mean, mass in Massachusetts, if you kill someone, or if you’re accused of murdering someone as young as 14, you will go to prison if you’re convicted.

Jean Trounstine: Um, eventually you will be in an adult prison. Um, so in other states, I think as young as 12, some people, you don’t go there necessarily until you turn a little bit older, but you still can be convicted it as a young person. And I just want to say one thing I want to

Toby Dorr: how can you?

Jean Trounstine: be mad at me. He served more 20 years.

Jean Trounstine: He’s 20 years plus.

Toby Dorr: Yeah. Uh huh. Yeah. 20 years is a long time. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I did a episode a while back on, and I interviewed four men who had been convicted of a murder here in Washington, D. C. That it’s obvious they didn’t commit, although the, the government will never say that they were wrongly convicted.

Toby Dorr: They served their whole sentences and got out. And they were kids, 16 and 18, and the oldest one was 24 when they went to prison. And You, you kind of stall out, I think, mentally and emotionally at the age you are when you get incarcerated, and it’s really hard to mature healthily, and you know, the majority of people who are in prison will get out someday, and so it’s to society’s best interest that we release some better people than when they came

Jean Trounstine: I think

Toby Dorr: That should be our

Jean Trounstine: doesn’t, as we constructed prison the way it is now, it doesn’t serve, it doesn’t serve people. Uh, you know, the fact that most people who are 55 and older are considered elderly in prison shows you the kind of conditions they’re living in. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s not like in European countries where you live in a civilized place.

Jean Trounstine: Where you have a, like a hotel room, where you can use the water, where you can swim, you know, it’s, it’s just, um, it’s brutal and conditions are brutal. I mean, think of what people are going through in the heat in tech, in prisons.

Toby Dorr: yes, and, and Arizona and California, a lot of those prisons are not air conditioned and you don’t have a window you can

Jean Trounstine: had an article in the paper about, you know, 90 degree temperatures behind bars, 100 degrees and so on.

Jean Trounstine: I mean, it’s been brutal when it’s hot.

Toby Dorr: yeah, that that goes into cruel and unjust, you know, it’s just not right. There’s so many things. So what are the issues nearest and dearest to your heart when it comes to the

Jean Trounstine: Well, I’m very interested in parole, and I’m interested in how we treat people on parole and how we should treat people on parole. I find, you know, the whole idea of what happens when you get out of prison has become very interesting to me. How to help people get back into society and how poorly we do it, really.

Jean Trounstine: I think parole is actually Um, you know, I think the idea of lifetime parole isn’t is crazy. People don’t need to don’t need to be on parole for their whole life. No.

Toby Dorr: No, I mean, if they have a problem when they’re on parole, they’re going to send them back to prison. So after a certain amount of time of having no problems, you ought to accept the

Jean Trounstine: So I guess the other thing is I wanted to well, we’re going to talk about my new book, but I also have a novel that I’m writing and and I’ll talk about that first and then I’ll talk about the book that’s coming out. But the novel gets to one of the things as you asked what was nearest and dearest to my heart this year.

Jean Trounstine: One of the things that was really striking to me is, I don’t know if you followed this Toby, but this case in California of rampant sexual abuse in women’s prisons.

Toby Dorr: Oh, yes. I have read some

Jean Trounstine: it is, it is,

Toby Dorr: And

Jean Trounstine: it’s appalling to me

Toby Dorr: Yeah.

Jean Trounstine: the in this Dublin women’s prison in California that the both the chaplain and the superintendent were both. Accused of sexual abuse. Yeah, the chaplain and and as well as the guards, of course, but the kind of section, you know, the fact that men guard women and the fact that particularly in women’s prison, not that there’s not abuse in men’s prisons, but the abuse in women’s prisons is so terrible.

Jean Trounstine: So the novel I wrote deals with that. Yeah, it actually takes a case I read in the paper of a correction officer who kills her abusive husband and ends up in the awaiting trial unit, has to deal with being a correction officer and realizes how she’s seen the world wrong as a correct officer and begins

Toby Dorr: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Jean Trounstine: to be close to one of the women Friends with one of the women behind bars and they help spur on a me to spur on a movement,

Toby Dorr: Oh, excellent.

Jean Trounstine: with the abuse.

Jean Trounstine: And that’s what the novel. I haven’t sold it yet, but I’m hoping to, um, somebody will want to publish it and I’ll get an age.

Toby Dorr: Does it have a title or is it possible the title will change?

Jean Trounstine: Sounds like trouble to me.

Toby Dorr: I love that.

Jean Trounstine: Well, I have to sell it first, but that’s I’ve been working on that in the pandemic. But you asked what was near and dear to my heart. I mean, obviously, um, what goes on with women, which is what I’ve start, which is how I started working in prison is still really important. I also do a group, um, called changing lives through literature, which is a group of women on probation. And those women, we, what the, it’s kind of a unique program, the women read books, kind of like a, just like a book group, but the book group is made up of a judge, a probation officer, women who are on probation, and a facilitator, i. e. me, and we all talk on an equal level about a book.

Toby Dorr: love that

Jean Trounstine: It’s so much fun, and the women love it, and the judge. listens to them. I mean, it’s really great when we have women judges, sometimes spent male judges, but, um, I’ve done this program for many, many years, um, since 1992.

Toby Dorr: Do you, do you meet in person or do you meet

Jean Trounstine: all up till the pandemic. Uh, we didn’t meet. During the pandemic and I’m going to start up again. Um, hopefully the fall, maybe the spring eating in person.

Toby Dorr: I think that’s awesome. And you guys are in the Boston

Jean Trounstine: all over Boston. Actually, um, there used to be programs all over the country, but the guy, the person who started this program, Bob Waxler and, uh, And Judge Cain, uh, Robert Cain, they don’t do it any longer, and sort of the, some of the impetus to get it started in other states got lost.

Jean Trounstine: I mean, a lot of people in different states go in and use literature behind bars, but this is radical in terms of having,

Toby Dorr: Right. I love that. I love that. I would love to come to one of

Jean Trounstine: you might have to come to Massachusetts.

Toby Dorr: if I can make that work. Yes. Yes. You know, I’ve been to Boston college a couple of times. I’ve spoken to some students there and they’re considering using my memoir for

Jean Trounstine: Oh, that’s cool. What is your memoir called, Toby?

Toby Dorr: So it’s

Jean Trounstine: Oh, that’s right. That’s what the name of your podcast is. Yeah, great.

Toby Dorr: a copy of it right here. Yeah. Yeah. Living with conviction. So it’s my story of. Making it through prison and rebuilding my life and, um, actually I’ve had a couple of book clubs read my book and then I call into a zoom call with them after they’re finished so they can ask me questions that they

Jean Trounstine: way of doing it. Yeah, that’s a great way.

Toby Dorr: feel like the answers to.

Toby Dorr: Yeah, yeah, I think it works great. I just love that idea. I think that’s awesome. So, uh, so we have Shakespeare behind bars. We have boy with a knife. Hopefully someday we’re going to have sounds like trouble to me. And in March of 2024, we’re going to have another book. And what is that one

Jean Trounstine: excited to talk to you about it’s called mother love and it’s a book of short stories and each story is about a woman. Whose child has killed someone.

Toby Dorr: Oh my gosh, I

Jean Trounstine: it’s what the mothers go through living with what their, the children have done. And so, or et cetera. So it’s 10 mothers and 10 stories. And when I talk about it, I’m going to invite different mothers to come with me who really have gone through that because, and I,

Toby Dorr: love that idea.

Jean Trounstine: that’s really phenomenal.

Jean Trounstine: It’s being published by this press. That’s Concord Free Press. It’s in Massachusetts. Now get this. This is going to knock your socks off. So Concord Free Press, their business model is different from most Publishers. What they do is they, let’s say they print 2, 500 books. Okay. They give the books away and they ask only that you make a donation to whatever charity you want to give it to.

Toby Dorr: really?

Jean Trounstine: so they, each book has made like 40, 000 for charity. So instead of me getting money, my book will raise money for other people.

Toby Dorr: Love that idea. I love that idea. I’m gonna have to check them out. I might, yeah, I love that. I might see if I can get someone from there

Jean Trounstine: Oh, that would, yeah, Stona or Ann. They’re both wonderful people. Right. Um, they’re wonderful people. And, um, it’s a very interesting idea because, I mean, the truth is most books, unless you’re famous, don’t make a lot of money. So, who cares if you get a few thousand dollars from a book? You know, it’s not like And it’s sort of, at least for this point in my life, it feels like a great thing to do.

Jean Trounstine: You know, I also think the book would make a fabulous mini series, but that’s another story.

Toby Dorr: Right. I love that idea. Wow. That’s pretty cool. I

Jean Trounstine: So, and by

Toby Dorr: my mind. The book and the press.

Jean Trounstine: the time your podcast comes out, um, with me on it, I think, People will be able to go to that press’s website in March and you order the, you get, you just go on their website and you, at that point, you’ll be able to get my book in March and they send it to you free.

Toby Dorr: Wow.

Jean Trounstine: They send

Toby Dorr: Oh my

Jean Trounstine: and all they ask

Toby Dorr: I love that.

Jean Trounstine: donation to where wherever you’d like to make a donation and you let them know and you can do it anonymously.

Jean Trounstine: You don’t have to tell them how much money you gave. You can do it any way you want. And they also say if you want to just do something charitable, like, you know, you’re going to go to a nursing home and and help out for a day, something like that. That’s considered something. Giving to charity.

Toby Dorr: Wow. What a great idea.

Jean Trounstine: I know not.

Toby Dorr: I, I, I’m just almost speechless from that. I just love it. I just love it. So Jean, who has been your most important mentor?

Jean Trounstine: Well, I have several mentors. One was a writing teacher of mine who is still writing. His name is Robert Ray and when I was in at Beloit College. When I was young, I didn’t know, well, I was in college, obviously, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Not that anybody does anything that they, they plan to.

Jean Trounstine: I thought, do I want to be, at the time, I want to be an actress, do I want to be a writer, what do I want to do? Because I always loved theater. And he told me that I could be a writer and I, you know, it was an amazing gift. He gave me because it wasn’t something that I had really believed about myself, um, that I could be a writer.

Jean Trounstine: And I, at the time, um. I wrote poetry the most and I got into Iowa Writers Workshop waitlist to be a poet. I could, which is really prestigious, um, but I didn’t go

Toby Dorr: it

Jean Trounstine: and I didn’t get into Yale Drama School. You know, I didn’t, so I became a hippie. I went to California. I didn’t, you know, I eventually did go to Brandeis Graduate School in acting and I got into writing as I, I got into writing when I had something to say after I worked in a prison.

Jean Trounstine: That’s when I got into writing. And now I’ve written actually, um, well, this will be my seventh book that I’m publishing. I have a book of poetry and then some books of, um, that relate to the Changing Lives program. So, um, but what I wanted to say about Robert Ray is that he helped me to believe in myself. That’s the first thing.

Toby Dorr: yes, and that

Jean Trounstine: Then I had, I would say my, there was a woman who was a singing teacher of mine. She’s no longer alive. Tina Rolfe. And when I went to Brandeis, I did not have much confidence. I was short. I was, you know, I didn’t look like, I sort of imagined, I’m going to be Hedda Gabler.

Jean Trounstine: I’m going to be a great dramatic actress,

Toby Dorr: Yes, uh huh.

Jean Trounstine: me, you know, you’re, you’re, you have to be a comedy star. You can, you’re short, you have to be a comedian. I didn’t want to be a comedian, although I’m funny.

Toby Dorr: yes. You had powerful things to say. Yeah.

Jean Trounstine: Um, when I went to her, she told me I had an incredibly beautiful singing voice and as good as anybody who came to her from Brandeis.

Jean Trounstine: And that,

Toby Dorr: Wow.

Jean Trounstine: did for me, again, is instill confidence in me because

Toby Dorr: Mm hmm. And that’s so important because when you believe you

Jean Trounstine: my parents instilled confidence in me too. They were, they, they loved me. They told me I could do anything, but I chose to do things that are hard to do. The arts. Are hard and you’re rejected all the time and you have to have an attitude of like, so who cares?

Toby Dorr: Right. Right. So what’s the name of your poetry

Jean Trounstine: almost home free and it was actually

Toby Dorr: that too. I

Jean Trounstine: Oh,

Toby Dorr: a book of

Jean Trounstine: wow.

Toby Dorr: too. This is mine. It’s called You’re Not Your Worst Mistake. Poems from Prison. So these are all poems

Jean Trounstine: How fabulous. Um, well, mine was when I, I, after I had breast cancer and, um, which I did in 2001, my treatment was 2001. And actually, Toby, uh, that my book was a way of writing myself through the cancer, probably in some ways like your writing got you through prison.

Toby Dorr: Yes, it did. Yeah. I found, you know what I love most about poems are the things that aren’t said. Poetry gives you space to fill in the blanks. And I just find poetry to be so soul touching. You know, it just, wow.

Jean Trounstine: was wonderful. I had taken, studied poetry and I, I always say poetry is my first language, you know, like ESL, but prose, prose

Toby Dorr: Yes. Uh huh.

Jean Trounstine: But I think poetry comes to you when you need to say something that comes so deep from the heart that you can’t say it unless you do it in a poem. That’s how I experienced it.

Jean Trounstine: Right. And you

Toby Dorr: Right. Because prose, there’s too much to it. It takes away the emotion, you know, there’s just, you know, when I wrote all these poems in prison, I never studied poetry, but I just wrote how I felt and, and I just love it.

Jean Trounstine: certain way.

Toby Dorr: Yes. Yes. And you could say him in a poem. When you couldn’t really write them out because there’s just something different about it.

Toby Dorr: I don’t know what it is, but I just love poetry. So I think that’s just amazing. All these projects that you’ve been busy with. So tell us about a significant event in your life that knocked you down and how did

Jean Trounstine: Well, let’s talk about cancer. Um,

Toby Dorr: Yeah, that’ll definitely do it.

Jean Trounstine: it was in 2000. I was in Texas and my husband is from Texas and we’d gone to visit his family and we were going to sleep and I felt something that felt unusual in my breast and I, I, we, we really couldn’t get diagnosed until I got home. And I was shocked. I had not, it came like, What?

Jean Trounstine: It was just out of the blue. I was totally taken aback. And what happened really was, um, I just had to walk through it step by step by step in order to, uh, get the treatment. And really one of the things that well, of course, my husband was incredibly amazing. Not all husbands are incredibly amazing, but my, my husband was, he’s so funny because he said after a year, he said, okay, we’re done now.

Jean Trounstine: You know, you’ve been the center of attention for you, but, but he was, he helped me through it. I had chemo. I mean, this were the days when you had to go into the hospital to have chemo and have radiation. Chemo was not as bad as radiation for me, but you asked how I picked myself up. I would say writing, friends, family, jelly beans. Well, Jelly Bellies, those little, little ones.

Toby Dorr: That’s, yeah. Yes. Uhhuh.

Jean Trounstine: I, I, I tried to, I bought wigs. You know, I tried to be nor, I was teaching. I wanted to be normal. Um, I mean, I, I would cry at home. I would talk to my husband. I’d take off my wig. I’d have my bald head. And then, I’d go to exercise class with my new wig on.

Jean Trounstine: I’d do whatever I needed to do. I’d go teach. Uh, you know, one of my students would come and help me carry my books all the time to my class. You know, I, I learned a lot during that. I learned a lot.

Toby Dorr: Yes.

Jean Trounstine: Did you have, did you get sick? Oh, I think it’s

Toby Dorr: I had thyroid cancer. Yeah. And, you know, that’s what made me start the prison dog program that I started because. You know, it just kind of shocked me, cancer, me, and you think, I haven’t done anything worthwhile yet, so I better get busy doing something good. And I started the prison dog program after that, so, which got me into trouble.

Toby Dorr: Because I helped one of my dog handlers escape from prison. Uh, that was my crime. And, uh, and I did 27 months. Which is not a long prison sentence. But it felt long to me.

Jean Trounstine: time. It’s two years. Right.

Toby Dorr: Yeah, it is. It’s two years. Yeah. It is a long time. And, you know, in this book, Boy with a Knife, and, uh, Carter was talking about institutionalization. I was in prison for 27 months. Some people are in prison for 10 or 20 or 30 years. I’m telling you, it took me a good eight months to get back into being a citizen.

Toby Dorr: My brother took me to the movies the first weekend I was out, and I had a panic attack. I mean, it was dark in that movie theater, and it’s never dark in prison. And there’s all these kinds of people sitting behind you, chomping on food and wrestling around, and you don’t know who’s back there. Oh, I couldn’t do it.

Toby Dorr: I couldn’t go to the movies. It’s just crazy how different you see the world still. There’s still some things that linger and it’s been 17 years. So,

Jean Trounstine: I, I really, I really understand that. Um, and there was one of the women who you, Dolly, the one of the women in my book, when she got out, she was on parole and I used to visit her and she lived in senior housing. And she told me that whenever she went into the bathroom, she looked behind her to see if anyone was there.

Jean Trounstine: She always. Felt that way that she never knew who was gonna come, you know, she lives in Itself, but

Toby Dorr: up on you. Uh huh. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it does definitely change you. So I love all the work that you’re doing. I think it’s just amazing. I cannot wait for your two new books to come out. So you’ll have to be sure and let me

Jean Trounstine: okay, but you can get you’ll be able to get uh, You’ll go on that conquered free press press

Toby Dorr: Concord Free Press, right?

Jean Trounstine: will be able to uh order a book from them And they and then you will read it and you know pass it on.

Toby Dorr: Okay. I’ll put a link to their website in the show notes for this podcast too. So people will be able to go out there and, and, uh, get a copy. Uh, let’s see. Was there ever a time you really felt imprisoned? And what did you do to free yourself?

Jean Trounstine: well, I mean, I, I was married before I’m married now, and I did

Toby Dorr: uh

Jean Trounstine: feel, I don’t want to say that he did anything to make me feel trapped he didn’t, he wasn’t abusive, nothing like that, but I felt, I felt I was trapped in a relationship that I, That was not that what I wasn’t that I wanted to grow in different ways that I wasn’t growing and and even though I loved him, I was, I, I married him. I was too young and I guess that was a feeling of, uh, being trapped. You know, there were times when I was growing up that I felt like I didn’t belong in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I grew up and I did leave.

Jean Trounstine: I mean, I love my family. I loved. know, I think there are times when you can leave and there are times when you can’t leave. I mean, that’s what I think is actually what makes prison, is that you can’t leave. Uh, so, both of those situations, I was eventually able to leave. Uh, certainly one, they both required different kinds of difficulty.

Jean Trounstine: Uh, but, but those were feeling trapped, in a sense.

Toby Dorr: Uh huh. Yeah, I can relate, um, I was married, my husband, go ahead Chris, he wants to use the ice maker. Go ahead. I’m going to stop talking, and Mark can cut this part out. Did you get your ice? He’s got his ice, okay. Sorry. Okay. My first message or my first marriage, I was married for 28 years to the boy I started dating when I was 15 and we married when we were 20 and he was a decent guy and I was a decent person, but the two of us together was not a happy marriage, you know, and, and it was even, it was almost harder because if he, it had been a bad marriage, if something terrible had happened, you would have justification to leave.

Toby Dorr: But when you can’t quite put your finger on what it is that’s not right,

Jean Trounstine: I identify with that. I mean, that was part of what was my problem too. I think, you know, I always say to my students. Imagine you’re in an elevator and you get stuck and you don’t have your cell phone.

Toby Dorr: Mm

Jean Trounstine: That’s the closest, you know,

Toby Dorr: yes, yes it is. You just kind of have to stay there. And

Jean Trounstine: somebody’s going to let you out

Toby Dorr: to that.

Jean Trounstine: and you’re at the mercy of the somebody. I think being at the mercy of somebody is also defines incarceration too because, know, People give you, you know, if you’re trapped in an elevator, you will do almost anything to get out of that elevator. And so when people don’t understand what people go through and what they’ll do for anything when they’re incarcerated, I asked them to think about that.

Toby Dorr: Mm hmm. That’s true. That’s definitely true. So what’s one question you wish I’d asked?

Jean Trounstine: I’m

Toby Dorr: else you want to share with us? Yes.

Jean Trounstine: asking everything. Um, Maybe how did I start working in a prison?

Toby Dorr: Yes. I like that. I like that. Tell us how

Jean Trounstine: Because it was a fluke. Um,

Toby Dorr: Hmm. I love flukes. I have some of the best things come out of

Jean Trounstine: much of my life has been like that. Actually, to be honest with you, Toby, following one thing, leading to another, not a plan. I was taking a poetry class and a very, very dear friend, who turned out to be a dear friend, she, um, was offered teaching a class in a prison and she didn’t have enough room in her schedule to do it.

Jean Trounstine: And so she said, do you want to do it? And I said, you know, Oh, sure. Why not? Because it was a college class at the time I was teaching high school, and I thought, wow, teaching a college class in a prison, that’ll be more prestigious than teaching high school. And, you know, so I said, sure. And I, I literally that I had maybe six hours of training or something.

Jean Trounstine: Most of it consisted of the guard saying how the women will try to con you. I mean, it was nothing. And I just went in and I, Made up my own curriculum and I taught a writing class and that’s how I began and it changed me. The search changed me, Toby.

Toby Dorr: Yes. Yes. I love that. I love that. That is so powerful. So is there a question you’d

Jean Trounstine: Um, how did you start getting into the podcast after you, um, you know, got out of prison and everything?

Toby Dorr: So, you know, I felt there was this whole incident I had while I was on suicide watch where I felt like, you know, God had come and told me that I needed to tell my story because it would help other women. And so I knew I was going to write a book. I knew I had to write a book because I was kind of told I needed to.

Toby Dorr: And so I’d been working on a book for a long time and I published my book. in June of 2022. So a year ago. And I was like, Oh, yay, that’s done. I’m done. But I started getting so many, you know, invitations to do interviews and to tell my story. And, and I realized I’m not done yet. And then my publisher said, Toby, you really need to start your own podcast.

Toby Dorr: And I said, podcasts, where’d that come from? And within the week I had come up with a title and was, and, and purchased the software I needed and when I was off and, um, I really, my, my mission really is to. Open people’s minds to give them stories and conversations about things that they haven’t thought about so that they can broaden their own, uh, experiences and maybe find a way that they can make

Jean Trounstine: Well, you know, you make it so comfortable. I just really want to go out to lunch with you now.

Toby Dorr: Hey, I’d love that. I might have to come to Boston so we can do that. It’s only a short little train ride. So who knows? I’ll let you know if I come to Boston again. We’ll, we’ll, we’ll get together. I think that’d be great. So what’s one word that inspires you?

Jean Trounstine: persistence.

Toby Dorr: Persistence. That is so good. You know, we can make anything happen if we just

Jean Trounstine: Well, you know, I am a great believer in talent, but I am a greater believer in trudging through all of what you have to trudge through to get yourself out there or to get messages out there to help people get messages out there. All of the above. And I think if you don’t have The belief that you can do things and the belief that, that you’re important and, and that you deserve to keep going and keep trying and so on.

Jean Trounstine: If you don’t do that, it won’t happen. You know, nobody can do it for you.

Toby Dorr: You’re right. You know, and I think the harder of a journey you have to get something out there, the more beautiful it’s going to be because it’s that. Coming up against a roadblock and finding a way through it and around it, that makes your idea, your mission, your project so

Jean Trounstine: I think about it also, you know, like I swim every day. Not every day. I swim three or four times a week. I do a lot of exercise and I’m not a young woman anymore, but I, I, um, I swim and I’m slow, but I swim that three quarters of a mile. I do it, I do it, I do it. And when I’m done, I feel great. It doesn’t feel so good when I’m doing it.

Jean Trounstine: It feels kind of awful. Some of my body and to get there, you know, just to get out of the house, it, but it’s such a good metaphor for, um, You know, taking up the things that are hard.

Toby Dorr: hmm. I love that. Taking up things that are hard. I don’t think we should shy away from the hard things or the hard conversations because that’s

Jean Trounstine: and I think it’s really important, Toby, to listen to people who have been through, that’s one of the things that I, impresses me about you. But Carter too, Carter is now, um, he’s the head of an organization in Massachusetts, or a co chair, in which I am a member, which is a thrilling experience for

Toby Dorr: cool.

Jean Trounstine: And, you know, I, me too.

Toby Dorr: I love that.

Jean Trounstine: you know, this whole notion of people who have been at the table, having a voice in incarceration issues is exactly the truth. And, um, you know, more, the more we can get voices. I mean, I hope that you can talk to people behind bars because, you They also, I wish you could do that more and more, you know, it’s hard, but I think I would love to help you facilitate a conversation with somebody behind bars.

Toby Dorr: would love that. I would be so willing to do that. Um, I actually love people in prison. I mean, I think they have some of the relationships mean everything to them. And,

Jean Trounstine: Well, they had some of the best ideas too about how to change things.

Toby Dorr: yes, they do. They certainly do. I would love that. So I’d be happy to do anything if you can facilitate something.

Toby Dorr: I’ve always been a little hesitant because You know, I was a prison volunteer and I did help someone escape. Now it’s been 17 years ago, but, and I’ve done so much different type of work now. I would think if someone looked at me as a whole, they would say I wasn’t a risk, but I haven’t

Jean Trounstine: a good point, though. That’s a good point, especially in, in Virginia. God knows. Thanks for having me. I’ve

Toby Dorr: yes. But I have gotten involved in a lot of, uh, reentry work and mentoring groups in the Washington DC area. So. You know, I, I think there’s opportunities, so I just need to reach out for him, I think. So, Jean, thank you so much for being on with me today. I’ve so enjoyed our conversation. And I will definitely be putting a trip to Boston into my schedule in the next year or so, so we can get together and have lunch.

Toby Dorr: I think that’d be awesome. You’re welcome. Thank you. I just want to close with a couple of paragraphs from your book, Shakespeare Behind Bars, that really touched my soul. While it is true that prison is a repressive environment, the one who offers hope in the classroom has the potential to affect change.

Toby Dorr: The women of Framingham sought a way out and their struggles gave them dignity. I could hear their voices speaking out of the darkness. Thank you, Jean. 

Toby Dorr: Thank you for joining me on Fierce Conversations with Toby. Your support and listening means so much to me, and I hope today’s conversation makes a difference in your world. If you would like to support this podcast, there are many ways to do so. I found these ways tend to help the most in getting our message out into the world.

Toby Dorr: Number one, subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify podcasts, YouTube, or wherever you listen to, or watch this podcast. If you can leave a five star rating or a like on this episode on YouTube, that helps even more. And if you leave a comment or a review, that helps the most. The next way you can support Fierce Conversations with Toby is to join our Patreon at patreon.

Toby Dorr: com slash fierce conversations. All tiers come with a downloadable digital gratitude journal created by me and membership in a private Facebook group that I also lead. Most importantly, 10 percent of all proceeds from your subscription will go directly to donating my workbooks to women in prison.

Toby Dorr: Finally, sharing the link to this show with your friends, family, and anyone who wants to listen is appreciated more than I can say. Thank you again for joining me today and supporting this show by listening to it and sharing it with friends. Fierce Conversations is created and hosted by me, Toby Dorr, produced by Number 3 Productions.

Toby Dorr: The theme song that you’re hearing now, Groovin was composed and arranged by Lisa Plass. Lisa also plays the flute for the theme with Carolyn Parody on piano and Tony Ventura on bass. Find out more at tobydorr. com. This is Fierce Conversations with Toby. Escape your prison. 

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