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A Line of Cutting Women
Submitted by Jean Trounstine (profile)

Title and Author: "A Line of Cutting Women" by Rita Marie Nibasa (in A Line of Cutting Women published by Calyx Books)
Genre: Short story
Theme: This is a crossroads story about choice versus pre-determination and cycles of violence. Can they be broken?
Class types: Women and men. Also used with the Vulnerable Male Prisoners Unit (sexual predators/police/etc.) in England.

This is a contemporary story about a young woman whose mother was a "cutter." Darlene is the "bad" girl and her sister, Mary, the perpetual helper. In the story, we meet several characters who each represent a possible life choice. The mother has made her choice before the story begins and passes down the legend to her daughters, causing Darlene to wonder whether her mother has it right and whether all men are the same. Mary takes in her wild sister and tries to teach her how to be what she wants her to be, and this, of course, is great fodder for discussion. Darlene, the unruly sister, gets hit by Ricky, a boy she calls "the son of a wife-beater" and defends herself by knifing him. The story then takes us through Ricky and Darlene's meeting at which they each are faced with how they want to live and what they will do with blood on their hands and the possibility of change.

The first time I used this story, its shock value alone - I used it during my first class during which we always read the story aloud - carried us into a great discussion. The women identified with Darlene, and if they didn't, they knew friends like Darlene. Everyone felt this story was "reality." Comments ranged from "The brutality of it struck me when Darlene says 'After all, I had a legacy to uphold,'" to "You see as a child what you learn." That first night we talked about how lifestyles get perpetuated and the women surprised me by having as much compassion for Ricky, the hitter, as for Darlene, the cutter. Both they said have a chance to change - if they want to.

Starting the class with this idea helps set the stage for what is to come. It allows us to begin exactly where the students are. It doesn't scold or say you shouldn't be like Darlene or preach that Mary has made better choices in life. It lets the story open the door to discussion about the idea of change. It is a great example of allowing the text to be the teacher. You can prod thought as you help the group consider, what does it mean to change? What would it take for these characters to change?

With male students, this story also has power. They focus on Darlene in much the same way as the women, considering her lifestyle and her choices, but they identify with Ricky. Good conversation ensues when we talk about Ricky's background, which they piece together from clues in the story and from their own imaginations. What was it like for Ricky at home? Why does Ricky feel the need to show off and hit Darlene? I was taken by the depth with which this story hit male students as they considered what it must feel like to be challenged by a woman and to strike her. Some wondered what cutting was all about, for her and for him. Why does he come to see her after she's cut him? Others wondered what will happen to Ricky? The question "Does he have choices?" propelled us into a discussion on what makes change possible.

Mary, the sister, brings up the most conflict with both men and women. Some people hate her. Others say, "She is the only one who shouldn't be locked up." Mary also allows us to consider why people who come from the same household turn out so differently. And finally, Mary makes us ask whether being protective serves her or whether she too is running from something.

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