News Column

'My Story, My Song' gives value to detainees' lives

July 12, 2014

By Kay Fate, Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.

July 12--A funny thing happened after Sarah Monson completed her first album in 2013.

"I really spent the next few months struggling with 'what does this all mean? What kind of artist am I?' I'm fairly eclectic," the lifelong musician and licensed minister said, "and I'm not going to play by everyone else's rules. I'm going to forge this journey in my own way."

So Monson made a decision: "I decided I was going to make music where nobody else makes music."

Where better but a jail, she thought; they're everywhere, but they're music wastelands.

The initial plan was to volunteer to do a concert at the Olmsted County Adult Detention Center, then make connections in the judicial system and continue with periodic concerts.

"But they expressed such a desire to see the detainees' lives changed," that Monson's plan changed, too.

Now she goes to the jail to work closely with inmates to write songs with them, listening to their thoughts and helping them form lyrics in a program that's become therapeutic to the participants.

She admits she had "some rational, some irrational fears" about going into the ADC for her music program.

"Then -- do you mind if I get religious on you?" Monson asked. "Then I heard Christ saying, 'but I died on the cross as a criminal, with a criminal, and gave value to one of those criminals. How can you do less?'"

She listened, she said, and the program "My Story, My Song," was born in December 2013.

In it, Monson works with two people at a time, for six to eight weeks. She has the journal, saying "the weight of the work is theirs."

She guides it somewhat, asking questions that bring out their feelings -- something that's a foreign concept to most of them.

"When you're in jail, you don't express yourself, share your emotions or your feelings," Monson said. "Any sign of weakness can be used against you."

Meri Dirksmeyer understands that. She's in the third pair of detainees to participate in the program, and she's still trying to adjust.

"The most intimidating thing is going into myself," Dirksmeyer said, "but it's beneficial for me to get out a lot of stuff I haven't dealt with in years. I'm not into counseling.

"It's painful to look at yourself," she admitted. "This isn't my first time in jail, and it needs to stop."

For the next four weeks or so, she'll meet each Thursday with Monson and share the thoughts from her journaling. The end result is hopefully a poem, short story or song, "but I'm coming in here with no expectations," Dirksmeyer said.

"Whatever I get out of it is what I'm supposed to get out of it," she said.

Monson feels the same way: "The process of creative writing is amazing to me, how it gets people thinking about their life, and who they are. The goal for me, every time, is to find something in their life to hold on to, to humanize them."

Her first song, written with a different female detainee, is called "The Apple Tree."

The woman, Monson said, "wants everything that everyone else wants: roots, home, comfort, stability. Her biggest problem is, her guy-picker is broken."

The latest in a string of bad boyfriends threw an unusual insult her way, Monson said.

"He told her, 'you're just like an apple tree. You're stuck here, going nowhere.' So I just came back with thoughts of apple trees," Monson said.

The song's chorus, "beautiful, sacred and strong, that is the apple tree," had a profound impact on the woman.

"When we got to that line, she just sobbed," Monson said. "Nobody'd ever said anything like that about her before. I told her, 'I believe these things about you, or I wouldn't write it. Why hasn't anyone ever said that to you?'

"I leave filled up," she said of her sessions with the detainees. "It impacts me probably more than them."

Dirksmeyer knows the other woman well, and has seen "a complete difference in her life," she said.

Even if the six-week sessions don't result in a song, Monson said it's the "connection with another human beings in need" that means the most.

"I want to continue doing it, for sure," she said. "If my singer/songwriting career flops and people don't buy any of my music, I'll still do this."

It's too early, though, to see how far her program will reach.

"Will it expand to other (correctional facilities)? I don't know," Monson said. "I actually didn't think it would last six weeks. I don't force the issue or the outcome -- and I'm still learning."

What she knows for sure is the reach that music has; "The Apple Tree" brings listeners to tears, every time.

"We as a society somehow have so dehumanized the incarcerated," Monson said. "I want people to hear their story and know they're human beings, and let people see them. The more we walk beside them, the more able they are to be a different person, because somebody believed in them.

"I am nobody," she said, "but I became somebody to someone, and that's a powerful thing."

To follow Monson's program at the ADC, visit her website at


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Source: Post-Bulletin (Rochester, MN)

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