Crash Course: A Cautionary Tale
Having spent about thirty years as a reporter I never planned—nor did I have an iota of motivation—to write about myself. But then, I didn’t plan to wind up in jail, either. I’m not unique. According to the Pew Research Foundation one in a hundred Americans is currently incarcerated. From my perspective, as I enter my fourth season behind the razorwire, it looks a lot like our country is headed for one serious, societal nose dive.
Here’s my Cliff Notes version of how my alcoholism, a vicious rape, and a deeply dysfunctional criminal justice and corrections system got me here.
Remember when the golfer Payne Stewart, three of his pals, and two pilots died in a horrifically creepy plane crash? Shortly after take-off, the jet lost oxygen. It then flew for a few pointless hours, stable as a Lexus, on autopilot, but with six asphyxiated corpses aboard, until it finally ran out of fuel and corkscrewed into a North Dakota field. I remember it in graphic 3-D, sensory detail. That’s because while hot on reporting the story, I was coldly gang-raped by four upscale thugs at gunpoint, retribution for figuring out they were responsible for this, and a whole lot of other plane crashes. To further drive their collective point home, they threatened to kill my fourteen year old son if I exposed their multi-million dollar industry: A booming black market in selling tired and worn airplane parts to service the unsuspecting aeronautical industry, a deadly scam that claims untold lives each year, and to this day is still back-page news.
The youngest daughter of a New England country doctor and a Boston Brahmin Princess, I come from an ancient tribe of stoically inward processors. Our lives are mostly unexamined lives, and when asked, we are always ‘fine, thank you. And you?’ After the horrific rape, I reacted in the same stoic way a surprising number of women have since man invented Eve—I reverted to denial default, cut and ran, shut my mouth and choked the pain to the deepest, darkest place I could: the subconscious and deeply ingrained alcoholic culture of my formative years, the same bottle-fed Final Solution that killed my parents and probably began, for me, in my mother’s cocktail-nourished womb. Experts now call this FAS, or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Like a shell-shocked war veteran I exhibited signs of another ominous acronym: PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I entered a functional coma, heavily lubricated by adult beverages, anaesthetized by a witch’s brew of recreational drugs, found ample justification in wandering away from a comfortable marriage, from my wonderful son, and dismantling my career as a radio journalist I so loved. Even my family, the tight-knit, joyously homogeneous band of siblings I had assumed were as constant as Polaris, began to wobble from their loving orbit. As I slammed through lovers and friends, clear-cut my professional credibility with all the balletic grace of a Mack truck, over the next nine months I was arrested three times for being too drunk, numb, and dumb to notice I was even behind the wheel. After all, I reasoned, I was fine, thank you. To further distance myself from…well, myself, my off-stage skeptic whispered: It’s everyone else who’s screwed-up.
Fast Forward: As far as I can tell from spending the past three plus years locked up with a whole lot of variations of me, the problem isn’t that we addicts can’t admit the problem. It’s that ‘our problem’ initially feels great. Getting high is our creative response to all that’s tedious and tough. While my life crumbled and my bridges burned, I remained busy finding new bridges to wreck. I wrecked them so dramatically that no one else could cross them either. The (temporarily) cool part? I was the life of the party! Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Cops and laws weren’t oblivious, or amused. Still, (I guess), because no one was hurt-thank god-and a steady procession of talented lawyers made the validity of my drunk driving arrests seem almost debatable, and because drunk driving laws were only taken seriously beginning in the last decade, the Massachusetts courts were irrationally kind and gentle to what they referred to as a ‘local celebrity.’ They suggested rehab, and I was shipped off to places like McLean Hospital, an older and uglier version of Girl Interrupted.
Having experienced my own deconstructionist fall down go boom-and believe me, I am an expert in this imprecise trajectory-I can assure those of you who haven’t tried it yet nor blessed with the need not to need to get over it, taming the beast of addiction is not like getting up from life’s other kinds of spills, crashes, and developmental detours. Even though the American Medical Association qualified alcoholism as an official disease in 1956-appropriately the year I was born- it’s generally not given the same degree of societal compassion as other complex and potentially fatal diseases. We don’t get Saturday morning walk-a-thons in our name. Hallmark has yet to design a sympathy card for convicted drunks. Bottom line, it’s the self-determination, stupid: the only real cure is dogged discipline, which can only follow the elusive internal diagnosis that you are, in fact and by nature, a bonifide alcoholic. Something we are usually the last to notice and always the last to admit.
The ah-hah light-bulb moment for me, when I finally realized I was an advanced alcoholic, was an act of pure sabotage. I’d convinced a sweetly agreeable editor to ship me off to the Dominican Republic where I could examine, in person, a theory that that tiny nation’s true religion isn’t Catholicism but baseball. On the eve of the assignment, I fouled out—on rum. Imagine messing-up a fantasy life of being paid to wander and wonder? Worse—not noticing how good you got it. That’s addiction for ya.
It felt like a sufficient wake-up call to have an angry editor yank the assignment with the pronouncement dreaded by every journalist: You’ll never do another story for us, ever. Yet my own act of outrageous stupidity was trumped by a nanosecond of vindictive impulse staged by someone who, at the time, I inaccurately defined as my ‘boyfriend.’ In an act I consider no less cold and callous as dropping a difficult pet off at the pound, he dropped a dime that changed my life. Moments after I’d left home to drive to the gym, (to sweat out a ripping hangover), he decided it was in my own best interests to alert the local constablatory I was behind the wheel of a 4,000 pound guided missile.
Now, most people don’t realize that the state of being hung-over may feel like being wasted in the past tense, but you’re still medically arguable and legally indefensible a drunk driver. Even though enough hours had passed, and my blood alcohol level was theoretically now in the safe zone, the man knew the law: convicted drunks caught driving with more than a molecule of booze in their system stand an excellent chance of going to jail. I was on probation at the time, and any law student will tell you that it’s a gross violation of probation’s solemn promise to remain a hundred, not 008%, sober. Gotcha! The whole thing could have been tossed out by yet another expensive, hallway-deal-making lawyer, but I figured my time to really get serious about my alcoholism had finally arrived.
I was given a one-year mandatory, no-passing-go for good behavior, in retrospect a pittance for breaking a law intended to stop drunks from killing people, but a sadly ineffective cure to the common tragedy in which us rubber-bodied drunks almost always survive the car crashes we’re oblivious to, that almost always shatter, and often destroy, our sober, civilized victims.
Here’s the scary truth: Almost every grownup, and more than a few minors, has driven drunk. Don’t argue. The difference is that if you’re—Quote-Unquote—‘Normal’ and arrested for drunk driving, chances are you’ll never, ever do it again. The rest of us bottle babies? What’s that definition of insanity about doing the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result? And more and more I think of the cops who stopped me as angels in blue. Because, thank GOD—or whatever you call that omniscient spirit—I never even hit a mailbox. Still, my statistical chances of ending someone’s life were swelling like a cirrhosis-pickled liver.
Options: zero. I agreed that a court imposed time-out in a 6’ x 9’ cell was the only sobriety strategy I had left. I put aside my stunned hurt, the betrayal of a man who literally wouldn’t do to his dog what he’d done to me, and entered the dreary, soul-snuffing infinity of the ‘jail experience’. Uniformed guards, terse demands: “Strip! Completely!” Under the glare of 24-7 fluorescents a matron grimly barks: “Turn around. Spread your legs. Bend all the way over. Spread it with your fingers…. Wider! Now cough three times!”
And I thought I’d done everything.
Their mission is to see what else you might be hiding behind your guilt. My mission, unchanged and expanding: Same idea. Different technique. Get down. Go deep and wide and stop hiding all that sadness, hurt, anger, guilt and shame that interferes with what a precious adventure life truly is. In jail? Not somewhere nice like Canyon Ranch or Betty Ford’s cozy clinic? Hell, why not? It’s my tax dollar at work. Besides, I’d already done the rehab act time-out twice, but it didn’t take. Guess my inner Spartan demons require metal toilets and head counts, surveillance cameras and strip searches to get the point.
Women’s jail. An umbilically-bound, razor-wire wrapped ashram is how I choose to see it. All shades of extreme stupidity end up here; from prostitutes and junkies to check- kiters and grand slam thieves. Its home to the Commonwealth’s modern-day Lizzie Bordens. Literally. What few people know, however, is that one of Massachusetts’ most notorious killers was actually exonerated. Fall River’s famous daughter never served a day at the then-new Framingham prison, built in 1847, just around the time she allegedly took and ax and gave her parents forty whacks. Her cousin, an unhinged psychotic named Ed was convicted of the horrendous crime.
There are many women here who are simply the victim of the wrong time, wrong place, wrong man variety. A boyfriend says, ‘Here, hold this (gun, ounce of coke, bag of weed), they’ll never search you.’ A husband says, ‘Keep the car running, I gotta buy some cigarettes’, and then minutes later, shouts, gunshots, and an excited order to ‘drive!’ Or, sometimes, someone, as in my case, drops a thin dime and off we go over the precipice.
There’s an over-abundance of mental illness and addiction here, and each one of us sustains and survives our own private hell in this netherworld where our failures connect with our future. From Wal-Mart shoplifters to stone sociopaths to the garden variety OUIs like me, in the hallways, cells, and yards I have borne witness to madness, brilliance, hysteria, laughter, prayers, and confessions. Every day is a new trauma drama. I have befriended molls, lunatics, punks, drunks, whores, demons, and lots of mothers, who, like me, miss their kids terribly. It’s a claustrophobic co-existence, doing the limbo dance inside a mostly inept and Byzantine bureaucracy that makes nuts nuttier, meanies meaner, dopes dopier, all surrounded by guards as aloof and disengaged as stone Gargoyles. Rudeness? Think of the DMV on Quaaludes. Prison is a bleakly nonsensical dystopia of inconsistent inconsistency, a startlingly random oscillation between malevolence and myopia, and the strategy is often who can out-condescend who. It’s the female offender’s version of The Island of the Lost Boys and nobody gets out unscathed. Even the guards count the seconds until Miller time.
Here’s how I went down: On the very day I’m to be released from my one year mandatory jail time, I’m indicted for allegedly altering a court document called a mittimus, which translated to: ‘Before the fact aiding an attempted escape. The truth? It’s both complex and banal, a fairy tale of dubious crimes and doubtful misdemeanors, but what transpired was by all accounts a collective blunder by court, jail, me, and a former childhood sweetheart. A judicial tsunami suddenly swamped my immediate, and, as if turns out, achingly long-term, future. My crime was officially defined as the forgery of a court document, and the judges and district attorney responded to it with the sort of huffy contempt reserved for a cat burgler caught rifling through their top dresser drawer.
But the pesky fact remains. Jail and court screwed up. Right hand-left hand disconnect syndrome. Happens all the time. Granted, the jails are a societal flux, equal parts saints and sinners, but this one they got wrong. The Mittimus is the Holy Grail that connects the courtroom and the cellblock. Latin for “we send”, its prosaically defined as a precept in writing, under the hand and seal of a justice of the peace, or other competent officer, directed to the jailer or keeper of a prison, commanding him to receive and safely keep, a person charged with an offence.
Stay with me on this. It gets better. The mittimus is a kind of glorified memo between court and jail. Because civilization follows a paper trail, it’s not enough for an over-worked clerk to simply pick up the phone and tell the jailer how long you got, how long you’ll be in, and when you (might) be getting out. Hence the mittimus. We send, remember? My mittimus contained a clerical error, or so I was told. Instead of the one-year mandatory sentence for drunk driving, after about five months, well-meaning but over-worked folks at the Sheriff’s department had decided I was road-worthy again. Which meant that someone, preferably a qualified legal someone, had to change the official date on that sacred Magna Carta in order to expedite my early release. I know, I know. Yeah, right, you’re saying, and everybody in jail is innocent. But, really, you could never make this up. Bottom line, the system had broken down, tripped by its own two big left feet, mired by a perverse form of administrative dyslexia, and as a big fan of honesty, as usual I was trying to personally fix it. First problem, and the reason I am tapping this out on a manual Smith-Corolla on the top bunk in a sweltering, cinderblock ‘room’: Mr. Former was so deeply distracted by his secret love affair, he didn’t listen to all of the instructions I provided while handing him the paperwork jail had entrusted me with. Like, take this to a lawyer so he can take it to court! Instead he ‘corrected’ it, (scanned it into his computer), with the revised dates, then happily mailed it off. Second problem, the really, really big problem: To the court, officially anyway, a one-year mandatory is just that; nothing less and nothing more. But the real problem, the sticky, off-the-radar wicket remains: Courts are getting whiplash from looking the other way, as overcrowded county jails are routinely kicking drunks and druggies back out into the street in a kind of early-release penal version of the late seventies, when Massachusetts shuttered many of their mental hospitals in favor of mainstreaming the crazies back to the world that had driven them inside in the first place.
They say love is blind. Nobody ever mentions dumb. That’s when the poop hit. Scared and frantic, deals were made, and I was pressured to admit, ‘Alright. I guess I did it’, ostensibly in exchange for no more actual jail time than my brilliant career of runaway alcoholic wilding had earned me. Instead, the boom quietly lowered. Portrayed by the career-climbing DA in a conservative Berkshire County courtroom as a brilliant, 21st century Ma Barker, a sociopathic mastermind who offers succulent sexual favors to manipulate her innocent, gullible co-conspirator, I watched my defense unravel. Further fueled by the , uh-hum, creative testimony of my scared-witless ex amour that turned state’s witness, I was given two to four years at MCI Framingham, the state’s only, and the country’s oldest medium security prison for women.
Just when I’m convinced I’d hit absolute rock bottom—the rape, the divorce, the OUIs, my self-inflicted career jettison, the one-year-served, impossibly, another wrung on the ladder snaps. I’m sure it’s not unique. In fact, out of the 700 (plus) women I’m incarcerated with at MCI Framingham, I can count the truly villainous Hannah Lectorettes on one hand. Most of us are chronically damaged goods that got caught mid-spaz in reaction to one or all of the following: sexual, physical or emotional abuse; poverty, addiction, back luck, timing, or choices; or simply some innate cerebral cocktail of behavior-dictating chemicals out of balance. Another truth? For me being in jail without the benefit of circumstantial or material guilt absolutely sucks. At least a bank robber gets to spend some of the money; the murderer gets whatever deviant satisfaction one gets from taking another life. For me it’s been a hard-earned crash course in how vicious a disease alcoholism really is. The booby prize, and the reason why corrections is such a misnomer, was and continues to be a front-row peek at the warp-speed disintegration of societal checks and balances our country is unwilling, or unable to admit.
The good news? A hefty dose of spiritual and emotional revival constituted a good, solid chunk of my lockdown epiphany. Gradually I have learned to let go of my toxic tumult, found the tools to embrace the moment and not morbidly replay the grainy, half-remembered Super 8s of my past. My constantly recycled guilt over being a dumb-ass alcoholic who blew and blew-off just about everything in my life I love took about a year to exorcise, another to recover, after another six months of studious fine-tuning.
Then I entered what I call the ‘wait a minute…’ stage. I was suddenly feeling very guilt-free and increasingly livid over how I—and a whole lot of women who don’t authentically qualify for jail—wound up here. On the long list of correctional ironies, such as learning new and creative ways to think and behave criminally, (don’t ask!), was an eight-week course to qualify as a law library clerk, which taught me both the magnitude of what my $25,000 lawyer didn’t do, and the mind-numbing simplicity of how to actually undo what he did with what he should have mentioned in the first place. Whoever said ‘he who represents himself in court (or something like that) has a fool for a client’ never met my lawyer.
So, there you have it, the intricate warp and weave of all my deep secrets and outrageous acts of stupidity. Part of what distinguishes us humans from other mammals is how we can’t help but laugh when we watch someone slip and fall. Hey, as far as I can tell from my own stellar performance–the more grace and humor you find in getting, or giving, your ass a kick, the more amazing life becomes. At the very least, its one helluva story about how-in one way or another-we all need to visit some deep dark places, (and jail qualifies as one of the deepest and darkest), to really set us free.
At this writing, I’m still not free, legally anyway, but soon, by grace, the voyage of time and a good lawyer, I’ll leave my razorwire ashram where a century before, women were routinely imprisoned for the crime of ‘fornication’. Not much has changed. Down in the basement of the ‘Old Admin’, Framingham prison’s crumbling artifice, a moldy museum of primitive abortion tables and rusted iron bars remind us of the ghosts of pre-Equal Rights Amendment America. Me? Have I ‘learned my lesson?’ Am I ‘corrected?’ I am profoundly changed, but I know now life is a work in progress and human mistakes shouldn’t all be written in life sentences. Will I return, or recidivate, once paroled from this House of Correction? The statistics are discouraging. But with luck, and strength, and love-an emphatic, jubilant no. Will I ever drink again?
Ask me tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.