Religious life at Bryn Mawr

The Winter 2000 Bulletin reminds me of our very pleasant interview when you were asking me of my memories about Bryn Mawr in the 1930s, wondering whether religion, churchgoing or individual seeking was in any way viewed as a responsibility of the college.

As you noted in a part of your overview, while I am a birthright Friend and deeply committed to my own faith, I was pleased not to have the founding faith of the College highlighted in any way nor did I feel that the College saw itself as encouraging church attendance or even searching for one's own spirituality. We were all liberated to search, weigh and explore on our own if we were indeed led to do so.

I sense in the responses of others you talked to that in later years, Bryn Mawr appeared indifferent or even as priding itself in having no role in helping students in such a search. For me this was never a role that we expected the College to assume. In fact its lack of action still strikes me as quite appropriate. I will be very interested in the responses you get but perhaps only those who felt Bryn Mawr had failed them will write!

At the age of 84, I am still active in my Quaker Meeting. One of its strengths is that we do not all agree, that we speak from the insight that comes out of the quiet, that we find the way that is right for us and gain inner and outer support along the way. This has been my journey. I did not look to Bryn Mawr for encouragement or enlightenment. What Bryn Mawr did give me can never be defined by mere words not can I be adequately grateful. …


Regarding the discussion in the Winter 2000 Bulletin of religious life at Bryn Mawr, it seems to me that Jean Rachel Salomon '01 has an entirely different approach to spirituality than presented in the magazine.

She made a very interesting statement in a previous Bulletin. She said that in "true shamanic fashion" she cured herself of cancer the night before her scheduled cancer operation. It was a spiritual fire ball dropped in the intellectual life of BrynMawr and seems to be absolutely ignored.

Did anyone believe her?Are they learning from her? Are they asking her questions with the possibility of expanding their parameters of how to find out about another reality besides the truths presented by the thinking mind, by the scientific method, and by conventional, established religions?

In this issue she talks about the labyrinth as being "a powerful place of concentrated energy, a kind of vortex, an ancient tool to connect with wisdom beyond and within ourselves."

This kind of wisdom, insight, harnessing of energies beyond our deductive mental powers, was not explored or discussed in the magazine. It is non rational, not subject to objective analyses and can come from non verbal spaces within ourselves. (I imagine it has inner coherence.) No wonder she says, "It saddens me that I have to hold back saying what Iknow, what I've experienced. Idon't dare bring up issues of spirituality now at Bryn Mawr, for fear of the Pandora's box that I might open."

Intellectual friends of mine who believe that the scientific method is the only way to find the truth dismiss absolutely the possible validity of differences of approach to reality other than their own. BrynMawr seems to fall into the same bigoted category.


Editor's note: It is our sense, to the contrary, that many in the College community are interested in a variety of spiritual dimensions and that they find or make space for them. On pages 12-13 of that issue, we invited alumnae and students to comment on spirituality and its relationship to religion.

Age-related infertility

I've been hesitating to write this letter for almost a year now, fearing that it might be misinterpreted as "pro-natalist," or even "anti-adoption" propaganda. It is neither. I'm not trying to urge anyone to have children, nor to have children before she's ready. But I do want to spread the word about age-related infertility, a topic which too many women in their 20's and even in their 30's may think does not concern them.

I feel compelled to write because much of what one reads these days about women having (first) children at more and more advanced ages is potentially misleading. Here's an example from the widely read "pregnancy guide" What to Expect When You're Expecting: "Becoming pregnant after 35 puts you in good-and growing-company: While the pregnancy rate has been dropping among women in their 20's, it has been zooming among women over 35. Nowadays, it isn't unheard of for a woman to have her first child...after 40 or even after 45."

What often goes unsaid is that the infertility rate among women over 35 is "zooming" too, and that women who become pregnant after 40 without recourse to highly invasive medical technology are few and far between. Women need to know that it is not unusual to be unable to conceive (or carry a pregnancy to term) after the age of about 38. This doesn't mean that women who don't want to conceive can throw away their contraceptives as they approach 40. But it does mean that postponing childbearing significantly increases the risk of being unable to give birth to a child.

Young women need to know that "older first time mothers" are much more likely to be 35 than 40, and that despite changes in life-expectancy, a woman's "peak years" for reproduction are still between the ages of 20 and 30. Nowadays, few of us think of ourselves as "older" at 35, and it's tempting to postpone starting a family until we've finished a dissertation, found a better job, or moved into a larger apartment. Everyone must decide for herself, but the decision should be made with an awareness of the risks involved in waiting.

My husband and I didn't meet until we were both in our 30's. If we'd been better informed, we might have decided to have a baby soon after we met. The discovery that it was "too late" to do so by the time we married was a surprisingly painful one. So please spread the word. This letter will have served its purpose if someone who reads it is spared the grief associated with age-related infertility.


Regarding Kathy Boudin '65

Kathy Boudin '65 was a friend in college. In a time when the civil rights movement was just beginning, we were drawn together by a passion for social justice. After graduation, I went on for more schooling, while Kathy became a political activist. She was a survivor of the 1970 Greenwich Village townhouse explosion (which killed another Bryn Mawr alumna, Diane Oughton '63, and two others) and subsequently went underground. When she became pregnant (I am a midwife) we spoke often on the phone of her progress and plans for the birth, in August, 1980.

Since her capture and arrest for participation in the October, 1981 Brinks robbery, my family and I have traveled east to visit her every two years or so in New York's Bedford Hills Prison for women. For the last 19 years, she has spent her time on important social projects: AIDS in women in prison, mothers in prison and their children, adult literacy training. Even more impressive to me, has been Kathy's determination to make the best of her confinement, her positive attitude, and the lessons she has learned from her life's path.

Knowing that Kathy will be going before a parole board in August, 2001, to seek her release after 20 years in prison, I asked at my last visit whether there was any way to help. Recently I received a letter she has sent out to those who have, over the years, written and visited. I proposed that we share it with the Bryn Mawr community.

It is my fervent hope that the Bryn Mawr community will somehow become a major source of support for Kathy's reentry into society.

If you would like to write to Kathy, you can write directly to: Kathy Boudin, 84-G-171, PO Box 1000 Bedford Hills, NY 10507. Or you can contact me at susan@save-america.org; or 21024 Road 95, Woodland, CA 95695.


Note: The following terms may need explanation:
FELONY MURDER: Kathy pled guilty to robbery and felony-murder: New York law holds any participant in a felony (such as robbery) responsible for any death that occurs as a consequence of the felony. Thus, an unarmed participant whose role was to ride in a getaway car far from the actual robbery is liable for second degree murder because she agreed to help the robbery succeed.
PAROLE: Kathy is serving a sentence of from 20 years to life. Next August is her first opportunity to seek release. Release is granted at the first application in a very small number of cases involving violent crimes, and is particularly difficult in those which are notorious, or have police victims. Kathy's case has both.

Letter from Kathy Boudin '65

For the last 19 years I have lived in prison, quietly making a personal journey that has helped me to face the tragedy I am responsible for, understanding what allowed me to be involved, and building a new sense of life and what is worth doing. I want to thank you who have been with me throughout, who have helped me survive and learn to rebuild. When I stood in front of the judge almost two decades ago, I expressed my remorse. That was the beginning of a long process of facing what I had done. I want to describe some of what I have learned.

Do I feel what I did was wrong? Yes. I want to be clear. I know that I am responsible for a terrible thing. I feel nothing but remorse and shame about my involvement. I will live with this for the rest of my life.

I pled guilty to robbery and felony murder for the death of a man who was a Brinks' guard. My role was riding in a getaway car parked three miles from the robbery. Although I did not shoot nor hurt anyone physically and was never armed, I live every day with the knowledge that I am fully responsible-responsible because I supported the idea that this misguided robbery would make a positive difference, responsible because I was in a getaway car, and morally responsible for all the tragic consequences that resulted. Three people died; others suffered physically and emotionally; families were ripped apart; a whole town shaken. Now, in spite of my dream of helping to create a more humane society, I am forever connected to the deaths of innocent people. This connection has change me. I will never be associated again with any act that places human lives at risk.

Part of what I share with other women here is that aching question, "Why?" Why did I make the life choices that brought me to prison? As I was growing up, I wanted to be a doctor, to help, to heal. Later, I was torn over whether to apply to medical school or law school. I thought the problems were social, and I wanted to heal society. I spent years working as a community educator feeling a responsibility to use the privileges of my background to help others. I felt the urgency to solve the problems that moved so many of my generation, but I became fixed on being certain that I had the correct solution, and I made some seriously wrong choices. Over time, I lost sight of the goal of healing.

After 12 years of living underground, I became rigidly committed to a grand vision of improving society that was not connected to the day-to-day realities of people. I felt strongly about existing problems, but I was seriously out of touch with how to work on them. By the time of my arrest, I was desperately trying to redefine myself and my life, to make major changes, but I did not carry it through. I have asked myself over and over again how could I, an adult, a person who was educated, a woman who saw myself guided by ideals of helping humanity, have gone out that day? I never wanted anyone to get hurt, yet the risks should have been obvious to me. My sense of the world and of myself was distorted.

People were killed and injured and I abandoned my son, whom I loved, at the baby-sitter. Now, after years of soul searching, I can see that a combination of my personal issues, wrong thinking, and the impact of years of isolation contributed to my moral failures.

After my arrest, I had to start over and sort out what had gone wrong. I committed myself to my son and that was the start of a better path of living. It began to put me back in touch with reality. Something inside of me changed. I went back to basics. My son became a life-line, and he has remained for all these years an anchor to my own heart, and to other people's hearts as well.

At Bedford Hills I began to create a new life. I dedicated myself to working with our Children's Center. With women here, I've learned about how to love and support our children from a distance and how to help other mothers do this. I went through years when our whole community faced fear, loss, and death caused by AIDS. Together, we developed a peer community health program to cope with the AIDS epidemic. I have worked with women committed to acquire a college education, and with them moved educators on the outside to help build a wonderful four-year college program. I find satisfaction in the day-to-day ways that people find strength in their abilities, and being part of this: teaching women to read and write, to communicate with their children, and learning about dying and living with dignity. I have known wonderful people-inmates and staff-and learned from them and with them.

Fortunately, I've been in a prison that believes people can change, and can make a difference. Here, I live with many other inmates who, like myself, have grown to become teachers and peer counselors, coming together to solve shared problems. It is through these experiences and relationships that my own change and growth have come about. My experience at Bedford leaves me both hopeful and inspired by the enormous potential of people. I believe that there are lessons from our work here that would be useful in the broader society. My opportunities to learn, to get a master's degree in adult education, to study psychology and social work, have helped me reorient myself and my goals.

I know it is impossible to make up for the suffering I helped to cause; I have tried to give back to a community of people, to live my life in a life-giving way.

My work, while the source of much hope, has also taken me in another direction. It deepens over and over my grasp of the human sorrow and loss that I am tied to. Sitting with young women dying of AIDS, creating a quilt for those in our community who are no longer with us, I face the deaths for which I am responsible. As I work with mothers on rebuilding their relationships with the children they left, I am overwhelmed by my own responsibility for leaving a group of children with no hope of ever seeing their own fathers again. Now I can ask: what if it were my father, my husband, or my son who had been killed or hurt? What would I feel? I understand the rage that the victims' families may feel towards me. If I could just turn the clock back and make things different; if only I could do that.

As I look back, I feel enormous regret. My life's journey will always include that day 20 years ago, and all the people who suffer because of it. I think about how much has changed in the last two decades. Some of you have become grandparents, have moved to new cities, created meaningful work, probably changed inside yourself. I know I have. I feel the preciousness of life, its shortness, its complexity. I don't know whether it is because of my growing older, being rooted in a community, or the lessons I continue to learn from the tragedy I helped to create, I recognize limitations, yet find satisfaction in what I can do. While looking back, I am also looking ahead. I think eagerly of using what I've learned here to give back to society. I imagine rejoining you who have been with me during these years. I hope that you will write back and will become part of my life. Others from the College have helped me to know that in examining the past, there is hope; and that in passing on hard learned wisdom to our children, our friends, and others around us, there is the possibility of repair and renewal.


You were forty-five and I was fourteen
when you gave me the skirt.
"It's from Paris!" you said
as if that would impress me
who at best had mixed feelings
about skirts.

But I was drawn by that summer cotton
with splashes of black and white--like paint
dabbed by an eager artist.
I borrowed your skirt
and it moved like waves
as I danced at a ninth grade party.
Wearing it date after date
including my first dinner with a college man.
I never was much for buying new clothes,
once I liked something it stayed with me for years.

I remember the day I tried
ironing your skirt,
so wide it seemed to go on and on
like a western sky.
Then I smelled the burning
and, crushed, saw that I had left a red-brown scorch
on that painting.

But you, Mother, you understood
because ironing was not your thing either.
And over the years your skirt became my skirt until I left it and other
parts of home with you.

Now you are eighty and I am almost fifty.
We sit across from each other
in the prison visiting room.
Your soft gray-think hair twirls into style.
I follow the lines on your face, paths lit by your eyes
until my gaze comes to rest
on the black and white,
on the years
that our skirt has endured.

Kathy Boudin

We welcome letters expressing a range of opinions on issues addressed in the magazine and of interest to the extended community. Letters must be signed in order to be considered for publication. We may edit letters for accuracy, length and civility.

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