The beginning of Write to Life

Can it be really twenty years since I offered my services as writer in residence, to what is now called Freedom from Torture and dreamed up the name Write To Life? How thrilling it is to me then, that Write to Life has continued to grow and flourish under the nurturing skills of my successor Sheila Hayman...

What started as a project for one year was born on a wing and a prayer that supporting clients to write, in whatever form they wished, could be of value. I was touched, deeply, by their stories, inspired by their resilience, and fascinated to help them uncover those key moments that had enabled them to hang on to their humanity.

I was touched, deeply, by their stories, inspired by their resilience, and fascinated to help them uncover those key moments that had enabled them to hang on to their humanity.

For M, my very first client, an Iranian doctor tortured as a political dissident, it was ‘the green groove’, as he called it that saved him: a narrow slit in the wall in the prison bathroom that enabled him to catch a glimpse of verdant nature beyond. For him and many others the act of writing was an artistic as much as a therapeutic experience.

It became clear very quickly that these writing sessions were of enormous importance, not just for the act of writing, but for the act of sharing, as so much of the time was spent talking and listening. As the project grew, other writers - poets, novelist, film-makers, journalists - joined the project and we formed a weekly writing group in addition to individual sessions.

The Green Groove by Anon (the very first piece of writing from Write to Life)

When I was in prison, I had an experience that meant a great deal to me and which I named “the green groove”. It helped me a lot at that time, which is why I want to write about it.

I was kept in a cell with ten other political prisoners. My section of the prison was in a four storey building and the cell was on the fourth floor. It measured approximately three metres by two and had no toilet or sink. They let us go to the toilet four times a day, in the early morning, around midday, in the afternoon and at night. The total time allowed for all of us was about ten minutes. This was pretty good compared with the previous section I had been in, where the total time allowed for ninety people to use the toilet and wash their hands had been under twenty minutes, that is less that twenty seconds per person.

The toilet in the new section had no window, instead, it had a medium-sized fan attached to an outside wall. To my delight and amazement, I discovered that there was a narrow gap between the fan and the wall through which I could see outside the prison. It was my first contact with the outside world for eleven months. I could see a long wall with some green trees beside it in an old garden in the village next to the prison.

I became obsessed with this view and spent many marvellous minutes gazing at the trees. This was against regulations of course and could have resulted in some form of punishment but I was ready to pay the price.

Other prisoners were not interested in my green groove but I was obsessive about it. It was only about twenty centimetres high and three centimetres wide and yet as far as I was concerned I could see the whole world through it.

Try and imagine what it is like to be behind bars, seeing nothing but grey walls, angry guards and tortured prisoners and to see these pictures over and over again. The green groove was like a key that opened the prison door for me and let me go outside for a while, even though this was only in my imagination. This tiny view, through which I managed to glimpse the narrow groove, lifted my spirits tremendously. It gave me hope and made me feel that I really would one day be able to go through to the other side – and I did.

All accompanying art for Write to Life’s 20 pieces for Refugee Week 2018 is by members of the Open Art Studio group at Freedom from Torture.

What to know more about our Write to Life group, or want to get involved? Click below.

Survivor Activism