After years of emotional and sexual abuse from family, religious trauma, fourteen years of prison, and a controlling marriage, Lisa Forbes realized she was “stuck in a loop.” This loop, Forbes later discovered, is common among those who have experienced trauma.
Patterns of control imprisoned Forbes throughout her life. The memories of family that bullied her throughout her childhood are reflected in the mocking children of her much older husband many years later. In her romantic life, she is constantly reminded of the sexual abuse she suffered from her older brother. But her time being imprisoned does not end at her release; she experienced a marriage that leaves her trapped and isolated, continued reliance on and abandonment from those she trusts, and systemic issues that prevented previously incarcerated individuals like herself from holding steady jobs or finding permanent housing.
Her new memoir, I Can Take It From Here: A Memoir of Trauma, Prison, and Self-Empowerment, is her story of hardship, resilience, and eventual healing and self-acceptance. We learn about Forbes’ childhood growing up in poverty on the South Side, where her Jehovah’s Witness family frequently mocked and belittled her. She was sexually abused by her brother for many years, but found solace in reading and graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. From there, she entered the workforce and began a relationship with a man named James, with whom she soon had a child.
One day, Forbes visited his house with their young daughter and, after encountering James and his new wife, stabbed and killed him.
Sentenced to twenty-five years, Forbes spent a total of fourteen years in prison separated from her child. In that time, Forbes read classical literature and obtained multiple degrees, but once attempted an escape that landed her with additional time in prison and permanent scars.
After her release, she experienced hardship after hardship while trying to get back on her feet and rekindle her relationship with her daughter. Tempted by the security he offered, Forbes later married a much older Muslim man for whom she changed her lifestyle completely, but found herself again under the thumb of another—isolated and lacking autonomy.
However, Forbes’ most life-changing moment, from her perspective, is not the crime she committed, or perhaps even her release from prison. After her husband ignored her and refused to celebrate their ninth wedding anniversary, she finally came to understand the cycles of abuse and trauma in her life.
After their divorce, Forbes went on a quest of self-discovery, exploring self-healing methods like the Emotional Freedom Technique, a process of psychological acupressure called “tapping.” This ritual allowed her to come to terms with emotional scars, including those she caused others.
The repeated trauma and control Forbes found herself subject to also provide a complicated and nuanced evaluation of religion. Growing up a devout Jehovah’s Witness, Forbes was shut out from the secular world and warned of Armageddon at a young age. She laments her childhood, in which she was kept away from non-Jehovah’s Witnesses and not given the educational support she craved. In prison, Forbes investigated and practiced every religion she could access, but did not feel compelled to follow any particular one.
When she later married a Muslim man, Forbes agreed to practice Islam, but felt distant from this religion as well. Her controlling husband frequently criticized her actions and her way of praying. “His concept of God seemed small to me,” Forbes writes. “Any God I worshipped would have to be bigger than that.”
Forbes’s meditations on religion reflect the same notions of control that she experienced in many other areas of her life, as the beliefs and rituals imposed on her by her family and husband perpetuated the isolation and helplessness she was already experiencing. Yet her continued curiosity and education in a variety of religions demonstrate Forbes’ resilience in spite of it.
Powerfully woven through Forbes’ memoir is the transformative role of education. Despite her brother’s constant sexual assaults, her mother’s fanatical religious ideology, and her family’s distance and mockery, the young Forbes turned to books and education for comfort. She returned to the solace she once found in books again during her time in prison, where she completed degree and certificate programs and read the literature her religious mother frequently denied her.
Though Forbes’ love for learning certainly comforts and guides her, I Can Take It from Here does not ignore the limitations of education when faced with discrimination as a formerly incarcerated person. Despite her degrees and work experience, finding permanent work has been nearly impossible thanks to her past felony. She questions why formerly incarcerated people are treated in this manner, and searches for another way. She asserts what many progressive activists push for: “Integrating restored citizens into the workforce can be done without compromising public safety.”
Forbes concludes her memoir with the creation of a company, Lisa Forbes Inc. With it she works to advocate for formerly incarcerated people, whom she refers to as “restored citizens,” with employers and landlords, and hopes to “act as a mediator between America’s restored citizens and the business world. She poignantly claims that the discrimination restored citizens face in voting, in the workplace, and in hiring processes “amounts to a kind of perpetual punishment for a debt that has been paid in full.” She goes on to state that preventing the formerly incarcerated from achieving success and autonomy for themselves is fundamentally antithetical to American values.
Advocates for criminal justice reform typically focus on issues plaguing currently incarcerated people: bail, poor prison conditions, exploitative labor, and more. Those who support the struggles of formerly incarcerated people often push for legal reforms, such as removing voting restrictions and preventing discrimination against those with a criminal record in housing and job applications, allowing formerly incarcerated individuals greater autonomy and opportunities after their release.
However, Forbes’ primary goal is not physical or financial, but mental. She believes the most important service that can be offered to currently or formerly incarcerated individuals is mental health treatment and support. “We as a society are facing an emotional trauma plague,” she writes, “a plague that has been misdiagnosed as an economic problem. The violent crime rate in our country is a mental health emergency.”
Though studies have shown that violent crime is not highly correlated with mental illness, Forbes is correct that mental illness is extremely pervasive among those in prison. From a 2014 American Psychological Association (APA) study, sixty-four percent of those in local jails are mentally ill, along with fifty-four percent of individuals in state prisons and forty-five percent in federal prisons.
Forbes begins the author’s note: “It is an under-recognized fact that most former prisoners in the United States are traumatized before entering prison or while in prison.” She cites another APA article from 2016 that describes the high prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in youth kept in the juvenile justice system, and that they are particularly at risk to reoffend in the future.
As a result, Forbes believes that addressing the root issues that many incarcerated people face, namely mental illness and trauma as a result of economic hardship and abuse from family, will go a long way to prevent recidivism and crimes in the first place. From personal experience, Forbes believes strongly that had she received support for the religious, emotional, and sexual trauma she experienced at a young age, she would not have committed a crime at all.
Forbes’ memoir holds a particular place in the discourse surrounding criminal justice reform. As policymakers, activists, and ordinary citizens grapple with mass incarceration and public safety, Forbes is a voice to be heard in a conversation that must be had, as an advocate for addressing the root problems associated with crime with the hope of reducing recidivism and providing formerly incarcerated individuals with the opportunities they need to successfully re-enter society.
Lisa Forbes, I Can Take it from Here: A Memoir of Trauma, Prison, and Self-Empowerment. $17.95 (paperback). Steerforth Press/Truth to Power, 2022. 256 pages.
Molly Morrow is a third-year student at the University of Chicago. She last wrote about whether landmark designation would protect The Point.