When Rebecca Bernard ('21 Ph.D.) taught at a men's prison in Kentucky, she found the experience to be among her most life-changing teaching experiences.
"People who are incarcerated often are overlooked in society," she says. "They can be demonized."
That experience inspired her to write the stories that make up the book Our Sister Who Will Not Die, which won the 2021 Non/Fiction Collection Prize from The Journal, produced by Ohio State University's M.F.A. program in creative writing. The book is published by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of the Ohio State University Press.
Bernard, currently an assistant professor of English at Angelo State University, worked on the stories during her first two years of her doctoral work in creative writing and fiction at UNT, and she also has dissertation, with working title In the Way of Family, which is now undergoing revisions with her agent. Both of her works draw on her mission to see the underlying complexity of sometimes brutal acts.
For the incarcerated men, she saw their humanity.
"Everyone is worthy of that kind of recognition," says Bernard, who was an adjunct English professor at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky at the time she taught at the prison. "The stories are me trying to understand how and why people might harm another person, and how we can see the complexity, the grey area in these actions."
The book is a collection of stories, while not based on the actual lives and stories of her students, are thematically linked. It opens with a mother, dealing with grief after the death of her husband, who becomes too close to her son. In another story, a man who murdered his father as a teen serves a lengthy sentence and is released -- then goes on the dating scene. Another shows a man who is coming to terms with the consequences of being physically violent with a partner.
Most TV shows and movies depict crimes more simply and neatly than they actually occur in reality, where the situation often is more complicated and less black and white.
Bernard says she asks herself, "How can I make a reader understand? How can I create a character who's done that sort of thing so that we can find empathy for them despite their worst action?"
She takes the same approach for the novel from her dissertation, which covers generational trauma, and also has some darker undertones. In two separate storylines, two adult children are reconciling with their parents -- one whose father was a serial rapist and the other is a woman who has an unwanted pregnancy.
Bernard had been unsure of the novel, but her dissertation committee -- Miro Penkov, Jill Talbot and Scott Blackwood -- told her she should keep working on it.
"The feedback from the professors at UNT was really so helpful," she says. "It was a gift to have that and their relationships."
Bernard had been writing since earning a bachelor's degree in Film and Television Production from New York University.
She remembers taking a creative writing course and thought, "Oh, this feels right."
She worked as a production assistant for a year but realized, although she was helping actors, she was not doing anything creative. She went on to earn a M.F.A. in creative writing and fiction at Vanderbilt University and taught at several colleges, such as Ivy Tech Community College in Sellersburg, Indiana before deciding to attend UNT to pursue her Ph.D.
She understands the power and value of writing not just for herself but all people, so she's continued to teach writing to incarcerated communities including in Kentucky, the teens in Denton County's Courage to Change program and the inmates at the Roy K. Robb Corrections Facility in San Angelo.
"For anyone, writing is a way toward advocating for yourself," she says. "It's something that's pretty powerful. I think we understand ourselves more deeply by writing about our lives."